Review Summary: "Focus" is a unique, enjoyable experience that can't really be found anywhere else.
Cynic has always been way ahead of their time, as is proven in their first true album “Focus”. The simple fact is that the writing behind most of their material is extremely creative, fueled by some sort of combination of musical genius and extensive talent. Their blend of so many genres (blues, jazz, death metal and rock, and probably others too) is definitely not something seen around very often, especially for the year of 1993 when this album was released. It was probably true that, at the time, the world had never heard this kind of sonic art before, but they were certainly in for a treat. And nearly 20 years later, the album still holds as one of the better of its kind to ever be released.
It seems that Cynic has had bad luck as a whole, especially regarding the recording process of “Focus”. Since there are technically only two different members of the band (guitarist/vocalist Paul Masvidal and drummer Sean Reinert), and a lot of the material is performed by outside artists, one would think that writing and recording a first album wouldn’t be too hard. However, their earlier attempts were stalled due to obligations to another band that went on tour and, consequently, had severe financial troubles; the equipment of the band was seized and both Masvidal and Reinert were forced to wait for six months before they could get their instruments back. Even after such an ordeal, their original bassist parted ways and had to be replaced, and on the day they were set to begin recording the album a hurricane struck Florida, destroying the home of the rhythm guitarist and also their practice/recording area. They really just couldn’t cut a break.
The reason I mention all the background information is this: I would argue that these repeating delays are what gave Cynic time to rewrite the album and create the masterpiece that they eventually released. Having to delay something deemed “ready” often leads to reworking, and sometimes that process can lead to something much better. In the specific case of “Focus”, I am glad (in a selfish way) that they were forced to rethink everything, because the whole experience that is the rewritten album is well worth it.
The thing I love about “Focus” is its sheer creativity and uniqueness. From the blend of many different genres to the intricate composing, it is a whirlwind of music. Probably one of the cooler things that they do is switch from thrashy metal to jazz fusion on a dime, which is best heard in the song “Veil Of Maya” (which is also arguably the best song on the album). This abrupt change is startling and yet oh-so-delightful at the same time. It changes the palette of the music so fast that one has to pay full attention to what’s going on musically to fully appreciate it. This same sort of random feeling is also heard in the chords themselves: the fact of the matter is that you quite honestly never know where this music is going. I am an extremely big fan of thinking music, and an album that keeps me guessing is almost always a good thing.
Speaking of the chording, the overall feel of this album is delightfully gloomy and unsettling. The subtle dissonance in every song creates such tension that the jarring shifts to the jazz sections are almost relieving, in a way. I love the way that everything sounds like it fits, except for that one, little, subtle note that throws everything into the uncomfortable zone. It’s a good discomfort, mind you; there’s nothing wrong with being a little unsettled while listening to music as long as it indeed works with the music. Selective dissonance is a valuable tool, and Cynic does know how to use it.
There is one major trouble I had with this album; however, one could argue that it is a matter of subjectivity and my distaste for the “vintage” sound. The problem I had was that it really seemed that the production quality is not as high as I would have liked. This may be simply due to the fact that the year was 1992-1993, and obviously recording techniques would have not been as good as they are today. But the mix sounds very unbalanced, even for the “remixed” version of the album that I own, regarding the clarity of each individual instrument. As you probably well know, I do enjoy being able to hear every instrument, and I struggled to hear all the parts far too often in this work. The guitar, with its heavily distorted thrash sound, and the drums, especially the kick, both have a tendency to drown out a lot of the other parts, especially during the heavier parts of the songs. This is a real shame, since one of the more interesting instruments, the fretless bass, has beautiful parts throughout the album. I know that all of the instruments are churning out intricacies; I just wish that I could hear all of them.
The only other thing that I didn’t like as much on “Focus” was that the vocals became stale. Now, let me say this: I really do like the vocals on this album. There are three different types of voice that fit in really well; there are harsh growls, a higher female voice, and a very synthed robotic voice. They all work together excellently, but the issue is that they do become a little tiresome over the course of the entire album. That being said, it’s not really a big problem, but I feel that I must mention it so that you can know what to expect. Really, any sort of qualm I have with this record is either trivial or due to my personal opinion; there is indeed very little wrong with the album at all.
Cynic’s unique style might not be for everyone, but it is definitely worthwhile to look into “Focus”. The ever-changing genre switching, the meticulously crafted chords, and the downright strange vocals create an experience unlike anything else. After listening to “Focus” a few times I can definitely see why their fans enjoy the music so much. Definitely worth a try if you haven’t given this album or Cynic a listen before.