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Class ?

Main Category: Prog Rock
Also applicable: Jazz Rock
Starting Period: The Artsy/Rootsy Years
Also active in: The Interim Years, The Punk/New Wave Years,

From Grunge To The Present Day



Disclaimer: this page is not written by from the point of view of a Focus fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Focus fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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Coming soon.



Year Of Release: 1970
Overall rating = 10

Derivative, but pleasant straightforward prog - nowhere near the sarcastic fusion of the 'classic' period.


Track listing: 1) Focus (Vocal); 2) Black Beauty; 3) Sugar Island; 4) Anonymus; 5) House Of The King; 6) Happy Nightmare (Mescaline); 7) Why Dream; 8) Focus (instrumental).

I am probably the world's biggest sucker for "immature" albums by young beginning progressive bands, because quite often, it's the earliest 'formative' period where you can find the optimal mix of "traditional" and "innovative". But the debut of Focus is just a bit too different for me to take it as a gleeful revelation; in fact, just as the band's classic period was a relative disappointment to me due to being seriously rife with filler, so this debut album was a relative disappointment as well - and why? ha! because it sounds nothing like classic Focus. Sounds like a different band altogether.

In a certain sense, it is - on here, band forefathers Jan Akkerman and Thijs van Leer play together with Martijn Dresden on bass and Hans Cleuver on drums; neither of the two guys would manage to carry on to the next album, and thus, for instance, the classic Focus drumming of Pierre van Linden you will meet here not. But the biggest difference still is that the band, just to match the album's title, move 'in and out of focus' way too frequently. To put it differently, it's an album that takes itself far too seriously, and is grossly derivative of ELP (okay, maybe the Nice - ELP had only just formed by then), Jethro Tull, and jammy blues-rock a la Cream. That latter influence persisted and spread over to the following albums, but the former two are only typical for this debut, and so, if you work your way from the later records upwards, you'll be shocked. No yodelling? No comic overtones (except in maybe 'Sugar Island' whose lyrics are dumb anyway)? Pretentious mythological references in 'Black Beauty'? Attempts at making some profound statements? Who do they think they are, Bad Company?

Subsequent listenings still bring out the best in the record, if you're not the kind of guy who likes to dismiss an album because it didn't put you in the right mood to attune your vibes to the Infinite. The tunes are, in fact, hardly worse than on the following pieces of product, if somewhat more derivative - and the album is pretty short, which guarantees only a little filler. The most famous - in fact, the only famous, if I'm not mistaken - number on here was 'House Of The King', Akkerman's attempt to do something distinctly Jethro Tull-style. At the time, when it was broadcast on the radio, many people took it for a Tull number, what with the ravaging flute and all; what is, however, the funniest of all is that in retrospect it looks like the song actually predates the Jethro Tull sound of, umm, maybe Songs Of The Wood period or even later - I believe in 1970 Ian wasn't yet in no mood to pen these funny folk-dance flute-led instrumentals. It does sound a bit similar to 'Living In The Past', but only a bit; comparisons with 'The Pine Marten's Jig' and stuff like that would be more appropriate. Oh, and my impressions? A very very pleasant lilting little melody. Really cute.

There's also a lot of vocal numbers here, with van Leer (if it's him - my credits don't list the lead vocalist) displaying a clear and gentle accentless singing voice, no yodelling though. Not yet. 'Black Beauty' and 'Happy Nightmare (Mescaline)' are the main two, sounding like something of a cross between Santana and Caravan, with the relaxed, slightly mystical, guitar-heavy tinge of the former and the innocent, almost 'childish' mood of the latter. Neither really makes for a memorable tune, but they're pleasant while they're on, especially considering the energetic jazzy guitar solo in 'Mescaline' and the majestic brass riffs in 'Beauty'. There's also the universalist ultra-serious 'Why Dream', the kind of song that in a perfect world prompts you to abandon your chores, sit beside your stereo with your head in your hands, cleanse your heart of all impure thoughts, and emerge a new better person... not. It's actually boring. The remaining vocal number is the parodic 'Sugar Island' with its Latin motives, with van Leer lamenting about the Cuban revolution. In the context of the album, it's a relative throwaway, but perversely, it's probably the closest in mood to classic Focus style which would emerge starting from the next record.

