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It simply and amorally is - 75%

we hope you die, June 22nd, 2021

I’ve made much of the progressive turn that death metal took in the early 1990s. But this is usually from a cultural angle over a raw analysis of the music. What did it mean that extreme metal – a rampantly chaotic form of music with such primitive origins – fused with jazz via King Crimson, and essentially became metal’s shot at highbrowism, and this at a time of postmodern flux where such demarcations were losing all grounding? This is interesting for many reasons, not least of which is the violent backlash that such noble intentions were met with. At the commercial end of the spectrum a regicide of death metal took place at the hands of utilitarian groove or alternative metal offshoots. But the metal faithful also turned away, either throwing their lot in with black metal or looking once again to old school values for wisdom, a minor prelude to the Retromania that haunts us today. But as trailblazers in the likes of Pestilence, Atheist, Death, and Cynic undergo a latter-day reappraisal thanks to the vaulting popularity of bands like Blood Incantation, a closer look at the music itself might well be in order.

It’s almost impossible to say anything new about Cynic’s ‘Focus’. Released in 1993, from Watchtower to Dream Theater, precedents for such an overt fusion of jazz and metal were not in short supply by this time, and the likes of Death, Atheist, and Pestilence had already cemented progressive death metal as a legitimate subgenre. So why the focus on…’Focus’? Well there’s the obvious Demilichian mythology to this album as a singular outlier, boasting both an immediately identifaible sound, and the original incarnation of the band breaking up before they had the chance to ruin its legacy with a half-baked follow up to dilute this calling card. But there is an answer that reaches deeper into the legacy of this work: ‘Focus’ is not a metal album.

Statements like this tend to confuse genre-preoccupied metal fans so let’s attempt to unpack it a little, becasue it’s not intended as a slight. Whilst other progressive death metal acts were still easily recognisable as death metal, Cynic were essentially offering a concoction of new wave era King Crimson, jazz fusion, Watchtower offcuts, and vocals split 50/50 between death metal growling and vocoder effects. Within these obvious touchstones Cynic range freely over an enormous musical territory, and they make much of integrating these influences into a unified work. Despite its many meanderings and frequent shifts from metallic guitar tones to proggy breakdowns, this is a streamlined and…focused work (I’m so sorry).

But the simple fact is that ‘Focus’ does not behave like a death metal album, it behaves like a showcase of progressive music mores with a smattering of distorted guitars and vocals. It does not flow like a metal album, one that uses an exchange of riffs to build a narrative foundation. Instead, Cynic function more like traditional jazz, in that a repeated riff is used to ground individual passages, leaving each individual instrument free to take turns in improvising (or at least create the impression of improvisation) around this central, grounding refrain. Once an improv cycle is complete, the riff is dispensed with and a new passage is constructed. But because the focus (I’ll show myself out) is on creating a hook to hang these freeform jams on, little regard is given to the transitions themselves or the overall flow of each track. How each moment connects up is of little concern, therefore each passage exists free of context or premises, it simply and amorally is. Hence the reason why a lot of metal fans are turned off by what Cynic were doing here.

Much like King Crimson on ‘Discipline’, when Cynic hit their stride the effect can be mesmerising. The fact that King Crimons’s indulgent take on new wave and the well documented excesses of progressive rock at large are so often dismissed as musician’s music does not mean we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. The appeal simply lies in totally different territory to albums like ‘The Rack’ or ‘Onward to Golgotha’. When so much music is thrown at the listener, particularly music that has a different understanding of rhythm and cadence as opposed to what our ears are accustomed to, it’s easy to dismiss it outright. But the reality is, when done well, it can offer unique expressive spaces that other forms of music simply cannot reach.

But equally, people can easily become over enamored with the apparent sophistication and density of this approach, placing all their stock in exponentially complex sonic information for its own sake. ‘Focus’, whilst far from perfect, walks this line well. Seek death metal and you shall be disappointed, but for a display of the progressive music tendency in its most honest and pure form one cannot go wrong with spinning this album.

It's a case study in music itself, a laboratory of complex formulas and multi-dimensional experiments with no overarching vision or greater purpose. Whether riffs or passages connect up or not is more by luck than design, their chief purpose being a conceptual framework to hang the musical hypotheses of meandering scale runs and freeform improvisations onto. Whether you find this noble or self-indulgent may depnd on what day of the week it is. Music is created and enjoyed for an infinite variety of motivations after all. That being said, a fucking vocoder is a cool little effect to use at certain times, BUT WE DON’T NEED IT ON EVERY FUCKING TRACK YOU SELF-INDULGENT DINGBAT, HAVE SOME SELF-CONTROL FOR CHRIST’S SAKE.

Originally published at Hate Meditations

Acid "Human" - 100%

Hames_Jetfield, April 10th, 2021

The top of death metal in the early nineties of the twentieth century was quite significant, it's mentioned more than once. On the other hand, the approach to the style presented by the Americans from Cynic (along with a few others like Atheist or Pestilence) in 1993 turned out to be something very extravagant by the standards of this genre - enough that the bands themselves were guaranteed death for many years, and a huge misunderstanding among the fans (wrong anyway). Extreme metal and jazz are the things with which they finally - even today! - you do not have contact often, and how the contents of this album shows, they work together really well. And okay, in the case of Cynic this first part may seem a bit stretched (against the blasting bands), but...the death elements on "Focus" appear quite often, especially from the vocals (about it more in a moment), some distorted riffs or the occasional drums gallop. Despite the clear use of styles not related to metal (for example fusion), "Focus" is an extremely unique and paradoxically perfect dose of prog-death.

Many associations with it go towards "Human" (and not only due to the presence of Paul Masvidal and Sean Reinert); similarly technical riffs, schuldinner-like vocals (here performed by Tony Teegarden), some song structures and insane solos (mostly by Masvidal) - it just immediately brings to mind Death. But, but, "Focus" reveals much more than that album when you listen to it deeper! Well, Cynic presented here a much bolder approach to the melody (including Jason Gobel's solos), climate (very melancholic), bass (sometimes with Sean Malone solos!), the use of vocoder vocals (performed by Masvidal), but also...guitar synthesizers! In short, from what is commonly considered to be very risky and going beyond standard death metal. The one by Cynic is obviously very progressive, technical and extremely crazy, but by no means overcomplicated! The musicians knew very well how to move these unusual influences into well-thought-out compositions.

Virtually every track on "Focus" is distinguished by a similar dose of "cosmos", but all of them are so different and non-linear (even though their duration is not too long) that they do not duplicate similar patterns. "Veil Of Maya" perfectly blends between death and jazz, "I'm But Wave To..." takes you to "beach" atmosphere, "How Could I" knocks down with melodies, and "Textures" is something related to improvisation...well, and that's only a part of those listed! The mixture of (death) metal jazz on "Focus" is simply unique in defining it into these (and not only) songs - it absolutely does not affect the smaller amount of the first style. It's a pity that the band itself ended its activity quickly (already in 1994) and delayed the next material for a long time. It's possible that then "Focus" could achieve much more.

Originally on:

VG's Cavalcade of Weird Albums, Pt. 2 - 99%

Valfars Ghost, February 23rd, 2019

Focus is, without a doubt, the single most daring album to come out of the Florida death metal scene. Who but Cynic would have ever thought to create a complex yet atmospheric and meditative mix of jazz fusion, prog, and death metal, much less achieve such a sublime sound with their chosen oddball elements? Released only six years after Death's full-length debut, Focus marked a massive leap forward in terms of what was possible within the death metal template and, while the album can't be said to fall strictly, or even primarily, into an extreme metal context, Cynic's magnum opus proves itself to be remarkably far ahead of its time.

