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Focus - Hamburger Concerto CD (album) cover




Symphonic Prog

4.25 | 947 ratings

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Prog Reviewer
5 stars Never mind the knee-slapping novelty hit "Hocus Pocus"; the true range of the Dutch band Focus can be heard on their 1974 album "Hamburger Concerto". Of all their studio recordings it's easily the strongest and best sounding, from the delicate 73-second medieval prologue "Delitae Musicae" to the shuddering climax of the 20-plus minute title track, filling all of Side Two on the original LP.

But the energetic album opener probably should have been named something else besides "Harem Scarem". The title is too obviously a self-conscious echo of "Hocus Pocus", and the music, though undeniably solid, clearly wants to recapture some of the crazy magic of that earlier song, right down to the wacky virtuoso vocals of Thijs Van Leer. But what a voice he had: able to stretch in a single crescendo from growling low bass to a high soprano even Jon Anderson couldn't dream of reaching.

"La Cathedral de Strasbourg" and "Birth" are both more or less quintessential classical rock period pieces, firmly rooted in the Symphonic Prog soil of the mid-1970s. The former is a lush ballad in 3/4 time, with more falsetto Van Leer vocalizing and lots of debonair European whistling; the latter is a more straightforward instrumental rocker showcasing the chops of Jan Akkerman, one of the premier guitarists of his time (a shorter, alternate version of the song is included as a bonus to the CD).

But it's the side-long title suite that stands as arguably the band's proudest moment. The title is a tongue-in-cheek mockery of J.S. Bach's "Brandenburg Concertos", but the music itself is lifted wholesale (and without acknowledgement) from Johannes Brahms, specifically Op. 56a, "Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn". Bach, Brahms, and Haydn: that's a lot of highbrow baggage to be carrying around, but it's a great piece of music, very smartly arranged and orchestrated. It may in fact be one of the best examples of classical rock ever attempted, continuing in dramatic leaps from the grandiose "Starter" movement to the mock operatic Rare (yes: more yodeling!) to the stately "Medium" and "Well Done" sections, featuring one of Jan Akkerman's more spellbinding guitar solos.

This type of orchestral rock would be horribly out of fashion within two years of its release. But today it sounds better than ever, working almost like a Prog Rock primer for neophyte music students. Look no further than the extensive instrument list for proof, rivaling the best of Gentle Giant for variety and eclecticism: harpsichords and ARP synthesizers; accordions and Mellotrons; flutes and finger cymbals; so forth and so on...

And all of it employed with more power and energy (not to mention good old-fashioned Prog Rock pretension) than anything else in the Focus discography, including the fluke of "Hocus Pocus". In other words, it may not exactly be cholesterol-free, but the meat of this burger is at least more organic than expected. High praise indeed from a born-again vegan like me.

Neu!mann | 5/5 |


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