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PAINT A PICTURE (Japanese Polydor ERC-29229) [1973]

BEYOND THE BEYOND (Audio Archives AACD001) [1974]

VIVARIATUM (Audio Archives AACD004) [1970 & 1976]

Fantasy was one of those rare but yet typical British bands of the 1970's: they sounded like no one else and their music was quirkily individual as much as it was "progressive." Like other such bands, Fantasy were song-oriented and had a distinctive vocal sound, built on tight harmonies. The instrumental accompaniment was subordinate, but finely crafted to each piece. In a very real sense you could say Fantasy were one of the seventies descendants of the Beatles (a debt acknowledged in the "Elinor Rigby"-ish "Widow" on PAINT A PICTURE).

They made only one LP, the album PAINT A PICTURE, for British Polydor. It was beautifully packaged, with a gatefold cover which opened to display not only the lyrics to the songs but even more surreal art than the optically punning front cover. The album is now quite rare, which suggests to me that few were sold at the time -- which was a shame. It's a fine album, every track of ten a gem.

The band was made up of David Metcalf on keyboards and clarinet, David Read on bass guitar and double bass, Jon Webster on drums, Paul Lawrence on 12-string guitar and lead vocals, and Peter James on lead guitar. All band members were also vocalists. They started out in 1970, with a slightly different lineup (Paul Petley handled the vocals and Geoff Whitehorn played the guitar) as Chapel Farm, a name derived from where they rehearsed.

In 1972 the group changed its name to Firequeen and sent a demo-tape to Decca. Before Decca could react, Polydor swooped down and snatched the band up -- at which point it became Fantasy. In 1973 it recorded its sole album.

In 1974 the band recorded a second album -- BEYOND THE BEYOND -- but it was not released, Polydor having gotten cold feet, and Fantasy broke up. In 1976 they reformed, with Whitehorn rejoining, and recorded six tracks which were never released.

Apparently a small cult has built up around Fantasy, and after the Japanese CD of PAINT A PICTURE was released in 1990, the unreleased material began to emerge on the British Audio Archives label. Beyond the Beyond was released in 1992 and VIVARIATUM in 1994. The latter album collects on one CD four tracks recorded on acetate by Chapel Farm in 1970, the six pieces recorded in 1976, and the B-side (never before on an album) of their one Polydor single.

What all this additional material reveals is that Fantasy were a one-album band. That is, they had one really good album's worth of material in them -- probably created and honed for the better part of three years before that album was recorded -- and the Audio Archives albums are disappointments.

This is immediately obvious when you contrast that B-side single piece, "I Was Once Aware," with the A-side it backed, "Politely Insane." The A-side came from PAINT A PICTURE and is memorable. The B-side is forgettable and would have brought down the album if it had been included there.

VIVARIATUM is an oddly assembled album. It opens with two of the 1970 tracks, follows them with three of the 1976 tracks, tosses the 1973 B-side into the exact center of the album, and follows that with the remaining three tracks from 1976, followed in turn by the remaining two tracks from 1970. This is one time when I think a little chronological consistency would have been better.

What VIVARIATUM reveals musically is that Chapel Farm was undistinguished, relying on a guitar and Farfisa organ to supply most of its (rather thin) sound. The vocals were "gritty" and not in service to the material. The band matured from Chapel Farm almost unrecognizably into Fantasy, but that B-side was handwriting on the wall.

BEYOND THE BEYOND is simply lame in comparison with PAINT A PICTURE. It is less rich in its arrangements and less inspired in its material despite the fact that all but one track was written by the same three -- Lawrence, Metcalf and Read -- who wrote the first album. It opens with a two-minute "Introduction" which is a rather weak and aimless psychedelic attack on an organ. It includes a reworking of an old Chapel Farm piece, "Afterthought," the earlier version of which is on VIVARIATUM -- a sure sign that they were turning back to material rejected from the first album. The centerpiece is the eight-minute "Alanderie," and it sets a standard not achieved elsewhere on BEYOND THE BEYOND, unfortunately.

The 1976 tracks, all by Lawrence and Read, reveal a directionlessness. "In My Life" sounds uncannily like the Beatles, and Paul Lawrence very much like John Lennon. But "Low Love" was clearly and obviously inspired by YOUNG AMERICANS-period David Bowie. The other four tracks hover more in the John Lennon area, and none of the old Fantasy vocal harmonies are employed, more's the pity.

Obviously the album to get -- and one I recommend without reservation -- is PAINT A PICTURE. If you like it a lot and want more, go for BEYOND THE BEYOND, knowing that it won't be as satisfying but still has its high points. If, after that, you decide you want even the crumbs left behind by this band, get VIVARIATUM.

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