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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dutch Total Football Becomes Dutch Total Music, 11 Feb 2011
This review is from: Focus 3 (Audio CD)
It's about time I got around to reviewing this! 'Focus 3' is, for many fans, the album that best defines the Dutch band Focus. Along with 'Moving Waves' and (perhaps to a slightly lesser extent) 'Hamburger Concerto', it captures them at their most innovative and dynamic. Almost 40 years on, it still sounds genuinely progressive.

Recorded in the summer of 1972, its background is interesting***. Bands at the time (especially prog bands, a genre into which Focus fitted, albeit loosely) used to block-book months of studio time in which they could rehearse their intricate time signatures, grow their beards, overdub everything until they sounded like a 40-piece orchestra and generally go about the business of developing their tracks (for no self-respecting prog band recorded mere "songs") slowly and organically. Hell, they could spend days just getting the right vibe. In July 1972, however, Focus simply turned up, laid out their kit and tore the studio to shreds with some of the most astonishing virtuosity ever captured on vinyl. Taking just four days from start to finish, most of 'Focus 3' was recorded live in the studio; lots of it (including virtually all of Anonymous II) was improvised. These guys really were absolute masters at what they did and 'Focus 3' finds them at the top of their game.

As usual with Focus, 'Focus 3' synthesises a whole raft of musical ideas and influences - jazz, rock, classical, avante-gard, medieval - into a collection of pieces that are wholly original and refreshingly different. Opener 'Round Goes the Gossip...' begins with Pierre van der Linden's signature drum intro (as used on countless tv ads ever since) before building into a jazzy, impatient-sounding main section which is alleviated by a gossamer-light middle eight in which van Leer quotes from Homer's The Illiad (and why not?). Akkermans's dreamy, Debussy-esque 'Love, Remembered' is next, followed by the glorious 'Sylvia', an absolute masterpiece from van Leer and the hit single that broke them into the mainstream. 'Carnival Fugue' begins slowly (although I suppose there's a clue in the title) before progressing into a bright, summery, Hammond-driven wig out that perfectly captures the happy, playful side of their music.

If the first four tracks are outstanding it's the title track 'Focus 3' and 'Answers? Questions! Questions? Answers!' where the band really begin to pick up the pace and put some distance between themselves and their contemporaries. Both tracks were improvised within an overall framework and this allows all four of them to cut loose and show what they can do. But this never becomes improvisation just for the sake of it; melody and structure are never sacrificed and their virtuosity never becomes mere showing off. The key to great improvisation is the old jazz adage of 'take and build' and they do this without once falling into the enormous elephant trap labeled 'Self Indulgence'.

This creativity reaches its apotheosis in 'Anonymous II', a 26 minute epic which sprawled over two sides of the original vinyl release. A magnum opus version of 'Anonymous' from their first album, 'Anonymous II' was recorded live and in one take. All four of them take a turn in the spotlight before returning to the opening theme to close the song. The way they pass the baton from one to the other without missing a beat is a wonder to behold and if you think that a drum solo, let alone a bass guitar solo, can never be a joy to listen to, then wrap your ears around this. These four knew each others' music inside out and the spontaneous whoops and cheers in the background demonstrate just how much fun they were having.

And how do you top that? With a spot of medieval lute music, of course! Akkerman's preoccupation with the English countryside, and in particular his love of Julian Bream, finds musical expression in 'Elspeth of Nottingham' which comes complete with birdsong to provide a lovely pastoral ending to the album.

As I suggested at the start, picking the definitive Focus album is a tricky business and although it's a close call, for my money it's probably 'Focus 3'. If Focus were best defined as the ultimate fusion band, then this is the ultimate fusion album. It contains everything that made Focus such a unique and inspirational musical force in the 1970s and which makes their music resonate so timelessly today. The individual talents on display are simply awesome: keyboardist and flautist Thijs van Leer was on an incredible roll as a composer, Jan Akkerman alternates between blistering fret-work and the lightest of touches, Bert Ruiter's bass is fluid and seamless and he and Pierre van der Linden combine to make one of the most intuitive rhythm sections in rock history.

