Focus 11 in and Out OF FOCUS
FOCUS 11 STARTS WITH HUNGER AND ENERGY.
Saxondale favourites return with resilient charm.
It’s six years since Focus X, which saw the venerable Dutch masters rediscovering a sense of playfulness. It felt then as if they’d remembered what people love about them: their undeniable virtuosity mixed with a tendency towards the truly bonkers.
Ever since Hocus Pocus and Sylvia became unlikely early 70s hits (the use of the former in a 2010 Nike ad brought the band new admirers), and albums like Hamburger Concerto hit on intriguing interfaces of fun and form, we associate Focus with a gleeful, jaunty twist on the tropes of jazz, classical and long and winding prog. It appears that mainstay Thijs van Leer is aware of this, a recent poem declaring: ‘Wow my joy could not increase/To see this new release/Both angelic and a beast/It’s Focus, to say the least!’ Okay, TS Eliot wouldn’t feel threatened, but then he couldn’t play keyboards and flute like the 70-year-old Thijs.
The eleventh studio album since their 1970 debut (bear in mind that the name lay fallow between 1985 and 2002) is a brighter, more primary-coloured cousin to X, which was itself pretty upbeat. Roger Dean’s artwork closely echoes its predecessor’s. Van Leer’s stepson has now left, but the line-up retains dazzling guitarist Menno Gootjes, who does a great job of making you forget Jan Akkerman isn’t there, and original drummer Pierre van der Linden. Udo Pannekeet joins on bass. They’re a tight, infectiously happy unit, unburdened by overfamiliarity, who you can almost imagine smiling in encouragement whenever van Leer or Gootjes undertake a solo noodle. These solos are always lively and effective, and nothing waffles on too long: it’s unusual for a track here to outlast five minutes.
From the crunchy guitar riff and percussive rush and rumble of opener Who’s Calling? (which has a dash of Jeff
Beck playing Love Is Blue) into the jazz funk chording of Heaven, the album starts with hunger and energy. While van Leer is always impressive, Gootjes all but steals the show with his sleight-of-hand switching between rhythm and lead flourishes.
How Many Miles? allows a rare vocal offering, which bangs on about ecstasy and harmony rather gauchely but won’t scare the horses, and Winnie, where everything slows down and allows Gootjes to get a bit Mark Knopfler, is a warmhearted winner. Palindrome, disappointingly, does not play the same backwards as forwards, unless it contains some clever technical musical phrasings beyond the layman’s ken. The title track turns the house lights on and ushers us out with delicate whimsy. Focus still exude a cheerful clarity.