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HAMBURGER CONCERTO

Focus

 

Symphonic Prog

4.25 | 700 ratings

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Chicapah
Prog Reviewer
3 stars I'm not very knowledgeable about this band. You might say I'm somewhat out of focus. (Sorry, couldn't help myself.) But a lot of folks whose opinions I respect think rather highly of them and I figured it was long past time for me to get more familiar with their music. To be brutally honest, other than harboring fond memories of the mind-bending, yodelistic stylings of their radio staple "Hocus Pocus" that sat prettily in FM's heavy rotation in the mid 70s and a dubious wild night I had in Denver that involved one of the sides of their album "Moving Waves" playing on eternal repeat on a lithe and willing sirens' turntable (a sobering tale of youthful debauchery that I elect to forgo telling for now), I'm but a neophyte guppy when it comes to these Dutch masters. Therefore when I spotted "Hamburger Concerto" taking up space in some used record bins recently I remembered that this platter is considered by many of their fans to be their best and decided to start my focused education at the top.

Just to throw you off balance a tad they open with 1:12 of an air entitled "Delitiae Musicae," an arrangement of a traditional song from days gone by (a fancy way of saying it's a tune so old that no one has a clue as to which caveman came up with it and, thusly, no royalties need be paid). Using classic acoustic instrumentation, it's nicely done but not at all representative of what's to follow. "Harem Scarem" is more like what I expected in that it's an upbeat rocker from front to back in which the piano and Hammond organ of Thijs Van Leer and the guitar of Jan Akkerman combine to create a light-hearted ditty that's fun to listen to. (I'm wondering why it didn't receive a lot more airplay since it seems to be borne of the same cloth that made "Hocus Pocus" such a monster hit but perhaps it was due to a lack of grease-the-program-director's-palm-with-payola-and/or-nose-candy being supplied by the PR pukes at the label.) It's a happy-go-lucky boogie-woogie song that flies in the same stratosphere as Traffic's smile-inducing "Glad" does but it distinguishes itself with a more involved and complex structure. The funky breakdown just past the halfway point gives bassist Bert Ruiter a chance to stand in the spotlight and he doesn't shy away from making the most of his opportunity.

The album's apex comes in the form of "La Cathedrale De Strasbourg." The number begins with a flurry of dramatic piano stylings ala Chopin that lead to a delicate melody performed in a duet with Jan's guitar. In the 2nd part of the piece the group adopts a slow, bluesy groove whilst Thijs breaks into a brilliant whistling foray that would make a Texas mockingbird jealous. It's a cool surprise and Akkerman's jazzy guitar solo that follows is impressive. Overall it's a well-composed, moody instrumental that takes the listener through several different musical textures and emotions with ease. I can't say the same for the labored "Birth," however. It starts out with promising harpsichord trills but when drummer Colin Allen rambles in with his floor toms a 'rolling the unremarkable main theme emerges and the track enters the dreaded realm of the mediocre. There's a nifty flute ride (and later on a spirited recorder spasm) that pleases the Tull fan in me but Jan's sloppy guitar phrases leave me cold. I realize that this tune might have been the bee's knees in '74 but the decades haven't been kind to this cut and now it's as dated as a paisley Nehru jacket.

The LP's six-movement namesake and claim to fame is, obviously, the side- long "Hamburger Concerto." While unfortunate moments of inconsistency and hum-drum plague this opus there are enough spots of genuine euphoria erupting to rescue it from the dregs. "Starter" possesses the kind of grandiose and stately attitude that I like to hear and Bert's intricate bass lines distinguish themselves in particular. It's big and proggy as all get out. Perfect. Don't change a thing. "Rare" is a continuation of that processional aura but it does belie a tuft of gray hair poking out from under the tiara (Careful with that ARP, Eugene!) in that the synthesizer is as thin and buzzy as a gnat's aria. Yet a large- scale intervention from the mighty Mellotron saves the day. "Medium I" (get the bun pun yet?) features some clever vocal hijinks from Van Leer that keep things from getting too heavy-handed/serious (always a good thing, their sense of humor being one of their more endearing traits) and when he mounts the Hammond organ and drives it like a dirt bike for a spell he demonstrates that Wakeman and Emerson ain't got nothin' on him. Thijs also ends this segment with some swirling, tasty flute roll-ups that will tickle your eardrums.

On "Medium II" it's the guitar's turn to shine from center stage but it seems there's a short in the floodlights. Jan's jazzy noodling at first is intriguing but when he dials up the volume/distortion his tone becomes brittle and it sounds like he's searching desperately for places to take his solo. To add insult to injury he's not helped in the least by the tired descending chord progression that's droning underneath him. It's intolerably unimaginative and entirely too been-there-a-zillion-times patronizing. I understand that it's intended to be a simple platform for Akkerman to shock and awe atop of on the fretboard but he fails to do so and it becomes no better than a flabby Lynyrd Skynyrd-like jam that can't end too soon. What I'm saying is that if a guitarist is going to fill up 5 minutes of vinyl he'd better tear the roof off the sucker or it's just filler. Enough already! He finally plugs his cord into the Leslie speaker cabinet and switches to a friendlier riff to pull this bus out of the ditch. "Well Done" takes us into a stained-glass sanctuary for a large dose of Catholic mass-ish chantings before a heavy rock motif ensues and things get back to being both entertaining and challenging. "One For the Road" is the finale and it doesn't back away from being delightfully over-the-top. Glad to hear it. They construct a fittingly colossal wall of sound accentuated by a fatter ARP synthesizer setting and the mountainous climax is stupendous and gratifying. You know, the kind of stuff that drove punk rockers to stick safety pins through their cheeks.

While Focus may not occupy the penthouse suites in the prog rock condominiums that house the likes of Pink Floyd, Yes and Genesis they do reside comfortably in the same high-rise and there's a lot to be said for that. They were extremely talented, to be sure, but they weren't necessarily innovative and that's the essential characteristic that separates them from the giants. "Hamburger Concerto" is a pleasant listening experience that affords a clear look into precisely what was going on in the mid 70s in commercial prog rock and it deserves my highest 3-star rating. Enjoy it for what it is but don't expect too much.

Chicapah | 3/5 |

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