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It's 1993. "Unquestionable Presence" and "Human" were just recently released by Atheist and Death on the heels of Watchtower's "Control and Resistance". The lines between conventional metal structuring and the freestyle improvisation and rhythmic adventurism of jazz/fusion were being blurred. New bars for technical complexity were being set. Things that had been naturally understood about metal were being questioned left and right. Though even with that, this unorthodox amalgamation of genres was still mostly metal in both execution and aesthetic.
Then, Cynic released "Focus".
This is not death metal. All the people who came at this album expecting to get slammed against the wall by an onslaught of righteous riffing are all the people who came out mostly disappointed. The riffs are not brutal. The leads are not filled with sweeps and million-mile-a-second tremolo picking. The twin guitars do not play parallel to each other. The bass presence is prevalent in a way you rarely see in death metal. There are no blast beats. There are some raspy vocals, but they aren't particularly brutal, violent, raging, discomforting, or anything else you would generally associate with death metal vocals. Not to mention that most of the vocals are filtered through some kind of robotic voice effect that, to be perfectly honest, I don't really like at all.
This also isn't jazz... at least, not exactly. The music is organic and limber, yet driving and metallic. It seems spontaneous, yet one can often discern the obvious effort that was poured over every minor detail and arrangement.
Regardless, I don't think the point of this album was to be one or the other, or even both. The point wasn't to make the most technical recording in the world and hit you square in the face with killer riffs and unfathomable solos. There is nothing visceral about this, at least not in the expected way... even the heavier sections don't feel "heavy", per say. What Cynic did here was create a purely aural journey - they took the (at the time) still dysfunctional jazz/metal hybrid and infused it with such creativity, diversity, and originality that all preconceptions of the validity of such a strange musical mesh were shattered.
The music itself is very dense and multifaceted. Just take 'Textures', for example. Right from the layered, clean guitar tones that bring to mind "Discipline"-era King Crimson, the track takes off and never quite stays in the same place. Instruments weave around one another in an almost improvised, yet beautifully orchestrated and painfully intricate fashion. Sean Reinert's work on the kit transforms cleanly from smooth, fusion-inspired drumming to pounding, lightning-fast fills and double-bass runs.. and the shifts are utterly natural. Reinert never overplays, and has a wonderful sense of dynamics that, when paired with Sean Malone on bass, makes for one of the most accomplished and satisfying rhythm sections in the history of metal.. in my opinion, obviously.
While 'Textures' isn't wholly representative of the remainder of the album, it does present a good baseline for what you will get out of the other tracks. Inspired musical flights are prevalent throughout the whole record - from the suprisingly catchy and smooth transitions on 'Veil of Maya', to the majestic guitars and rhythmic pulsing of 'Sentiment', to the staggering and monumental 'Uroboric Forms', and beyond.
The lyrics also aren’t your typical misanthropic and nihilistic dealings. The content on “Focus” is rooted in philosophy, peace, and other things on that nature. To be honest, I’m more of a music guy than a lyrics guy… so my apologies for not providing a more complete dissection of the lyrics.
For me, this album was an experience.. and considering the timeframe in which "Focus" was released, it was a very significant experience. I discovered this band sort of late. I had already heard many bands who had taken the ideas pioneered by Cynic and further expanded on them. Spiral Architect, Alarum, Behold... the Arctopus, Coprofago, Anata, Gorod... all of these bands and more were firmly rooted in my head when I finally found Cynic. Thus, it was very important for me to look at "Focus" from the perspective of when it was released and what was going on musically at that time, and I think perhaps that's why many people are underwhelmed when they hear this album today for the first time. Even if there is still no band quite like Cynic out there, there are many bands who try to emulate their ideas, and so the effect isn't quite as prominent.
In the end, ignore all the claims of this being the most technical death metal album of all time or anything like that... that's completely off-base and not at all descriptive of what you will find on this album, and might very well leave you sitting there asking, "...that's it?" . Not to say this album isn't technical. It is. The drum performances are superb in every way, the riffing and soloing is imaginative and unorthodox, and the bass is a melodic force of its own. However, these are not the things that make "Focus" such an incredible album. The music here works on a much higher level, and should be approached with a malleable mind.
-5 for silly robot vocals.