Approach with an open mind
Paul Masvidal - guitar, electronically altered vocals (I think)
Jason Gobel - guitar
Sean Malone - bass
Sean Reinert - drums (some electronic)
Keyboards were done by Reinert, and occasionally Teegarden when Reinert was too busy with the drums.
^That is the central line-up. Tony Teegarden did the death vocals on the album. Sonia Otey I think did the female vocals.
Cynic were a death metal band from Florida who emerged in the wave of death metal there in the late 80s. They only ever released this one album and a number of demos, though the members are still active in many different (usually brilliant) projects today. Their earlier demos were more straight-up thrashy death metal, but by the time they released Focus, they had taken great influence from fellow Floridian band Atheist's death-jazz style, and developed it further. The result was what is often considered a masterpiece of technical music, and an underground legend. I'm frankly terrified at the prospect going track-by-track for Focus, so instead I'm doing an overall review, and something of a review of each part of the band.
The vocals are probably the most contentious point. If you have a positive opinion of them (which is usually the result of an open mind), you'll see them as having covered a lot of ground. They're definitely varied. The two main types of vocals are harsh (but not so harsh as many death metal bands) death metal growling, which sound somewhat similar to Atheist's vocalist (or a slightly more dangerous-sounding Dave Mustaine, if you haven't heard Atheist), and Paul Masvidal's electronically altered, "robot-voice" vocals. It's this second style of vocals which many people dislike, as it is somewhat melodic, but many think it's stupid or annoying, though I never had a problem with it. There are also female singing vocals, most noticeably on Veil of Maya, which add another element to the album. I have no idea who does the almost spoken word parts in Sentiments, though I suspect it could be either the female vocalist, or Masvidal sans electronic alteration. The lyrics are typically of a spiritual or philosophical nature, far-removed from much death metal. They borrow from various theories of spirituality and philosophy, as well as mythologies of cultures such as the Mayans or Aztecs.
The guitars are amazing. I know for a fact I'm going to use similar description for each instrument, but it's true. Gobel and Masvidal play incredibly notey riffs that weave through each other constantly. Neither seems to specifically take lead throughout the album, and they both have solos. The solos are excellent, most notably (for me) the one which is played over the outro (of great drumming, bass and double-picked guitar) of the last song, How Could I
The bass is done by the near legendary (in an underground way) Sean Malone. He plays fretless, which is unusual for any sort of death metal (most notable exception being another great metal bassist, Steve Digiorgio), but works very well in Cynic, perhaps because of the frequent shifting from death/thrash metal to mellow, gentle, Latin-tinged fusion. Hearing his basslines alternately sliding and whipping around in the background of songs such as these, and his solo in Textures
, really makes me believe in him as one of the best bassists around. As an aside, it's not just bass - he lectures music theory, composes music for his Gordian Knot project, and is just generally a genius sort of figure in musical theory.
The drumming comes from Sean Reinert, which is a pretty much jaw-dropping rhythm section when combined with Malone. Reinert appears to be able to do it all - impressive (and interesting) fills, frantic double bass, as well as being able to adapt to the mellower fusion sections with little problem. How Could I
includes a really awesome performance on drums, even by the standards of the rest of the album.
Veil of Maya
has many a female and electronically altered vocal, and starts with a wash of keyboards. It's neither very far one way or the other in terms of death metal and jazzy fusion, and is a very good opener. Celestial Voyage
continues much in the same vein as Veil of Maya
, and is another excellent track. The Eagle Nature
is one of the deathier/thrashier ones, perhaps because it is a re-recorded demo track, but revamped almost beyond recognition, and even this track, and Uroboric Forms
, closer to the traditional 80's US death metal, are very impressive technically. Sentiment
is where the band really show that this isn't just an ultra-technical death metal album, as it has a very progressive death/jazz-fusion feel to it, and the vocals are either somewhat hypnotic, or sounding stupid, depending on your viewpoint. I go for the former. I'm But a Wave To..
starts with the sounds of waves, and continues to play with the expectations of the listener, taking the band further from the deathy opening of the album, before Uroboric Forms
takes them right back. Textures
may be the best song on the album; it's almost completely non-death, and each band members gets his chance to show off. How Could I
is probably my personal favourite track on the album - it has both one of the best drum performances and the best outros I've ever heard.
Okay, having spent many a word lauding the album, I'll now briefly discuss negative points. Firstly, the vocals. I have no problem with them (I even really like them, as they're often very different to what's usually associated with metal), but many people do, which is a shame. Give the "robot" vocals in particular time to grow; I had to. Secondly, the complexity. All four musicians here are pretty much virtuoso standard (especially the Seans), and they're very keen to show it. In my opinion, they avoid the trap of making technically stellar, but boring, music, but there are some who think it's just technicality for technicality's sake. For example, there is pretty much never a 4/4 rhythm; in fact, there seems to be a determination to play in anything but. Lastly, the production. It's in no way underproduced (it couldn't be, if each instrument was to show through), but overall I think the production is a little too quiet. The band make up for this as best they can by harmonising densely (which can just add fuel to the "technicality for technicality's sake" argument).
Like I said above, approach with an open mind, and this could turn out to be one of the greatest albums you'll ever heard. I easily give it 5/5, as it's the one album that I've actually been tempted to call the best album I've ever heard; usually I'm more indecisive. It's criminal that Roadrunner do not let this album out to print more often.
Recommended songs (if you wanna start at the death/thrash side): The Eagle Nature
, Uroboric Forms
Recommended songs (if you wanna start as far from metal as you can): Sentiments
Recommended songs in general: all of them, but especially How Could I
[url]www.cynicalsphere.com[/url] - one of the best band sites I've ever seen, and I don't even think it's an official one. It has everything
A note: I know that technically, if anyone wants to review an album that's already been reviewed, they're allowed to post it in the original review thread, but I also know that no one ever seems to; there seems to be some unwritten rule that once a review is done, you don't do another one. However, I think Focus is a special album, and pretty much anyone who's heard it is going to have vastly different ideas on it, whether they liked it or not. So, I'd like to encourage anyone who's heard the album to review it here in this thread, in-depth if you want, or not if you can't be bothered. Just interested in different perspectives.