Focus And Friends - Focus 8.5 / Beyond The Horizon album review

Bossa nova and 16th century classical? Focus go far out

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Given that Focus X came out in 2012, followed by Golden Oldies in 2014, you might be wondering why the Dutch prog veterans named this latest release Focus 8.5. The material here was recorded in 2005 while the band was on tour for Focus 8. Between live dates they went into the studio with producer Marvio Ciribelli and a group of Brazilian musicians and this was the result. At the time Focus was composed of flautist Thijs Van Leer, the sole founding member left in the roster, plus Pierre Van Der Linden on drums, Bobby Jacobs on bass and Jan Dumee on guitar and vocals.

A new palette of latin rock colours for Focus’ prog.

The guest musicians are big players in the worlds of Brazilian jazz and samba, although they’re likely to be unfamiliar names beyond South America. That’s not to say they don’t do sterling work and they bring a new palette of colours to Focus’s prog. Van Leer’s flute is still a key voice in the band and is usually in charge of delivering the melody, but beneath that there’s a bubbling cauldron of different influences.

Focus Zero is unashamedly expansive, moving from folk rock to a swinging piano, with featured drum and bass spots and a great guitar solo from guest Sergio Chiavazzoli. Hola, Como Estas? suggests the latin rock of Santana, with Van Der Linden trading drum licks with Brazilian drummer Marcio Bahia. There is clearly a strong chemistry between the two players – Talking Rhythms features just the pair of them, first trading licks behind their kits, then engaging in a Konnakol (South Indian vocal percussion) duet. Rock 5 proves something of a misnomer as that starts out as one of the mellowest tracks on the album, although it does kick up a gear as it progresses. Millennium sees more spirited exchanges between Van Der Linden and Bahia, accompanied here by percussionists Amaro Junior and Flavio Santos. Those layered, syncopated Afro Cuban beats are a world away from Focus’s native Holland but this album is all about bringing disparate styles together – bossa nova singer Thais Motta lends her smooth vocals to Surrexit Christus, which is based on a piece by the 16th century Dutch composer Jacob Clemens Non Papa.

It’s remarkable that Focus is still touring and recording as they approach their fiftieth anniversary, but the biggest surprise about Focus 8.5 is that the band waited so long to share this music. It’s undeniably a stylistic departure from the energetic rock that characterises their best known output – and not a single yodel in sight – but those latin rhythms are infectious.

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