on 28 March 2014
It's probably fair to surmise that few would have seen this one coming, after a hiatus of almost 40 years. One of the pioneers of prog rock, Curved Air only ever achieved one (unrepresentative) hit way back in 1971 and despite critical acclaim never enjoyed the widespread success that their distinctive talent undoubtedly deserved.
Of the original band only singer Sonja Kristina and drummer Florian Pilkington-Miksa remain on board, along with original-era guitarist Kirby Gregory. The new line-up delivers seven new songs alongside re-interpretations of three old ones, a re-working of "Colder Than A Rose In Snow" from Kristina's first solo album and covers of songs by The Police, Snow Patrol and the Beatles.
Complex, varied, satisfying and often exhilarating, 'North Star' marks a successful if wholly unexpected return. Kristina's once sensational voice still holds up pretty well after all this time, the increased vibrato now making her sound, at times, uncannily like Joni Mitchell.
"Time Games", "Images and Signs", "Old Town News" and the jazz-fusion instrumental "Spider" are particularly memorable. Of the covers, "Spirits In The Material World" and "Across The Universe" are surprisingly effective with only Snow Patrol's "Chasing Cars" failing to fully ignite.
An album that is in danger of giving prog rock a good name.
on 24 March 2014
WITHOUT ANY DOUBT THIS IS THE ALBUM FANS HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR, without any real expectation of our wishes ever coming true, since, ...well, since Midnight Wire at the very least, and probably for many more of us, since Air Cut, or even Phantasmagoria. Yes, it is that good; utterly fantastic in fact! ...And yet still I have to say, "but..."
To re-cap; their swan-song '70s album Airborne was something of a disappointment to the vast majority of fans. Despite having a few 'nice' songs and some good playing on it, it was generally well below par, under far too much pressure from both the industry and the era, to be something more commercial than Curved Air were ever intended, designed or equipped to be. Those pressures had already been evident on Midnight Wire, and possibly even earlier, alongside the loss of original or core members. However, for me, both Air Cut & Midnight Wire managed to retain strong identities of their own, albeit with something of an evolving sound each time. They retained sufficient artistic links to the original band's first three classic albums, rather than making too many concessions to the changes or the times.
The late '70s were not good for progressive rock, progressive thinking, skilled musicianship, or music that could be appreciated as art. Many bands bowed to the commercial pressures to dumb-down, and thus went under, proving that the 'suits' applying the pressure didn't actually have a clue. (No surprises there!) They steered, even forced, many previously successful bands away from their existing fan base without any genuine hope of their picking up a new one. A very sorry state of affairs, in which the 'industry' crushed art in it's stranglehold, only now counteracted in part via the freedom offered by the internet. But I digress...
In the 30-odd years since Airborne there have been a number of false starts, false hopes, reunions, revivals and what unfortunately always ended up appearing to be halfhearted attempts at tours or recording; various spurts of activity under the Curved Air banner, usually with Sonja at the helm, some more promising than others, and rarely without some merit. But sadly they generally ending up being brief nostalgia trips, rather than ever bearing the hope of any genuine rebirth.
But then a few years ago, Sonja put together a new line-up, and 'Curved Air' began touring again. So off I went to see them play, my expectations deliberately and perhaps rather cynically limited, to protect me from disappointment. I soon found myself completely blown away, reduced to tears of delighted joy! This wasn't just Sonja and a bunch of session men going through the motions of another 'heritage' or revival tour, this WAS Curved Air! A new Curved Air maybe, there being only one other founding face in the cast, but definitely CURVED AIR nonetheless! ...A vital, new Curved Air with the spirit and the music of that classic original band clearly flowing through their veins and a passionate desire to get out there and play it. Their excellent new live album Live Atmosphere attested to just how much this line-up was the real deal.
Importantly, a genuine band rapport and identity was also very evident. Even talk of their writing new material now seemed as obvious a next step as it would previously have seemed highly unlikely. The first fruits were instrumental 'Spider' and North Star's lead-off track 'Stay Human', both of which go down a storm live and slot seamlessly into this line-up's interpretations of the classic material. Recording ofa new album was reported to be underway. Then worryingly, there was a sudden change of guitarist to assimilate, however the replacement was the 'safe hands' of another old hand, from Air Cut days. We awaited the new album with bated breath.
...And North Star certainly delivers, totally and utterly, as noted in my introductory words above. So why the 'but'...?
Well, because I have a pet hate of these part new, part re-recorded old material, part covers albums, that's why! ...Not enough to knock 'em down a star, or even half a star, but neither is it a gripe I am prepared to allow to go un-griped! Indeed it has provoked me to this my first ever Amazon review.
The 7 new songs/tunes on North Star are all really very strong, fitting perfectly into the classic Curved Air canon, while appropriately updating it, thus carrying this album clean over the bar and easily to the 5-star rating I have awarded it. Amazon's criteria for 5 stars is "I love it', ...and I do! ...Which is not to say that, for me, it couldn't have been even better.
The 4 re-recorded songs, either from the band's or Sonja's own recorded past, are all very well done. It's enjoyable to hear updated versions of Puppets, Situations and Young Mother, although I suspect that we long-term fans are probably far too attached to the originals to shift our preferences now. Will they cause new fans to investigate the older albums? No more so that they would be likely to do anyway, I'd guess. Perhaps Colder Than A Rose In Snow, from Sonja's eponymous 1980 album (also recently reissued) benefits particularly from re-recording. Released as a Christmas download 'single', it was good to hear the song as a full band Curved Air track, and especially without the rather dated sonic palate of the original version.