The other numbers are instrumental - oh, apart from the opening 'Focus', a slow repetitive shuffle which begs us to focus ourselves on love and never goes anywhere in particular just repeating the same lazy organ lines over and over and over, a really disheartening introduction. 'Anonymus' and the instrumental nine-minute 'reprise' of 'Focus' are just the kind of jams you'd be meeting in mammothized versions on Focus III... well, almost the kind of jams - the drumming isn't all that impressive, and there's more of a direct blues influence than all those fusion elements Akkerman and van Leer would incorporate in the future. But at least they're shorter, and at least Akkerman's guitar technique is firmly established - the soloing on 'Anonymus' gets really hot at times.

Still, the album isn't all that strong, really... a typical product of its era, managing to stay free of its worst excesses but also not engaging in many of its best ones. Nice try from the Dutch lads, but nice is the word - geez, do I sound condescending or what? I hope Focus fans don't massacre me for this. Then again, the record has never been too popular among Focus fans.



Year Of Release: 1971
Overall rating = 10

Side one is like a good dinner. Side two is like a mediocre dinner - served before you had the possibility to digest the good one.

Best song: HOCUS POCUS

Track listing: 1) Hocus Pocus; 2) Le Clochard; 3) Janis; 4) Moving Waves; 5) Focus II; 6) Eruption.

The classic Focus line-up is assembled to treat the world to the band's trademark number. This is one of those rare cases when a band's best-known song (in fact, only known song!) truly happens to be its most idiosyncratic one. 'Hocus Pocus' is, in its essence, a rather typical Seventies' scene hard rock number. That main riff which the composition is based upon could have belonged to anybody, from Deep Purple to Budgie. They, however, manage to boogie upon it with such abandon that perhaps I'd better change 'Budgie' to 'The Who' or something. These flying Dutchmen sure know how to rock'n'roll, or, at least, sure have no qualms about letting themselves go rock'n'roll, unlike, say, Yes, who could never really "stoop" to "generic" boogie. (Well, maybe it was a good thing, too - look no further than Uriah Heep to get the musical equivalent of 9/11 when someone boogies when he really shouldn't).

Smack in the middle of Focus' frantic boogieing, however, come the interludes - primary among these van Leer's insane yodelling, followed by a comical operatic crescendo, but then there are guitar solos, flute thunderstorms, and even something resembling a harmonica-driven folksy tap-dance. Naturally, when you alternate basic hard rock with extra elements like these, you're telling your listeners that you're going for artsiness. But since the extra elements all either sound just as aggressive as the main part, or, at least, ten times as drunk as the main part, this isn't the kind of off-putting, out-of-place artsiness that really does nothing except threaten to put yet another bunch of symphonic orchestras out of business. It's the kind of fun, head-spinning artsiness that keeps the listener on his toes and fully involved without getting him brainwashed. And it's a great example of a tune that manages to be quite artsy while preserving the joke factor - something which, I dare say, was never easy to do for the likes of ELP, whose numbers were either artsy or a joke, but practically never both at the same time. Great tune. And van Leer's got awesome singing talent.

Now here comes the part you've probably been waiting for ever since the first line of the review: the rest of the album is nowhere near as impressive. Sorry, but in my case at least, that's true. The rest of the record is decent, listenable, sometimes very pretty, but never jaw-droppin'-quality-unbeatable by-the-book progressive material, typical of the early '70s. This primarily applies to the side-long suite 'Eruption', which, to me, reads like somebody's uninspired, perfunctory reply to 'Tarkus'. Now I have no idea whether 'Tarkus' could really be a source of inspiration for these guys - the liner notes state the recording dates as 'between April 13th and May 14th, 1971', whereas Tarkus did not come out officially until June of the same year. This does not mean, however, that they could not have heard an early version of the suite in concert, or be treated to early demos of the thing or something like that.

