Please note that this review is for Roadrunner's reissue of "Focus," released in 2004.
I got Cynic's "Focus" back in January of 2007, and honestly, it felt like an awkward listen at first. It was awkward because it's not everyday that you hear a death metal album that had more laid back jazz fusion elements, clean singing, and electronic vocals. However, it was another one of those albums that I would grow to love within a year and soon would become among my absolute favorites in the entire metal genre.
The style Cynic created on this album is a little tricky to define. The best way I can describe it is imagine progressive death metal with complex time signatures reminiscent to jazz fusion (along with jazz fusion elements in the songs themselves), both clean and electronic vocals complementing the death metal growls, and to top them all off, themes mainly about Eastern spirituality. Even though this album came out in 1993, I don't think another death metal album has come out that sounds anything like "Focus."
All the musicians on this album are at the top of their game here, and together, crafted music that's technical, memorable, and highly creative.
Paul Masvidal handled lead guitars, guitar synthesizers, and clean vocals on this album. Paul was restricted to using "clean" vocals on this album because at the time, he was at risk of losing his voice (the "death metal" vocals were handled by Tony Teegarden, more on that later). Paul's guitar work is nothing short of amazing here. He dishes out a ton of great riffs and solos, but I think among Paul's best solos has to be the first solo in "How Could I," as it's so ethereal sounding and intricate.
Jason Gobel handled the second lead guitar and other guitar synthesizers on "Focus." Like Paul, Jason's riffs and solos are excellent. I think Jason's best solo has to be his solo in "Uroboric Forms." Both Paul and Jason craft excellent death metal riffs and even some jazz fusion riffs, and best of all, the different types of complex riffs come together like in a melting pot to create a cohesive, unique whole of metal riffs rather than a salad bowl of jumbled ideas.
Sean Malone played the bass and chapman's stick on this album. Like other masterful metal bassists such as Tony Choy, Steve DiGiorgio, and Steve Harris, Sean's bass is not only clearly audible in the album, but adds a ton of texture and complexity to the musical formula. Sean's best moment is probably the bass solo in the instrumental song "Textures."
Sean Reinert handled the drums on this album, and like the other musicians here, did a great job here. Sean creates a lot of complex, technical fills that tastefully complement the rest of the music here, as they're not complex for complexity's sake.
Tony Teegarden did the "death metal" vocals for Paul Masvidal on this album, and his growls are done excellently. They're slightly higher-pitched than typical death growls, but still maintain the "death metal" ferocity necessary in the genre.
There's plenty of great songs on here, though if I had to choose favorites, they would be "Veil of Maya" (a fan favorite), "Celestial Voyage," "I'm But a Wave To...," "Uroboric Forms," "Textures," and "How Could I." "Veil of Maya" has a really infectious death metal chorus that fuses death growls with electronic vocals, and some neat solos by both Paul and Jason. "I'm But a Wave To..." starts off with some ocean waves and bizarre jazz riffs, and continues on until the 1:25 mark, where things go into death metal territory. Jason's guitar solo in this album is one of the best I've ever heard, since it starts off as something really bizarre but near its end, naturally transforms into something beautiful. "Textures" starts off with some lovely guitar riffs that give me the mental image of being in a pretty Japanese park with cherry blossom pedals in the air, then transitions into a jazz-metal song with steady time signature transitions and a great bass solo. "How Could I" is the album closer and an excellent song to end an excellent album. This song starts off with some tense, percussive keyboard riffs, and transcends into the signature jazz fusion death metal, with superb alternative electronic vocals and death growls. The riff work on this album is aggressive and tight, and Paul's guitar solo in this is probably his best in the whole album.
Since the 2004 reissue includes bonus tracks, I'll talk about those for a bit. This includes remixes of "Veil of Maya," "I'm But a Wave To...," and "How Could I." Honestly, I couldn't really tell much difference between these and the album versions.
The other three bonus tracks are tracks included from the Portal demo (Portal was a progressive rock band with female vocals, formed from the ashes of Cynic). Portal's songs are okay for mellow music, but don't really have much staying power compared to what Cynic offers on this album. Also, in terms of including demos, I think Cynic fans would have much rather had all of Cynic's demos prior to the release of "Focus" included as bonus tracks rather than a few tracks from the Portal demo.
The production on this album is superb. This album was recorded at the iconic Morrisound Studio, and produced by Scott Burns. For a death metal album fusing together a bunch of musical ideas and striving for a pristine aesthetic, I'm glad that the sound quality is crisp and clean, while not sounding sterile at all.
Of the three death metal albums that tinkered with jazz elements released in 1993 (with the other two being Atheist's "Elements" and Pestilence's "Spheres"), Cynic's "Focus" is the best of the three (though "Spheres" quite excellent as well, but that's another review).
If you're craving death metal that masterfully fuses a wide array of musical ideas into something truly unique, then get Cynic's "Focus" ASAP.
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