Fronted by the exotic gypsy princess figure of Sonja Kristina and bolstered by classically-trained electric violinist Darryl Way and keyboardist Francis Monkman, Curved Air took classically-slanted prog to new heights while giving teenage male prog fans their first female focus. Taking their name from US experimentalist Terry Riley’s A Rainbow In Curved Air, the band formed when Sonja, then singing in Hair, joined Way (Royal College of Music) and Monkman (Royal Academy) along with the pair’s fellow Sisyphus band members in January 1970, recording their first album before signing to Warner Bros.
As one such young devotee, this writer remembers racing home with the just-released Air Conditioning in November 1970. As the UK’s first picture disc it looked better than it sounded as the pressing quality was inevitably muffled. Now remastered by Monkman (expanded by outtakes and Radio One sessions), it’s possible to fully appreciate the tightly-hewn classically-charged arrangements, electronic intricacies influenced by Riley and Sonja’s evocatively mystical vocals on It Happened Today, Stretch and the deep forest twinkle of Situations, while Way to gets to stretch his hotwired violin on Vivaldi.
After two more albums, canyon-like divisions had opened between Way and Monkman. Sonja formed a new Curved Air, including 18-year-old prodigy Eddie Jobson on violin and keyboards, that recorded 1974’s Air Cut. Wrongly dismissed as rocky, the remastering reveals a gamut of highlights, including 10-minute pagan incantation Metamorphosis predating Kate Bush with its overdubbed choral strangeness, while The Purple Speed Queen and U.H.F. beef up the band’s traditional classical rock template before Easy closes with the Kristina-Jobson partnership at its potent best.
Happily, the irrepressible Sonja still leads a Curved Air with other original members prone to getting up onstage. As these two sets show, they really were quite special.