But whatever be the answer, it does not really matter whether 'Tarkus' or 'Eruption' came first. What matters is that in 1971, both ELP and Focus were pioneering the art of the side-long "rock symphony", yet where 'Tarkus' really showed the exciting potential of the genre, 'Eruption' was more like a dead end. First, the thing has no vocals at all. And don't call me cheap or superficial for dressing that as a complaint. I'm not used to progressive epics without any vocals; and I'm not sure I could be used to them, given that the absolute majority do consider singing an essential part of the experience. Second, there seems to be too much repetition in the separate parts. Third, the whole thing just sort of lacks focus. There. A Focus thing that lacks focus. What could be worse? Only an Anal Cunt thing that lacks... oh, never mind. I'm not in a joking mood today anyway.

See, a progressive epic, in order to truly succeed, has to overwhelm. I don't care how. It might be a mammoth synth line swooping over your head from time to time like a hungry hawk. Or maybe a really cathartic piece of melody recalling ye olde times of gallantry, romance, idealism, and unshaved armpits. But 'Eruption' just doesn't have any of that. Instead, it's more like a very long, very twisted rock - jazz - fusion jam, which just breaks up from time to time in order to give van Leer an occasion to play some sweet solo piano, then resumes from where we last left off. There's no intrigue anywhere in the mix. If you happen to have heard both 'Eruption' and 'Tarkus' already, do me a favour and find some time to compare the moments from both when the quiet ambient intro gets unexpectedly replaced by the dynamic organ melody. In 'Tarkus', that melody is paranoid and threatening - forcing me to live visions of, if not necessarily armadillo tanks, then at least something quirky and creepy disrupting the usual ways of nature. In 'Eruption', that melody just sort of... happens. Just sort of... because it has to happen. It's neither dangerous nor joyful. It's just an organ melody. It doesn't tear at the senses. Does it tear at yours? Gather the pieces and send them 'round to me for inspection.

That's not to say 'Eruption' sucks or anything. It's got its fair share of apple juice. Jan Akkerman gets in a couple fantastic blues guitar solos, as well as plays a subtle and pretty melody for the 'Euridice' part (apparently, the whole suite seems to be a musical retelling of the Orpheus story, but it's pretty hard to get the connections even when all the sections lie named and numbered before you). It's too bad that 90% of the credits go to van Leer - there are times when I secretly wish he'd stuck to yodelling and left all the playing and composing to Akkerman, the strongest musical link in the band. Alas! In progressive rock, it's the keyboardist who always has the last say.

Fortunately, Akkerman gets to be responsible for the second best tune on the album, the beautiful instrumental ballad 'Janis' out there on the first side. Oh, did I mention that Moving Waves is the first Focus album to be almost completely instrumental? It's not just 'Eruption' - the only fully vocal number is the title track, unless you count in the 'Hocus Pocus' yodelling and a limited set of wordless vocal harmonies in a few other spots. But in any case, for 'Janis', lack of vocals doesn't seem to be a big obstacle (ironically, I have just had an idea that the song might be a eulogy to the actual Janis - one of the greatest singers of her time), given that they found a way to express all the necessary beauty with the flute. Not the Tull-like aggressive flute of 'Hocus Pocus', but a joyful mesh of soprano and alto flutes in true Renaissance fashion. Why the heck is there no traces of such tenderness on 'Eruption' still makes me wonder. Maybe I slept through something?

Akkerman also gets to shine, as a player this time, on 'Focus II', which could be a quiet, unnoticeable, mediocre piece, undistinguishable from similar portions of 'Eruption', if not for more of Jan's guitar soloing, which rises the song to anthemic status without transforming it into a power ballad or elevator muzak. (The guitar tone is way too sharp and piercing, you see, for people to be treated to it in elevators - up to occasional miscarriages and heart attacks!).

