American rock fans probably remember Dutch band Focus best for their second album, Focus II (aka Moving Waves and its breakout instrumental hit, “Hocus Pocus.” That 1971 single featured band founder, Hammond organist, and flautist Thijs van Leer wildly yodeling in falsetto over a driving prog rock jam. While they had European success with a follow-up instrumental, “Sylvia,” Focus quickly disintegrated into a group of on-again, off-again changing lineups without cohesion or direction.
In 2001, van Leer assembled a new Focus including stepson Bobby Jacobs on bass and released the revival album Focus 8 in 2002. When Focus 9/New Skin came out in 2006, Pierre van der Linden became the current drummer. Now, van Leer, Jacobs, and van der Linden are joined by guitarist Menno Gootjes, a veteran of a short-lived 1993 incarnation of the group. This is the band on the new album, X, a collection of 10 mostly instrumentals that are quirky, if middle of the road prog rock and art/rock melodies.
The album opens with “Father Bachus,” a joyously raucous Jethro Tull flavored track in which each of the players get a moment to introduce themselves and remind us this is the same band once responsible for “Hocus Pocus.” But beyond the flute lines and comic non-verbal vocal articulations on “All Hens on Deck,” few tunes to follow are cut from the same cloth.
For example, “Focus 10″ and “Amok in Kindergarten” show the band’s jazz/rock fusion side and are very evocative of what was going on in the mid-’70s. One standout, “Le Tango,” features surprising sensitive English lyrics sung by Van Leer with acoustic guitar work from Gootjes supported by syncopated rhythms and almost Middle Eastern tones. How about an old-fashioned lilting Celtic jig? That’s “Talk of the Clown.” Then, almost New Age whale song is the musical bed for “Hoeratio” in which van Leer first recites Dutch lines about, well, I don’t know, before the group bursts into dramatic heavy rock. The final cut, “X Roads,” is the group’s tour de force with driving percussion, sophisticated bass lines, hot guitar work, and a spoken word English-language verse about being at the crossroads of life.
As only a download version of the album was available for review, beyond the publicity surrounding the Roger Dean oil painting on the cover, I have more questions than answers about the background to this album. To my ears, it’s a collection where the second half is the better half with more distinctive arrangements and melodies that permit the players to make fully realized statements. Still, the album is more interesting than impressive, full of promise and potential, but is essentially competent and carefully crafted with only occasional flashes of musical magic. If such things still existed, this one would be a good pick from a cutout bin.