Focus exists at a cosmic crossroads between Obituary, Return to Forever, Pink Floyd, and King Crimson. Their ability to seamlessly work the driving bounce of death metal riffs, thoughtful, subdued textures, and complicated yet purposeful polyrhythmic noodling into their dense sonic tapestry continues to amaze no matter how many times you've heard the material. These are combinations that shouldn't work but never sound anything less than divinely inspired. Some parts of this album deliver a zen, mind-purifying atmosphere, like the spacy interlude in 'Veil of Maya' and some parts have the rollicking propulsion of traditional death metal, albeit with a hyperactive bass that flails with a sense of purpose all over the place. The band's effectiveness in switching from softer to harder sections almost defies belief. Sometimes the shift is abrupt and sometimes the band transitions subtly from one to the other or even plays energetic progressions and zen passages at the same time, like in parts of 'Celestial Voyage' that combines serene vocals with a bouncing metal rhythm section. 'I'm but a Wave to...' is a notable piece, shuffling and grooving along like an alternate universe version of Pantera that gave this 'progressive' thing a try and nailed it. In contrast, 'Sentiment' is the most obvious examples of the album's atmospheric strengths, a piece built almost entirely on textured string instruments and subtle percussion. Despite the vast differences in the levels of heaviness and subtlety between these two songs (and even individual sections of other songs), the album never seems to jump from one tone to another. Somehow, Cynic was able to craft an album that mimics a river with a flow that’s at times slow and peaceful and at other times fast and treacherous.

Such a sublime flow wouldn't be possible without these performances, which are nothing short of amazing. The bass is always noticeable and often unpredictable, bouncing madly along under the surface. Bassist Sean Malone also lends the album quite a bit of expressive and melodically appealing textures when he takes his turn at the Chapman stick. Guitarists Paul Masvidal and Jason Gobel are capable of playing crunchy riffs, intricate polyrhythms, and sparse ambient bits in equal measures. Their solos are particularly commendable, eschewing the shredding insanity endemic to death metal and focusing instead on calmer, jazzier, and more expressive excursions that carry a cosmic vibe. Drummer Sean Reinert, meanwhile, provides some subtle drumwork that isn't without its share of jaw-dropping fills as well as some relaxing percussion reminiscent of the “ethnic” hand drum rhythms you might hear coming from the speakers behind a yoga instructor, particularly in 'Sentiment'.

Despite all the madness, this album bears a remarkable clarity. The songwriting is incredibly intricate and tight but it stays just loose enough for the listener to actually notice and appreciate the album's complexities. All these elements are brought together in what is likely the best mix of Scott Burns’ career, one that gives all the instruments the prominence they need and deserve. Cynic walked one tightrope after another as they made this album and the most crucial one was the challenge of crafting a dense, complex album that was just spacy enough to be inviting rather than intimidating, one that highlighted all the instruments and gave people a chance to perceive all the musical interactions the band demonstrates.

You may have noticed this review has called very little attention to the album's vocal performances. Well, that's because the bizarre and controversial nature of the oft-maligned “robot vocals” warrants its own paragraph. While these odd pitch-shifted voices are certainly difficult to get used to, give them time. Sooner or later, you’ll realize that they’re a crucial part of this band’s vision. At first, they may sound to you like some autotune bullshit but, with a few listens, you should understand what Cynic is going for. Those vocals and the alien aura they possess are a crucial part of the band's vision, a voice simultaneously mechanical and celestial. A one-man choir of robotic angels bearing a message of salvation from some kind of utopian future. These vocals appears in every song except the instrumental 'Textures', providing a mystical yet futuristic flavoring that settles comfortably into some calming sections and soars triumphantly over knottier moments as is heard in the mesmerizing choruses of 'The Eagle Nature'.

Having arisen from a scene with more than its share of samey albums, Focus is a startling reminder of what's possible with the right amount of inspiration, intelligence and chutzpah. Cynic looked so far beyond what their contemporaries were doing and, armed with a startlingly sharp vision, created a sublime experience that's tranquil, chaotic, aggressive, and hopeful, sometimes all at once. And yet, despite the album's complexity and the numerous shades of emotion being expressed, the members of Cynic never seem to be attempting to do more than they're capable of. Similarly, there's no point in the album where things butt awkwardly into each other. Focus is by turns intricate, sparse, dazzling, and sublime but somehow the whole thing manages to be as smooth as pudding. When it comes to albums that roll unusual genres together into a cohesive whole, Focus is almost impossible to top.

Absolutely Legendary - 100%

TimJohns, December 6th, 2014

Cynic is a metal band unlike any other, and "Focus" is one of those majestic and groundbreaking albums that occurred as a perfect storm of technical death metal, progressive metal and even bits of jazz-fusion all into one. With inspirations drawing from everywhere from Chick Corea, Frank Zappa to the traditional thrash and death metal bands, "Focus" stands as perhaps one of the greatest albums to combine metal and jazz together on this unique occasion. It is quite ironic to think that Cynic started out with a complete straightforward thrash and death metal sound on their first demo recording before completely changing their identity and sound as a metal band on their first full length album. Now onto the brilliant lineup that took metal and jazz to both it's extreme limits; Paul Masvidal, Sean Reinert and Sean Malone who are probably some of the most skilled and talented musicians in the metal realm, should be recognized more outside the metal world for their exquisite and diverse musicianship in my opinion.

The opening track "Veil of Maya" is such a beautiful track that blends a flurry of organized chaos at one instant before shifting suddenly to a lush and spacey jazz sequence where the guitar work seems ever changing and soothing, along the bass that has a transcendental effect and plays such an important role with the excellent drumming which follows the guitar and bass extremely well and is quite a remarkable display of blending two different styles of drumming at once. An aspect of "Focus" that I found to be very unique was that the robotic and harsh death metal vocals used together by Cynic were greatly executed and never before performed by any metal band. A track that perfectly shows the combination of robotic and death metal vocals was "Celestial Voyage" which contains probably the greatest guitar solos in metal showing how melody and technical complexity can create something so delicate yet insanely beautiful and imaginatively inspiring.

Every track on "Focus" sounds so different from one another and they all flow together beautifully. Whether it is the captivating instrumental "Textures" or the haunting and spiritual track "Sentiment", it is one of the few albums that I consider every track to be stellar. Each musician also has their own highlights on each track, for Sean Reinert it would be speedy and quite complex drum patterns on "How Could I?", for Sean Malone it would be spacey and jazzy bassline on "Uroboric Forms' and for Paul Masvidal it would be his transcendental guitar solos on both tracks "Celestial Voyage" and "I'm But a Wave To..." As a music fan would enjoys a wide range of music and particularly diverse metal bands, I am quite grateful that an amazing album like Focus was released during this particular time.

There is something about Cynic that makes them so downright exceptional and legendary, whether it is the fact that they influenced future metal bands such "Veil of Maya" or "Textures" who adopted their band names after the songs on "Focus," or is it because Cynic was one of the very few metal bands to go experiment and explore into the unfamiliar territory of jazz and metal alike. Although I mentioned few of the many reasons why Cynic is important to the metal world, everything that makes up the art of Cynic is so brilliantly done, whether it's the artwork, the musicianship, the track titles or even the robotic vocals, and it would be very difficult to imagine what metal would be like without albums like "Focus" who push the limits of the genre. Cynic are definitely musical heroes and some of the most respected and influential musicians to many in the metal community. As a concluding statement, "Focus" helped show how diverse, experimental and musically talented metal can be as a genre.

One of a kind - 95%

SoundsofDecay, November 24th, 2013

Though you could quite easily accuse this album of being a little bit of a mess stylistically, I think the daring nature of Focus is what makes it work best. One thing's for sure: despite the hyper technical death/thrash direction they were heading towards and their amazing 1990 and 1991 demos, Cynic's debut album is not death metal in the slightest. Sure, the technicality associated with death metal is there, and there are some harsh vocals, but really this is an altogether different kind of thing. An impressive blend of fusion and progressive music tied together with technical metal and psychedelia. Bands such as Atheist, Death and Pestilence had been experimenting in the same way around this time, but Focus is arguably the most "far out" of these excursions. I get the feeling these guys were really jazz musicians beginning to break out, as opposed to metal musicians dabbling in fusion influences.