Overall, however, as an album experience, Moving Waves works about as well as a bad movie with a great actor, where you spend most of your time praying for the great actor to leave the screen as rarely as possible rather than simply enjoying it. Alas, it's got 'Hocus Pocus' on it, meaning that it'll forever stay as "the one place to start with Focus", because for most people, the record with the hit single is the best record. Then again, it's not that easy to find a better one, is it? But if progressive rock happens to be your oxygen mask, then by all means, get this. One thing you can't deny these guys is classic early 70s' idealism, and they had more than just their long hair to demonstrate it.



Year Of Release: 1972
Overall rating = 10

Never has been beauty so densely interspersed with self-indulgence.

Best song: SYLVIA

Track listing: 1) Round Goes The Gossip; 2) Love Remembered; 3) Sylvia; 4) Carnival Fugue; 5) Focus III; 6) Answers? Questions! Questions? Answers!; 7) Elspeth Of Nottingham; 8) Anonymus Two.

It would be hard for me, at this point, to come up with a better example than this album for "The Most Excessive Double Album Of All Time, Badly In Need Of Being Cut In Half". To explain and clarify, few albums got me as much hyped up at the beginning (okay, not that hyped up, but pretty hyped up) and as much let down at the end (okay, not that let down, but pretty let down).

The slick prodigious Dutchmen that they were, Focus had efficiently managed to establish a solid reputation with the preceding two albums, with 'Hocus Pocus' off Moving Waves as the climactic point and the glorious moment of total triumph, and Focus III was supposed to capitalize on that success by showcasing the musical skills and sensibility of Thijs Van Leer and Jan Akkerman to the max. It is, thus, their Tales From Topographic Oceans, although, to give 'em their due, nowhere near as bloated or inaccessible; and, as is the rule with just about every single prog band, it simply packs too much ambition for one man to take under what I call "default circumstances" (non-default would include being a rabid prog fan, a violent admirer of Jan Akkerman's guitar technique, or Thijs Van Leer's second cousin).

That said, the first side of this expansive double album might just be the best instrumental prog side I've ever heard. Consisting of four relatively short and snappy tunes, it puts together all the influences of Focus, adds the band's own quirky flavour and becomes a masterwork. Zappa, Miles Davis, Bach, Peter Gabriel, the Canterbury scene, and a "little bit o' emotion" all come together and surround the listener. 'Round Goes The Gossip' picks off where 'Hocus Pocus' left, with a slightly stylistically similar fast jazzy melody highlighted by Akkerman's as usually refined and precise jazzy playing, and interrupted in the middle to give Van Leer the opportunity to croon out a few Latin verses at the top end of his vocal range. Thus, an explosive and invigorating start to the album.

From there, we go into the gentle instrumental ballad 'Love Remembered', with a near-gorgeous acoustic/synth/recorder (or is that real flute? I've been bugged by this ever so often...) part, Akkerman's definite songwriting peak on this album. Folksy, a bit medievalistic, nothing particularly original (you could get stuff like that from Genesis or Caravan), but simply a very evocative melody that would easily dissipate the perception of Focus as a thoroughly self-indulgent nonsensic band were you to hold that one based on some of the other stuff. And the next song is 'Sylvia', wisely chosen for the single, a three-minute soft-rocker very much in the Caravan vein, underpinned by some pretty guitar lines and again featuring some half-psycho half-goofy falsetto vocal harmonies from Van Leer. Finally, the side leaves you fully satisfied with 'Carnival Fugue' - the first three minutes may not seem that great (very quiet piano intro, very insecure bits of near-chaotic jamming), but then they turn out to be merely an imperfect build-up to the last three minutes, which are like the, er, maybe Friendliness in music epitomised. If you ever heard Zappa's 'Peaches En Regalia', you will understand what I'm talking about. Just a thoroughly cute and welcoming melody that makes you feel warm all over, with WARM guitar tones, WARM flute lines, WARM organ patterns and heck, I'd say WARM basslines if I knew how to distinguish 'em from cold ones.

