Review – Focus – Focus 12 – by John Wenlock-Smith

Focus need little or no introduction to most folks, I would imagine. Although most of that Knowledge will be a familiarity with either Hocus Pocus, Sylvia or House Of The King, all of which come from their heyday in the early 1970’s, some 50 plus years ago. Well, Focus are still very much an ongoing concern with Thijs Van Leer at the helm and still very active for a 75 year old man, Pierre Van Der Linden is actually 78 and still a very powerful drummer.

This album is unsurprisingly Focus’s 12th official studio album, although there have been a few more recent live releases like ‘Live At The Robin’, ‘Live In Europe’, from around 2010, and the excellent ‘Live in Rio’ which had a bonus album of the Focus numbered tracks Focus 1 to Focus 11, entitled ‘Completely Focused’ and was a great addition to their catalogue.

Which brings us back to this new album from the Dutch veterans and possibly Holland’s most legendary band. ‘Focus 12’ is an album of ten tracks mostly written by Thijs Van Leer but produced by the younger guard of band members Udo Panakeet (bass) and Menno Gootljes (guitar), who also contribute two compositions on the album. This fresh perspective is all part of keeping the music fresh and exciting. However I’m not entirely convinced that this works the way it should or could have, let’s listen and I’ll try to explain my feelings about this album more fully.

The album begins with Fjord Focus, which I guess is not about the long standing production model of vehicle. Well it certainly is a sprightly little number and one that sets you up for what is to follow. Which, in this case, is Focus 13, this is the latest in the continuing series of numbered instrumental tracks. Again, this is certainly pleasant enough but initially fails to really ignite and capture the listener. There’s a nice guitar tone and lines but, thankfully, the latter part of the track gains in both pace and intensity which really redeems things. Bela opens with a graceful piano melody which really shines but is then overtaken by a highly mixed guitar line from Menno that ties into the piano melody, Thijs then switching to Hammond organ to provide a counterpoint melody. This track is good, if a tad pedestrian in its pacing, it has a really great sound though.

Meta Indefinita has some great tones including a plucked bass part playing harmonics, some dirty growling guitar parts and the percolating percussion of Pierre Van Der Linden. I suspect this is the totally improvised track on the album, as it seems to fit the bill. Thijs Van Leer’s flute floats over the top of it all and Menno adds more countrified licks, which is a good touch and works well, it’s pretty good, all told, and definitely shows good intentions. All Aboard is an even tempo piece with a good bass line from Udo and some fine, fluid guitar from Menno which morphs into a harder section that closes the track out. Born To Be You is a brief piano vignette that, while pleasant enough, adds little to what has gone before, even when the rest of the band join in. Nura is initially pedestrian until around the ninety second mark when it comes alive with real power and energy to become something a little more special and interesting.

Bowie fares a lot better as it is a bit more interesting, Whether it is a tribute to David Bowie or something entirely different is really not clear as the bulk of the track is a long solo piano piece from Thijs, it is beautifully performed though, it must be said. Quite why Focus have chosen this approach is slightly baffling to me as many folks will not listen long enough to enjoy the changes of pacing. The penultimate track, Positano, is another case in point, the initial part leading you into a false sense of security with mainly gentle guitar lines and piano before, around the two minute mark, everything changes for the better as a crashing guitar riff enters the fray, bass and drums pile in as does Thijs’ flute. Again, it’s all very good indeed but a bit late in the day, I expect excitement nearer the start of the track. Gaia is the album’s final track and this starts with a sultry organ part and some great ensemble playing with little guitar fills from Menno being added. It is not until halfway through that the track gains any urgency or even intensity as, until then, it has been very pedestrian. Menno adds some almost country style guitar fills which enlivens things a little but it’s all a little to late to save the track for me.

Now I must say that I am working from a download and the final album may flow a lot better. I guess I won’t know till I get my own CD and see for myself but, based on this, I’m sad to say that this album fails to capture the imagination fully and is not really up to the stands one expects of a band like Focus. The cover from Roger Dean is, of course, splendid but I just wanted more from this album somehow…

Released 5th July, 2024.

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One thought on “Review – Focus – Focus 12 – by John Wenlock-Smith”

  1. The opening track is “Fjord Focus,” not “Ford Focus” – hence being a pun on the latter, not a quote thereof. This is the only theme I have heard thus far from the album. The playing is of a very high quality, as expected. My only problem with this tune is that about midway through it becomes overly complex. Focus in the early ’70s found (for me) the perfect balance between genius and accessibility. “Hocus Pocus,” “Sylvia,” and “House of the King” were brilliant compositions with HOOKS, resulting in that rare crossroads where art and commercialism meet. “Moving Waves” and “Focus 3” were awarded gold album status in 1973 for good reason.

    In recent years Focus has been producing a lot of complex music that is hardly hummable. While I like intricate themes (though it’s hard to whistle any tune from, say, Gentle Giant’s “Octopus” LP from 1972, or Hatfield and the North’s “The Rotter’s Club” LP from 1974), the best prog tunes (again, to me) are the ones that also become beloved across the globe because they are MEMORABLE. It’s hard to remember something that is so densely ornate, however ingenious.

    I suspect part of the problem is that modal music has been pretty thoroughly explored, and if one releases a simple tune this day and age, copyright infringement over a melody already explored (and recorded) will ensue. Going into dissonant counterpoint a la Focus of late will help to thwart that legal snare.

    At this point Thijs and company can play whatever they want. It is evident that they enjoy what they are doing, and invite us to do the same. If the masses don’t, a select few will. Good to catch them live while Thijs and Pierre are still with us.

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