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This is going to be a toughie, but bare with me.
The year is 1993. Hell, that alone could tell the story of this album. This was the year of 'Covenant', the year of 'Breeding The Spawn', the year where the Earache/Warner union looked like it might actually work. The air was thick with certainty and a sense of direction, with every album coming out in the death metal scene seemingly becoming an overnight classic. Now, considering that this was the year of 'Elements', experimentation was most certainly an accepted part of the equation these days, with death metal bands going further than they ever had before in writing engaging yet esoteric music that, oddly enough, more and more people were beginning to be enchanted by every day.
Now Cynic had been kicking around for six years at this point, originally starting as a thrash metal group but steadily adding more and more progressive elements to their music over time. By the time that Focus was ready to be released, they had metamorphosized into a full-blown jazz-fusion death metal band with an emphasis on extreme technicality and progressive songwriting. And, as anyone with even a passing interest in metal knows, this album is one of the definitions of 'metal milestone'. It would be very difficult to overstate how groundbreaking and influential 'Focus' was and still is today; it is without any doubt whatsoever a critical part of the development of metal as an artistic form.
But let me back up a moment and clarify something: there is a very, very large degree of difference between something being 'important' and something being 'enjoyable'. Because in all honesty, 'Focus' to me is very much the former and only sporadically the latter. I find it meandering and pointlessly technical at times, and completely overblown and cheesy at others. It's easy to see why this is such an important part of the metal scene, but at the same time I can't help but find in hindsight that this album is easily cause for eye-rolling and snorts of derision. Everything about 'Focus' is overly proud and bombastic (which seems strange for something so influenced by jazz fusion, but there you go), and represents the most absurd excesses of the early 90s in its construction. From the ridiculous tinkling synth lines to the insipid wafting 'island breeze' acoustic portions to the idiot distorted vocals that robotically croon some of the worst, most stupidly ham-fisted lyrics imaginable ('Freedom and reason shine through/Paddle upon the clouds one's own canoe', really, what the Christ were they thinking), all of it simply screeches the things I decry most in metal.
However, at the same time, despite how fucking stupid this album seems at times, I can't help but respect the purpose of such bizarre machinations. Yes, the synth lines and robot vocals are stupid, but it was most certainly a stupidity that no one had thought to attempt before. 'Focus' opened the doors to numerous new musical ideas for metal music as a whole and broke down commonly held barriers against fusing metal with such flagrantly 'un-metal' music. While jazz/metal experimentation had existed before due to bands such as Atheist, it had never been attempted in such a passive, gentle way that eschewed most of the internal aggression that defined heavy metal in favor of introspection, no matter how awfully phrased such introspection might be. So while I'll make no attempt to claim that I particularly 'enjoy' this album on an aesthetic level, I'll similarly make no attempt to discredit all the lavish praise that is heaped on 'Focus' either. Such praise is well deserved for an album that did so much to advance the metal scene beyond where it currently was, even though certain people such as myself might find many of the features rather distasteful.
Though one has likely gathered what the general sound of Cynic is like from the previous statements, I'll do my best to encompass it once again. The base of Cynic is in a highly technical breed of thrashy death metal with an emphasis on melody and texture provided by keyboards and other nontraditional metal instruments such as the Chapman stick. Vocals come in three distinct flavors: snarling male growls not entirely unlike what one would hear on a dusty copy of 'Seven Churches', sporadic operatic female clean vocals, and synthesized male vocals with a 'robotic' tone. The most logical adjective to use is, of course, 'progressive', as Cynic never ceases to change the direction or tone of their music. This album rarely settles down, with consistently shifting textures that trade off and overlap in what can only be described as organic manner. Frequently a technique will be employed where instrumentalists will slip one by one into the next movement until they have all collected before performing such a maneuver again, making this an oddly flowing listening experience.
Certainly, Cynic can frequently make this a thrilling release on tracks such as closer 'How Could I', where previously mentioned techniques blossom into full, gorgeous prog metal bloom. This is a supremely unaggressive album; instead of portraying typical metal fury, this album concentrates on introspection and tranquillity instead. Certainly one's mileage will vary based on what they seek in a metal album, or, rather, how little metal they're will to tolerate at any given time. The particularly closed minded would likely derive nothing from 'Focus' except frustration and boredom. However, I would stand by my assertation that every metalhead, and indeed every progressive music listener in general, should hear this at least once in order to better trace the development of the genres that we love.
If you own the 2004 Roadrunner re-release of 'Focus', the album does not end with the final strains of 'How Could I'. Instead, it extends for another six tracks. The first three of these are remixes of the songs 'Veil Of Maya', 'I'm But A Wave To', and 'How Could I'. The instrumental tone on these remixes is slightly fuller and crisper than on the original cut of the album, but otherwise, the remixes have little perceptible difference from the original versions. After this, the re-release concludes with three tracks from post-Cynic band Portal's self-titled demo. These tracks in a way provide the denouement to the untimely end of Cynic, showing us where they would likely have gone had they continued. In this case, they would have turned into a full-blown progressive rock band, eschewing all death vocals and most metal instrumentation, replacing those instead with poppy melody and gentle, sweeping harmonizations and jazzy percussion. While not at all poor music (indeed, these tracks seem superior to Cynic at times!), they are most certainly not 'metal' in any sense of the word.
'Focus', while not aesthetically for everyone, is an undeniably seminal work in the dimension of metal and progressive music. While only a certain segment might enjoy what is presented on this album, what is presented is an utterly necessary compendium of sounds that must be appreciated for what they allowed to be created more than what they are in and of themselves.
(Originally written for www.grindingtheapparatus.net)