Jan Akkerman is one of my guitar heroes, so it was with genuine interest that I put on Akkerman's new album Close Beauty to review. My formative years as a guitarist were filled with playing Focus LPs over and over, trying (and largely failing) to replicate the lines of a genuine innovator with such a distinctive sound. Sadly the new album disappointed me, largely due to the weakness of the material and the stiff and unimaginative playing from his supporting musicians. While at times Akkerman's signature sound cut through and caught the ear, large parts of the album were quickly forgettable, lacking the strong classical-influenced melodies that were a trademark of his time in Focus, and without a supple rhythm section to provide variety and colour to the sound – this was highlighted even more by the bland keyboard washes, which would have been enhanced so much by the use of distinctive analogue instruments (Rhodes, Hammond, Moog) and ditching the dated-sounding 'industrial' sequencing that blight some of the tracks.
The first track Spiritual Privacy sets an interesting ambiguous tone, with Akkerman's Spanish style flourishes catching the ear. Unfortunately this also sets the marker for the rest of the album – the band provides a harmonically uninteresting backdrop for Jan to blow over the top of, with no melody to hold it together. While the Paco de Lucia style fast runs are impressive, it gets old very quickly.
Beyond the Horizon provides a more discernible theme, and moves into guitar hero territory. There is a very straight rock backing, which made me think of Gary Moore's Sunset. There’s some fiery guitar from the Dutchman, and interesting use of his trademark 'violining' technique.
Reunion opens with a tight 6/8 rhythm and acoustic guitar riffs accenting the pulse. The acoustic guitar and organ runs in tandem work well over the rolling rhythm, and make this a strong track. More acoustic guitar follows on the title tune of the album, which leads into the high point of the record. Aptly named Retrospection, Akkerman's Focus-era sound is resurrected successfully, with 'violining' melody backed with organ as the opening, echoing his years playing with Thijs Van Leer. After an acoustic interlude (there is a surprising amount of acoustic guitar on this record) the track ends with the reprise of a Focus theme from the early 1970s – nostalgic, but a bit of a shame that the high-point is old music resurrected.
Passagaglia is an atmospheric tune that doesn't really go anywhere, which leads to more echoes of Focus –Tommy's Anniversary has the chord sequence and feel of the original Tommy, with some great guitar and typical Akkerman phrasing.
From this point on the album goes downhill to my ear – sequenced backing and no strong themes, the rest of the cuts are simply vehicles for Akkerman to show off his considerable talents, but the tunes are instantly forgettable. The strongest of the bunch is probably Don Giovanni, which has Latin feel you could imagine being used to better effect by Al di Meola. The album closer Good Body Every Evening is sadly merely bland funk.
So as a signed-up Akkerman fan, while I’m glad to know the great man is still playing and making music, I was hoping for so much more.
Close Beauty by Jan Akkerman (Music Theories Recordings/Mascot Label Group) released October 25th, 2019)