The musicianship on display here is absolutely stellar, mindblowing yet tasteful. No wank to be found. By this point half of Cynic had been featured on Death's groundbreaking Human album two years prior, and listening to the 90/91 demos their chops were already clearly in place. Guitarists Paul Masvidal and Jason Gobel weave intricate melodies (including some absolutely brilliant soloing, some of my favourite ever) around the diverse percussion of Sean Reinert who gives a notably subtle performance with some excellent fills, though he does turn on the double bass pedals when the intensity demands it. There are a variety of different guitar sounds at use, including some great clean tones and some guitar synth textures. Bass extraordinaire Sean Malone contributes some astonishing fretless playing, and even uses a Chapman Stick on one song (perhaps the first time this was done on a metal album). He totally has his own voice amongst the rest of the music, and makes it heard. The vocals are the one thing that is likely to put off some listeners, the vocoder effect does seem to take a little getting used to for some, personally I have always liked it. There are bits of whispering and clean vocals used sparingly at other moments, and though the death vocals by Tony Teegarden are quite firmly in the Schuldiner style, they do fit the album very nicely and give it a bit more of a sharp edge. The lyrics are mysterious yet relatable, concerned with personal and cosmic themes. I really like them. There's an instrumental piece too, where Malone gets a nice jazzy bass solo.

The production of Scott Burns is solid, and despite placing a definite early 90s time stamp on the album, allows everything to be heard nicely and I can't really fault it. However, there's a re-release of Focus that is well worth picking up for the remixes that improve quite considerably on the original, I found myself hearing things I didn't know were there. I do hope that the whole thing eventually sees a remix, as word of it has been going around for some time and that's something I'd really like to hear. After the release of this album Cynic disbanded and didn't get back together until 2008 with Traced In Air which, while a worthy album in its own right, doesn't quite measure up to this as far as I'm concerned. Though it may not click for everyone at first, and may never click for some, Focus remains a unique gem in extreme music.

Out Of Focus - 54%

televiper11, March 5th, 2012

Cynic's Focus is a record I have wrestled with for a long time. I find it alternately brilliant and maddening. There are touches of genius dashed against the rocks of mindless self-indulgence. I once described this record as a death metal version of "Rockit" era Herbie Hancock fronting Yes. You can't help but cringe at the embarrassing new-age lyrics and pseudo-philosophical noodlings, and yet... there is power here: strong rhythms, grating vocals, creepy robotics, hints and allusions to a dark sci-fi filtering of post-Human era Death (from whom this record indirectly sprung). There are times I put this record on and think it's one of the greatest things ever recorded. But mostly I shake my head and wonder how the band ever thought they could stitch such disparate sounds together. Often heralded as the greatest of death metal's first-wave, space-age experimenters, I find this record works less well than those by Death, Pestilence, Atheist, and Cadaver. Excepting "Uroboric Forms," the majority of what I would even consider as death metal music hardly appears at all. Taken directly out of that narrowing genre stricture, the record is more enjoyable but having picked this up in 1993 expecting another classic Floridian death-thrash masterpiece, I was confused and disturbed. This sounded more like those horrible jazz-rock fusion bands that death metal ought be smashing to pieces.

Time heals all wounds however and I can appreciate Focus more now that I am older and less interested in keeping my genres so strictly dissected. But if Cynic really wanted to be the world's heaviest King Crimson, the idea is a bit of a bust. "Veil Of Maya" is notably interesting in its three-tier vocal approach of vocoder, ethereal female phrasing, and death grunts. I like the bouncy, rubbery bass grooves and double-bass aggression. But beneath this veneer is some fairly standard, straight-forward songwriting. The guitar work is mostly boring. These aren't great riffs and the solos get too self-absorbed to really make a lasting impact. There are some occasionally beautiful passages, like at the finish of "How Could I" and in certain passages of "Textures," but overall I am not as blown away as most by the guitar work. Thirty-five minutes blow by without making much of an impression outside of "Uroboric Forms," which is a gripping slice of riveting death-thrash with just the right amount of progressive accoutrement. I wish the rest of the record were more like this. Whereas Pestilence et all deviated from traditional death metal, they still retained the sort of laser-like focus to the genres initial underpinnings that this record seems to throw over completely, leaving "Uroboric Forms" the exception rather than the rule.

Balance every joy with a grief - 88%

autothrall, April 22nd, 2011

Cynic has developed quite a legacy despite the relative sparsity of their collective output. Part of this is the involvement of constituent members in other legendary projects like Death, but much of the credit falls squarely upon the shoulders of the debut Focus. If any album was to be considered an anomaly among the burgeoning death metal scene of the early 90s, it was this one. The band had eschewed the sheer technical thrash of their earlier demos to evolve into an entity the likes which we had simply never heard. Progression had not been unheard of by this time: bands like Pestilence, Atheist and Death were clearly exploring and expanding the boundaries of the genre's definition, grafting fluctuations of form into the marrow of their compositions. But for Cynic, thinking outside the box was not some surreal infusion developed over a number of official releases: it had already been molded into their vertebrae by the time Roadrunner put this album out.

Describing the music here is almost as much a challenge as it was to first listen to it upon release. Highly technical, meandering melodic guitar lines are set in a latticework of talented jazz and rock drumming, with abundant leads set off the primary rhythmic patterns almost as tangents to the central emotions. Instead of simply growling, which might normally have sufficed, guitarist and front man has incorporated a robotic vocal filter which casts an otherworldly, cybernetic gloss over the sheen of the hectic instrumentation. The level of proficiency here is staggering. Cynic made progressive-peak Death sound like rank amateur schoolchildren, and all without the expense of losing strong songwriting values. Copious amounts of guitar synthesizer were incorporated (akin to Pestilence on their Spheres album), but most impressive is the use of the Chapman Stick. In fact, Sean Malone is the backbone of this entire recording. At times I feel like I could just crank down the guitars, vocals and percussion and just listen to his bass playing, a stunning evocation of adventurous fusion that was unrivaled at this time.

The intelligence of Focus is not only found in the music, but in the conceptual groundwork for the lyrics. Applied mythology, astrophysics, and philosophy are woven into its considerable curves, and no expense is spared in creating an ambient awning that suits each thematic extraction. "Veil of Maya" dawns with the mechanical grace of the vocals above a deeper, clean voice and busily percolated bass lines, before the chorus and guttural counterbalance arrive over a stolid miasma of precision thrashing. It's an incredibly uplifting piece, comparable to what Atheist had built on Unquestionable Presence, but more in depth. "Celestial Voyage" is perhaps best known for that snaking, incredulous opening guitar streak, but its subdued, jazzy verses are brilliant as they explode against the metallic current like stars going supernova, witness through the safety of a vast telescope, but no less beautiful. "The Eagle Nature" is marginally more choppy, with the very Death-like guitar tone cutting through it, think of it as a more advanced thesis on what Chuck was trying to achieve through Human. Love those descending vocals around :30.

Then comes "Sentiment" with its pumping bass-lines and wondrous jungle of tribal percussion and sailing, effects-driven vocals. Mid-ranged female vocals are incorporated to create a terse narrative to the musical escalation, and I just love the darkening climax around 1:30. "Uroboric Forms" is again quite similar to the material Reinert and Masvidal were performing on Human, but more intense and memorable, with further female presence, this time ethereal. However, my favorite song here might just be "I'm But a Wave to..." and its scintillating, terrifying architecture of warped synthesizers and cyclic dissonance. I wasn't so compelled by the song "How Could I": it's fascinating, but the individual melodies did not stand out among the album as a whole. As for the instrumental "Textures", it's basically a volcanic orgasm of aural conjecture, and pretty much exactly how you want to pace such a track when it doesn't have the lyrics to back it: sine waves of lucid pleasure exploding into cautious acrobatics, and then back again...

