Focus have developed. By that, I mean that they have changed their sound over time- they’re still Focus at heart, but things are different. Not ‘different’ in the way that some of progressive rock’s most loved bands tempered their sound into commercial radio to the chagrin of their fans; just different, and by different, I mean jazz. Jazz has always been an aspect of progressive rock at large, but the classic incarnation of Focus tended to focus on the style’s roots in classical and European folk. For the classicists looking for a piece of the classic Focus, their latest album “Focus X” delivers, but expect more than what you bargained for.
“Focus X” is an album of two sides. The first half (consisting of the first four songs) relies on a fusion form of smooth jazz. Largely instrumental, it is guitar-driven mellowness that bears a very close resemblance to the recent work by Pat Metheny. The piano backs up the sound with some tricky rhythms and the occasional flair for the theatrical that Focus are best known for. For many listeners (myself included) who know this band for their yodel-jam in “Hocus Pocus”, this will come as a bit of a shock, albeit a very chilled one. The trademark flutes are relatively scarce here, instead leaving it to the guitar and piano to take centerstage. After a fiery entrance with “Father Bachus”, “Focus X” devolves into a few fairly relaxing jazz pieces. The musicianship is excellent and the production is crisp, but at the end of it, one cannot help but feel that the ‘mellow’ approach isn’t best suited for Focus. The theatrical, folky charm is what these Dutchmen do best, and as if they read my mind before the fact, that’s precisely what they offer on the latter half of the album.
By “All Hens on Deck”, Focus have picked up their pace once again. Although the jazz aspect lasts a mere fraction of the overall length, it feels quite a bit longer than it is, if only because it’s so slow compared to the rest. I might describe this more energetic sound of Focus as a mixture of the strange charm of Magma and Zeuhl, with the composition and structure of Camel. Although standard, lyrical singing is present here, it’s used quite scarcely. The vocals- when there are any- are used as an instrument themselves, another vehicle to get this sense of weird, carnivalesque bombast across. For anyone who has heard “Hocus Pocus” before, this won’t be any surprise.
“Focus X” ends on a far better note than it started with. “Message Magic” is a beautiful piece of instrumental melodic rock, with a guitar tone that could tame a lion. “X Roads” picks up the pace one last time, taking the listener on a final trip that I might only describe as a Dutch take on a Spaghetti Western soundtrack. Focus have made a two-tiered attempt on their tenth record, and for a large part, it works. The jazz is not particularly impressive, but the musicianship is solid and constant. Focus’ greatest offering lies in their more traditional craziness towards the end. The shift from one style to the other doesn’t feel completely natural, but on the whole, Focus do not disappoint.
1. Father Bachus (4:11)
2. Focus 10 (5:59)
3. Victoria (5:38)
4. Amok In Kindergarten (5:10)
5. All Hens On Deck (5:55)
6. Le Tango (5:37)
7. Hoeratio (5:48)
8. Talk Of The Clown (3:05)
9. Message Magic (4:00)
10. X Roads (5:49)
* Thijs van Leer – Hammond, keyboards, flute, vocals
* Pierre van Der Linden – drums
* Bobby Jacobs – bass
* Menno Gootjes – guitars