Pioneering prog-rockers Curved Air are back with a new album – their first new studio material since 1976s 'Air Conditioning', and born from the 2008 reunion. 'North Star' has launched itself into orbit with a confidence and maturity that closes the long gap in a heartbeat.
The 14 tracks contain seven new songs, four re-workings of earlier material and three covers, and the result is a wonderfully vibrant, complex and powerful album which has stunning musicianship and powerful themes.
The current line up is iconic vocalist Sonja Kristina, original drummer Florian Pilkington-Miksa, with guitarist Kirby Gregory who first joined for 1973s 'Aircut' album. They are joined by violinist Paul Sax, keyboard player Robert Norton and bassist Chris Harris.
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Original guitarist Kit Morgan was part of this line up at first, but left due to ill health before the album started recording.
I spoke to Sonja about the album before their gig at The Stables, Milton Keynes. She radiates both inner and outer beauty and has been described as a Goddess many times over the years. During our conversation it is clear to see the archetypes she holds - the wisdom of Athena; the artistry and knowledge of Sarasvati; the ability to journey and explore other realms like Abeona.
She was generous with her time and we talked about many subjects including the creative process behind the making of the new album, how this incarnation of the band had evolved, and a track by track commentary giving a personal insight into the album.
Since Curved Air reformed in 2008, there had to be a period of settling in and regaining the momentum and assimilating the new band dynamics before the album could be made. Sonja agreed: "The gestation process was quite tempestuous but in the end, the birthing was in great harmony with all of us."
With the band now being without original composers Daryl Way and Francis Monkman, I wondered about the differences in the writing and recording processes, more than just the obvious technological aspects.
"This material was written by contributions from everyone on the band. One individual might have produced a sketch and then we all worked on what was there and added to it. I wrote all the words as I don't like singing other people's words, particularly in my own projects as that's what I'm communicating, it gives it more of a through line, but the melodies often were there in the pieces and the sketches that were brought in.
"Everybody put in ideas on CD and then we got together in my house on Clapham to develop them.
"Everyone is very committed, we decided that we were going to share all the publishing, ideas have come from all of us so everyone got very involved in creating their own parts. I created my vocal lines based on what I had heard, Paul created his violin parts, some of them were written for him by Chris the bass player as he had that melody in mind, themes, so everybody shares the credit.
"Back in the beginning when I joined, the songs were pretty much written. Being music students, Daryl and Francis would tell everybody what to play and gave me melodies and more often than not with no words, or just a couple of lines so I enjoyed finishing off the words. Some of the lyrics on 'Air Conditioning' I didn't write, things like 'Situations', as they were already written but 'Young Mother' started off as an idea that Daryl had that I didn't like at all so I messed with that until I got something I could feel, and it still works for me now, it's about standing up for yourself.
"As to how the music was first formed, you will have to ask Florian as he was there when it was being created."
Just then, in a marvellous piece of synchronicity, Florian Pilkington-Miksa chose that moment to wander into the room so we asked him.
"Well, Francis was very good at arranging things. They had an idea of what they wanted, but of course we would modify it as we did it. With me and the drums I was learning as I went along so I had to make up a rhythm for each song, which now when I look back it was quite clever of me, but on the other hand it was an advantage because I didn't think shall I do this or that, or shall I prevaricate, I just had freedom to work out each little bit.
"For about a year before Sonia came along we played it for fun over and over and we got better. They were going from being classical to being electric or whatever you want to call it, they were at the Royal College of Music and I knew the basics, and we worked it out".
Florian also referred to the difficult start made by the current band to create the beautifully crafted new album.
"When considering what we and the other individuals went through, the psychological aspect, you wouldn't think anything creative would come out of it with all sorts of other things going on, trying to get it together, but it just goes to show that despite all the various obstacles you might have, in your head or trying to do it, it did turn out all right in the end."
As Florian went off in search of a Diet Pepsi for Sonja, I reflected that it appeared vital for her to make a deep connection with the material, and the result was an album that covered broad issues yet remained intensely personal at the same time.
"That was one of the obstacles of the writing process, first just getting us together, then fighting over the person's original feel, and what is actually possible for the other individuals to feel.
"I quite often recreate situations in my head when the song is born, or I make it about something similar so I have a focus, a true story that I'm telling, if you're imagining something clearly in your mind then people will pick up on that, they won't see the same picture necessarily they will feel the truth of it and relate in their own way.
"I'm also a great believer of the microcosm being a reflection of the macrocosm, how can you sort out things between countries if you can't sort it out between yourselves?"
The album contains four re-workings from the large back catalogue, and I was interested how these came to be chosen.
"Well we liked to perform them, we changed them round, and they are still relevant today. I didn't actually write the words for 'Situations', they were done by our original bass player but are actually very forward-thinking, written by a young man, about a mature person looking back on their life, having not lived their dream, so it's relevant.
"We thought that the version on 'Young Mother' that we've been doing on stage was done well by Kit, but now we've Kirby-fied it, inspired by his guitar solo. We hadn't captured that one on the 'Live Atmosphere' album and thought that was worth capturing and also the lyrics fit in well with the other songs.