I have noted elsewhere that Brutality's unexpected Screams of Anguish was the best of the Florida death works of 1993, but Focus has one up on even that cult classic, because it simply transcends the entire genre, becomes something OTHER. Something at once beautiful and alien. There are times when I don't love the highly processed production (a similar hurdle that albums like Spheres and Symbolic also face), but Scott Burns manages not to completely cock this up. I can only imagine the guy's face when Cynic presented the material to him. How the fuck am I going to handle THIS one? That he manages to do so without losing many of the myriad nuances is a credit to his ability, though I'd advise that anyone interested lean towards the Roadrunner remaster from 2004 which sounds an inkling better. Focus is not at all a perfect offering because at times it feels as if there is almost too much happening, and one of the tunes seems to trail the rest in quality, but really there was nothing else like it and there hasn't been since...

Hell, this is such an intimidating exhibition of foresight that Cynic themselves would not deign to follow it up for quite some time. I can imagine nigh on endless nights of poring over reams of written material, hurtling it all to the trash bin on accounts of not being good enough. A lot of pensive drinking, or moving on to other projects in hopes that the time apart would somehow surpass what the band started. Ironically enough, they managed that exact feat 15 years later with Traced in Air, a revelatory if more tranquil experience which benefits from far superior and rounded production standards, though a bit of a 'grower'. Alas, the albums are as different as they are the same, and I'm happy to own and experience both on a regular basis: but Focus is the more historically potent, because it helped force open a passage that only the most daring would follow.


Cynic - Focus - 70%

ConorFynes, April 11th, 2011

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.

An Amazing Display of Technicality - 94%

phibzy, October 5th, 2010

As I was getting more and more into different genres of metal, there was one band's name that kept popping up quite often when indulging myself in the history of various bands. Eventually as some time passed, I managed to get to listen to their latest album: Traced in Air. Immediately I was swept away by how different this sounded. The main thing that really hit me were Paul's vocoder vocals, which left me puzzled after listening to a few songs, even to the point of me stopping to listen to the album altogether. However, the release somehow managed to grow on me, and I began to get over Paul's vocals and realise that they were actually part of the "atmosphere" of the music.

Anyhow, after listening to Traced in Air, I wanted to listen to the album that was so talked about amongst the metal community, their debut album Focus. Because I was used to the elements displayed in Traced in AIr, I was able to properly indulge myself into this music, and what can I say, this album is one of the best that I have heard in my life.

The vocals in this album are simply excellent, because it comprises of a trade off between the soothing vocoder vocals and some light death growls. The good thing about the growls (which some people seem to not like) is the fact that they are not overly guttural and loud, which prevents it from completely obliterating the illusion of adventure that is felt while listening to this album. The vocoder vocals are simply amazing and really calm me down everytime I give this album a listen, which is a slight change from most forms of metal.

The guitarwork on this album is of real high quality, with the majority of the two lead guitar parts being completely separate from each other. Instead of the usual boring arrangement of a lead guitar and a very dull rhythm guitar backing it, the two guitarists really explore their own individuality within their guitar parts, with them both usually playing completely different leads to each other.

The bass playing on this album really stands out from other bands. The band have, on this album, purposely put the bass higher into the musical mix, which again adds to this sense of atmosphere created by all the other parts. The playing is extremely well done by Sean Malone, showcasing his ability to play such complex lines of music, and in some sections even outdoing the guitars with his playing.

And now the drums. What can I say, Sean Reinert is just "god like" behind the drum kit. His fill-style of drum playing really lays down a great blueprint for the rest of the music, as it fits in perfectly and really drives the musical atmosphere forward, as well as avoiding to overdo the playing and destroying the music. The fact that this guy pulls off his drumming abilities live with ease is also mind-blowing.

In conclusion, this album to me is really as good as it has been hyped up to be. Although it may take some time to get over the "robotic" vocals, after a couple of listens you will begin to find it a lot easier to listen and eventually be able to indulge yourself in the wonderful diversity of sound that is explored throughout this album.

A Masterpiece of Progressive Death Metal - 97%

__Ziltoid__, April 8th, 2010

Like Atheist, Cynic completely redefined death metal with a huge dose of progressiveness. Yet even though both bands went for the same general idea, they both turned out completely different in terms of their actual musical output. With Focus, Cynic took the same general path as Atheist, while also reaffirming the point that eschewing genre norms can lead to a unique and creative masterpiece.

Focus is simply one of the best progressive death metal albums ever, yet oddly enough, there really isn’t too much straightforward death metal on here. Every track is filled with calm, soothing, almost jazzy interludes, but even with that, the riffs are also not very heavy. The general lack of heaviness on the riffs, however, is absolutely necessary. Riffs like Brutality’s simply wouldn’t fit with the constantly transitioning dynamic structure of Focus. These riffs are not heavy, but rather they add a bit to the generally abstract and celestial atmosphere created by the bass and the vocoder by seamlessly intertwining with them, yet by also being just heavy enough to maintain their identity in the song (a good example of this is around the 2:39 mark in ‘Sentiment’). The solos are also of top quality. While not as significant to the album as those of Unquestionable Presence, they are very technical and add great finishing touches to the songs (of course, with the most notable being the ending solo of ‘How Could I’).

Anyone listening to this album can easily tell you that the bass is almost as central, if not more central, to the music as the guitars. Simply put, this is one of the best bass performances on record. The bass rarely stays behind the guitars, instead weaving intricate melodies all over the album while also staying nice an high in the mix. This bass sound also significantly adds to the atmosphere I mentioned before, giving Focus an almost extraterrestrial-like vibe. In addition, this is a landmark death metal album in that it was one of the very few (including Atheist’s discography) to emphasize the bass as much as it does. This helped revolutionize the role of bass in death metal, making it much more active and creating another dimension to music that many bands were simply ignoring.

The drums are perfect. Really, that is all that needs to be said. Sean Reinert created some amazing rhythms on this album, both in the heavier sections and in the softer sections. Like Unquestionable Presence, the drums often implement multiple rhythms in very short spans of time while also maintaining great cohesiveness. To be blunt, there are very few parts here that you could hear in any other death metal band. Instead, this are all highly creative sections that give the music a high level of complexity.

Of course, the one point of debate amongst the metal community tends to be the vocals. The harsh vocals admittedly aren’t really good, but the do the job enough. The clean vocals, however, really add yet another dimension to this album and to death metal as a whole. To this album, it adds to the atmosphere I’ve touched on before. The inhuman, robotic nature of them fits amazingly well, and the vocoder really shines when the vocals are over a soft section in a song. But to death metal as a whole, it showed that clean vocals can be used. I’m actually really surprised that nobody has attempted to create a death metal album with entirely clean vocals in this vein, but there are many cases now where some death metal albums implement clean vocals in a few sections.

Some of the standout tracks are ‘Veil Of Maya’, ‘Sentiment’, ‘Uroboric Forms’, ‘Textures’, and ‘How Could I’. Note that I listed more than half of the album. That speaks for itself as to how great Focus is.

Written for

The First (But Not Last) Step In Technicality - 93%

Akerfeldt_Fanboi, April 5th, 2009

So, when people talk of technical and or progressive death metal, one of the first bands to slip out of your mouth would probably be Cynic, or Atheist.

Now, what does the title have to do with this? This album is where technical metal should've stopped evolving. Starting out as a great behemoth of confusing melodies and jazz-fusion tendencies, technical death metal was the forefront of unusual music. Then, by the late 90's, we had bands like Cryptopsy that saw it necessary to play scales and diminished runs for near an hour with jazzy drumming and growling.

Anyways, onto the album.

The first thing that will surprise the listener, is the production. Clear, yet an unusually fuzzy guitar tone, loud, and very thick, although every instrument is more than clear.

The next is the vocals, a combination of death growls (performed by keyboardist/producer Tony Teegarden) and a "robotic voice" which is performed by singing in a falsetto voice through a vocoder.

