In & Out of Focus (1970, 36.04) ***½/TTFocus (vocal)
House of the King
Happy Nightmare (Mescaline)
Moving Waves [a.k.a. Focus 2] (1971, 41.44) ****½/TTT½
Le Clochard ("Bread")
Orfeus, Answer, Orfeus
Answer, Pupilla, Tommy
Answer, The Bridge
|Euridice, Dayglow, Endless Road
Answer, Orfeus, Euridice
Hamburger Concerto (1974, 40.09) ***/TT½
La Cathedrale de Strasbourg
One for the Road
Ship of Memories (1976, recorded 1970-73, 36.39) ****/TTTP's March
Can't Believe My Eyes
Out of Vesuvius
Red Sky at Night
Spoke the Lord Creator
Ship of Memories
Masters From the Vaults (2004, recorded 1970?-76?, 62.19) **½/½
House of the King
Cathedral de Strasbourg
Focus are widely known as the Netherlands' biggest prog export; a good draw on UK and US stages in the early '70s, they actually produced less 'classic' work than you might expect. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that they recorded just one (almost) flawless album, their second, Moving Waves. They actually formed in 1969, pieced together from several other Dutch acts, quickly releasing their first album, In & Out of Focus, utilising a little Mellotron, along with keyboard player Thijs Van Leer's prime instrument, the organ. It's a bit of a hodgepodge, to be honest, opening with several vocal tracks (including the anti-Castro rant, Sugar Island, removed from the US version), which were not the band's forté. As for the Mellotron, there's an ordinary strings part on the jazzy Happy Nightmare (Mescaline) and a more overt part on one of the album's best tracks, Focus (Instrumental).
The following year, Focus released the storming Moving Waves (Focus II in the Netherlands), complete with 'novelty' hit single Hocus Pocus, fondly remembered by many for Van Leer's bizarre yodelling. The album features the full six-minute plus version of the track, which belies its 'novelty' status by actually being a great piece of music with some truly stupendous playing from guitarist Jan Akkerman. Second track in, Le Clochard is where the Mellotronic interest kicks in; a gorgeous classical guitar and 'Tron strings instrumental, less than two minutes long, this surely has to be classed as one of the Mellotron Classics. After another beautiful (if 'Tron-less) instrumental, Janis and the title track, the album's only real weak point, comes another jazz-inflected instrumental, Focus II (the band have recorded eight of these 'theme' tracks to date), with some more 'Tron strings. I would guess that they were using a Mark II on these sessions, recorded at the same Dutch studio as their debut, but it's hard to tell.
Side two of the album is taken up with the superb Eruption, a multi-part piece with all the band's disparate influences thrown into the melting-pot to create a unique piece of music. The Mellotron drifts in and out of the piece, probably only appearing for a minute or two of the track's 22 minutes, but so effectively that it hardly matters. The music is stunning, with common themes coming and going and fiery playing from all quarters. This track demonstrates why I shouldn't copy tracklistings from reissue CDs; the multifarious parts of the track are listed differently on the LP and CD, so the listing above is from the original release.
Focus 3 (****), while a good album, falls rather short of great; a sprawling double, much of it sounds improvised and there's definitely some excess baggage that could easily be lost, although it does include one of their best pieces ever (and their biggest hit), Sylvia, with Van Leer sticking principally to the organ. After a live album, they dug out the 'Tron (an M400 this time) for their next lot of studio sessions, which were abandoned after internecine squabbling amongst band members, although they salvaged some of their work for their next studio album proper, Hamburger Concerto. I have to say that I find this a rather lesser piece of work than its illustrious predecessors, although it definitely has its moments. There's some 'Tron to be heard on the title track (which sadly comes nowhere near the heights attained on Eruption), probably on parts 1, 2 and 6.
During a lull in the band's career, the abandoned '73 sessions were exhumed and released in 1976, with a few outtakes added to bring the album up to a decent length as Ship of Memories. Listening to the tracks makes you wonder what the problem was at the time, as recounted in producer Mike Vernon's sleevenotes. There's some excellent material here, with some fine Mellotron work on several of the tracks. I have to say that I feel most of it outclasses the Hamburger Concerto material; it's certainly more digestible, with nothing exceeding the six-minute mark.
Fast-forward a few decades... In 2002, a reformed Focus, sans Akkerman, began wowing audiences in Europe and America, touring regularly and even releasing new albums. In response, various old recordings, both audio and visual, began crawling out of the woodwork, looking for a quick buck. I haven't seen the DVD version of Masters From the Vaults, but I hope to hell it's better than the CD of the same name. To be succinct, this is shit. It sounds like what it probably is: the unadulterated audio tracks from several video clips, probably recorded straight to two-track, spread over several years, with highly variable sound quality. The volume levels fluctuate not only from track to track, but also within tracks, while Hamburger Concerto has a track marker inserted about four minutes before the end, running into the following piece. Shoddy. "But what about the music?", I hear you cry. "Surely this is a Focus album?" It is, and the music itself is excellent, even the two later-period pieces, but the disc's appalling presentation (no recording dates, indeed, no sleevenotes of any consequence at all) shoots the entire project down in flames. The Mellotron? A few seconds of strings in the Hamburger Concerto excerpt, as on the studio version, proving that the band must have used one live, even if only occasionally. Focus were and are a wonderful band, but this is a complete rip-off. Avoid.
So; In & Out of Focus is good, but rather formative. Buy Moving Waves NOW, if you don't already own it; a true classic. Ship of Memories is well worth the effort, but don't spend too much on Hamburger Concerto. Both Focus 3 and Live at the Rainbow (****½) are good albums, but outside the scope of this article. Incidentally, I've heard a report of the band being sighted in a New York music shop around 1974, apparently buying an M400, although I have no idea why they picked one up in the States, especially considering that many US machines were horribly bodged by the importers, Sound Sales. So, it seems they did own one, presumably using it live, if only for a short period.
Here they are tackling Hamburger Concerto, with a nice overhead shot of a suavely leather-trousered Thijs at the M400.
See: Jan Akkerman & Kaz Lux