Sunday, 20 November 2016

"Focus Plays Focus" (1970) and "In And Out Of Focus" (1971 Reissue) by FOCUS (Japan-Only SHM-CD Reissue On Victor with Mini LP Repro Artwork with 2001 Red Bus Remaster) - A Review by Mark Barry...

"...House Of The King..."

Mid 1970 and Dutch Prog-Rockers FOCUS saw their debut album "Focus Plays Focus" released in their native Netherlands on Imperial Records 5C 054-24192 with a seven-track line-up as follows...

Side 1:
1. Focus
2. Why Dream
3. Happy Nightmare
4. Anonymous
Side 2:
1. Black Beauty
2. Sugar Island
3. Focus

They had also released "House Of The King" as a stand-alone 7" single in many European countries in 1970 (Belgium, Spain etc) on Imperial Records too (a non-album A-side at that time). But when it came to re-launching the album in both the UK and the USA in early 1971 - Polydor decided to call it "In And Out Of Focus" - gave it a different gatefold sleeve (the dotted blue one) and added on "House Of The King" as Track 8 in a rejiggered playing order. That eight-track version ran as follows:

Side 1:
1. Focus (Vocal)
2. Black Beauty
3. Sugar Island
4. Anonymous
5. House Of The King
Side 2:
1. Happy Nightmare (Mescaline) [Side 2]
2. Why Dream
3. Focus - Instrumental

This now rare and deleted Japanese SHM-CD reissue from 2009 (using the Red Bus 2001 Remaster) concentrates on that 2nd version - January 1971 in the UK on Polydor 2344 003 and Sire SAS 7404 in the USA. As if to compound the confusion - Britain also had a 'picture of the band' single sleeve sometime in 1971 with the Polydor 2344 003 catalogue number and the USA also had a Sire SAS 7404 with more different artwork.

This Japanese-only 25 February 2009 reissue of "In And Out Of Focus" by FOCUS on Victor VICP-70049 (Barcode 4988002565375) is a SHM-CD (Super High Materials) with a silver Obi housed on the spine of its Mini LP Repro Artwork - the US hard card gatefold. It even repro's the black inner 'Focus' bag that came with original vinyl LPs (total playing time 36:01 minutes). SHM-CDs don’t require a special CD player – they’ll play on all machines. They were developed as a better form of CD and are almost entirely exclusive to Japanese releases – especially reissues – where the new format’s retrieval rates are higher and therefore offer the best sound. Red Bus did the Remaster in 2001 and that's been used for this reissue – and man does it sound good. Nice balance - power when it's needed - a tasty job done...

FOCUS consisted of:
THISJ VAN LEER – Vocals, Keyboards and Flute

Proceedings kick into gear with "Focus (Vocal)" which runs to 2:44 minutes – opening the album in a mellow Prog mood. It’s a gentle song where the foreign language vocals and keyboard/guitar licks feel almost like a mini hymn. "Black Beauty" introduces their Barclay James Harvest kind of Pop-Rock and I can't say that it's my fave-rave on here. The three-minute hangover from the 60ts bop of "Sugar Island" feels the same - like the band is looking for a hit when they should have been going with their Inner Prog instinct to wig out (nice guitar though from Akkerman and that Tull-like Thijs Van Leer flute solo reminds you of moments from "Stand Up" and "Benefit").

But then things improve immeasurably when the band goes all madrigal at the beginning of the superb "Anonymous" – a near seven-minute instrumental that suddenly feels like 'Focus'. "Anonymous" is a lengthy Prog concoction that's complicated yet still melodic and genuinely impressive after all these decades. The 1970 instrumental "House Of The King" is a winner - a genius 45 that was bound to get the group noticed - even if it does feel just a tad like a Jethro Tull copy in style and composition. But like "Anonymous" - "House Of The King" has that distinctive 'Focus' feel and sound (love that guitar and piano break too).

Side 2 offers us the druggy 'Mescaline' song as our Thijs sings of a sweet life and big pearls in the jaunty "Happy Nightmare". It's an awkwardly upbeat tune for a miserable subject matter with a cleverly placed Mellotron counter-melody to the guitars. Speaking of which - again you notice the sheer virtuosity of Jan Akkerman's axe playing in "Happy Nightmare" – so soulful even in those jazzy passages. It finishes with the nine-minute 'Instrumental' version of "Focus" - another firm fan fave - and with good reason as it feels like the accomplished brilliance of "Moving Waves" and "Focus III" to come.

Their rejiggered debut isn't a masterpiece by any stretch of anyone's imagination - but there's more than enough on here to make it a worthwhile first stop - even for a novice. And with that legendary Japanese presentation quality and added oomph to the Audio - "In And Out Of Focus" is recommended...

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