Stephen Lambe — Decades: Focus In The 1970s
Regular DPRP readers will be familiar with the ever expanding On Track series of books from Sonicbond publishing. From the same publishers, Focus In The 1970s is the third book in the Decades series - following Pink Floyd In The 1970s (by Georg Purvis) and Marillion In The 1980s (by Nathaniel Webb).
Decades follows a similar format to the On Track series by discussing every song recorded by the Dutch band, although obviously within a set period. Focus released just six studio albums (seven including Ship Of Memories) and the live At The Rainbow in the 1970s but this book is subtitled The Music of Jan Akkerman and Thijs van Leer for a good reason. Solo albums and side projects from the two Dutch maestros are also discussed, including the 1973's Two Sides Of Peter Banks on which Akkerman guested.
The author Stephen Lambe is the man behind Sonicbond and was responsible for one of the first books in the On Track series, the excellent Yes - Every Album, Every Song. He clearly holds Focus in equally high esteem and it's fair to say that as musicians - if not songwriters - they could hold their own with any of the big name 70s prog bands, especially guitar virtuoso Akkerman. Throughout, the author refers favourably to the Focus 50 Years Anthology 1970-1976 box set released in 2020 and I wouldn't be surprised if it inspired him to write the book.
Like Pink Floyd In The 1970s - I haven't read the Marillion book - Focus In The 1970s has a chapter dedicated to each year. In addition to the album reviews, the author provides an overview of the year's activities including touring, recording, TV appearances and line-up changes. Akkerman departed in 1976, effectively ending the band's classic period which lasted for just five years. The albums are discussed in chronological order which means that the band releases are intermingled with the solo projects. Like many bands in the 1970s, a peak period of creativity - which arguably ended with the 1974 Hamburger Concerto album, was followed by a sharp decline - both commercially and artistically - before they ground to a halt in 1978.
Despite the dubious merits of some of the later releases, the author maintains a balanced view throughout and generally finds something positive to say about every album. He provides a detailed account of the musical content of each song without resorting to technical jargon and can even be forgiven for the occasional typographic error. He also documents the uneasy relationship between the two principal protagonists and deviates from the book's time frame by including the 1985 album Focus - Jan Akkerman & Thijs Van Leer, their last studio collaboration.
Although Focus ran out of steam before the end of the 1970s, there is enough substance in their recorded output from this period to warrant a book of this kind, particularly considering so few have been written about the band. It's very well researched and provides an authoritative account of the band and their music. There is a roundup of more recent activities in the latter part of the book with only the latest album Focus 50 – Live In Rio released in June 2021 absent. Nonetheless, this is an excellent and essential read for fans of Focus and 1970's progressive rock.
The Guildmaster — The Knight And The Ghost
In the ever expanding prog universe a few artists come to mind that release albums at an incredible rate. Just imagine Neal Morse and his many merry companions and you'll get the picture (and a big pile of albums). In similar vein the infinitely growing realm of The Samurai Of Prog (TSoP) is bursting with new stars on a fairly regular basis and last year alone saw two Bernard & Pörsti releases, as well as several TSOP efforts, Kimmo Pörsti's Wayfarer and Pörsti's spin-off collaboration on Rafael Pacha's solo album Al Rincón Por Soñar come to life. Blink once and you might have missed a release.
The new folk/prog project The Guildmaster completes their ambitious 2020 efforts and features besides TSoP members Marco Bernard (Shukar bass) and Kimmo Pörsti (drums, percussion), veteran keyboard player Ton Scherpenzeel of Kayak/Camel fame and millipede-instrumentalist Rafael Pacha on acoustic/electric guitars and just about everything that makes a sound. Various individual contributions, shared later on, give additional comforting shape to the folk inspired compositions which address different periods in time and place.
Two tracks are written by external composers Kristiina Poutanen (Saaristo) and Allessandro Di Benedetti (The Knight And The Ghost) while the remaining tracks, apart from Pörsti's song Camino De Luz (Path of Light) and his collaboration with Pacha on Ghost Dance (Cosmic Wardance II), are shared between Pacha and Scherpenzeel. The latter by the looks of it fully recovered from his recent health scare.
If not transported to the medieval era of knights in shining armour by the beautifully rich and delightfully detailed artwork of Ed Unitsky then the short baroque styled and playful elegant melodies of Puppet Dance and the consecutive Saaristo, a revisit from Pörsti's first album Maahinen, most certainly will. The addition of Finnish folk elements through flute (Esa Lehtinen) and luscious sensitive violin parts by Martti Törnwall gives this charming song mild Camel or Quidam atmospheres as it waltzes enchantingly on enrapturing synths from Scherpenzeel into melancholic guitar parts from Pacha.
