Review by Paul Quinton
Dutch prog veterans Focus return with a new album, a mere six years after ‘Focus 9’, and a mere 42 years since they made their debut with ‘Focus Plays Focus’. The album certainly looks the part, with a cover design by Roger Dean (a ‘hardback’ version is also available, although there are no extra tracks), and anybody who knows anything about the band will probably have a fair idea what to expect when they start listening, but there lies part of the problem I have with this album, as Focus have an all too distinctive style alongside that long and illustrious history.
The other part lies in the makeup of the band itself. For a band to be dominated by one individual can often be a good thing. Acts like Porcupine Tree and Opeth would not be what they are without the drive and clear vision of a brilliant musician. However, individuals can have faults as well as strong points, and in a lot of ways this is where this album falls down.
For many Thijs van Leer IS Focus (regardless of the enormous contribution made by guitarist Jan Akkerman in the early years) and this album could quite easily have been written and recorded in the those early years, and apart from van Leer, by any combination of musicians. Any of the songs could comfortably sit on any of the band’s 1970s albums, and apart from the vastly improved recording techniques, there’s very little sign that Thijs or any of the band have listened to any new music since the band’s heyday and as a result, the album often sounds quite dated.
That’s not to say the music is bad. It’s beautifully played and there are good ideas here, but the great majority of it is just too predictable. For example opener ‘Father Bacchus’ opens with a very lively riff before the sound of van Leer’s flute comes in, punctuated by some circus-style announcing, and there’s a very nice touch when Bobby Jacobs pays tribute to the riff from ‘Hocus Pocus’ on bass, but this really couldn’t be anyone else but Focus, and the same is true for the first five tracks on the album. The following and title track, ‘Focus X’ mellows down a little, quite jazz influenced, and reminiscent of Camel in many places, and while ‘Victoria’ continues in much the same vein, there’s a nice but all too brief change of pace midway through, with some staccato riffing over the keyboards. ‘Amok in Kindergarten’, despite its highly promising title, is more of the same and doesn’t really go anywhere.
After five instrumentals, broken up only by some scat singing on ‘All Hens on Deck’ (yes, ‘hens’, not ‘hands’), it’s a real relief when the band move away from the template. ‘Le Tango’ is easily the most interesting track on the album so far and actually includes some vocals. It’s still reminiscent of Camel, but the sparse blues playing creates a really good atmosphere for the track and it’s a nice variation. Similarly the following track, ‘Hoeratio’, has another voice over, but this time in Latin, which is another interestingly original touch, and each of the remaining tracks do have some character of their own, including the flute and acoustic guitar of ‘Talk of the Clown’ and the Santana-like Latino beginning of ‘X Roads’.
But for all the good ideas on this album, it often seems a very long listen, mainly because the songs aren’t strong enough to overcome the overall repetitiveness of the album as a whole. Focus had a huge hit with the single ‘Sylvia’ in 1973, and too much of the album seems to be an attempt to recapture that particular success, while you can’t help feeling the band would have been better off trying to write something as exciting and with the same energy as ‘Hocus Pocus’. Either way, there’s nothing here of the same quality as those songs and I can’t really see anything on Focus X appearing in Nike adverts or being played on Planet Rock in 40 years’ time.
5.5 out of 10
1. Father Bacchus
2. Focus X
4. Amok In Kindergarten
5. All Hens On Deck
6. Le Tango
8. Talk Of The Clown
9. Message Magic
10. X Roads