Thursday 7 February 2019

Focus - Focus 11 (2019)

Country: The Netherlands
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 31 Jan 2019
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Wikipedia

Hey, a new Focus album! I'm a fan from way back but thought they'd gone the way of the dodo. Apparently, their 2002 reunion is still in full effect and they've been recording new music for a while. Focus 9 was released in 2006, Focus X in 2012 and now a very welcome Focus 11 is joining them. It was technically available on UK tour dates last year but it's now being fully released in 2019.

As always, Focus are still led by Thijs van Leer on flute and organ, if even less vocals than I remember. Drummer Pierre van der Linden is the other long term member, also on his fourth stint with the band. Menno Gootjes is the guitarist nowadays and the new bassist is Udo Pannekeet, who joined in 2017.

It kicks off well with a very pleasant instrumental intro track called, Who's Calling? It's the heaviest and most up tempo piece of music on the album, with driving guitars, fascinating drums and plenty of organ from van Leer. As with most of the material here, it's entirely instrumental, but it's at once contemporary and teasingly aware of the band's history.

Things get a little funky on Heaven before that takes a turn into a folk dance piece, complete with trilling flute. Vocals do show up late in the song, almost ten minutes into the album, but only as another instrument, van Leer scatting over the the top of his organ. Yeah, that sounds seven shades of wrong, but it's technically true and I have no idea how I could word it any differently.

Two things become quickly obvious here, beyond the lack of vocals.

One is that this is easy listening Focus, very pleasant stuff but rather less challenging than some of their work in the past. A couple of tracks do go there. Winnie is much more introspective, for example, with notably restrained drums behind a soaring guitar solo from Menno Gootjes. Thijs van Leer's flute tags in later but it soars just as much.

The other is that it's even more of a jazz fusion record than previous albums. Now, Focus are no strangers to jazz, but I've tended to think of them as a prog rock band with jazz influences. Focus 11 is very much the other way around and, just in case we hadn't realised that, the lyrics to How Many Miles make it very clear where the band's priorities lie at this time. "How many miles between my love and I?" van Leer sings. "Forever jazz, my deepest love."

It may be telling that How Many Miles easily feels like the least worthy track on this album and easily the first to get old, even though it's not without its moments. Vocals clearly don't fit well with the modern Focus, except when van Leer is doing interesting things with his voice somewhere in the background of tracks.

Strangely for musicians who quite obviously just enjoy jamming with each other, only the title track edges over six minutes. These are all shorter pieces that find their own groove, explore it briefly and wrap it up so they can go and find another groove on another track.

I'm glad Focus are still together as a band and recording too, though far less frequently than their long-time former guitarist, Jan Akkerman. This is a pleasant album, but behind the easy to listen to pieces that do try to fade into the background and sometimes succeed, there's some notably interesting material.

Winnie was easily the highlight for me but Clair-Obscur is another jazzy introspection worthy of note and Mare Nostrum kicks things back into high gear to play alongside Who's Calling? on the heavier side.

Now, when we can have Focus 12? Focus XII? Focus Dozen? Whatever they'll call it, I'm interested.

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