Through luscious Folky flute melodies Six And Fives captures the same atmosphere as Puppet Dance, much like the sweet little Noughts And Crosses which is named after a centuries old popular game and reflects it's characteristics through many festive musical twists and turns. Essentially these Scherpenzeel penned compositions harbour the same feel, yet they somehow minutely give the impression of a slightly different time frame, which gives a lovely diversity to the album.
A variety gaining further depth when frisky fiddle frivolities from Peakfiddler (whoever that might be?) converge with Scottish Highland melodies in The Hare, while the ring dance provoking imagery of The Fairy Pole brings cheerful Polka rhythms as superb instrumental interaction gains strength and energetic intensity. The inclusion of Spanish lyrics in Camino De Luz (Path Of Light), beguilingly sung by Ariane Valdavié, ensures additional enrichment where the grander scope of the atmospheric composition furthermore reveals excellent dynamic rhythms and great solos from Pacha and Rúben Alvarez.
Not selling anyone short, as each musician masters their instrument outstandingly, yet it's Pacha who impresses the most. Besides playing a tenfold of instruments all throughout the album his compositions are also an absolute delight. A brilliant example is The Search which shows similar attraction as the instrumental compositions on his latest solo album Al Rincón Por Soñar. The slow naturally moving flow of the composition's music is replete of ideas and melodies which through flute and precious violin creates a landscape of imposing progressiveness and enchanting wealth, which after somewhat rougher and slightly rocking terrain, quickly reverts to valleys of mesmerising folkloric beauty.
In the quiet and peaceful classical atmosphere of Stranded By The Coast (Folia For The Castaway), Pacha's compositional skills leads to beautifully alternating melody lines of synth and guitar recalling a mild kind of medieval Spanish inquisition, while the dynamic jig (thank goodness for the extensive liner notes) of The Sun Rises Again brings exciting playful moments and a lovely ambient coda. It's preceded by Ghost Dance (Cosmic Wardance II), the feistiest song on the album. Surrounded by splendid percussion and fluent transitions in which graciously gliding guitar melodies converse with flute. It changes halfway into a fine marching beat, subtle Scandinavian flute melodies and manifold percussion, to finish on a high of delightful synth and guitar runs.
The album's divine highlight is the epic title track The Knight And The Ghost which through the wonderful angelic vocals of Camilla Rinaldi and the symphonic nature of the deeply versified composition brings alluring visions of Renaissance in terms of both band and the era. The lovely jazzy swift uptempo play with delicious prominent bass from Bernard, stepping out of his perfect overall guidance and taking a slight form of lead role, is met by classical violin orchestrations that is slowly taken over by acoustic accents and marvellously restrained piano from Di Benedetti which brings a lovely John Holden vision into view. Something which is maintained as keys and guitar circle in airy dynamical uplifting melodies accompanied by excellent drum partitions towards a satisfying finish.
The album's closing track Secret Garden brings the concept of combining folk-music from around the world, set within the perimeters of prog music, in full circle as baroque guitar by Manoel Macía and caressing melancholic tunes slowly converge towards quiet peacefulness.
Although I had to come to terms at first with the amount of folk melodies, finding them initially too similar in context and texture, multiple encounters provided a different view and over time the album proved itself to be a definite grower. A slow but sure one where the upfront musical centre of gravity (The Knight And The Ghost) slowly spread out across the album and started to exhibit a canvas of well-arranged and appealing compositions.
Pacha's masterful contributing pencil, as well as the overall excellent executions that leave room for everyone to add their own fine colourings, brings an admirable amount of brightness to a very consistent and accomplished effort which is (almost obviously) recommended for fans of the TSoP realm. Lovers and devotees of progressive folk should pay close attention as well, although my knowledge in this particular field is fairly limited and only Gryphon comes to mind as a reference. 😉 Oops, I blinked...
Kelp Dwellers — Surfacing
The Kelp Dwellers describe their music as 'Aqueous Prog Rock' or 'Southern California Beach Rock'. It is a sound that is definitely unique, mixing surf rock with prog, psychedelia, indie and lounge music. Todd Montgomery and Gayle Ellett (of prog band Djam Karet) were once part of a group called Fernwood, but they added drummer Craig Kalin and the surfing began. Happy, positive vibes, full of ebbs and flows, just like the sea. Just like all good prog music.
