FocusXFocus is back, with an album that will satisfy any long-time fan and soundly impress the uninitiated....
Focus X
Four Worlds Media
10 tracks / 49:37

Focus – the band that never really went away – is back. For those fans that have been paying attention, it should be no surprise that this new project is called Focus X (in the tradition of the the last two albums, Focus 8 and Focus 9). What may or may not be a surprise is that the band is back in good form, delivering a project that is totally in the classic Focus mode - with all of the delightful rock/classical moments that that would imply, and several of the other, somewhat 'unusual' moments we've also come to expect from these Dutch Masters.

Aside from Procol Harum, Focus has always been the band most likely to bridge the gap between rock and classical music, although - unlike the unfortunately underrated Procol Harum - Focus has always incorporated a very healthy dose of jazz into the mix as well. At their best, Focus is a sophisticated, supremely talented collection of musicians capable of producing stunningly beautiful melodic pieces that can turn on a dime, from classical delicateness to raucous rock and roll, and back again. At their 'worst,' the band has ventured from time to time into 'strange' territory, forcing the square musical pegs (usually some form of vocal device) into round musical holes. Thankfully, they tend to hit more often than miss, historically and on Focus X as well. The new project has the band delivering solid musical performances from all members on the kind of memorable compositions that should become Focus staples.

Through the years, the one constant has always been songwriter/flutist/keyboardist/vocalist Thijs van Leer, most universally noted for performing all of these functions on the 1971 mega-hit, "Hocus Pokus." Van Leer is still at the helm, and along with him is Pierre van der Linden, the drummer from that very song, and talented 'new generation' Focus players, Bobby Jacobs on bass and the talented Menno Gootjes, filling very big shoes, indeed, on guitar.

Focus X, with several atmospheric, haunting moments ( "Focus 10," and "Hoeratio" in particular) takes me back to their Ship of Memories album. Of course, even in the more somber songs, the band will suddenly make a left turn into some fiery jazz-fusion diversion, as  expertly executed in "Le Tango."

The project starts off with "Father Bachus," which is a signature band piece, rocking heavily from the start in a tempo similar to the aforementioned "Hocus Pokus," then breaking into a jazzy segue where the guitar gives way to some jazzy flute and drum soloing.

In the tradition of songs named after women ("Sylvia") we have "Victoria," with Focus-friendly chord progressions dipping in and out of a minor key with the guitar stating the melody.

"Talk of the Clown" is as playful and light as the title implies – with flute and acoustic guitar as the featured instruments, this baroque-flavored piece is classically inspired and buoyed-up by understated drum-work and appropriately melodic bass playing - I imagine Jan Aakerman would have broken out his lute for this one. The anthemic, almost hymn-like "Message Magic" is also beautifully melodic and classically influenced, introduced by sombre drums and rendered beautifully by the guitar-stated melody underpinned by stately piano and a wash of organ.

Focus flexes their jazz muscles on tracks like "Amok in Kindergarten," which is less manic and more traditionally jazzy than one would expect from the title, and the album's closing track, "X Roads." The implied pun's duality is symbolic of the band's ability to slide from rock into jazz and back again (is it the letter 'X' of the album's title or the word 'cross' as implied in the lyric?) – certainly, this song is a hybrid, incorporating one of those 'strange' moments (a spoken lyric) with some rock guitar playing and furious jazz fusion jamming from both bass and drums at the end.

Oh – where's this album's really strange moment? That's gotta' be the spoken-word portion of "Hoeratio" and the operatic garble-to-choke ending on the otherwise steam-rolling jazz-rocker, "All Hens on Deck." Of course, that ending is typical of the humor that van Leer has always displayed- refreshing, in light of the many rockers who take themselves far too seriously. The dialog in "Hoeratio" is kind of unsettling, though.... Bottom line: You want Focus? You've got Focus pretty much full-strength on Focus X.

Bert Saraco

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