"'Puppets' too was still highly relevant, being about manipulation and reflection on people thinking that they are free but are controlled.
"For this album we wanted to have the element of free playing, and record the album so it sounded live. We recorded it all playing together and then just tidied it up."
Curved Air were never about the disposable three minute song, but were pioneers and visionaries yet their music remained accessible and aligned with the issues of the day. They were there for the birth of Prog although as Sonja says: "Back in the 60s and 70s there wasn't a thing called Prog music, there were only bands. This is something that people have called it but everyone is so different.
"I mean Pink Floyd are not like Gentle Giant, who are not like King Crimson, who are nothing like Genesis, who are nothing like Curved Air - and Curved Air are not really anything like Jefferson Airplane. People like to try and put things into boxes.
"There was a thread going through all music in the late 60s, early 70s, the introduction of Eastern themes and jazz and the long, long solos, and taking things anywhere, and the Grateful Dead thing and the playing with effects and electronica - it was great, like everyone had released a huge toy room, and also amplification was getting louder, with big stacks, so you can be heard for miles therefore big crowds could come."
"I'm a great believer in synchronicity, and it seems that from taking an overview on social development, that when certain ideas are happening in literature they are also happening in art and science, and the thinking and philosophy it's all one thing, politics, the same ideas pop up all over the word and now it's even faster, but even without the internet there was kind of a critical mass when everyone adopts the idea.
"I witnessed that with punk, a little art school scene, people dressed up, sweet nice kids looking frightening like Halloween, then suddenly the press take up on it and talk about safety pins and the Sex Pistols and all of a sudden the clubs are rammed with identikit kids, pogo-ing. The hippy thing too, literally there was something in the air, that travelled round the globe, there is more to life than we see."
This is true, but you still need to have musicians and artists that are skilled, that know what they are doing, it's not enough to pick up on an idea - you have to have the chops to bring it to life.
"Whenever I've chosen a line up, in solo projects, and in the Aircut band I'll go for people who have the strongest voice. I can't play the guitar and improvise, I love to be surrounded by that sort of freedom, of music that can go anywhere, not someone comes and says I know the chords and the song goes like this - it's no,no,no,no, I want people who can hear and just play, make atmospheres.
"Everyone was so inspired by each other - we love Kit's playing and were very sad that he left, but we were so inspired by what Kirby brought, just loved it. Robert said he's the best musician he's ever worked with and he worked with quite a lot of big soul and funk names. Robert does soundscapes with his own music and we used that treatment.
"There was a lot of development work, but they say you reach a plateau where nothing's going to happen and you break through that, that's what you are waiting for. We are all very pleased with the album. After we made it I played it through three times for my own pleasure so that's a good sign."
Sonja and the band are justifiably pleased with what they have created. 'North Star' is full of textures and emotions, from heavy solos to swirling counterpoints and frenzied interactions, and still contains plenty of space and air, all topped off with Sonja's wonderful, dramatic vocals, whose impact has not diminished at all over the decades. It is a triumphant return.
North Star Track by Track Commentary By Sonja Kristina
'Stay Human' was the first song on the table and the violin and guitar riffs were all there. I wanted to write something about the state of the world, the unrest, the revolution, the feeling of somebody being very angry and how to keep the perspective and not turn into a monster which so often happens in war. I know you're angry but I still love you - that can be applied to relationships too.
I was obsessed with this internet TV station in Benghazi when Mohammed Nabbous, who got killed by a sniper, he was putting out this footage and it was very very graphic, you saw it, people's bodies torn in half, things that had been going on, and they had a chatroom where they were asking for news from the outside as everything was locked down. One felt from the comfort of one's own living room that you were in the middle of their revolution. His favourite saying was "the candle loses nothing lighting other candles", so I used the "the candle loses nothing lighting other flames, as that fitted.
There was another journalist in Israel, Vittorio Arrigoni, working with Palestinians and then he got kidnapped and killed by a Palestinian group, and when he used to write letters to his friends, he always used to say "Stay Human", and there are videos of him doing what he was doing, and he wrote a book called 'Stay Human', so I took these as a homage to those ideas but then also with my ideas of being the angry one, the loving one, these are both valid emotions.
The middle verse of this is the hillside where I had this dream and there was this big icy wind, and then all the hillside was black and charred and people were standing like ghosts around a grave. There is civilisation after civilisation, generation after generation, there was one civilisation through history, with great technology way beyond what we know about and something happened to these people, or it, but they were all there for their time and their time was very important to them.
It's our challenge to make the most of our time, it's like 'It Happened Today', which is also about time, but this is about apocalypses and civilisations, and generations. In the blue underworld, it's amazing how much imagery you can get into an idea, this is about the lifetime of emotions and desires, and evil and good.
Puppets (first appeared on Second album)
The puppets are making do and they're practising a dance and every day they have to do this dance, and so it could be God, could be society, whichever way you want you look at it but they believe they are free and they give so much, such dedicated little puppets.