Each song has a sea/nautical/ocean theme to it. And it really does take you to the coast. So close you can feel the spray on your face. Fully instrumental, it never gets boring, but takes you on a journey. The album opens with Jellyfish Song. This is like The Beach Boys on an acid trip. Serious musicianship that does not take itself too seriously. There is a real sense of fun here.
Track two, Winsome Rollers, has plenty of jangly guitar. Reminds me of those jangly pop indie bands in the 80's like The Smiths. Not that it is anything like The Smiths, but that sound is there. There is also an early B52's vibe to this. The guitar playing is incredible.
The pace slows down a bit with tracks 3 and 4. Undine's Righteous Victory and Westwood Mostly Sunny, use gentle swathes of guitar. Indie clashing with prog clashing with jazz fusion. The tunes just wash over you like a summer's day. The sun is shining here in the UK at the moment and I have to say the tunes just soar into your spirit.
Tricky King Swordfish (just love these titles) starts quietly but then finds a gentle rhythm. An almost 70s TV theme show tune. Just glorious sounds. Otter Finley's follows on and keeps adding to the smiles. There are sounds like voices, like the sea sirens drawing you into the rocks. Beautiful.
Watch Out For Water Dog has an intro that reminds me of a Radiohead song. Radiohead go surfing. Then follows my favourite track Selkie Always Seeks. Great groove here on this track. Sounds of other instruments float in and out. Sax, flute, Hammond organ. Are they real or just the sound effects of the guitar? A real psychedelic surfing pleasure ride.
That just leaves Night Ashore. A really chilled tune to close. Like The Shadows gone prog. Soothing, like the best lounge music. A fitting end to the album.
The Kelp Dwellers have produced something unique and beautiful. It sounds simple but the playing is exquisite. The more you listen the more textures you find. This could truly be the sound of the summer. If you want to hear The Beach Boys play prog or Jan & Dean playing psychedelia, then this album is for you.
Peter Swart — Oderan
Peter Swart is a medical psychologist at a cancer research facility, dividing his spare time between his family, (comic) drawing, composing music and writing books. The music gathered on Oderan, his seventh album, is inspired on his highly regarded Science Fiction Trilogy "Kroniek van Oderan" (Oderan's Chronicles), an adventurous story about interstellar travel and a colonial mission to the far away planet Oderan, which upon arrival proves not to be as habitable as presumed.
The narrative of the books is presented by nine atmospheric and foremost instrumental compositions, where every composition is accompanied by its own synopsis in the cared for artwork. The music covers the three books in chronological order with stories focussing on relationships, planetary exploration and personal reactions of the crew to their journey's challenges.
Swart is perfectly capable of capturing the story outlines into engaging music of which the subdued serenading feel of The Tears Of Tara is a fine example. With acoustic refinement and tempting piano fragility it glides smoothly towards melancholic sadness, after which Swart carries the heartbreak of a torn love affair through his one-off caressing soft vocals.
Both the relative mildly daunting opening of Disruption and the light mysterious darkening atmosphere of The Caves speak equally to the imagination. Although the cheerful melodies and luscious guitars of the former result in alluring contrasting harmony, while the latter's focus of slow moving dreamy melodies gains brightness from minute orchestrations and occasional terrestrial Pink Floyd smoothness, instead of the expected darkness. Similarly the initial submerged feel in The Deep takes brilliant shape through submarine bleeps and percussive depth, yet the dreamy soundscapes sound more like a journey through space than an actual scary underwater mission.
This not entirely consistent correlation between music and story becomes most apparent in the laid back and New Age inspired atmosphere of Space And Planet. It floats on gently flowing dreamy movements and graciously sparkling synths and intricate symphonies. These reflect the song titles most excellently, yet in no way are these engaging passages associable with the abbreviated tale of the communities supposedly turbulent space-travel period.
The enjoyment factor of the individual compositions isn't affected by this whatsoever, for Swart's simple but captivating inornate melodies come successfully alive and glide ever so attractively along. Vibrating with positivity, expectancy and subtle bombast Swart shows his fine arranging skills in the layered spatial sound of Plains And Valleys, while his futuristic tale sees a comforting highlight in the Didier Maroauni-like Oderani Forces which alternates fluently between atmospheric, colourful yin/yang moods.
The picturesque and dreamy electronic soundscape of Dance Of The Three Moons and the accomplished lift off in Back Home, travelling slowly through sweet synth melodies that melt graciously with mellow guitars as the imaginary spaceship disappears peacefully from view, concludes Swart's delightful musical voyage.
