In And Out Of Focus / Cherry Red 2017
Snapshot of Dutch veterans’ recent past and nearest future, with not a ghost from distant palace.
It’s a bit misleading: usually, family albums are dedicated to the exploration of roots and branches, but this one concentrates – not focuses, as there’s a slight difference – on a certain collective’s current situation, highlighting various threads in the fabric of today’s ensemble rather than trying to connect present to the past. It’s also an attempt to place various players’ personalities in the spotlight because, after multiple line-up changes, the listener can get lost in many a contribution to the band’s canon… if “canon” is the right word for the 5-year span between "Focus X" and now, as refracted through the lens of alternative reality where future would lurk, too.
With 15 out of 20 tracks appearing on these two discs for the first time, there’s a lot to discover – or at least assess anew. For an aficionado, a couple of raw cuts destined for the yet-unreleased “Focus XI” might be the most exciting prospect, the translucent “Clair Obscur” an embryo of a classic-to-be, although to hear “Birds Come Fly Over (Le Tango)” with Thijs Van Leer’s grave vocals instead of guest Ivan Lins’ supple pipes which help deliver the soaring prayer of “Santa Teresa” here – previously, a Japan-only bonus – is as interesting.
Logically, with two pieces per individual musician spread across the album, each platter is given a beginning by a fresh Van Leer composition, the group originator’s flute fluttering graciously in the calls of “Let Us Wander” and “Nature Is Our Friend.” Filled with field-and-forest-sounds, they share Bach spirit with guitarist Menno Gootjes’ “Two-Part Intervention” whose acoustic lace contrasts drummer Pierre Van Der Linden’s “Spiritual Swung” and parts of the hypnotic, if energetic, “Raga Reverence” suite from SWUNG, their Leer-less side endeavor with a former bassist Bobby Jacobs. His successor Udo Pannekeet’s lissome bass, measuring the depth of his love in “Song For Yaminah” and adding vital elements to the ensemble’s aural outlook, is as impressive in its dimmed glimmer as Thijs’ organ that’s a ground for everything.
There’s poetry in these romantic numbers – sometimes literal, as in the case of epic out-take “Song For Eva” which wraps dry reciting of Lord Byron’s stanzas in hymnal piano and six-string reflection, all gaining a twang and percussive muscle along the way – whereas it’s jams from Brazilian Mosh Studios that find the main band in their most rocking mode, as unbridled as in their halcyon days, albeit erstwhile helium yodel is replaced with a Mac Rebennack-like kind of hoodoo growl now. It’s very fitting for a family album to follow the drift and change in the people’s pictures, and FOCUS’ pages succeed in doing so, capturing them at a certain point in time and moving forward.