The guitars. These guitars are why this album is the supreme in terms of technical metal. There are probably only one or two parts in a Cynic song where both guitars play the same thing. Almost every riff consists of a strange intertwining melodious riff that is quickly picked, ending in the occaisional complex chord under heavy distortion. The clean parts are fantastically played smooth-jazz fusion, and Textures (the song) is a culmination of Cynic's collective talent.

The bass is monumental. Sure, Atheist and Pestilence had great bassists, but when Sean Malone decided to lay down some lines, everything changed. Twiddling with a fretless bass and a synthetic MIDI pickup, through some slight distortion, we have the soudn of this album. Just like the guitars, there is a rare one or two riffs per song that the bass follows the guitar on.

And, the drumming. The drumming! Sean Reinert, childhood friend of bandleader/guitarist/vocalist Paul Masvidal, is the drummer for technical music. Combining a taste of latin/fusion licks and a heavy sense of accents and rhythm, this album is flowing with energy becuase Sean knows when to play some calm (yet aggressive, somehow) beat, and then follow-up with some ridiculous fill pattern that a drum machine would stutter with.

The songwriting is a pretty damn important aspect of this album. When you hear the genre name "Technical Progressive Death/Fusion" you might cringe, or you might jump into it with an erection. Either way, the perfect fusion of jazz and death metal (no pun intended) on this album is what puts ahead of the others (namely: Atheist). The riffing on this album is fairly consistent in terms of techniques, but even then the guitars never feel dull or boring because of the insane amount of melodic harmonization, and the meticulous detail about it.

The only thing that is even remarkable wrong with this album is the lack of songs. Even just one more song, preferably another full-on jazz instrumental like Textures, would have made this album jump up to a flat 99.

I recommend this to anyone who hasn't listened to it. The vocals may take a bit to get used to, but when they sink in, this album is virtually flawless.

Original? Yes. Overrated? Oh Hell Yes - 65%

bayareashredder, February 19th, 2009

When talking to some online friends over the past year, this band called Cynic kept being brought up. I was getting very confused as I had never listened to Cynic before. I was unaware the band even existed. So I decided why not check out the bands famous debut.

At first listen, I thought this album was very interesting. It was something I had never heard before. Cynic go way beyond death metal, and progressive death metal for that fact, by creating an album that is a combination of death metal, progressive rock, pychodelic, doom, could a band be able to do this? However, despite the bands original sound, they stick so close to this sound that Focus starts off as an hooking album, it stays that way and gets more and more predictable and cliched as the album goes on. The vocals aren't the only issue I have with this album. Cynic are defined as progressive deathe metal, but this album is so progressive that it's to much. I love progressive death metal; later Death, Opeth, and Atheist are some of my favorite bands, but Cynic take the progressiveness way to far.

Focus opens with "Veil of Maya", in my opinion one of the better tracks on the album. This track has a lot of different parts to it. The vocals are incredible unique. Paul Masvidal switches between an echoed clean voice to a Chuck Schuldiner inspired death metal growl. While this technique is very cool at first, I began to notice a flaw after listening to Focus. The vocal patterns are virtually the same thing over and over again. Each song has the same exact vocal tradeoffs as well as vocal phrases. After the first few tracks, I can pretty much predit what is going to come next. The guitar playing a lot different from what I'm use to. Masvidal writes a lot of riffs for each song and uses a bunch of odd time signatures, however that kind of ruins it for me. It seems like he never returns to the same riff twice and constantly changes the rhythms and riffs. I don't know how, but that is something that really bothers me. It sounds like the band is playing a completely different song. The soloing is nothing special at all either. Not saying it's bad, but is nothing compared to guitar greats such as Yngwie Malmsteen, Michael Romeo, or Marty Friedman. Bass guitar duties are given to virtuoso Tony Choy, who played on Atheists "Unquestionable Presence," a death metal classic. While I do like his work, he seems to do nothing but show off on Focus. Drummer Sean Reinert has always been a talented player. He's always been well known since he and Masvidal played on Deaths "Human" album. But here, he too is playing a bunch of odd time signatures and does nothing but show off. The whole band seems to show off. As technical as each member is, there is so much going on that it is very difficult to forcus on any particular musician.

"Veil of Maya" and "How Could I?" are standout compositions and show that the band has a lot of potential. After these two tracks, the album never amazes me. The other tracks are good, but are vocally predictable, musically confusing, and sometimes even boring and uninteresting. "Textures" for example is just a very filler instrumental with everybody showing off and many tracks like "The Eagle Nature" starting off strong but end up being boring. Yeah it is "progressive" metal, but I think it's worth saying that this album is TO progressive. Because of this, Focus and the rest of Cynic fall into my catagory of "all skill and no soul." As talented as they are, I don't see any creativity in terms of song structure and composition.

Some positives for album include how unique it is. It did hook me into listening to the album when I started listening to it. As stated before, each member is very talented and skill and techinque have always been an aspect within heavy metal. Besides all the negatives I have said about Focus, I do overall enjoy this album. "Veil of Maya" is a dark track with some good riffs and unique singing and "How Could I?" is a very good album closer. But my favorite aspect of the album is the constant use of clean guitars. Not many death metal bands will even think about switching off the overdrive. Cynic are a good example of how diverse death metal can be, along with Opeth.

Overall, I did like the album, but all the same I was somewhat disappointed. The high praise I heard about this album made me expect another "Human" or "Unquestionable Presence" but those standards were nowhere near met. I probably will never see why this album is greatly regarded. Anyone who loves death and/or progressive metal or looking for something different will really like this album. But for me, I will pick Death, Opeth, or Atheist over Cynic anyday.

One of the best metal has to offer - 100%

Technical101, December 24th, 2008

In 1993 four amazing musicians released one of the defining moments in music history with Focus. Fusing death metal with jazz, speed with passion, aggression with beauty, and the present with the future, Cynic created a highly original work of art that has to be heard to be believed. They weren't the first to mix metal with jazz but they perfected it with their debut album. There are so many new things this band tried but it all worked and came together like it always belonged that way. From programmed drums mixed with Reinert's impressive playing, to jazz-tinged interludes, to death growls mixed with robotic singing, to the occasional female vocals, Focus is all over the place but it doesn't sound inconsistent. The entire album flows easily through every song, never ceasing to amaze from start to finish.

Paul Masvidal − guitar, guitar synthesizer, vocals
Sean Reinert − drums, percussion, keyboards
Jason Gobel − guitar, guitar synthesizer
Sean Malone − bass, Chapman stick
Tony Teegarden − death grunts, keyboards

Guitars: Masvidal and Gobel perfectly intertwine their riffs and melodies around each other creating a deep, detailed sound. They both go in different directions but, when put together, they mesh into one coherent force. Solo duties are shared between the two, usually one each per song, and they're quite capable at doing so. Masvidal and Gobel form an amazing guitar duo, perfectly complimenting each other's strengths. They're use of synthesizers only adds to the all around Cynic sound.

Bass: This is arguably the best bass performance on any metal album ever. Sean Malone plays his fretless bass with precision and perfection. It's always audible and is one of the driving forces of Focus. It adds a smooth feeling rather than the pounding attack of most metal bassists. He also contributes a stunning and masterful bass solo in Textures. His bass playing really is something to behold. On top of that, he also plays a chapman stick in a few tracks, introducing yet another unique aspect of the band. It's almost impossible to describe the amazing work that Malone lays down here...

Drums: Reinert is one of the best drummers out there, in any style of music. He's quite possibly the best member of Cynic as far as mixing the heavy metal playing style with that of traditional jazz. There are no blast beats and he rarely uses the double bass drum, though there are key moments that he injects them to add emphasis to the heavier parts of the album. He skillfully uses accents and fills to keep everything interesting and his cymbal work is astonishing. Malone also encorporated programmed drums on some tracks, that further enhance the futuristic sound and approach they were hoping for.

