Focus 11 is, of course, the celebrated Dutch band’s 14th album (or 15th, depending on how you count them) and focuses on what they do best: melodic, guitar-driven instrumentals, sometimes fast and frantic, sometimes stately and formal, mixing jazz fusion with a bit of Renaissance classical music.
Some of you may be surprised to discover they are still going. In fact, they’ve had more reunions than the Kardashian family, with keyboardist, flautist and vocalist Thijs van Leer putting the band back together at least four times in the last 34 years.
In 2002, rather uniquely so far as I am aware, he joined his own tribute act, later adding drummer Pierre van der Linden from the second album’s line-up. Whether this makes the current Focus the real McCoy, or just a tribute act with a founder member in it, is an argument for another time. But one could argue that Focus have more right to call themselves Focus than Yes have to call themselves Yes.
But to the new music. The focal point here is Menno Gootjes’s confident, muscular guitar that, on occasion, channels Jan Akkerman, especially on the powerful opener Who’s Calling – heavy, chopping chords are backed by Pierre’s busy drums and van Leer’s organ. It’s a five and a half minute statement of intent – loud, powerful and taking no prisoners.
He also excels on Mazzel and Palindrome, on which the band sound a bit like Israeli jazzers Marbin with fast, intricate melodic guitar lines and loose, swinging drumming that have been recorded so damn well you can hear everything Pierre is hitting. Including a cowbell.
Heaven is funky and fun, with drums, bass and guitar laying down a groove while van Leer tinkles some piano, before suddenly moving into something that could have been penned by Henry VIII, if he’d had a socket to plug his amplifier into. Think Jethro Tull’s rocked-up Tudor approach to King Henry’s Madrigal but with as many twists and turns as the maze at Hampton Court.
Theodora Na Na Na – possibly the worst song title on the album – would qualify as one of those stately Focus instrumental ballads if it wasn’t for the fact the guitar melody heads off into some strange, almost atonal directions.
We’ve heard a few of these tracks before. Apart from Who’s Calling, which appeared in a different form on Thijs van Leer and Jan Akkerman’s 1985 album Focus – distinct lack of imagination in the album-naming department there – both Winnie and Claire-Obscur were premiered on 2017’s patchy Focus Family Album. Both are slow, mournful and slightly disturbing ballads in which Gootjes delivers unpredictable guitar lines to Udo Pannekeet’s liquidy fretless bass, while van Leer gets to play his flute a bit and Pierre adds dramatic drum flourishes. Mare Nostrum is another slow one that builds up to a noisy finish and Final Analysis chugs along like a runaway steam train.
We end with the optimistic, sunny Focus 11 – a mostly gentle guitar-led melody that winds us down like a cup of cocoa spiced up with a little bit of chilli.
There is but one mis-step and that is track four, How Many Miles, in which van Leer sings about his love of jazz. Sounding like a 1970s out-take, it has no real discernible melody, made worse by the fact that van Leer croons in a husky groan that sounds like he’s complaining about his back. At least he doesn’t yodel. Apart from that, Focus 11 is an immensely enjoyable collection of interesting, sometimes surprisingly intricate, instrumentals, performed by excellent musicians with style and flair.
And it really does sound like Focus. So not a tribute act but the real McCoy, then.
01. Who’s Calling (5:27)
02. Heaven (4:26)
03. Theodora Na Na Na (4:27)
04. How Many Miles (4:48)
05. Mazzel (4:23)
06. Winnie (5:13)
07. Palindrome (5:33)
08. Clair-Obscur (3:14)
09. Mare Nostrum (5:08)
10. Final Analysis (3:51)
11. Focus 11 (6:11)
Total Time – 52:41
Thijs van Leer – Keyboards, Flute, Vocals
Pierre van der Linden – Drums, Percussion
Menno Gootjes – Guitar, Backing Vocals
Udo Pannekeet – Bass
Record label: In And Out Of Focus Records
Country of Origin: The Netherlands
Date of Release: 1st February 2019