Album Review: Focus - X
In many ways, nothing has changed in all the years rock music has been around. Especially in the world of progressive rock, the past is the past, the present, and the future. Several generations of bands have arisen in the wake of the originators, recreating the sounds they grew up loving, all the while many of the first wave of prog rock bands continued to soldier on, making the music that at one time was cutting edge. Focus is one of those bands who have survived, in one form or another, to serve as an elder statesman of prog. Despite more than forty years having passed since their debut album, myriad lineup changes, and a decade-plus hiatus in the middle, Focus is once again rolling along, playing the kind of prog lifted straight from the 70's.
It doesn't take long to realize what you're getting into with”X”. Seconds in, flutes and organs flow from the speakers, in the kind of cresting crescendo that hasn't been heard in popular circles since disco came along and destroyed the world. Flutes may not be rocking, nor is the hopelessly cheesy spoken word introduction of the band (Rhetorical question: why does a band need to introduce themselves on their own album? Shouldn't listeners know what they put on?), but there's something about the rollicking rhythm section that ties the bits together. While I would never call “King Bachus” a classic opening tune, it's an enjoyable foray into this crazy cloud of prog.
The quasi-title track, “Focus 10”, shifts gears completely by slowing down into a jazzy take on the blues. Guitars and flutes take turns leading the way through five minutes of instrumental wandering, which while all pleasant to take in, doesn't feel like it comes together as a proper song. There is no proverbial tie that binds.
“Victoria” is a more effective use of the platform, marrying sections of somber guitar and piano work with moments that is only a turn of the gain dial away from sounding like a lost Trans-Siberian Orchestra piece. The melody played is uplifting, and a beautiful bit of music that shows why it's a welcome sight to have some of the old guard still around.
While the rest of “X” contains plenty of well played, enjoyable music, there isn't much else that stands up and grabs you. The stabbing guitars in the opening of “All Hens On Deck” are lifted right from the old days of rock and roll, but they get lost when the song moves into a section with odd scatted vocals trying to follow where the music goes. Why these pop up after so much instrumental music is a mystery to me, as is what the band thought they were adding to the song.
“Le Tango” is a better use of vocals, ostensibly a torch song, until the guitars kick in and run through the usual proggy middle eight. A stronger melody would have improved the song, but it's enjoyable enough for what it is. “Hoeratio” is not, with the overly dramatic spoken word reading sounding like a bad joke put to tape. Perhaps it would be fitting for the stage, but on a record, it fails in every respect.
By the time you get to the end of “X”, one thing is clear; Focus is certainly not afraid of being progressive. They mix and match sounds like whims, with no two bringing the same palate to the table. That's a welcome change from the majority of albums I listen to, where everything from the tempo to the amp settings are unchanged throughout, but change for change's sake doesn't mean much. “X” is diverse, for sure, but most of the approaches are scuttled before the band can figure out how best to use them. There are those moments of beauty, like the solemn guitar lines that pen “Message Magic”, but there are too few songs on the record. Forty years ago, this would have been groundbreaking music, but it's not anymore, and Focus' reputation can't save it.