Vocals: Cynic used not only the typical death growls of Tony Teegarden but Paul Masvidal sang through a vocoder-type effect. These two contrasting styles are split almost perfectly down the middle. Just as the music goes from soft jazzy parts to hard-hitting metal, the two vocal styles transition perfectly from one to another. The growls are not as deep and guttural as most death metal growls but are just as aggressive and add the right atmosphere throughout the album. The synthesized vocals are a clear highlight (in an album full of hightlights), making the music sound decades before it's time (and it was). The full futuristic sound is realized through Masvidal's unique vocals. In addition there are a few instances of some well-timed female vocals that don't feel out of place.

Lyrics: The lyrics range from mystical and spiritual in nature to bettering oneself and various philosophical ideologies. Every song is inspirational in it's own right, something that is rare throughout all metal genres. Cynic were giving the world new ideas and directions with every facet of their music and the lyrics are no exception.

Production: In order for all these amazing musical qualities to perfectly come together there must be a superb production job and that's exactly what we get here. Scott Burns outdid himself with Focus. Every little direction each instrument ventures off into can be perfectly heard and focused on individually. This kind of crystal clear production allows multiple listens just to take in the diverse sounds and arrangements. The guys in Cynic couldn't have asked for a better production job.

Overall Focus is an album for the ages. An album that should forever be remembered for everything it accomplished. Modern bands still haven't caught up to this level of songwriting. This is an absolutely flawless work of art, a masterpiece in every sense of the word.

Completely original. - 96%

Empyreal, July 5th, 2008

People claim that this is a Death Metal album, but I just don't see that. Cynic apparently started out as a Thrash Metal band, but by the time they released this, their storied 1993 debut album, they had morphed into an entirely new beast. I can't really call this anything other than Prog, because it really does progress, and in an entirely new direction from the then-infantile Dream Theater and their blend of Heavy Metal with Rush/Fates Warning-esque Prog Rock. Nothing else has ever sounded like this.

Cynic play a very technical, spacey style of music, with an open, hollow sort of production job that lets you hear every little note and every eccentric instrumental bit. The best way to describe it is that they take a vaguely Pink Floyd-ish Psychedelic Rock base and build upon it with Thrash Metal riffs and vocals that alternate between a harsh, blackened rasp and, more peculiarly, a robotic sort of warble that will definitely turn some more casual listeners off - but it fits the music, and for that I like it fine. There is a delicate sense of melody here that contrasts greatly with the reckless progressivism at hand, and it's really something you have to hear to believe. Comparisons can be made to the inimitable Atheist, especially in the technical rhythm guitars and the drumming, but that's just a surface comparison. Cynic are more Prog Rock than Atheist's Jazz leanings, and their riffs are a good deal heavier and more metal than anything Atheist did after their debut album. With songs like "Veil of Maya," the propulsive, almost Power Metal-ish "Celestial Voyage," the fascinating voyage of "Sentiment," with its tribal drum intro segueing into a utopia of progressive, soulful meanderings, and the dreary, psychedelically flavored instrumental "Textures," Cynic will take you on an ethereal, mystical journey that you will never forget.

There are really no bad songs here. Cynic are technical, yes, but they never fall into the void that most modern bands do, that of no songwriting, just instrumental proficiency. They build upon already fascinating songs with layers of outer space brilliance and progressive refinement to create an absolutely stellar slice of Metal that will keep you coming back for more for years to come. Essential.

Originally written for

Cynic - Focus - 90%

mentalselfmutilation, May 2nd, 2008

A often remarked album in the death metal scene, and metal scene as whole for what it is. Cynic's one and only album from the early 90's was right in the advent of the jazzy progression of death metal in technical structure. Bands like Atheist at the time releasing albums such as Unquestionable Presence and Elements, Bands like Death coming off the legendary Human album, death metal as a whole was beginning to be defined as a genre that it would eventually become. Along comes Cynic to throw a whole wrench into the scene with a single album.

Cynic is not your typical band by any means. While bands like Atheist and Death who at the time were taking the death metal archetype and incorporating technicality and jazz related influences into each album, they remained more or less faithful to the genre's extreme factors rather well. However Cynic takes a completely different route with the entire genre. The much acclaimed and much recognized hallmark of the death metal scene strikes many people for its unique elements. The bass itself becomes a driving force which licks more dominant than the usual you hear from the genre, and definitely defines many passage while the dual guitars are going through your ears with combining and sometimes conflicting guitar passages. Some riffs while not being very brutal very reminding of early death metal in genre in the vain of death, especially during the years of albums like Spiritual Healing or Human, then throwing it around into a sudden melodic passage which fits perfectly, which is something many following bands have yet to accomplish with a half dozen albums while Cynic throws it down perfectly on this one single album.

The musicianship as a whole can be complimented. Not one thing about it seems generic or uninspired. Vocals are far from the usual growls, or even the gutteral grunts reminiscent of the early Florida death metal scene. Sometimes clean though digitalized sounding, other times an attempt at the death metal vocals is made, but not with the same strength and aggression we've come to know and love. The guitars aren't just sweeping back and forth or playing generic tremolos or chugging chord progressions often found commonly with modern death metal. The drums aren't sitting there on generic blast beats or anything, this album is just perfect and in its own world. The musicianship cannot be argued by anyone, and the unique factor of this album still remains to this day 15 years following the original release of this album.

I cannot begin to find a place to look in criticizing this album, everything just takes you at full force and brings you to a place unfamiliar in a genre so structured and defined, while at the same time doing it in a way that isn't otherwise ridiculous or overly pretentious. The single album this band has released has in itself become an overall classic from the early 90s wave of death metal that should be owned by anybody who can find it. Cynic has proven themselves to truly be one of the greatest driving forces of the technical death metal scene!

Technical and Enjoyable! - 95%

Chrispaks, August 6th, 2007

At first no one can really enjoy this album because there is basically no other band to my knowledge, that uses these kind of vocals. It’s like getting used to a whole new genre. Again. When you first started, death metal, for example: Was it hard to get used to the vocals? If this description does not fit you, then you will see once you start this album. Nothing prepares you for what you are about to face, so many sure your ears are open and ready to absorb all the new ideas soon to be heading to your ears. Just for comfort, most people who play an instrument bathe themselves in this album for long periods of time, because of how well it is crafted.

Lets start with the technically. Cynic defined technical metal with this album *and atheist). If you see some of their tablature on the main site (At you see that they do use time changes a lot. Some parts exist in basic 4/4 timing, others in 21/16 (Uroboric Forms). Playing in anything/8 time signatures can be hard, especially at high speeds, but playing something over /16 at the tempo for Uroboric Forms just messes with the mind.

The abundance of well crafted solos is also quite a relief, as this tends to be lacking in technical metal bands. Most tech-death bands will actually try and make their solo really ‘amazing’ and impossible to perform, but this cuts into the overall effect. In Focus, this is not the case. Whether its an arpeggio from Veil of Maya, to the amazing Jazz-Metal fusion solo at the end of How Could I, the guitar work proves to be consistently hard to play and amazing to the ear. The drumming by Sean Reinert and his jazz-feel that he brings to the table makes Cynic a band that stands out. He layers 12/8 all over the place, and manages to use 4/4 timing for his double bass pattern (If you know jazz and be-bop this isn’t hard at all). In some places it is just impossible to copy. Lastly on our bass, Sean Malone, doing all his dirty work without much notice. Its actually audible this time, which is nice. He doesn’t slack of either… and manages to actually mix up the bass notes instead of going 1-1-1-1-2-2-2-2 like most bassists today.

There is three parts to this album:
1. Metal intro
2. Abstract middle
3. Versatile end

Let me go into extreme detail:

1. Metal intro: You can see through Veil of Maya, Celestial Voyage, and Eagle Nature, that they contain heavy riffs, odd time signatures, and soothing parts to each of them. Veil of Maya has its African Bossa Nova/Samba Briza break, Celestial Voyage has its otherworldy chorus-ending, and Eagle Nature has its famous ending. These are your three main songs, with their own metal touch and double bass. They all tend to follow the same pattern though.

