“A hint of the yodelling weirdness of Hocus Pocus might have pepped up the project… but they reckon it would be needy to try too hard, so don’t”: Focus’ Focus 12

55 years in, there’s a dependable charm to the way Thijs Van Leer keeps his quartet’s ambitions moderate

Focus – Focus 12
(Image: © Spirit of Unicorn Music)

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The indefatigable Focus continue to craft effective prog-friendly instrumentals, 55 years on from their formation. There have been stoppages and reunions across that time, and founder member Thijs Van Leer now leads a quartet including long-term drummer Pierre van der Linden, guitarist Menno Gootjes (a contributor since the 90s) and bassist Udo Pannekeet (a mere eight years in the saddle).

While the latter pair produced this 12th studio album, it’s very much Van Leer’s baby. His keyboards and flute are all over these pieces like white on rice. Since Jan Akkerman’s departure after their unlikely commercial heyday had faded, Focus has been his ship to steer.

The 75-year-old orchestrates two modes here: there are impish flurries full of switchback changes, which offer pass-the-parcel ascendancy to guitar riffs or keyboard curveballs or flute warbles, and there are quiet, piano-led meditations.

Focus Fjord Focus - YouTube Focus Fjord Focus - YouTube
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Focus 12 plainly lacks the scale and presence of a Moving Waves or Hamburger Concerto; it seems content to keep its ambitions moderate. Yet there’s a charm to that. Indisputably dated as it is, lacking any interest in developments in, say, electronica, its organic warmth gives off its own charisma.

The more reflective Van Leer piano pieces require patience… but suggest he’s been getting into Chopin

A hint of the yodelling weirdness of Hocus Pocus or the deceptive drive of Sylvia might have pepped up the project, but its relaxedness tips over into a form of robustness. Focus reckon it would be needy to try too hard, and so don’t.

Fjord Focus is a fine example of their current ease of movement. It kicks happily into jazz fusion, with Gootjes getting plenty of dextrous exercise. All Aboard, guided by a mischievous bass line, is breezy and bright, like something holidaying from a Weather Report album. At least until everyone yields the floor to a grinding guitar section, which is as explicit a nod as the record gives to ‘classic-era Focus.’

Focus 13 - YouTube Focus 13 - YouTube
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There’s a greater emphasis on inherent lilt and sway in the confusingly-named Focus 13, where it’s lighters aloft until a closing squall of volume and energy. And the captivating Meta Indefinata floats elegantly in an ambient zone which evokes Peter Green playing with Stanley Clarke.

The more muted, reflective Van Leer piano pieces require patience from the listener, but suggest he’s been getting into Chopin. Born To Be With You is almost too overtly melancholy to support its own weight. Then there’s Bowie, the title of which inevitably raises the question of whether it’s a homage to Rick Wakeman’s playing on Life On Mars?

With a Roger Dean sleeve and an abundance of retro allure, this is a dependable dozenth.

Focus 12 is on sale now via Spirit of Unicorn Music in CD and vinyl editions.

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has written about music, films, and art for innumerable outlets. His new book The Velvet Underground is out April 4. He has also published books on Lou Reed, Elton John, the Gothic arts, Talk Talk, Kate Moss, Scarlett Johansson, Abba, Tom Jones and others. Among his interviewees over the years have been David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Bryan Ferry, Al Green, Tom Waits & Lou Reed. Born in North Wales, he lives in London.