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VOICE (Japanese Charisma/Virgin VJCP-2546) [1973]

Capability Brown’s entry here rests on one piece which appeared on their second album, VOICE [LP VINYL]. The band recorded only two actual albums, both released in Britain on the “Famous” Charisma label – the same label which on which Genesis, Van Der Graaf Generator and Monty Python all found homes. (There was a third album, LIAR, issued by Charisma in 1976, but it is a repackaged compilation from the first two albums.)

The band was a six-piece in which everyone sang and played instruments.   The lineup consisted of Tony Ferguson (guitar, bass), Dave Nevin (keyboards, guitar, bass), Kenny Rowe (bass, percussion), Grahame White (guitar, bass), Joe Williams (percussion) and Roger Willis (drums, keyboards). Ferguson and Nevin wrote the majority of the band’s material, the rest being covers (Rare Bird’s “Beautiful Scarlet” and “Redman,” Argent’s “Liar,” Affinity’s “I Am And So Are You” and Steely Dan’s “Midnight Cruiser”).

But Capability Brown’s forte was vocalizing. Together they sounded not unlike The Association: a massed choir of voices, ranging from baritone to high clean falsettos.

Their first album, FROM SCRATCH (Charisma CAS 1056, released in 1972), had a folksy cover (the art done in scratchboard, perhaps inspiring or inspired by the title), and was unprepossessing. I picked up a copy when I was chasing down obscure, quirky British bands of the early ‘70s – and I didn’t find it sufficiently quirky to be interesting.   The instrumental parts of the album were pretty standard, guitar-band stuff (few if any keyboards were audible), and while their take on “Liar” was a good one, the album as a whole was mediocre and unmemorable. Capability Brown sounded like an Association-like vocal group with anonymous instrumental backing (and the lack of any personnel listing on that album didn’t help – although song credits and lyrics were printed on the inner sleeve).

Before I began to write this piece I checked Capability Brown out in a couple of reference works. They aren’t even mentioned in Jerry Lucky’s THE PROGRESSIVE ROCK FILES (a surprising omission on his part), and, astonishingly, only their first album is described in Vernon Joynson’s THE TAPESTRY OF DELIGHTS (although all three albums are listed). Joynson has this to say about the group: “This band’s staple diet was mainstream rock with some arty pop leanings. Their FROM SCRATCH album had a couple of tracks with more progressive leanings: ‘Rayge’ and ‘Sole Survivor.’ This latter song was about the escape from the coming war with a time machine and culminated in some fine guitar work imitating time machine travel!” He adds, “Kenny Rowe had earlier been in The Moments.”

Frankly, I’m not sure about Joynson. His misattribution of the single by Brain in 1967 to a group which included Robert Fripp (denied by Fripp) is understandable, but I am nonplussed by the fact that he finds “progressive leanings” in anything on that first Capability Brown album – which does not contain a track titled “Rayge” (he may be thinking of Nevin’s “No Range” which leads off side two – the side which concludes with Ferguson’s “Sole Survivor”).   Nor am I at all impressed by the “fine guitar work” on “Sole Survivor,” which sounds quite ordinary to me.

But Joynson’s failure to mention VOICE totally amazes me. The cover (by Hipgnosis) was a strong clue to the extraordinary nature of this album, as was its title. Because VOICE is Capability Brown’s genuine claim to fame in progressive rock circles – and a major claim it is!

But not for its first side – which presented four songs competently but unexcitingly performed in the same mode that had been used for the first album.   I wonder how many people listened only to that side and then tossed the album into a stack to be forgotten. (I suspect Joynson did that.) Anyone who did do that made a bad mistake. Side two was the gem.

It’s on side two (track 5 of the CD) that we find the over-20-minute piece called “Circumstances (In Love, Past, Present, Future Meet)” which is the group’s masterpiece (and it’s the only piece ever credited to the group as a whole).   This side-long piece is for Capability Brown what PET SOUNDS was for the Beach Boys and SGT. PEPPER was for the Beatles.   It is an amazingly fully realized tour de force for voice and a stunning piece of music.

The piece opens, interestingly enough, with a long keyboard-based instrumental section which states the theme and offers the first variation. It’s easily the equal to what Genesis were doing at that same time (1973). Then a cappela voices replace the instruments to offer new variations on the theme. As the piece develops there are synthesizers and Mellotrons (making their only appearances in the group’s recordings for this track), solo vocals, delicate harpsichord-like acoustic guitar sections, powerful electric guitar chords and massed vocal choirs. And overall the piece is richly melodic and continually rewarding. It ends too soon.

Sadly, Capability Brown never did another piece like it. VOICE was their last studio album, and “Circumstances” was the last piece on it.

Originally issued as CAS 1068 on Charisma in Britain, the album did have an American edition (with the same striking gatefold cover), but never attracted the attention it deserved – probably because too many people never got to side two.   The album remains mostly unknown to progressive rock fans. But in 1990 it was issued as a CD in Japan in a “British Rock History on CD” series, of which it was “Vol. 12.”   It accurately replicates both the gatefold cover and the gatefold interior, and in addition to Japanese notes includes all the lyrics in English (something the LP did not have). It’s worth searching out.

Just for that one long track.

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