2. Abstract middle: Most people who will end up not liking Cynic abort the album here. Sentiment and I’m But A Wave To… really are based on technically and soloing of each member. Sadly this part is the least memorable and is the reason this album did not get 98-99%. It’s still great, but feels out of place sometime. The vocals and the idea behind the vocals are insanely philosophical though.

3. Versatile end: Your reward for getting this far: Uroboric Forms. HOLY. SHIT. The fastest track Cynic has ever done and the time signature (See top of review) is insane. Next is Textures. Best instrumental ever. Ok its basically equal to Cosmic Sea by Death. This is the true shining of talent. Its actually not hard to play, but coming up with the idea for this song is insane. I can play it on drums, and took 2 weeks, but wow this song is ridiculous. I still cant get the drums on the bass solo part. Lastly is How Could I, the final epic song that we all have been waiting for. With its keyboard intro, and then jazzy metal fusion drumming, we see a final display that will leave you sad to have finished this CD. Jason Gobel’s final guitar solo is one of the most non-popular amazing solo I’ve ever heard. It’s the best one out there, but no one remembers it. Just enjoy it as you finish your first round of Focus.

In conclusion, you must own this album if you own Atheist/any tech metal band. This is a must have. Sean Reinert’s work on this has spawned 15+ years of jazz-metal fusion drummers, including myself. This is not even counting what the other members of the band have created. This album is so mysterious, it’s hard to recommend to people, but if you want a new experience… get it!

A very important album - 90%

Noktorn, December 20th, 2006

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

Cynic - Focus - 95%

asmox, December 9th, 2006

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.

One of Metal's Greats - 98%

invaded, November 8th, 2006

Cynic have achieved legendary status since their disbandment in the early 90's, and with good reason. As far as originality and musicianship were concerned, these guys were up there with other legendary Florida DM acts.

As previously stated, the musicianship here is phenomenal, Masvidal and Gobel complement each other perfectly while infusing jazzy riffs with death metal ferocity. Another cool element of the music lies in the fact that most of the time the two guitarists play completely different parts. The bass playing is also phenomenal, with Sean malone at his best on the instrument. Sean Reinheart is also a world class drummer who switches it up as often as possible.

This music is one of the most unique releases in metal history. Having a similar jazzy nature as Atheist, but with more emphasis on fusion, these guys delivered an earthy, melodic and yet groovy and colorful record which satisfies my musical palet in many ways. The riffing is fantastic, the electronic vocals take some time to get used to but their placement and use is in the end perfect. Cynic truly were on to something different and they hit the nailon the head. Whenever the band slows down, it does not detract from the listening experience, rather you soak in the different chords and vocal arrangements.

Standout tracks include the opner "Veil of Maya", "The Eagle Nature" with its intense riffing and extreme time juxtapositions, "uroboric Forms" once again kicks ass, being one of the heavier offerings on here. The instrumental "Textures" is totally dreamy and space-jazz-proggy(I guess), the closer "How could I?" is also very cool.

The songwriting is very cool and very different, definitely one of the greatest metal offerings of all time.

The peak of originality in the Death Metal scene - 100%

Luka_Carvalho, December 6th, 2005

Cynic, a legendary band that fused their love for Death Metal with a recent influence of Jazz/Fusion and progressive rock. The result is here, Focus is an album that was beyond it's own time, the instruments are all played perfectlly and, thanks to a crystal clear production they can be all heard clearly.

Paul Masvidal and Jason Gobel give a 2 guitar lead assault to your ears, most of the moments each one is doing a diffrent riff, and the occasional use of guitar synths are in the right place, extending the texture of the riffs or of the song itself. Paul and Jason work with other bands (most notably Death and Monstrosity, respectivelly), helped to give them experience in the Death metal field while hearing Chick Corea and Allan Holdsworth pavimented their way to the freedom and dynamics of Jazz/Fusion. Paul's robot voice just sets the mood through deep meaning and philosophical lyrics, giving the songs a more cosmic feel.

Sean Reinert plays here in a very jazzy style, in a few moments you can hear him repeating the brutality of his performance in Human (most notably in Uroboric Forms), but most of the time his playing is filled with jazz technics and complex rhytms, which makes him one of the best drummers in the world.

Sean Malone is a bass god and shows here all his talent and creativity, sometimes using the unusual Chapman Stick, just hear his bass solo in "Textures" to see what i'm talking about, and since his bass is high in the mix there will be no problems to experience his contribution here.

This album is a classic that should be experienced in max volume, it represents the golden era of Death Metal.

What is there to focus on anyway? - 17%

Funeral_Shadow, September 28th, 2005

I really went out of my way to get this so called "legendary" album... at the time, there weren't remastered versions of this album. Apparently, I have the original version of the CD and I definitely was expecting some extra-ordinary stuff from this album being I heard so many grand statements about this CD. Once again, I was wrong and this isn't "the progressive death/fusion" album ever...

In the booklet of this album, there is a statement at the top of the lyrics that read something like "the music here represents artistic emotional expression..." Cynic indeed had a vision in creating this album but I'm definitely not seeing it clearly. It's very mediocre death metal mixed with very melodic breaks and jazz-filled drumming and very cheesy sound effects. Cheesy isn't even the word to describe this album in whole... I wouldn't even consider this death metal at all. Why anyway; just because there are distorted guitar sounds and a guy singing some "sissy" sounding death growls? If anything, this is indeed progressive metal with fusion thrown in there. It's like Dream Theater with a very fusion experimental feel to it.

I'll give these guys one thing: they have great musicianship. You could tell that these guys took sometime to arrange each song to be what it is. It's not like they just sat in the studio and thought "so what should our next song be like?" Another thing I'll give these guys is the lyrics. Indeed they're very poetic songs and I can sense some meaning in most of the songs. Oh and the production of this album is superb for an early 90's release. Every instrument can be heard crystal clear (for the most part, you can only hear the bass loud and clear over everything else, and in this case, this isn't really a great thing being I feel metal should be more guitar oriented and not bass oriented.) Though, this all still doesn't amount to these guys making a great release.

To be honest, I can't think of a worthy song on this album. Every song indeed is well constructed, but none of them appeal to me. The robot-like vocals really kill everything to begin with, and the sissy-death growls don't make anything better at all. The riffs are very mediocre and you can't "feel" them (if this truly was death metal, then you can feel the riffs through the earphones/speakers of your playing device!), the bass lines basically dominate over everything (killing the "metalness" to the CD), and the drumming is the only decent thing on this album. This basically sounds like some early 80's new-wave CD mixed with some metal in there.

Don't believe the hype behind this so called legendary CD! There are better progressive death/fusion/jazz metal bands out there. Cynic, I would say, is the lesser of all the death/fusion bands of all. Try picking up an Atheist album, later Pestilence or Death's "Symbolic" album for great progressive death metal with jazz influences in them.

This, in other words, is sheer garbage.

Ear Candy: Nothing.

To sail through cosmic seas… - 98%

Ritual, August 29th, 2004

One and only album of the most fascinating bands ever. Cynic is a legend, and it deserves proper respect. Although I often drop listening to “Focus” in favor of more vivid Atheist’s “Elements” (jazz influenced as well), I believe it to be one of the best metal albums ever.

It is said that Cynic’s technical ultra-skill is their greatest virtue. Indeed the guitar play is awesome (were they able to repeat that live, I wonder?), the same refers to bass and drums – I love those jazz-metal broken rhythms. The music is rather soft and melodic – though it may sound odd (especially for the first time) due to synthesized vocals. Actually vocals are the weakest side of the album – sometimes they fit, sometimes they don’t (damn, I hate those on “Sentiment”). Maybe that’s the reason why people often consider instrumental “Textures” the best piece on this album?