An extra dose of dynamism and power would have given the stories about the hostile and extreme challenges of the colonists bigger impact, but nevertheless Oderan is a fine record. For the duration of an hour Oderan is capable of transporting its listener to a world of relaxing melodic symphonic rock surroundings, which in light of it's actual short length is a wonderful achievement.
Overall a recommendable effort for fans of electronic music (Kitaro) and progressive rock fans who share the likeness of a lighter Camel embraced by lovely New Age/Ambient atmospheres.
Texel — Metropolitan
Let me start the review of Metropolitan, the second release by the Danish/British band Texel, with some words on their previous album Zooming Into Focus from 2018. From my point of view, things were quite straightforward back then: merely looking at the band's name and especially the album title provided a hint (to those a bit familiar with progressive rock music) at what one was likely to expect music-wise, already prior to having listened to the first note. As it turned out then, these expectations were fully met. Why am I making that allusion? Because I believe that on Texel's second release, things are less self-explanatory. Did the band consider it unnecessary to really spell out the consistency of album title and musical archetype to the same extent or are the musical influences less obvious and distinctive? Let us leave that question open for the moment.
On Metropolitan, Texel still consist of the two protagonists Steffen Staugaard (keyboards) and Neil Gowland (guitars) plus the same line-up as on the predecessor, made up of Max Saidi (drums), Phil Wood (bass guitar) and Thorstein Quebec Hemmet (flute). For me, this is a sign of Texel having developed from a project duo to a fully-fledged band. No less than six additional musicians act as guests, amongst them Marco Minnemann on drums (Steven Wilson, The Mute Gods, The Aristocrats et al.), multi-instrumentalist Peter Jones (Tiger Moth Tales, Camel et al.) on vocals on the only non-instrumental track (Voluspa), and Nils van der Steenhoven (guitar, temporarily with Focus - coincidentally?). Again, that Texel have succeeded in getting such a renowned circle of musicians to participate in this release is a sign that their music has a lot to offer in terms of quality.
Representative of Texel's musical style are vintage keyboard sounds (organ, acoustic and electric piano), melancholic, weeping-type guitar soloing, especially in the balladesque songs (Sweynsson's Slumber, Metropolitan), and a distinctive use of the flute as a lead instrument (particularly in Tuileries, and Polka Magyar Akta Musica). The organ remains predominant (mainly in Flute In Rhapsody, unlike the title suggests), but does not sound over-represented. The music is a perfect amalgamation of various inspirations, all leaving their marks in Texel's melodies and arrangements, with the label "symphonic, jazz-rock influenced, instrumental prog" as a common denominator. To my ears, it appears that basically all of the songs are written in the major key, making the music altogether more upbeat than it would be the case with the minor key inherent in many symphonic prog rock songs.
The opener Ludo Mentis, with its catchy organ chord sequence, could have appeared on a mid-period Deep Purple album, whilst the complex rhythmic structure of Syncopia (as the title hints at) reminds me of Return To Forever. These two songs form the musical poles between which Texel's music takes place and define its range, which comprises symphonic, fusion, jazz-rock, hard rock and classical music. I also liked Texel's venturing into writing a song with lyrics and would have nothing against an intensification of that side trip on forthcoming album(s). Not totally surprisingly, this track makes me think of the Italian prog band Barock Project, their song Broken on the album Detachment also featuring Peter Jones' vocals.
What about the answer to the question raised above? I believe, the influences of Focus are a bit less evident on this release and can best be heard in the quieter parts of the album. Whoever knows and likes Texel's music will find that Metropolitan represents a logical continuation of the band's musical style which is not that reliant on one archetype anymore, but incorporates various musical influences and thus shows a higher degree of musical autonomy and individuality. It may be slightly less accessible and catchy, but presents more diversity, especially with respect to the role of the flute as lead instrument and the spectrum of keyboards used. The music does not deny its roots and reminiscences but comes across "fully-emancipated".
Listeners not yet familiar with the band may choose either release for approaching Texel's music. Variety, melodies, quality of the production, mixing, and musical abilities speak for themselves. With Metropolitan, Texel have delivered an excellent product, and that is what matters. I think that this, ultimately, makes the opening question irrelevant. Ah, yes, almost forgot to mention this: with respect to the design of the covers, Texel have remained true to themselves. As for my taste - I don't like it that much but instead I like the music all the more.