Review Summary: An incredible slice of early 70's prog that is marred by a slight disruption from time to time where the instruments do not all fit together, but for the most part this is groundbreaking stuff that deserves to be remembered.
Air Conditioning, the debut album from Gloucestershire band Curved Air, is widely considered to be one of the pioneering albums of the progressive rock genre. Recorded in July 1970 and released to an unsuspecting public just four months later, this was unlike much of what had been heard previously. Many of the bands that are remembered today as some of the greatest prog bands of all time were yet to unleash something quite as different and out there as Air Conditioning. Genesis' debut had been firmly routed in the 60's pop genre, Pink Floyd were yet to release anything truly incredible and Rush were many years away from releasing their debut. Of all the classic prog albums, only King Crimson had released one yet, in the form of In The Court Of The Crimson King, which would go on to influence Air Conditioning. However, this was a different form of prog rock. Whereas bands like King Crimson focused on shifting their sound up every thirty seconds, Curved Air were more geared towards showing off the significant talent of vocalist Sonja Kristina and were also one of the first rock bands to use a violin which makes for one interesting listen.
As debuts go, Air Conditioning is near flawless. Whilst it is nowhere near to the perfection they would have achieved by the time of their third album, this was one hell of a ride and an amazing listen. The guitar work was absolutely fantastic, with the solo on Hide And Seek being one of the best sounding ones out there. The guitar lines on this release are used to great effect in that they are constantly weaving in and out of the other instruments without ever once sounding out of place. The tones on the guitars could be better but the production does a good job of highlighting the talent that Francis Monkman possessed. The guitar work is very emotionally composed, and gives off a feeling that you are experiencing something truly incredible. Monkman was one of the best guitar players of his day and probably the best guitarist on any prog record that had been released at the time. It is clear that he really did pour his soul into writing something that sounded equal parts beautiful and startling with the frequent changes of pace and It is always good to hear someone who is genuinely enjoying playing their instrument.
The song lengths on this album are very contained for progressive music that is centered around cramming as many changes in style into a frame of time as possible that usually leads to songs with absolutely ridiculous lengths. Frequently progressive music will drag the song lengths into territories around eight to twelve minutes and yet only three songs on here even clock in over six, with one breaking through to around seven and a half minutes long. The average song length is around three and a half minutes which is actually something to marvel at given how good slices of progressive music they are. In each song there are numerous changes in style but each of them flows brilliantly into the next one, never disrupting the flow of the album. Unlike their later, more straightforward rock albums, Curved Air always sound absolutely confident in what they are doing on their early albums. With progressive music, a band is able to sound as odd as humanly possible and still create a classic and that is exactly what they did on Air Conditioning. Take Stretch for instance. Who knows exactly what Darryl Way and Monkman were thinking when they wrote something so out there for its day, but who was to argue" This was their album, they did things their way and didn't give a *** what anybody thought, and in doing so they stumbled upon a masterpiece. This is also the song where the violins stand out the most, particularly at around the two thirds mark where Monkman goes crazy on his fret board and they create a solid backing sound for the listener to enjoy whilst being amazed by Monkman's guitar skills.
Sonja Kristina's vocals on this album are another factor that leads to this being one of the best early progressive rock albums out there. She was one of the only females to provide vocals for a progressive rock band and this is just another reason it stands out among the genre's early runners so well. This is possibly her most solid performance as a vocalist out of all of their albums, providing some amazing mid ranged vocal lines and some soaring high vocals such as on Hide And Seek. However, Vivaldi, the longest song on the album, stands out as the best thing on here and doesn't even need Sonja to complete it. Opening with some amazing violin work that builds up steadily for over a minute, this song takes a while to get going but once it does you realize why it needed so long to build up. This is one of the most beautifully composed songs, even on an album like this where every song is a masterpiece and it is hard to imagine how long and how much love went into the writing of this song but the violin really is the icing on the cake for this particular song. After building up, it slows back down and a calm section takes place and then continues to play around with various ideas and all the time the violin is dancing around in the background. The last minute or so of this song does tend to just drag on and become a little bit of a tedious listen but for the most part this is stellar work.
The only problem that can really be found with this album is the fact that it feels as though they overstretched themselves a little at times and occasionally either the violin or the guitar can feel out of place. On the opening two tracks this is most prominent as towards the latter half of the album the band seem to come into their own and refine their sound a little more but it does get annoying a little. The songs are still top quality but at times they can feel disjointed. Do not take this as too much of a negative however as Curved Air clearly knew what they were doing and each of the songs has a moment or two that makes it stand out from the rest as an incredible song in its own right.
It is a shame that this band has for the most part been forgotten as they really were one of the best bands of their day. Of their first four albums this is the second strongest and still stands out and holds up as a landmark progressive rock album and an essential listen for anyone out there. For those looking for good music from the earliest parts of the 1970's, this should be one of the albums you check out as they really are a band who deserves for their music to live on and be remembered more so than it is.