Review Summary: A concerto has never tasted this good.
Focus is Holland's proudest progressive export, founded in 1970 by the classically trained keyboardist/flutist/vocalist/composer Thijs van Leer and the melodic and distinctive virtuoso guitarist Jan Akkerman. The other mainstay of the band was drummer Pierre van der Linden, while bassists came and went with nearly every new album. Both previous albums Moving Waves
and Focus III
were steeped in the extensive bluesy jazz rock-driven jam style, containing long riveting tracks loaded with blistering fretwork and towering interplay with flute and organ, all filled to the brim of neo-classical motifs. Their major fault was that the long instrumental jams could have been shortened, while some short tracks could have been extended. On the other hand, Hamburger Concerto
is really more polished and more structured composition-wise. There are clear themes highlighted all throughout the tracks, and the instrumental arrangements are top-notch.
Their music is almost fully instrumental since van Leer’s vocals are not used for singing but for adding whistling, yodelling, laments and extra sounds, which add lots of charm and character. Focus’ second effort Moving Waves
turned out to be the first in a trilogy of classic albums (continued with Focus III
and Hamburger Concerto
). It helped to establish the definitive band's signature sound, brought them international acclaim, and a hit of both side of the Atlantic, called Hocus Pocus
. It's one of the most successful and well-known progressive rock songs of all time. The track was based in a driving hard rock riff that was frequently relieved by an infectious, wacky yodelling sequence by van Leer. While quite untypical of Focus’ music, it was to serve them well in their live shows.
Focus' overall representative sound is split halfway between the infusion of classical sensibilities and van Leer’s signature keyboards and flute straining out through the music, combined with some languid, uplifting sections of jazzy guitar or flat-out electric, pyrotechnic blues-rock stomps, which can be described as Zappa meets Santana. Akkerman also feels at home when it comes to subdue, and perform classical guitar licks on his medieval lute to explore the pastoral and medieval pieces. Jumping cleverly from classical interludes to jazzy roars, the band took the best of both worlds to create an exquisite, melodic and unique type of symphonic prog rock that to some extent sounds like a crossover between Camel (their soft, ethereal, melodic side) and Caravan (jazz-rock side) with a sprinkling of Jethro Tull. There are said to be similarities with Emerson, Lake and Palmer, but van Leer wasn’t a heavy Moog user and his Hammond organ playing was more subtle and jazzy, somewhat like Camel’s Peter Bardens. As much as they were part of progressive rock’s origins, Focus can been seen as influential forerunners of jazz-fusion, as well as many other big 70’s proggers.
is the crowning achievement of Focus' career. The main appeal here is the record’s consistency, where every new track adds something new to the overall style without tramping the same ground twice. Focus was reinforcing their progressive essence and preparing to rock a bit further than they had done so far; You can tell by the rough sound production for the lead guitar and Hammond organ inputs that Focus was willing to sound tighter. Another very noticeable aspect is the use of heavily overdubbed keyboards; Along with the almost ever-present Hammond, van Leer put a lot of effort at integrating the mellotron and the Moog synthesizer in many of the most grandiose passages of the album, creating a genuine orchestral atmosphere for the overall sound.
The album begins with Delitae Musicae
, a short Renaissance-flavoured intro, which instantly sets the classical mood of the album. Harem Scarem
is a strong reminder of the old combination of rocking energy and light humour that had worked so well in Hocus Pocus
. The song is of particular note because of its jubilant nature. The enchanting atmospheric La Cathedrale de Strasbourg
brings an ethereal exercise on sweet melancholy, originating from a few gentle piano chords and haunting church organ that build the subtle main motif. Baroque Bach-like harpsichord introduces Birth. Van Leer is stating the theme on organ and flute as well as providing haunting interludes in between Jan’s emotive guitar work. Hamburger Concerto
is an innovative piece in six movements with flashes of classical and symphonic prog. Each movement was named after the different stages of making a hamburger. The tuneful title track remains one of Focus' most accomplished pieces in terms of construction. It’s more than just another obligatory lengthy instrumental. It’s an elegant concerto, full of beautiful motifs, linked fluidly by tight arrangements. The song continues the classical mood set in Delitae Musicae
. It never becomes overbearing, and gives each member of the band room to show their talents, closing off a superb album in superb fashion. To all real progressive fans, Focus is essential.