Focus - Focus 11
Focus Music 2018
Text: Robin Boer
Focus Music 2018
Text: Robin Boer
The legendary Focus releases its eleventh studio album through their very own label Focus Music. However, the retail release is in January. For now, the band only sells it at their shows during their current U.K. Tour and for the month November only, Burning Shed (a big online store for progressive music and related merchandise) was taking and fulfilling CD orders. The digipak features beautiful artwork by Roger Dean, who also did the cover art for the previous album, Focus X and of course a lot of famous symphonic rock albums like some of YES and Asia.
A small line-up change has been made: bass player Bobby Jacobs, who officially played with Focus since the official rebirth in 2001, decided to call it a day and Udo Pannekeet took the bass duties. Next to Thijs van Leer of course, drummer Pierre van der Linden and guitar player Menno Gootjes are still there. Although this is only the fourth full-length studio release of new material over a period 17 years, each Focus album serves a quality and personality of its own, which made them worth the wait. For this album, Van Leer certainly did not choose for the easy way, for we are earwitness of eleven pretty complicated, well-thought, tastefully composed pieces.
The album-opener, though, isn't a new one, but the arrangement is. 'Who's Calling' was first released on the synth-driven 1985 Thijs van Leer & Jan Akkerman collaboration album 'Focus' and this original version lasts 15 minutes long. This new arrangement features the more 'classic' 70's focused sound the band brings since the album 'Focus 9' from 2006. Van Der Linden is drumming a very fast jazz-based rhythm over which broad organ chords and rough bass-lines are played. Gootjes is playing the theme of the piece which marks the (only) point of concrete reference to the original. It is energetic, wild and well played (sometimes even a bit restless) but this version certainly doesn't gives us the chills we get from the 1985 version. Then again, we are quite sure it was not the intention by the composer to make a comparison, so let's move on to the rest of the album.
'Heaven' is a typical Focus-style track in the groove of tracks like 'Round Goes The Gossip', 'Sylvia' and 'P's March'. A plus of Focus' studio recordings is the benefit of hearing different keyboards, where during live performance, mainly organ and flute are played. It gives the music more depth and color. It's tempting to hum along, but the piece ends amusingly with a small variation in the melody, so you've been warned. 'Theodora Na Na Na' is one of those wonderful piano-based compositions with a lot of beautiful directions, creative harmonies and quite fascinating intervals, accompanied by beautiful fretless basswork by Pannekeet.
The only track featuring vocals is the song 'How Many Miles' in which Van Leer is singing about his love for jazz music. Not that we dislike vocals per se, but musically, this track's enjoyment is limited. Somehow it feels kind of flat and dull after such an impressive ballad. This is a whole different story when we take a listen to the following tracks 'Mazzel' and 'Winnie'. Where 'Mazzel' is another virtuous expression of melody lines in the familiar Focus-flavour, 'Winnie' proves to be a wonderful ballad with Gootjes in a leading role, playing the melody decently as he always does. We are also treated with a flute part by Thijs van Leer. His flute sound and character always has been, and still is, very polished and clear (in the best possible way). Sometimes this wonderful instrument is being missed in a lot of rock music of today, but in the 70's, it was used way more often, mostly in European rock.
We consider Pierre van der Linden an absolute killer drummer, one of the great (uncrowned) kings of rhythm, with not only a great transparant sound, but also with a stunning control of dynamics, in which styles like jazz and rock are being combined effortlessly. The energetic and urgent sounding 'Palindrome' is a good example of that. Starting off with top quality solid drumming, Gootjes is joining with powerful chords, played unisono on bass by Pannekeet, which are followed by scary, screaming keyboard chords. Suddenly the piece falls into a passage of a completely different character; another recurring element within Focus' music. Van Der Linden is given more space here to let his incredible drumming shine in full glory.
Another piece in the style of 'Theodora Da Da Da' and the superb 'Amok In Kindergarten' (from Focus X) when it comes to a more piano-based approach and well-composed melody lines, chord changes and rhythmic hypnosis is called 'Clair-Obscur' (wonderful title by the way). Udo Pannekeet gets writing credit for this album, too: 'Mare Nostrum' surely is one of the most adventurous tracks on the album. Starting off with a more down-tempo section, accompanied by a melancholic theme, recalling some voices from passed times, a spectacular section follows with (again) splendid drumming and interesting chord changes, strong guitar patterns and the most spectacular guitar solo of the whole record. Although our personal experience is that Gootjes is rather a technical than an emotional guitar player, he certainly knows how to nail his stuff. Flawless and powerful. After the fast section ends, the piece comes to it's blowing conclusion. Pannekeet is releasing his solo album soon, (which will feature guitar player Eef Albers, who used to play with Thijs van Leer for quite some time) and if this is a good example of his way of composing, we certainly can't wait to hear it.
The conclusion of the album couldn't be more striking: 'Final Analysis' is a straight-forward piece and, as the title implicates, it really sounds like an album closer, although of course we question if this has been done on purpose. The track features nice piano chords and, again, tasteful melodies in an excellent overall band performance. Pay close attention to the wonderful bass-lines under the guitar melody, not to mention the nice 'crispy', round sound it has. True candy for the ears. The song ends with a fade-out, leaving us wanting more. And more we get! On most Focus-albums, a track with the title 'Focus' is featured. (only 'Focus 6' never found it's way to a Focus album, but for the curious: check out Thijs van Leer's LP 'Reflections' from 1981) 'Focus 11' contains almost all elements that make the music of Focus so great and versatile. It's multi-sectioned and dynamic; we go through different moods, tempos, rhythms and flavours. We won't give away all details too closely here, you really have to hear it yourself.
On quite some records, the best tracks are put at the beginning, leaving the experience of the rest of the album somehow a bit underwhelming. On 'Focus 11' this is definately not the case. The balance is near perfect, from start to end. The compositions are well-crafted and versatile. The musicianship is flawless. Although the overall sound of the record is not bad at all, we experience the sound frequency of the drums being a bit dull, just as on 'Focus X'. We recommend the excellent production of 'Focus 9' as a reference to solve this issue. ;-)
Focus is one of those bands that refuses to commit itself to the spirit of the age: to our terms, that is a very good habit. Good music is timeless and Focus continues to do what they always did: stay true to their own unique character and creating high quality music on record and in performance. The urge not to stop anytime soon is highly supported, and the world (still) needs to realize more what a great composer Sir Thijs van Leer truly is.
Who's Calling? / Heaven / Theodora Na Na Na / How Many Miles?
Mazzel / Winnie / Palindrome / Clair-Obscur / Mare Nostrum
Finaly Analysis / Focus 11
Thijs van Leer: piano, organ, vocals, flute and synths
Menno Gootjes: guitars
Pierre van der Linden: drums
Udo Pannekeet: bass