Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Focus X - Ain't No Hocus Pocus, This Is Real

Focus X is an excellent album that I didn't see coming. I knew the band had seen some renewed interest after penning the theme for Nike's World Cup commercial back in 2010, but then they disappeared off my radar. I couldn't be more pleased at their reappearance - this record is a clear winner.

I'm looking at new art by Roger Dean, and listening to the high intensity flute and organ playing of Thijs Van Leer, and I'm thinking, "Is time travel possible? Have I awakened in the early 70s?" This is the same eclectic and stimulating instrumental interplay that I remember coming from Focus during the days of the Nixon era, when we needed an intellectual respite from the daily pummeling we were receiving from a bad war and a rotten political scene. I guess some things never change, but in this case, I'll take what I can get, and I'm thrilled to be listening to some clever music that I'm loathe to label.

Father Bachus cheekily rips out of the gate with a riff that will have you thinking Hocus Pocus, but Van Leer's flute takes off and we're instantly taken in a direction that reminds why we loved prog rock, even before we knew what to call it. Drummer Pierre van der Linden is sharper than ever, driving the band into an ever accelerating rate of rock, but it's semi-new guy Menno Gootjes on guitar that really blows my mind - replacing the legendary Jan Akkerman is no easy task, but he's more than up to the task.

Focus is a sophisticated bunch - this isn't music that shrinks, hides, or avoids the fact that they have no compunction or problem with some serious genre jumping as they do on  Focus 10. This tune kicks off as a blues jazz number that is just edgy enough to avoid being lounge. Gootjes plays chorus after chorus of beautifully melodic guitar - it's just perfect tonally, a little distortion to deliver the edge, but it's some gorgeous stuff. Van Leer's keyboards are supportive, but he keeps tossing off fills and pads that keep things interesting. When Thijs grabs his flute and the two start waltzing across the tune together it's majestic - Gootjes finally recalls his guitar melody, and van Leer closes out with some wistful and haunting piano. Well played.

Romance is the theme of Victoria, and it's great to hear a tune which is straight - it doesn't mince around it's point. The affair comes to include a bit of funk, but it's then back into the starry eyed love. Cinematic, that's what this is. Bassist Bobby Jacobs slides from smooth to busy and back, and his playing is so elegant that you could be excused for not noticing just how virtuosic his playing is from start to finish.

Amok in Kindergarden - the title shows that the band has loss none of it's indulgence in ironic humor. This is a compositional showpiece that defies you to grasp it's exact structure, but it's so damned gorgeous that you don't mind that you know you can't quite grasp it's path. Fun, fun, fun - this is what jazz rock promised all along. Van Leer leads with his incredible piano playing, and the band follows with, dare I say, great focus.

Every time I've thrown this disc on, I do not want it to end. It keeps  grabbing me and making me listen, and I like it.

The band breaks out the rock on All Hens On Deck, van Leer scats with his own organ and Gootjes's dirty Les Paul tones, and the rhythm section percolates at a boil. I'll guess this is a live showpiece. Van Leer tosses in a bolero section that comes in just at the right time, and it's majestic again. These guys can't stop themselves from continually re-engaging and re-calibrating, and always at the right time.

Photo by CreepingMacKroki
Le Tango is just that - an understated lyric and vocal that is perfectly underscored by Jacobs's super cool bass line as Gootje's acoustic guitar weaves melodic magic before kicking into a high octane solo. Focus generally has such a tendency to play it for a laugh, or an aside that it took me a few listens to realize that this is indeed played straight, and very effectively. A gorgeous and romantic tune.

I congratulate Focus for containing their potential to overplay, and too go farther than an average listener can go - there's no shortage of chops, technique, and sheer brain horsepower here, but they keep it entertaining and accessible. Its tendency toward jazz is always obvious, but they never go so far outside as to lose their audience, an audience that was raised on rock. No, they play it just right, and I think it's a more than fair exchange for all involved.

Hoeratio is a hard tune to describe - maybe that's due to van Leer's Dutch dialogue, but it sounds great, cascading from melodic jazz to hard rock not unfamiliar to fan's of King Crimson. It's almost kabooki in it's theatrical glory. I'd love to know what the hell he's going on about!

Not taking one's self too seriously is a major plus these days - what with the world going to hell in a handbag, sometimes a guitar and flute duet with percolating bass and drunken drums is a wonderful thing, and Talk of the Clown is just that. This tune won't change the world, but it's very well done, and I dare you to sit down and play alongside it.

Focus doesn't come off as trying to sound like kids - they play like they should, and it's thoughtful, melodic, and mature. You'll find not a more pleasant piece of romantic rock than Message Magic, which again has Gootjes's playing melodic, sinuous and taut lead lines as van Leer and company support him superbly.

X Roads (Crossroads) was a considered title for the album at one point and this tune is a nice summation of the entire record. This is an excellent album that will seduce more than it will knock you down and force you to listen. It cooks, but it will drive down your blood pressure and reduce your anxiety for a while, and that's a great thing. Van Leer delivers a spoken lyric that is bittersweet, but matter of fact, and the band plays on - there's a ripping drum and bass solo near the end that sends the record off to sea, and I realize that I hate to hear it end.

I hope you get a chance to hear this record. Grab a glass of whatever it is you imbibe, toss on this disc, and absorb them both. See if it doesn't do your soul good. X is a record that's filled with excellent compositions, loads of great playing, a good bit of earthy humor, and no shortage of melodic wizardry. Highly recommended.

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