Review Summary: Cynic's Focus is like Chex Mix. Every earful is different. Simply one of the best progressive metal albums of all time.
In the late 80's, death metal was beginning to catch its footing in the realm of headbangers, as influential albums like Death's 1987 release, Scream Bloody Gore
and Morbid Angel's 1989 release, Altars of Madness
spread like wildfire around the underground metal scene. These bands and others continued to churn out increasingly technical and progressive albums, like Death's Human
, which showcased the very apparent talents of drummer Sean Reinert and guitarist Paul Masvidal. They ended up leaving Death to concentrate on their main band; Cynic's debut. Two years later, they, along with bassist Sean Malone, guitarist Jason Gobel and keyboardist/growler Tony Teegarden, released the now classic progressive metal album, Focus
, which incorporates a wide range of sounds and genres. From jazzy, mediterranean-esque segments to thrashy, technical death passages, the album is constantly changing with unexpected, yet fluid, emotional tempo and tone changes. It essentially threw every limitation to the metal sound out the window and is viewed as a classic progressive album to this day.
On album opener and glaring highlight, "Veil of Maya", Cynic introduces the trademark tone that the band has mastered so effectively. Vocally, the album introduces several different colors to the fray. On one hand, there are Masvidal's airy, mechanical, space-age, electronically-tampered, Fear Factory-influencing clean vocals that seem to mesmerize the listener into a false sense of security. Spaced in between those, are keyboardist Teegarden's harsh, Schuldiner-esque, raspy, mid-range growls. The band also incorporates female vocals, performed by Sonia Otey, into the album, most notably on the aforementioned "Veil of Maya". Occasional spoken word vocals are also interlaced into the album at periodic points. The vocals create a sense of unexpectedness that the album is inundated with from front to back, and they really add to the well-established Cynic sound. Lyrically, the album focuses on topics of philosophy and spiritual concern. As one can probably tell, various cultures and customs are discussed, for instance, the Maya are referenced in the album opener, with lines such as "Charmer who will be believed, By man who thirsts to be deceived, Maya subjects you"
and "Veil of Maya, Balance every joy with a grief, Dual states of Maya, Earth's unending law of polarity"
. Some of Masvidal's lines throughout the album are pure poetry in motion (Check "The Eagle Nature" and "How Could I" for some of the best examples) and are much more than your typical dissection/autopsy/gore-filled lyrics that death metal is known for.
On the topic of the fret-boards, the album is simply phenomenal from the beginning to the end. Masvidal and Gobel create intense, memorable, grinding riffs where the album shows its aggressive side, and shift to jazzy, emotionally-charged clean sections that really absorb the listener and calm them in interesting ways. Solos are also an extremely strong spot for the band, as they are very technical and infuse noticeable amounts of melody into their lengths. Some of the best examples of these flashy performances appear on "Veil of Maya", "Celestial Voyage", "Uroboric Forms", "Textures" and the closing, "How Could I", which is perhaps the best with its overwhelming atmosphere as the song (and album) fades into the darkness. As a whole, the guitars are spectacular and never fall into the depths as mindless wankery, which many technical bands may have a hard time avoiding. The keyboards also contribute to Focus'
ambience significantly. The two most standout performances from Teegarden's non-vocal side are "Sentiment" and the instrumental, hypnotizing, "Textures". They enhance the overwhelming mood of the record and add yet another arm to Cynic's arsenal.
Now, we come to the rhythm section, and wow, it is absolutely marvelous. For starters, bassist Sean Malone churns out one of the better bass performances heard in metal. Passages like the beginning of "How Could I" really show his prowess on the fretless. Constantly audible, he produces several fantastic bass lines that encompass the listener at every turn, maximizing their experience even further. Even more impressive is his bass solo in "Textures", which is simply tremendous and turns up the notch even more on his showing. This is a nearly flawless performance by Malone. Sean Reinert handles the drumming with lightning precision and unique creativity that few drummers can match. When incorporated, his double bass is excellent and his great work and fills around the entire kit emphasizes his talent even further. He shows that he is also well rehearsed in the jazz area as well, as several noteworthy, progressive elements reappear again and again on the album from him. Reinert's dense technicality and fantastic, tight showing on the kit push the album forward and accent when it slows down. The entire band is at top form here, and they combine to create an exceptional album on all facets.
There really isn't a weak moment at all in this album. Each track incorporates its own uniqueness and individuality that changes with each passing second. The most obvious highlight would probably the the aforementioned, album opening, show-stopper, "Veil of Maya". All of the band is in top form here, the lyrics are pure wonder and each element of the band's sound is shown equally, to great effect. Other amazing, equally strong tracks include the following song, "Celestial Voyage", the brooding, deep "I'm But a Wave to...", which includes some of the best basslines on the album, the absolutely terrific instrumental "Textures" and the fantastic, "How Could I", which closes out the album in impeccable style. As with all albums of this caliber, however, poor songs seem to avoid this like their parents on a Saturday night. They just don't appear at all.
As an album, Focus
was rather ahead of its time when it was released. Even today, many other bands striving to achieve a sound similar to this have failed miserably. Even after fifteen years, when Cynic finally reappeared with their 2008 album, Traced In Air
, they hadn't lost a step and continued the legacy of this amazing showing. If you are missing this album and you're a fan of progressive metal, death metal or just metal in general, you are really missing out on something great. In other words, you're missing out on a classic. Get it now
gets a 5 out of 5.