Images And Signs
I have had friendships and love interests which have been conducted mostly by text and email and one has the real time together as well, but the romance is in what you create with your words, your photographs and things, this is just now but as it evolves in the future, you don't have to be close together in the room, you could be out in space, you could be anywhere. Love is a feeling, there's love, romance, caring - a lot of this is done with a kind of poetry between people which is crafted very carefully in the text and email, it's very personal to those two.
That was a melody I picked up from Robert and the lyrics got themselves born from that tune and it's about when you are in a relationship, the communication can be very hard, what's the answer? Try and look at it a different way, the remorse can be very strong, we held our heads up, it isn't over until the feelings gone. Those are truths to me, little truths, as whatever it is it's not over while you still feel passion for it, or sadness or anger, it's not finished, you can't let go until it's really run its course, it's not over.
This originated with the bass player Chris, but includes themes from other people. It's the live overture, the dramatic start to the set and it is spiderish, like a wild creature.
We were playing with the idea of magnetism and attraction. Magnetism in terms of physics, but also about a kind of charisma, and the attraction of, so I put them together in a dream state, this person in attraction, it applies to relationships, you've got in the dust, on the walls in the stains on your palms, in the stains on your cars, and in the stars, in your hips and in your stride, and in the sparkle in your eyes, attractive, attraction, magnetism. It's everything there. You attract and you repel, orbiting between the poles of sub atomic worlds, radiant and full of grace, attractive, attraction, so it's kind of mixing up physics, as we are all just vibrations anyway so why not.
Colder Than A Rose In Snow (first appeared on the solo 'Sonja Kristina' album)
We wanted to do a Christmas song so we turned this it into one. I had a concept for it, from Steve Reich, Music for Mallet Instruments and all that, but it tends to change chords more frequently than the Steve Reich music, which stays in one place. We referred to that as that's where Robert's keyboard line come from, then Kirby's playing very slow notes, and Paul's just playing little answering phrases, a little pattern over the keyboard and they play this beautiful solo in the middle.
It was written by my friend Norma Tager, who was a very special friend just before I met Stewart (Copeland), when I was between relationships and she took me in to live with her family and we started writing together. This was something that she had written and she had a publishing contract with Rondor who had put her together with this guy called Paul Travers, it's very hymnal, it's beautiful the way it goes and her lyrics are kind of crazy too, so it doesn't quite make sense and yet it has a vulnerability about it.
It's about first meetings feeling vulnerable and lost, meeting somebody and they are also troubled and lost and they get caught up in the storms but then we hit the poles together.
Spirits In A Material World (originally by The Police)
We started off with a very good vibe for it, then Kirby came and changed it into what it is now, away from the original reggae theme but then it and went back that way a little bit. It's about society, about spirituality so it fits in with the overall theme.
Old Time News
This is about community, society, someone who's grown up and lived in the same postcode area, and is now living in a flat alone and old, just watching TV and hearing songs in her head when she goes to sleep. She's thinking that all the people grow older. A lot of the baby boomers are getting older, some of them are staying here, some of them are long gone but to me, I've always moved around, it's a strange idea that some people never move around or leave their village.
I used to live in Buckinghamshire for a while in a village and I was amazed that some of the people there had never been to London, only forty miles away, why wouldn't they want to go there? Just not wanting to go far away, never being abroad, just staying in one place, that's the concept of it. The melody, created by the band, reflects the madness, the small town jig, it drops into the void and can get very spooky.
Situations (first appeared on 'Air Conditioning')
Looking back on a life. For me that's an appropriate theme for the original audience. But young people really like the album too. There's a progressive band called Purson we met them when they came to one of the gigs with Wishbone Ash and The Strawbs and she modelled herself on me in the 70s and they are a very good band, it was like a new Curved Air crossed with a touch of Black Sabbath.
I have met some interesting nouveau hippies, and Rosalie from Purson doesn't listen to any music that's later than the 70s and is totally immersed in it. It's exciting that some people can go back there and see where they can take it.
Chasing Cars (originally by Snow Patrol)
Robert in his element, this was done in one take, along with 'Across The Universe'. I thought it was a really beautiful song, one of the things that really moved me and felt good to sing it. Doing it with the full band didn't get us anywhere, so we ended up with just me singing and Robert doing a bit of piano and that gorgeous bass line.
It gives me the image of a couple in this battle of this falling apart, changing world, a couple that are together in some little attic and they are just losing themselves in each other and letting everything else go. When you are in love with someone it's like you two are the only people in the world, it's the beauty in that bubble.
Young Mother (first appeared on second album)
This shows off the players, we needed a big number on the album. As with Time Games and Spider, with 'Young Mother' the solos are just so kind of explosive and the way that we do it is so different from the original, we were really pleased with this.
Across The Universe (originally by The Beatles)
My concept with that was just to have one being in the middle of space, the universe, this small quiet voice, just on their own like a little atom, a nucleus, singing. Another one that is pure Robert and me - a chance to take the ingredients of a song and make it work between the two of us.