So far, so good. But wait! We are moving forward into unknown territory. Oh... no... man, this is unbearable. Where's the beauty gone? Why does the title track go on for six minutes when most of that time it's so goddamn quiet I can't hear no melodies, even if there are some (which I'm not sure of)? I have no problems with it being too jazzy, heck, it may be avantgarde for all I care, but I want to hear something - and I don't. It just creeps along like an old dying land turtle, occasionally stretching its neck out but mostly just keeping it well-hid. And so, when it quietly and surreptitiously transforms into 'Answers? Questions! Questions? Answers!', I don't even notice the transformation. The track in question is a thirteen-minute bluesy jam that has its moments - for me, these mostly have something to do with Jan Akkerman ripping the shit out of his guitar - but in general, does nothing to stand out of the million and a half guitar/organ jams I have heard, not to mention all these stupid quiet sections... just when you think you finally fall to the groove, it abruptly cuts off and you're left with some minimalistic pseudo-New Age sonic noodling. If this isn't self-indulgence, I don't know what is.

Oh wait, I do know. It's the twenty-six-minute jam 'Anonymus Two' - as if one thirteen-minute jam wasn't enough. Now let's get this straight: I like the way it starts and ends, with that little bouncy Slavic folk melody. I like select bits and pieces as well, for instance, that insane flute part which - coincidentally? - is played against a very 'Locomotive Breath'-style guitar riff. I also respect the talents of the musicians. But when you release a progressive rock album and you release it in the year nineteen hundred and seventy two, you're bound to be a real pro at your instrument (unless you're Uriah Heep, in which case you're bound to suck even if you play a two-minute three-chord song), and there's no need to prove us that you can really play these things. True, Bert Ruiter is a good bassist, and Van Der Linden is a good drummer. And I already said that Van Leer and Akkerman are laudable. So why the interminable bass, drum, guitar and keyboard solos? And what the hell? 'Anonymus'? Yeah, right, guys, the Residents you are not. Thus, the only thing that somehow relieves the tension is the subtle acoustic instrumental 'Elspeth Of Nottingham', which ain't one of the best Anglo-Saxon folk ditties I've heard, but is pretty good anyway. (It was following 'Anonymus Two' on the original LP release, where they had to actually cut the jam in two parts to fit it, but now, on CD, for some reason it's been placed before the jam - stupid, because it would form a very natural album closer).

I still give the album a 10, because the first side is so uniformly excellent the album is worth buying merely for it (good thing they managed to squeeze it on one CD), but I seriously doubt any music lover who's got other jams in his collection (Cream, for instance) would be spending a lot of time digging the groovy solos of that twenty-plus minute perversion. Still, the album does sound like the quintessential Focus representation, with all their good and bad sides in one place, so don't stay away from it necessarily.



Year Of Release: 1973
Overall rating = 9

Live playing. Playing live. Whoah, they can play live! Figures.

Best song: HOCUS POCUS

Track listing: 1) Focus III; 2) Answers? Questions! Questions? Answers!; 3) Focus II; 4) Eruption; 5) Hocus Pocus; 6) Sylvia; 7) Hocus Pocus (reprise).

The obligatory live album from the band which is - hear! hear! - not a double one. Now isn't that kinda cute? After a sprawling, extensive, superfluous double studio album, to release just one tiny little LP of live material? This was an epoch when you were looked at askance if you only released a single LP worth of live material, but I guess this was just another 'focus' for the band. And at an era, too, when Focus arguably reached the peak of their popularity, with fans raving about the guitar abilities of Jan Akkerman and all.

How good is the album? It's good. It's also a total disappointment for me, because the entire first side is dedicated to a note-for-note-perfect (with just a few minor changes) recreation of the 'Focus III/Answers? Questions!' suite/jam from the last album, and I never liked it that much. The band's real weakness is in that they were so inventive, improvisational and creative in the studio, there was very little left for them in a live setting. Akkerman's funky guitar flies around like mad and Thijs van Leer's organ is prominent and energetic, but as a rationally minded homo sapiens I see no positive reason for anybody to get interested in these catcopy recreations so as to waste their money. (Okay, so I did waste my money, but how was I to know I needn't have wasted it before I actually wasted it? Plus, wait a bit, the review isn't over yet). Anyway, there's just nothing particularly special about the first side.

