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The first half of the 1990's was a very important time for extreme metal. While the Norwegian black metallers were out getting infamous for church burnings and murder, the Florida death metal scene was really taking shape. With such now-legendary acts as Death and Athiest getting their foot in the door by throwing in a bit of jazz into their extreme thrash sound, Cynic would take its own form on the heels of these giants and create a classic in their own right. A guitarist with experience in Death as a backing guitarist for Chuck Schuldiner, Paul Masvidal was already an established musician in metal at the time his flagship project's debut album took form. Now considered an essential piece of work for progressive death metal, 'Focus' certainly shows a great band in action, but like so many essentials of the genre, it is something I find more appreciation in its historical context than the music itself.
Being a relative newcomer to the music of this band, I was first introduced to Cynic through 'Traced In Air', the band's second album that was released a long 14 years after a hiatus. With that in mind, I cannot help but to compare this record with that one. While 'Traced In Air' has since become one of my favourite metal records of all time, this one feels far less intentioned than its successor. Regardless, the music here is as technical and complex as it would ever be for Cynic; blistering riffs, the drumwork of an atomic clock, and plenty of weird psychedelia to give the jazzier elements of this album an even darker feeling than the metal elements.Possibly Cynic's most distinct aspect are the vocals, in which frontman Paul Masvidal sings through a vocorder to give his voice a futuristic, 'robot' sound. Alongside him is Tony Teegarden, who apprises the growls on 'Focus'. While I was always in big favour of the clean vocals on 'Traced', 'Focus' shows Masvidal taking the robot sound perhaps a little too far, and the technicality rarely works well to incorporate the vocal melodies; which are rarely too well integrated. Instead, 'Focus' focuses (pun by all means intended) on the more death metal and weird aspects of Masvidal's genius.
As far as the metal goes here, 'Focus' is in top form. Unrelenting technicality of riffs, strong growls and fair dynamic go hand in hand. Unfortunately, what is quite clearly brilliant musicianship and technical composition gets marred somewhat by the relatively weak production. The jazzier guitar elements fare a bit better, especially on such a track as 'Textures', which showcases Paul scaling through frenetics as if he is being chased by a demon. As for the psychedelia incorporated here, it's quite a mixed bag; some sounds (such as the opening synth on 'How Could I') are incredibly tacky and weak-sounding, while the soundscapes generally work to give a spiritual side to Cynic's debut that isn't seen on other Floridan death metal albums.
A very good album by all accounts, and certainly influential. It is the production here though that really takes its toll on the music, and while immensely indicative of the band's talent, it feels often more like a brilliant, yet grossly flawed work over any label of perfection.