The 3 covers are also very listenable, and certainly do nothing to spoil the album in any way. Personally I feel that only Spirits In The Material World really works well in this company, as a Curved Air track. One might even argue an extremely tenuous Curved Air link, via Sonja's ex-husband Stewart Copeland, ex-drummer of both Curved Air and The Police. For Snow Patrol's Chasing Cars, as a song, I can summon only minimal enthusiasm, and the Beatles' Across The Universe is just too familiar in it's original form or as covered by so many others, I suppose
In the main I feel it's generally better for an artist to record an album of covers as a perfectly valid side project, if they must, and likewise with albums of their own previous work re-recorded, perhaps sweetening them with a few new tracks, rather than the other way around. Otherwise there is a risk of diluting what ought to be the clear statement of a new album, with material that unavoidably drags it back and forth, in and out of it's own time, imbuing it with something of the feel of a scrap book or Magpie collection of the old, the new, the borrowed and very probably the blue, too. I've often felt that in the past, and far more strongly with albums by other much loved artists (Fairport Convention, The Strawbs) and I must say that the effect is less damaging here than I feared it might be.
Nevertheless, I still believe that waiting for a few more new songs to percolate, would have been preferential to what may have been a populist attempt to widen appeal, by reaching out to both the more backward looking of old fans, and to any newbies who might be drawn further in by the familiarity of something they know?
It's a very small flaw, less than half a star in value, and I've probably made far too much of it because it is a personal bug-bear of mine. It is all that I can find to complain about with this stupendously good and long overdue return to form for Curved Air. I'm looking forward enormously to seeing them live again next month.
on 3 December 2015
When one of your favourite bands from the '70s suddenly produces a new album out of the blue it is very difficult not to judge it in terms of the old "soundtrack of my youth" favourites and I can see that previous reviewers of this album are naturally and understandably struggling with this prejudice, it is well nigh impossible to manage ones expectations and be objective about the new material.
I never knew Curved Air way back when, I remember seeing their LPs in record shops and adverts in the music press but aside from the obvious hit single I somehow never got round to listening to any of their music, so when I bought North Star I had no expectations whatsoever and was able to listen to it as a stand-alone work in it's own right, not feeling that it had to "live up" to any former glory.
The first time I listened to this album I was instantly and totally smitten, this is a pure delight from start to finish. I couldn't criticise the reworking of old CA material as some have done because I have the advantage of not having known the original versions and consider these tracks to be very good and just as fresh as the new material. The cover versions of Beatles, Snow Patrol and Police numbers (I DO know the originals of these!) are worked very differently from the the original versions and work for me, although I would say that I would have prefered more new materials rather than covers, and if there is a weak track on the album it would be the Chasing Cars cover.
This album is prog (I hate that word) at it's best. The compostions and arrangements are complex and satisfying, and the musicianship is just sublime. Be in no doubt that this is not just another old band basking in the glory of their former success and resting on their laurels, this is as fresh and exciting as most of the newer bands around today.
Well packaged too, nice artwork and booklet with the song lyrics included.
Incidentally I was inspired by this album to start listening to Curved Air's earlier work for the first time and instantly regretted never having discovered them before. But now I am prejudiced in the same way I described at the head of this review, I am now judging the old stuff in comparison to the already familiar North Star and in my opinion this is the best album they have made so far.
on 15 July 2014
I've not given up on North Star but my persevering with understanding it as a complete album is testing me. There are moments throughout the album that really trigger off great pleasure as being very well connected with the jazzy inspired cosmic touch of the first two or three Air LPs, but I find myself wanting to hear the original thing and before I can get through the whole of North Star I'm needing to play What Happens When You Blow Yourself Up, Stretch, Blind Man, Young Mother, Piece Of Mind etc etc I'm not impressed by the new versions of old songs and covers, they do absolutely nothing for me, and worst of all Colder Than A Rose which generally never fails to take me back to the Sonja solo acoustic gigs in the late 70s (magical memories of the Half Moon with Sonja and Steve Byrd), but this is just a completely empty version - I'd have much preferred Devil May Care re-visited. However, it's great to hear Kirby again, Aircut was just the most dynamic and energetic album Curved Air recorded and is all the better for being a one-off (ignoring the cast-offs of Love Child), but he graces North Star with some beautiful fluid playing. I'm enjoying Time Games, Spider and Old Town News, but I've dropped the new versions of old songs, and the covers, in my playlist and endeavouring to enjoy the new stuff as a shortened album, and that works better for me. I may get there, it could all fall into place soon, but this is my review after 6 or 7 listens to the CD.
on 27 February 2015
First, the good news. The newly written songs are very good indeed, and are performed well up to the Curved Air standard. These songs total around forty minutes in length, which would have made for a very decent vinyl, so, if you're a fan, I recommend you buy without hesitation. If you like prog, I recommend you buy: North Star, is, in the main, the real deal. The not so good news, is, that the reworking of Curved Air classics, with the exception of Puppets, whilst good, doesn't really add anything to the originals, so would possibly have been best left off.
Of the cover versions, I am warming to Spirits In The Material world, which has a very nice CA vibe, but Chasing Cars and Across The Universe are not really happening for me at all. Don't let that put you off though, because the new songs are well worth spending your money on. A very nicely packaged CD, as well. I'm going to see Curved Air in Southampton this coming April, which will be the first time I've seen them since the Phantasmagoria, and before that, the Second Album tours, so I'm really looking forward to that. And Sonja, if you happen to read this, why not revisit some of the Lovechild material? The Dancer, is one of my favourite songs of yours, which, unfortunately, got lost. It deserves better.