A lost classic of progressive rock

By Sergio Ariza

In 1971 the Dutch progressive rock quartet Focus, led by guitarist Jan Akkerman and singer/ multi-instrumentalist Thijs Van Leer, released their second record Moving Waves (also known as Focus II), and achieved something few continental European bands could do, find success in an Anglo market, reaching #2 on the British charts and #8 in the U.S.A..

Hocus Pocus was behind the band’s success, and simply listening to the opening riff is enough to see why, it could very well be by Black Sabbath or Deep Purple, but Focus show that they don’t follow beaten paths, and when the vocals come in we’re left perplexed listening to Van Leer start off yodeling. It’s truly chaotic, but somehow it works. It’s crazy and bizarre in the best sense of the words, and has been used several times in advertising and in movies (this very year it played a big part in Baby Driver). Akkerman uses this as one of his best vehicles to show his talent and earns him a spot among the best progressive rock guitarists along with Steve Howe, Martin Barre, or Robert Fripp. His use of minor harmonic scales or the Hungarian minor, is far ahead of its time, many years before the appearance of Yngwie  Malmsteen, and it made him one the fathers of the ‘shredders’. Certainly the band wasn’t far behind, especially the incredible work on drums by Pierre Van der Linden.    

The rest of the album matches this level, and it turns it into a classic progressive rock with connections to other bands like Pink Floyd or Jethro Tull. Le Clochard (Bread) is a brief 2-minute instrumental where Akkerman shines on classical guitar in the spirit of Concert of Aranjuez by the master Rodrigo. Janis is carried on Van Leer’s flute, a beautiful ballad with psychedelic touches in homage of the recently departed Janis Joplin. Moving Waves opens on a piano that brings to mind Debussy, before Van Leer’s voice joins on the only song sung with lyrics on the album.

The main piece is definitely Eruption, which takes up the whole of the 23-minute second side. It’s about a suite with several rooms all joined together, a ‘hard rock’ version of the story of Orfeo and Euridice, but without words. The suite is almost entirely Van Leer (although Akkerman puts in a bit called The Bridge where you can see Zappas influence), but it is the guitarist who shines the most on this number which is like the quintessential progressive rock piece, with its flaws ,- there are some points where they don’t seem to know where they’re going and there are some tedious parts- , and its virtudes- it is amazing how they play, and when they find a good piece of music, it sounds glorious (attention to the incredible beautiful part beginning at 5:08). Akkerman truly lets it rip with his Les Paul Black Beauty after 6:10 with an unforgettable solo that makes clear why the readers of Melody Maker magazine chose him in 1973 as the best guitarist in the world.