Curly's Airships was seven years in the making. Judge Smith, mostly known as a lyricist for singers like Peter Hammill, gave birth to a work of such epic proportions that it has very few comparable predecessors in rock history, if any. This two-CD set (144 minutes) is presented as a "songstory" -- a novel, so to speak, sung by the narrator over rock accompaniment. The narrator is Smith himself, with a delivery style generally close to Hammill's; a few selected additional characters are brought in occasionally, but they speak through the narrator's recollections. No real action therefore takes place, so this is not a musical or a rock opera of the traditional kind. The story of Curly's Airships is historical fiction. It relates the story of dirigibles in England from the 1910s to the 1930s. The race for control of the sky was characterized by courage, questionable government decisions, and personal ambition -- and culminated in the destruction of the R. 101, a humongous floating casket, and the deaths of all its crewmen and passengers. The narrator is Curly MacLeod, a pilot who died in the R. 101 explosion. This fictional ghost is the voice of truth, and through him Smith delivers his version of the story, parts of which still remain a mystery. (In the liner notes, the writer gives his sources and discusses what comes from history, fiction, and personal interpretation.) The musical part of the work is built with 27 themes, some of them coming back two or three times as reminders, linked with events or recurring characters. The basis is rock music, although one can hardly speak of songs; the themes follow one another according to the lyrics, with the result that the whole thing sounds closer to progressive rock. The band features ex-members of Van der Graaf Generator and/or Peter Hammill's K Group: Hugh Banton (keyboards), John Ellis (guitar), and David Jackson (saxophone). Drums and bass parts are programmed. Guest vocalists include Arthur Brown, Hammill and the Stranglers' Paul Roberts, the latter delivering the best performance.
One should not buy this album for the music, but rather for the story itself -- which is very well-written -- and the sheer beauty of the whole package. The two CDs come with two booklets (48 and 44 pages) containing the libretto, thorough historical background, structural charts, archival photographs, a bibliography, and a glossary of vernacular and aviation expressions used in the lyrics. Smith does everything possible to take listeners by the hands and guide them through his work. Although this is not for everybody, one cannot deny the originality of Judge Smith's project, nor his storytelling talents. One of a kind.