In my personal opinion, one of the most unique features of Cynic are their fascinating lyrics. Those are not just couple of songs – it’s poetry. I think people pay little attention to what is said in death metal songs (because it’s usually worth crap, right?) – and in this particular case it is a big mistake. Try out my favorite “Celestial Voyage” – it’s short, and it’s crushing.

I recommend this album to all fans of jazz and metal.

The greatest album of all time - 100%

GS_Abbath, August 6th, 2004

I have listened to alot of music in my day, be it classical, to blues, to jazz to straight up rock. I hold many albums from all sorts of genres in high regard (Mahavishnu Orchestra - Birds of Fire is one of the greats in the jazz world), but never have I heard an album so complete and groundbreaking in my life. This may seem as overpraising, but I sincerily believe that this album is the best I have ever heard.

Every track has its purpose on the album, and each one fills its duty to a "T". Whether it be the spacy "Celestial Voyage", the mellow "Textures" or the simply beautiful "How Could I?", no stone is left unturned here, giving us the full spectrum of music and emotion condenced into less than an hour of music.

Technically, this album lies at the pinnicle of metal. Unsurpassed by anything I have heard, every instrument is at work here, creating a full bodied sound wich at all times is "working". Guitar riff weave in and out of eachother. Both guitarists play distinctly differant parts, yet they seem to be playing the same thing at once. Never have dynamics between two players been so perfect. As for the soloing, both Masdival and Gobel have distinctly differant approaches, making the trip through the album interesting and diverse at all times.

The drumming is spectacularly performed by former Death member, Sean Reinert. His work in Death is the best of any Death drummer's, but his playing on "Human" pales in compairison to what he does on "Focus". Rich sounds come from his kit as we hear constant tom fills, cymbal work and inventive bass drumming. Odd time signatures are everywhere, never letting the listener "settle" into his playing.

The vocals range from standard death/thrash fare to oddly "robotic" sounding clean vocals. At first, I was not a fan of these synthesised vocals, but you come to realize that they are essential in the album's feel and overall sound.

This is indeed the thinking man's album, filled with jazz influences and familiar death metal (courtesy of Masvidal's helping of writing "Human"). Influences are clear, but they manage to create something completely original and unique. As an extra note, "How Could I?" is, in my opinion" the greatest song ever written and is spectacular every time I listen to it. The outro solo is the perfect cap to this trip through "Focus"

Required listening.

Perfect in every way... - 100%

Skullhammer, July 26th, 2004

Cynic... along with Atheist these guys were the outcast of the Florida death metal scene in the early 90's. For what reason? By being more talented than the other bands. For having a jazzy influence... by being different. These guys didn’t deserve to be booed of stages. These guys didn’t deserve a short career with 4 demos’ and 1 full release.

Anyway this album is perfect. Paul Masvidal was afraid of losing his voice so he quit growling. His vocals were now clean but they used synthesizers and in the end the voice sounds sort of like Ozzy's voice in Planet Caravan but with a rather robotic feel to it. It can’t be explained in words. The vocals are rather odd but perfect. Also Tony Teegarden is added for the growling death metal vocals so you have a mixture of robotic clean vocals and growling death metal vocals. It works well.

The guitar work is simply amazing. It’s so fast, so original, so crazy! There are so many riffs. Its amazing these guys could play so well. Paul Masvidal and Jason Gobel are by far one of the best duo guitarists. The guitar riffs aren’t parallel to each other either. While Paul is playing something, Jason plays something completely different. It’s so weird and different from anything else you may have heard but it works perfectly. Sean Malone's bass lines are simply amazing. Sean Reinert's drum playing is also great. Everything about this album is great other than the short length.

All the songs are completely different from each other. Textures stands out from the rest. It’s an instrumental song with jazzy clean guitars. And then near the end distorted guitars come in. Pure brilliance.

To sum everything up this album is PERFECT! If you can manage to find a copy of this album GET IT no matter what the cost is. You won’t be disappointed...

Best Prog./Death album EVER. - 100%

Dead_As_A_Door_Nail, October 13th, 2003

This album is something special. It takes elements of complex, jam-session jazz and fuses it with technical death metal (think Death's "Human" or "Individual Thought Patterns") PERFECTLY. From the pure jazz/death classic, "Veil Of Maya" to the more straight forward, but still technical "Uroboric Forms" to the jazz instrumental "Textures", this album has you in it's grasp from the very begining and doesn't stop bombarding you with complex drum beats, death growls, spacy robot voices, atmospheric keyboard licks, mighty guitar riffs or awe-inspiring bass lines until the very end. Some people may be turned off by the off the wall jam session feel, but i find it a good thing. There is so much going on at once, that you'd want to listen to it over and over again so you can get every little detail. Sure, the robotic sounding vocals and the female vocals that come in from time to time may be a bit hard to get used to at it ENHANCES the musical experience and it fits well with the free, atmospheric sound. Every song here is a winner, there is no such thing as a weak track in this album, it's all just about perfect.

Other then the stupid robot voice, it's great. - 90%

megafury, August 8th, 2003

A fine piece of work but with two things that bother me. That robotic voice, it's sounds like some dumb futuristic robot reject from some bad 80's kiddy cartoon and the female vocals. I don't mind female vocals much but it kind of feels out of place here. I think the album would actually be even better with virtually no vocals at all, especially in the song, "Sentiment", whoever is talking in that song sounds funny.

It would stand strong as a real solid album if it stuck with being a progressive jazzy death metal jam session. Catchy memeorable moments come up often in the music when the jazz parts come up. This sounds like Death's "Human" album only with a great emphasis on jazz.

Taleneted band with good technical skills. I enjoy every solo that comes up. The album may not be littered with solos, but there's enough to keep you happy.

If you want to hear something beautiful, listen to the song, "Textures", I love every minute of it. If this song was absent from the album, I probably would have lowered the admiration I have for the Cd dramatically. Textures has no vocals, which is why it's perfect. The band displays how well it could create melodic jazz and make it burst into some thrashy death metal. The softness and roughness were blended well together and you get to appreciate the music without the distracting vocals that are in the rest of the album.

Is this it...? - 60%

capeda, May 21st, 2003

I heard so much about this album before I ever heard it. I heard allegations like "Cynic is the most technical band on the planet" and "Cynic sounds like three Dream Theater discs playing simultaneously if Petrucci had 6 arms and 3 guitars."

....So OBVIOUSLY, I was very disappointed after listening to the whole album. There isn't even any odd-time signatures on the first half of the disc, and it really doesn't touch Dream Theater in terms of technicality (I guess most people are biased against that band for some reason!). Sure, the drum-performance is pretty stellar, and the bass-performance is quite good (one of Sean Malone's worst performances, although still awesome). There isn't really any impressive riffs guitarwise, though. It's cool that Masvidal and Gobel often play parts on guitar that are not parallel (something that most metal guitarists don't do), but none of the riffs are of high quality. There is also some good dynamics... death metal riffs interlaced with clean guitar and synth breaks... but it gets pretty tired by the end of the album, as most of the songs follow the same formula: heavy, light, heavy, light, solo, etc. Many of these tracks are TOO FUCKING SHORT, as well. Why did Cynic want to cram good ideas into little packages? If they would have developed their ideas and songs a bit more and drawn them out longer (around five to eight minutes each would suffice), I may have given Focus a better score. Anyways, this album is not without redeeming value, though, as some of the guitar solos are damn near impossible to conceive, let alone play.

My favorite track is probably the instrumental track, Textures. It features a neat bass solo by Malone, and an all around great performance by the rest of the band.

In closing, this album is decent, but FAR from essential. If you want good progressive metal, check out maudlin of the Well. If you want technical, dynamic stuff, check out Spiral Architect and Dillinger Escape Plan. In my opinion, those bands feature far better and more engaging songwriting.