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Cynic > Focus > Reviews > Feast for the Damned
Cynic - Focus

My Birthday's Bad Album Extravaganza Part IV: The best album I hate - 33%

Feast for the Damned, April 2nd, 2024

If there ever was an opinion that would get me crucified, it would be this. I – among many others – went down the early technical death metal rabbit hole early on. Discovered Death, then moved onto Atheist before checking out stuff like Spheres from Pestilence, Hellwitch, and Gorguts’s post-Obscura albums. One way or another, all these have contributed to the creation of this sub-subgenre that we call technical (and sometimes progressive) death metal. Yet perhaps none tried bending the well-established, albeit unwritten rules of death metal like Cynic have. Many would go as far as to say they are the absolute pinnacle of thinking man’s metal, so why in God’s name do I hate Focus???

It took me a while to find the answer to that very question because as much as I don’t like this, I know I should. It’s infinitely intricate with every song showcasing both Seans and Paul Masvidal’s outlandish skills with their respective instruments. I mean this most sincerely, hell, we get to the point where it just feels like jazz musicians jamming death metal after discovering Human from Death (and yes, I’m aware of half the band’s involvement in that record). Yet, those jazz musicians seem schizophrenic, absorbed in their own attempts at making the most progressive, most technical metal known to man. This is how Focus ends up being more of a stream of consciousness of a troubled mind, rather than a musically cohesive album.

Veil of Maya starts off the record in an agreeable manner. Loud, purposeful bass line galore gets accompanied with razor sharp leads and stop-n-go rhythm guitars set the tone for this track. Then, as anyone who heard the record would be painfully aware, the vocoder vocals appear. I for one don’t mind it on the album opener, but somehow this esoterically robotic touch got a main role throughout the entire album appearing in places where it has no place to be. A sombre clean section follows after the more metallic part, before returning to Paul’s Chuck Schuldiner inspired raspy half-growls. I could mention the solo that is nothing short of mind-blowing with its starting melody turning into rather chaotic squeals, but I think you get the picture. This sounds like it could be a start to a great album, and honestly, I’d agree. This is by far the most conventionally prog/tech death song on here and I dig it.

But - there is always a “but” when it comes to this record. First is that while Paul does have the resemblance to Chuck, he has none of the charisma. He just sounds weak and non-descriptive (I know, that sounds weird to say in death metal) and that sadly leaves the vocoder madness to do the lead vocals in several songs. They sound fine on Veil of Maya as a pseudo-chorus of sorts, but when they get utilized for other duties is where it gets annoying. On Celestial Voyage and The Eagle Nature they absolutely overwhelm the whole thing resulting in the otherwise fine instrumentation taking a backseat.

Believe it or not, that isn’t even my main gripe with Focus! That would be how the entire second half feels like an abundance of ideas, off-kilter riffs and ambient passages thrown at the wall, seeing if they stick. With absolutely no regard for musicality I might add! Take How Could I for example, as it is by far the biggest offender of this. Cool ambient keyboard section starts off the song that hooks into an uncharacteristically melodic riff, but what happens then? It abruptly transitions into a completely different section both stylistically and atmospherically, with guitar acrobatics getting broken up again by the ever-present tinman. Okay, it happens, you get used to this new direction, but then a solo breaks up the song’s stride once again. Oddly spiralling out of control, it showcases virtuosic playing, but the high whines of the guitar do nothing to glue the rest together. Truth be told, it does quite the opposite. It’s the third completely distinct idea (sound-wise) that they put in a single track and expected to mash together, but I’m here to tell you none of this works for me. Not once are the individual parts given enough time to develop fully, constantly jumping from A to B then to Z without a single care in the world. Granted, the ending returns the first riff which might sound like it’s a good thing, but the sharp turn the song needs to take to get there is breaking my god damn neck.

The same goes for every track, even I’m But a Wave to… which I have a soft spot for as it sounds more in line with what Atheist was doing couple years prior. It just goes so far beyond what death metal is – hell even what metal is – that it losses all of its appeal to me. And that’s the crux of the thing. There are handful of individual parts that could have been made into great songs, but there are even more parts that throw you off, completely butchering any cohesiveness there might have been. It is actively hard for me to listen to Focus as it continuously finds new ways to frustrate me with how unconventional it is for the sake of unconventionality. You could say I just don’t get the music, and yes, that is in fact the case. But then explain to me why do I find enjoyment in equally chaotic and outlandish records such as Obscura? I really tried enjoying and appreciating it, I really did. However, after countless attempts the last 8 years and 10+ this year alone, I’m done forcing myself listening to Focus. It’s an influential album made by astonishingly talented people, and I’ll never take that away from them, but it’s fucking awful to listen to.

The highlights of the album are Veil of Maya and I'm But a Wave to...