Album Review: Curved Air – Airwaves

Not to take anything away from the impressive achievements of The Police (their dubious 21st century reunion notwithstanding), but it’s long been a source of some amusement among rock historians to point out the band’s pedigree. Though they were (and remain) darlings of the so-called new wave movement of the late 1970s and early 80s, and despite the undeniable fact that they introduced reggae textures into rock music in a way few had done before, each of the trio had a musical background that might make new wave/punk purists squirm. Sting (neé Gordon Sumner) had previously played stand-up bass in a jazz band. Guitarist Andy Summers learned his craft alongside friend Robert Fripp, played soul jazz in Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band, psychedelic guitar in Dantalion’s Chariot (see “Madman Running Through the Fields” on Nuggets II: British Empire and Beyond) and then briefly psych-jazz in Soft Machine before playing rhythm & blues in a later lineup of The Animals. And master drummer Stewart Copeland – the band’s sole American member – had been a roadie for UK progressive outfit Curved Air, eventually playing drums for the group.

And though Copeland’s time with Curved Air was relatively brief – less than two years – it’s upon his high-profile name that Airwaves, a new collection of Curved Air BBC sessions builds its buzz. That’s not really necessary, as (a) while Copeland’s drumming is superb, it’s not the centerpiece of Curved Air’s music , (b) Copeland is on less than half of the tracks and (c) the music stands quite well on its own without the hype.

Three BBC radio sessions are the source for this thirteen-track archival release: a pair of dates from Top Gear in 1970-71, and a BBC Radio in Concert date from 1976 featuring Copeland on drums.

With a sound built around the piecing vocals of Sonja Kristina and the electric violin of Darryl Way, Cruved Air’s approach might be described as Jefferson Airplane meets Jean Luc Ponty (one of the few 1970s exponents of the electric violin).

As often as not, Way’s violin takes the role normally assigned to a lead guitarist in a rock band. That’s certainly true on “It Happened Today,” one of three tracks dating from the band’s first Top Gear sessions, before they even had a record deal. Kristina’s vocals are very much out front, displaying the strident, assured approach of a Grace Slick leavened by the British folk vibe of Annie Haslam of Renaissance. The band’s progressive sensibilities are offset by a winning sense of pop melodicism. The band’s manic approach on “Propositions” echoes East of Eden‘s work circa Mercator Projected; Curved Air’s style will also seem warmly familiar to fans of Jethro Tull, though sonic similarities between the two bands are actually quite few.

Some tasty synthesizer work courtesy of Francis Monkman (later of Sky and Phil Manzanera’s 801) enlivens “Young Mother in Style,” one of the 1971 tracks, and one of few to feature vocals by more than just Kristina.

For a nominally progressive outfit, Curved Air wasn’t afraid to craft short, poppy numbers like “Blind Man,” a sort of cross between ye-ye French pop and Soft Machine, all built upon some sprightly electric piano from Monkman. “Thinking on the Floor” almost presages punk, through in a decidedly prog manner (figure that one out; you’d have to hear it to understand). The folky blues of “Stretch” features some nice musical dialogue between Way’s violin and Mick Jacques‘ electric guitar.

“Stark Naked” kicks off the live concert portion of the disc, and the 1976 tracks featuring Copleand. Now with a changed lineup, Curved air featured a much more aggressive attack, though every bit as musical. They rock a lot harder here, with the bass taking a more active role as well, likely as a foil to Copeland’s precise, varied and assertive percussion work. “Stark Naked” was never released on a Curved Air studio album, and is one of few tracks to include a Coplend co-credit. A thrilling instrumental, it’s one of the strongest tracks on Airwaves.

The remaining tracks aren’t quite as exciting, suggesting that the band’s best days were behind them. Where the harder-rocking approach worked well on “Stark Naked,” on the other tunes, its effect is to strip some of the subtlety from the band’s style. “Woman on a One Night Stand” veers perilously close to bar band blooze, with Jacques’ ill-advised (but well-played) slide guitar. Kristina, in particular, seems to be trying too hard. The band redeems itself a bit with “Midnight Wire,” but did mid 70s progressive rock really need a song that sounded like The Band with a female vocalist? “Hot ‘N’ Bothered” is boogie band music, and the closing track “The Fool” reverts to a pandering let’s-get-the-audience-to-clap-along technique. (It does feature some guitar-violin interplay that harkens back to the band’s earlier days, though.)

Consumers should note that this set seems to contain the exact same material as a 1996 collection called Live at the BBC, though this new package features a new liner notes essay, a brief essay from Stewart Copeland, and notes a 2012 remastering. Sound quality, by the way, is superb.

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