Likewise, I'm not a huge fan of 'Focus II' and 'Eruption' - more of the band's early fusion standards that, when placed in this here context, don't sound radically different from 'Focus III' and 'Answers? Questions!' (Except that 'Eruption' has been drastically shortened - not that it's done it any good). As usual, it all works as decent background music, but has pretty much a totally null level of resonance and sensitivity. In fact, the soft parts of 'Eruption' are mostly there to lull you to sleep...

The whole fun really kicks off only by the beginning of the last fourteen minutes. This live version of 'Hocus Pocus' is easily the definite version of the Focus classic, faster and crazier than the original, with Akkerman's lightning-speed metallic riffage precise and immaculate and van Leer's yodelling as hilarious as ever and more than that - check out the particularly lengthy yodelling exercise in the middle of the song which causes the audience to burst into a smattering of applause. However, perhaps the most beautiful part of the tune is the conclusion, when the band members are introduced one by one by van Leer in more or less the same yodelling style, with him hauntingly chanting out the members' names and duties one at a time. This is really fun.

After that as an encore the band launches into 'Sylvia', which is - don't brand me as a sellout, please - definitely Focus' best number after 'Hocus Pocus', and truly deserved to be a hit single. But alas, it is done really close to the original as well, and then the album closes with one more short reprise of 'Hocus Pocus' - whatever for? Definitely, this is one of the most stupidly concocted live albums I've ever heard. Too bad: a good, prolific band like Focus could have surely deserved a better track listing and a more suitable running time, but then again, most sources I've read tell this was a more or less adequate 'summary' of their contemporary live shows, so maybe I'm asking for too much.

And since this review turned out so relatively short, let me just say a couple general things about prog live albums to sum it up. While the most common statement is that all those mighty live albums released by Yes, ELP, Genesis, etc., in the early Seventies, served one essential purpose (to demonstrate that the band had the ability to pull off their complex music when playing live), it is, in fact, somewhat more complex than that. Those bands who still had a thick 'rock' background somewhere inside their guts, like Yes, for instance, were still trying to remember the basic live rule - a live album should sound more energetic than its studio counterpart - and revved up the adrenaline level. Others, like Genesis, tried to theatralize the proceedings to the max (too bad Genesis' own live album didn't really manage to satisfy that purpose); still others, like ELP, used the live platform to really show off their playing skills in a way that couldn't have been appreciated on the studio albums, throwing on additional improvisations and stuff; finally, sometimes bands used something really different, like Procol Harum with their symphonic orchestra live album, and so on.

In other words, you can't just use the same identic pattern to take and apply it to everybody; people have their different reasons for doing different things. However, for Live At The Rainbow I really can't find any particular 'additional purpose'. It doesn't rock harder than the studio albums, apart from maybe 'Hocus Pocus'; it ain't theatrical because there are next to no vocals; it ain't showing off any more than van Leer and Akkerman already were in the studio. No unpredictable songs, no unpredictable sounds. What's there to make of it? I dunno. It's just solid live performing.



Year Of Release: 1974
Overall rating = 11

Serious and masterful instrumental work on the first side, and an enigma on the second.


Track listing: 1) Delitae Musicae; 2) Harem Scarem; 3) La Cathedrale De Strasbourg; 4) Birth; 5) Hamburger Concerto; 6) Early Birth.

1974 saw the release of the last fully 'focused' Focus album, and one that many feel to be their best. I have yet to hear Moving Waves, but even so I can say that Hamburger Concerto should be rated at least one notch higher than any other Focus record - if only because it is a little bit more idiosyncratic than their debut and far, far more economic than Focus III. And it has good songs! Almost all instrumental again, apart from some familiar yodelling from van Leer, but no jams this time - no sir! This is a blues-rock-stripped record, and they aren't trying to emulate Cream nohow. Not any more. What they are trying to do is make a concise and working synthesis of all things prog, from classical piano soloing to folk-prog to medieval acoustic guitars to more contemporary, more dubious synth wanking a la Rick Wakeman. Yet somehow they manage not to make it all sound like parodies (unless they consciously want a bit or two to sound as parodies - after all, one of the main greatnesses of Focus is that they are primarily a virtuoso instrumental group with a strong sense of humour), and add their own little Dutch flavour to the proceedings. As well as fine melodies and emotional resonance, but hey, an eleven-rated record means it can't go off without those.

