With the sheer amount of albums that have been released since the early 20th century, so many have slid underneath both the critics’ and fans’ radars, barely gaining the recognition they deserve.
In collaboration with Shoomny, this week’s Understated + Underrated reconsiders Air Conditioning by Curved Air, released in 1970.
Progressive rock was a phase that is never looked back upon too kindly by the general public. And no, I’m not talking about Pink Floyd. I’m talking about the classical connoisseurs who crafted side-long epics: Yes, King Crimson, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Rush, Camel, The Van Der Graaf Generator, and Genesis. While this bunch saw commercial success in the early 70’s, the minimalist surge of the latter half of that decade that was seen in both “high” (with minimalist composers such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich) and “low” (punks such as the Ramones and Sex Pistols) art doomed prog to the gutter. Listeners were growing tired of epics that dragged on for the whole side of a single record, and of sickly melodramatic concepts. Pop simplicity does have a notable appeal in fairness, contagiousness is certainly something the old guard lacked. On the other hand, a significant appeal of prog was in its mastery of the classical tradition, and translating that into experimental rock.
‘Air Conditioning breathes both intelligence and precision’
Air Conditioning bridges both these appeals with intelligence and precision in an album that is criminally unspoken about in contemporary criticism, despite breaking the Top 20 in the UK. Curved Air are in some sense a band, but they take an approach that is more reflective of a loose musical collective, convened by lead singer Sonja Kristina. Line-ups shift from year to year, but her place is ever-present. Curved Air’s debut album here, summarises the musical stylistic influences that culminated in prog’s emergence, fusing neoclassical, folk and jazz. And what makes so much more palatable for popular enjoyment, is that is not weighed down by some pretentious concept à la English literature. It is rather a focused affair of 10 skilfully crafted songs that never exceed 7 minutes.
The riffs and refrains that act as the soil for progressive songs that strike an excellent balance between contagious and experimental. Take the introductory track, ‘It Happened Today‘. Its refrain is an absolute earworm, yet the manner in which Kristina delivers the hook is freakishly ominous, much like the unnerving obscurity of the lyrics. Grating violins and ascending guitars tear against her ghoulish banshee-like wails, creating something that is dissonant, but easily replayable. ‘Stretch‘, ‘Hide and Seek‘ and ‘Situations‘ are other apt examples, both containing passages that belong on the radio, only to pull that away with a Hendrixian guitar solo, or rough violin shredding. These unconventional decisions still work within the context of the melodies that are instantaneous to the ear, encouraging repeat listens.
Although both genres significantly influenced both the music and lore of progressive rock, classical and folk music tend to be diametrically opposed to one another. Classical is the music of majestic grandeur, requiring giant cascading halls filled with sizeable orchestras of epic proportions. Folk, on the other hand, has historically been passed down from generation to generation on local levels, being performed around campfires, in village halls and nearby pubs, in more intimate settings. Air Conditioning bridges these gaps also from song to song. ‘Blind Man‘ and ‘Rob One‘ both extract the kind of ballads associated with olde Englande, and transforms into a contemporary rock setting whilst retaining intrinsically intimate nature and easygoing humour. Alternatively, the neoclassical ‘Vivaldi‘ is theatrical in character. The violently-struck strings that blanket the soundscape. Vivaldi’s reprise with cannon draws the curtains with glorious magnificence, as a nod to Tchaikovsky’s cannons of 1812, and, maybe, a cheeky acknowledgement of its own brilliance. There’s nothing wrong with a little self-indulgence on occasion, and Curved Air know when to indulge and when to reign it back. Balance is what Air Conditioning strikes, arguably, better than any other prog band of its commercial heyday.
Image: Warner Bros. Records