Retro-Review: ‘Focus’ by Cynic

Cynic’s 1993 album Focus is another one of those albums I bought based on the reviews in the magazine Metal Maniacs.

At the time, I listened to it quite a bit, but I don’t think I appreciated it for what it was. But hey, I was 16. My interests back then was the hard-hitting tunes of Pantera and Megadeth and I had not developed quite the patience for music you have to sit down and really listen to in order to appreciate. Cynic, whose style fused metal, jazz and synthesizers, is one of those bands that require that patience.

So, 25 years after I bought it, I came back to Focus to see if it was like I remembered, better than I remembered or much worse.

The answer is the second.

In some ways, they’re much like their Florida contemporaries Atheist, who released their album Elements a few weeks before Focus. Elements was an OK album, but Focus is a great album.

The thing that will grab the listener’s attention first on Focus is guitarist Paul Masvidal’s vocals. Masvidal sings through a vocoder-type effect, which creates a rather robotic-sounding synthesized voice. It’s not an effect that has aged well, much like you see with other synthesized effects on their contemporary death metal bands. Even then, it was kind of an acquired taste, but really seemed to draw the line between who liked Focus and who couldn’t stand it.

The vocal growls you hear throughout the album are not from a member of a band. Instead, they are by guest vocalist Tony Teegarden, who has since went on to become a life coach. He hosts the Turn Your Problems into Profits podcast. On Focus, his vocals sound downright reptilian and it’s actually kind of a surprise he didn’t go further in the death metal industry.

The rest of the band is Jason Gobel on guitar and guitar synth, Sean Malone on bass guitar and chapman stick, and Sean Reinert on drums and keyboards.

Aside from all the synths that are involved in the album, Focus has a great sound. The guitars are respectively heavy and melodious when needed, the bass sounds clean yet deep and the drums kick have that extra “umph” that make this a death metal album.

The production of the album is by Scott Burns, who also handled production duties on Death’s sophomore album, Leprosy, which I reviewed in August. It’s probably thanks to Burns that, aside from the vocals, Focus doesn’t have that overly sterile sound that plagued a lot of similar bands’ albums.

The album

I’m not going to lie. This is not an easy album to get into.

Focus is more about having an experience within the music than having a song you’ll be able to sing in your car on the drive to the grocery store.

The best example of this is “I’m But A Wave To,” a song that takes the listener to a lot of places. It begins with the sound of crashing waves that seems to give way to sirens before kicking off into the metal itself. The guitars echo, the bass is plucked and the keyboards are like, well, waves. It goes back and forth from driving technical death metal to some jazz-fusion type stuff. It builds upon itself until utterly exploding at the very end.

This album is really experimental. There’s a lot in every song, so much that it’s almost too much to keep up with at times.

Like “Uroboric Forms,” not only does it have Masvidal’s and Teegarden’s vocals, but also another vocalist, Sonia Otey. It’s both a very metal song and a very jazzy song. It’s one of my favorites on the album and, yet, I know a lot of people are going to hear it and think it’s unlistenable.

How Could I” is the closing track (at least to the 1993 album) and also one of the high points of the album. It sustains a faster pace longer than most of the other songs and it manages to shred. Malone also manages to get a really cool bass sound in certain parts. It’s also got a great guitar solo which turns into a harmony. It’s a good close to the album and leaves you feeling like you bought your money’s worth, even though the whole album is just eight tracks … if you were a kid buying it in 1993 that is.

When I read the reviews of this album in Metal Maniacs in 1993, the writer stated to skip forward to track 5, “I’m But A Wave To,” because that’s where the album really kicks off. When I listened to it then and now, I disagree. “Veil of Maya” is an excellent kick off to the album, giving the listener a taste of what’s to come. It’s also one of the most accessible songs on the album with verses that you can actually sing along with.

The rest of the first half of the album, I would agree, is not as strong as the second half. But, songs such as “The Eagle Nature” and “Sentiment” are still worth a listen. They’re good songs that just happen to be among even better songs on a very, very strong album.

There’s a take-it-or-leave-it instrumental on here called “Textures.” I never really gave it much thought. Even today when I listen to it, I don’t think it’s essential to the album. But I will have to say that unlike many instrumentals from back then, it does go somewhere and it’s pretty heavy.

The verdict

Color me surprised, but Focus held up much better than I thought it would.

It’s a much better, cohesive and consistent album than almost all of the others released at the time by other technical/experimental death metal bands. The sound is better. The song writer is better. It’s just better.

Would I recommend it?

Well, I’d say go give it a listen to a few songs on Youtube first. If you can get past the robotic vocals, then you’ve got an album I’d say “go spend money on.”

 

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