Rather like the way the Dutch World Cup teams of the 1970s blew everyone away with their Total Football, Focus mix free-form expressionism and individual virtuosity into a joyous Total Music. For Cruyff, Neeskens, Rensenbrink and van der Kerkhoff, read Akkerman, van Leer, Ruiter and van der Linden. And, rather like Dutch football, music rarely got this good again.

***Ok, it's possibly only interesting if you're a 40-something bloke who remembers the glory days of 70s rock, but if you're reading this I assume that's you too!
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Showing 1-7 of 7 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 21 Dec 2011 13:15:30 GMT
Luksy Ann says:
I think Anonymous 2 is perhaps the finest piece of prog rock ever recorded. Popular music, as you say, has yet to reach such heights again. I pity and disdain the kids today when I hear what they listen to.

In reply to an earlier post on 5 Feb 2012 14:17:56 GMT
Jill says:
Luke,
Try this: http://grooveshark.com/#!/album/Focus+In+Concert/7173241. The version of Anon 2 will blow you away!

Posted on 30 Oct 2012 12:37:39 GMT
R. Pievaitis says:
hi all ,what a fantastic review of this much overlooked album.i love progressive music(note the distinction between what i write here and the over worked genre of "prog-rock")and ever since i was 10 in 72 upon hearing sylvia on the top 30 sunday night chart show i was hookd on focus.
i managed to save up and buy the sylvia 45 rpm single and loved the b side house of the king-reminding me of jethro tull somewhat and confusing many others too i reckon !it was also used as the theme music for a uk science show with the then ubiquitous dr magnus pyke-he was the typical elderly mad scientist figure of popular fantasy fun.now what was that dam show called ????? "dont ask me " or something similar was it ?
i then heard the follow up single the amazingly heavy riffing "hocus pocus",those yoddles and the drum mid sections were just so ott but what a song superb. so on my many record buying trips in the mid 70,s when i was in my teenage years and discovering the wider world of album music not just listening to slade any longer,i was always looking out for the focus album that contained all the singles.i was always torn between this album and moving waves and never actually bought either !
move forward 40 years ahaha and i now own moving waves and on the strength of this review was so impressed that i pressed "buy now".so at the grand old age of just turned 50 i finally will get to hear in full the best music ever made under the progressive banner(yes i love yes ,genesis ,elp floyd et al)but for me focus represent all that is good about progressive music-style,class content and melody plus that certain something you cannot define !no noodling for noodlings sake(bow your head mr s vai !!!!)again JA can play one note and it contains more soul and emotion than 10,000 of mr vais bee stings !
how odd is it that todays guitarists are reknowned for their speed yet folk like JA, gilmour and kossoff could get more out of 3 notes played together than an entire album by said vai or such other modern luminaries ???? what has gone wrong with todays music and i am not refering to commercial music here (god forbid !!!) ?
thank you ever so much for giving me the n push to finally buy this superb album.what shall i buy next in the focus cannon ?i own moving waves and 3 thats all.
richard.

In reply to an earlier post on 30 Oct 2012 20:50:02 GMT
Free Radical says:
Thanks Richard - it's nice to be appreciated! I suggest you try 'Focus at the Rainbow' next, a live album from 1973. It's a brilliant recording of the band on top form. Happy listening! Mike

In reply to an earlier post on 30 Aug 2013 07:50:03 BDT
Wow. just checked this, Jill. It's amazing!

Posted on 28 Oct 2013 20:58:15 GMT
What a wonderful, informed and insightful review. I recently took out my old Focus3 Vinyl to play after a gap of about 40 years to discover I still knew every track intimately and loved the album as much as ever. Now I cannot stop playing it and have ordered a new pristine LP from the Netherlands. This review reveals a real depth of knowledge and understanding and has given me a new perspective on an album I would have to rate as one of the most musically creative I have ever listened to. Love the sharp wit, humour and analogy with the Dutch football team of 1974. Cheers and thanks!

In reply to an earlier post on 2 Nov 2013 15:24:33 GMT
Free Radical says:
Thanks Michael. It's still rocking after all these years, isn't it?
Mike
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