FOCUS - Burning a Line

BURNING A LINE THROUGH HUM-DRUM MEDIOCRITY. TONY STEWART ON THE EVOLUTION OF THE BAND THAT BROKE THE BRITISH/U.S. STRANGLEHOLD ON INTERNATIONAL ROCK


FOCUS - UK Newspaper Article - March 31, 1973


ASK FOCUS THEMSELVES to explain their success in this country and they will more often than not reply that it's because they've sought a new and spontaneous music, bearing little or no resemblance to anything else in British or American rock. They will seldom deny, however, that a major source of inspiration comes from classical composers, and an involvement with jazz.

As their later recordings - "Moving Waves" and "Focus 3" - illustrate, the band inbreeds these various influences, but still appear at least partly original and certainly outstanding in substance.
Focus - BURNING A LINEThe result is: Focus are burning a line through hum-drum mediocrity, and felling a good few people with what can only be described as superb music. Quite simply, it is precisely what hungry rock fanatics have been grasping at hopefully for some years. There's the sparkling romanticism of their melodies, and the constant development of themes and criss-cross instrumentation, However, this interpretation of their own ideas wasn't embraced in their style in the early '70s, as heard on their first album "In And Out Of Focus' (Polydor 2344 003).

The album smacks of our Netherland neighbours, picking up on past glories in British rock (such as the Beatles), mingling in a few Shadows' influences, and rarely opting for any thing which could be clearly described as inventive. The blending of melodies and vocals is reminiscent of our Fab Four, and the sprinkling of a few apt piano phrases would not be unsuited to Dave Brubeck.

The result was an unsuccessful and badly-recorded mixture of tunes. There are simple pop ditties like "Black Beauty", a vague similarity with Yes famed chord rundowns for "Sugar Island" and lame vocals on "Happy Nightmare (Mescaline)". A cut called "Why Dream" even hankers after the organ passage of Uriah Heep's "July Morning". In many ways they sounded like any old back up band, who'd just quit "Hair". Yet, in all fairness, there were on other tracks indications that maybe Focus wouldn't long remain an inconspicuous out fit. For a start there were "Focus", instrumental and vocal versions. And "Anonymous, - later to be reincarnated on the third set. But on the original recording they failed to develop the theme, and seldom did either Jan Akkerman or Thijs van Leer venture out of the rhythm section.

The first album hasn't sold, and it's no headache to fathom out why. The band as it was then, with van Leer, Akkerman, Hans Cleuver on drums and Martijn Dresden, not only lacked an essential co-ordination but also appeared as if each man was hell-bent-for-leather proving he didn't need anyone else. The passages were stilted and, all in all, a bloody great bore. Main fault seems to be they were too restricted, and consequently uncomfortable in such a limited structure. And the improvisation technique they have now developed was, then, only a gleam in Jan Akkerman's eye.

BY "MOVING WAVES" (Polydor 2931 002) there had been more than a few changes in the band. Musically it was a turning point, and a flat contradiction of the belief that rock in Europe has no hope of bettering what we have here. More than that, it was a journey into musical concepts, freedom and complex structures, acting as a guide to the four musicians' own ingenuity. Dresden and Cleuver had left. In on drums came Pierre van der Linden, long-time associate of Akkerman's and regarded as possibly the finest drummer In Europe.

From the opening lick in "Hocus Pocus" you're hit right between the lugs. Throughout there's fire, authority and compelling passages of fine guitar plucking, flute and keyboards. The hurricane rhythm section often makes me wonder why bassist Cyriel Havermans left. Shame. Although there had been remarkable changes in the interim period between "In And Out Of Focus", when I believe Akkerman was brought in at the last minute, this album isn't completely removed from the first. There are tangible links between the two, such as they way the first side consists of five numbers, the longest being 6.35 minutes in time.

Van Leer and Akkerman rose as the front men - each swapping lead breaks - but always maintaining a sympathetically delicate precision, Van Leer rolling out the patterns on piano for the title track, and Akkerman dawdling beautifully along with the main line of "Focus II". Each track is seemingly a natural step from the preceeding cut. It was perhaps the whole of side two, especially "Eruption", that adhered closest to what the band wished to present. A suite of music - a rock parallel (engineered by Thijs) to the classical masters he'd become acquainted with during his studies from the age of ten. Complex it definitely is. Themes change quickly along with moods, resulting in perhaps their finest composition. A degree of perfection had been achieved, which as Thijs explain ed, had not yet reached its limits.

"FOCUS 3" (Polydor 2659 016) is the only real example of expression Focus have attempted. Apart from "Sylvia", it may not be as commercial as "Moving Waves", basically because it's more introverted. With Bert Ruiter on bass, Focus here are examining themselves more closely and, in all honesty, this is an album which must be subjected to the turntable innumerable times to fully appreciate their aims. For the first time in recordings, there is a more harmonious atmosphere. Ruiter contributes a lot more than most bass-men, often swopping his musical alliance from Pierre to Jan or Thijs. Seldom does he revert to a role of simple anchorage. He has more imagination than that.

And their ideas work better, viz a viz the way they link "Focus III" to "Answers Questions", or the true rock improvisation of "Anonymous II". People have wrongly compared Focus to ELP and Jethro Tull. But that view doesn't take into account the basic mechanism of the band, which I believe comes closer to Cream than anything else. The major and important difference is that Cream worked from blues, and Focus originate from the classical form. But the end result is still rock; free wheelin' improvisation following quite loose guide lines of composition. You won't hear Focus play the same piece twice, though it may be called "Anonymous" each time. For material Focus rely on the Van Leer-Akkerman partnership. Take them away and the band would be finished.

AS CAN BE seen from Thijs van Leer's solo set "Introspection" (CBS 564589). he still has an affection for classical music in its purest form. What he does on flute is completely removed from Focus. There's no huffing-and-puffing to blow Ian Anderson down, but a straight technique that displays his complete command of the instrument. - Nor will he blow your little brains out; he's subtle. Using orchestration and the wonderful soprano talents of Letty de Jong, this is a relaxed set. Van Leer obviously loves melodies more than technique, interplaying with the sopranist quite frequently. He will gently prod your imagination.

In contrast Jan Akkerman, on his set "Profile" (available on Dutch import), proves to be an erratic player outside the confines of Focus-a strong guitarist who will dominate the recording all the way through The first side, under the heading of "Fresh Air", seems to depict the restlessness and anxiety he felt while living in Amsterdam, represented by a disturbing sonic battle with himself. Unlike Thijs van Leer, Akkerman uses the assistance of Pierre and Bert but still fails to conjure up the imagery he was aiming for. The track listing would suggest the wonders of the universe but, in fact, is only a turbulent storm. The second side, however, is a revelation. He uses the lute, acoustic guitar and electric, presenting maybe one of his best compositions "Blue Boy". This side of "Profile" shows Akkerman's far reaching abilities, and introduces us to aspects of his playing normally without a place in the band. For example "Stick" and the dirty blues he grinds out. What a retrospective look at Focus albums does show is that there's still a good deal more to come out of the band.

All the files in this page was kindly sent by Patrick Towey

 

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