Jan-Mikael’s EARS: review Cynic’s ‘Focus’ (expanded version)
What is it?
1993. The year Focus was released saw the rise of a current of musical apoplexy and myopia, a wave of anti-guitar heroes, and a tidal surge of placebo-pop.
Dream Theater’s ‘Images and Words’ had just been released, as had Damn the Machine’s eponymous debut (and swansong). Progressive metal was a buzz-word and fusion a by-word….
Enter Cynic. Founded as a death metal/thrash band, this ruddy-faced group of music students with roots firmly grounded in jazz-fusion and classical orchestration, appeared on the Florida metal scene and sowed the seed for a genre that would not come to fruition until nearly a decade later, long after the band-members had left Cynic to pursue their muses…
What it is:
The term progressive metal is really a misnomer for ‘Focus’. Calling it jazz-metal is equally as erroneous. This is, in the truest sense of the word, fusion, as it combines almost seamlessly the dark, heavily distorted sounds of metal with a fluidity of harmonic progression and many of the hallmarks of jazz, and even modern classical music.
Challenging rhythms, compositional logic, (evidenced marvelously in the divisi of the twin guitars and the integration of the orchestral range of the Chapman Stick), advanced contrapuntal movement, a restrained, mature approach to cadence and resolution, and the spiritual nature of the lyrics lend weight to the analysis of ‘Focus’ as a unique hybrid of disparate influences…
Guitarist Paul Masvidal’s vocals were divided between robotic, synthesized clean vocals (responsible for the melodies) and the harsher sounding rasps (used for contrast and emotive effect). Both Masvidal and second guitarist Jason Gobel used Roland’s GR01 guitar synthesizer to great effect in the studio and live, adding a sophisticated layer of sounds to their already rich harmonic palette…despite the complicated and densely layered songs, their prodigious technique never overshadowed their musical intent, but rather relegated itself to the service of the song.
Bassist Sean Malone’s use of the Chapman Stick, an uncommon instrument utilized in an apparently incongruous context on Focus was revolutionary, and his Jaco-inspired fretless bass-work, rich in technique and exquisite in tone and intonation, provided nimble counterpoint to the ferocious yet sublime guitar arrangements.
Drummer Sean Reinert’s virtuosity was a key ingredient; subtle cymbal and snare finesse-work, post-Cobham double bass drumming and Colaiuta-inspired shading provided a rhythmic foundation that was equal parts bombast and balm…
‘Focus’, in its expanded version, presents the original album along with newly mastered versions of ‘Veil of Maya’, ‘I’m But a Wave To..’, ‘How Could I’, and a bonus non-numbered track (an instrumental version of ‘Uroboric Forms’) tacked onto the end of ‘Endless Endeavors’, the third of three post-Cynic demo tracks (recorded but never officially released until now under the name Portal.)
The three Portal tracks, featured all of Cynic save Sean Malone (original Cynic member Chris Kringle contributes bass) and vocalist Aruna Abrams, and were indicative of a shift away from the frenetically distorted and aggressive sound of ‘Focus’ to a cleaner, textural, vocal-oriented approach. Portal disbanded, and Masvidal, Reinert, Kringle and guitarist Evo subsequently formed Aeon Spoke, an extension of the Portal sound…
Often cited by technically oriented metal and progressive bands as an influence, Cynic were pioneers of a genre of heavy music that has spawned countless imitators whose emphasis on technicality over musical intelligibility missed the point of ‘Focus’. Only recently (the UK’s heir-apparent Linearsphere) has heavy progressive music started to resolve the nihilistic bent so prevalent amongst its progenitors…
Standout tracks: ‘Celestial Voyage’ ‘Sentiment’ ‘Textures’ (particularly the fretless bass solo at the mid-point).