Whilst Britain enjoyed a healthy influx of intelligent bands following the birth of progressive rock music in the ‘70s, there was another equally talented force brewing over the water.
Holland’s Focus gave us the classic sounds of ‘Hocus Pocus’ and ‘Hamburger Concerto’ at their peak, announcing their arrival to British shores in slick style. But after a confident start and commercial success, their reign as one of the top dogs of progressive rock ended in 1978. After attempts by mastermind Thijs van Leer to reignite the old flame in 1985, 1990 and 1999, the band returned permanently in 2001 and have since released two albums. ‘X’ is Focus’ third album in this highly successful period of reformation and it’s some of their best work.
Over the years – even since the reincarnation of the band in 2001 – the Focus line-up has interchanged from album to album. This time, the major change is that guitarist Menno Gootjes from their brief reunification in 1999 replaces Niels van der Steenhoven. His presence brings a chic coolness of Santana-influenced lead to pair with the precise rhythmic jazziness of drummer Pierre van der Linden, especially in the tango-inspired beats and jazz fusion of ‘Amok In Kindergarten’. But it’s not all fruitful art rock ambition that sets ‘X’ apart. Opening track ‘Father Bachus’ is as high propane as you’ll hear Focus since their ‘Hamburger Concerto’ days, mixing juicy hard rocking riffs with bewildering flute work. ‘All Hens On Deck’ reveals that van Leer has the same sense of humour he always had with some bizarre vocal gobbledygook following the eccentric but musically solid Hammond organ work.
Only one song is not new material on the album. The romantic ‘Le Tango’ – which made its first appearance in 1985’s self-titled ‘Focus’ album featuring Thijs van Leer alongside original guitarist Jan Akkerman – is the only rerecorded track. The rehashing of the song hears the cheesy ‘80s synth beats cut out, allowing the track to breathe a new audio life with groovier bass-lines, subtle flamenco-styled acoustic guitar, and entirely new lyrics added on top to give the song an amorous makeover. The Dutch act have taken the old and renewed it without living on old glories and it’s an apt microcosm of the whole of the ‘X’ album. Focus are a band with such artistic awareness. Van Leer is obviously eager to push the unique identity he developed in the ‘70s forward into contemporary times and it’s never a bad mentality to have.
X is out now on Eastworld.
You’ll like this if… you appreciate great musicianship with equally great sonic variety.