Let me take you on this journey now. It's worth it! 'Delitae Musicae' opens with just a minute-worth of classical guitar and flute - a perfect atmospheric intro to the joys (and occasional disappointments) that follow. The next track is the wonderful 'Harem Scarem', the band's inspired, energetic and passionate sequel to 'Hocus Pocus' - and probably not an iota worse. Listen to that driving guitar/piano rhythm, to that ominous "clucking" sound in the right channel - what is it? bass slap? muffled wooden block? who the hell is supposed to guess? - to van Leer going yeh-yeh-yeh-yeh-yeh and get caught in the fun. The slower, more relaxed middle sections aren't as captivating, but the French accordeon touch is neat, and plus they're really only needed as necessary interludes in between the mad pulsation of the main fast section. And plus, it's funny. What else do you want?

The album then slaps into a near-coma with 'La Cathedrale De Strasbourg', mainly a showcase for van Leer's Bach-style piano improvisations. But when they're actually propped up by real church organ, they take on an authentic sheen, and as the tune slowly progresses it gains power and rhythmic grace, and with a little bit of effort you might actually evoke the stern majestic - and at the same time, kind and benevolent - image of the cathedral in question. And finally, the first side takes us into 'Birth', a tune that took some time to sink in but eventually it did sink in. Due to the dominance of the flute in the main theme it again can't help but draw associations with Jethro Tull, but the medieval themes on there are kinda complex for Tull, I'd say... if there's any direct associations, I'd better opt for the 'prog' period of Gryphon, like on Red Queen To Gryphon Three, or for some Rick Wakeman. Normally I'm not a big fan of such compositions, but this one has really graceful themes sprinkled over it, and nowhere does it give the impression of the band showcasing their solo abilities - everybody plays together really tight and really powerfully, even if I forgot to say that the drummer for this record was Colin Allen and not the departed van Linden.

The second side, then, is the problem - again, it is dominated by a twenty-minute suite (the 'Hamburger Concerto') in question, and I really can't get you any definite judgement on that stuff. When you have a relatively short classically-influenced composition like 'Birth', it's one thing; when you have a whole symphony like 'Concerto', the ugly head of "pretentious" and "overblown" emerges from under the water no matter how much you try to shove it down. In typical sitting on the fence fashion, I'll say that there are solid moments and weak moments on there. I'm also not sure if it was a correct decision to choose the closing riff of 'Carry That Weight' (you know, that descending one which repeats a few times before they crash into 'The End') from Abbey Road as the main theme to the album - each time it comes on, I have an urge to hear 'oh yeah, alright, are you gonna be in my dreams tonight' and then a Ringo solo... I'm also sceptical about the extensive use of hi-tech synths, including the nasty "Banksynth" tone. But on the positive side, the suite is cleverly divided into several short sections with different melodies and different evocations, including some hilariously "pompous" van Leer vocals on the 'Medium I' section and clever non-jam style guitar solos... well, you make the call anyway. As a bonus of sorts, you also get 'Early Birth' which is exactly what it says it is - an earlier version of 'Birth', slightly less interesting, but more rocking and shorter as well. And a GREAT, uplifting guitar solo at its end. Kinda like a Dave Gilmour without the calculus.

So overall, count it as a weak 11 - goshdarnit, these guys really went out of their ways to make a row of inconsistent records. When I think of combining the best material from all their albums onto one record, it's a HELL of a record. Hey, I'd have 'Hocus Pocus' on it! And 'Sylvia'! And 'Round Goes The Gossip'! And 'House Of The King'! And 'Harem Scarem'! And 'Birth'! The best record of Dutch prog ever made! And the rest of this stuff? Collectors, collectors only. Oh well, at least the title is cool, even if Johann Sebastian diehards would probably find the humour unfunny, as it always happens with diehards.


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