posted on 12/2004 By:
Maybe you’ve heard of Cynic, maybe you haven’t.
Regardless, I can almost guarantee you’ve heard a band or two that has drawn on Cynic’s unique, seminal approach to extreme music which effortlessly blended jazz, classical, and even hints of world music and electronica with the speed and aggression of death metal. The musicians in Cynic have exerted their influence far and wide in the metal world, both before and after the band’s existence; drummer Sean Reinert went on to perform in Aghora with bassist Sean Malone, whose solo project Gordian Knot also deserves mentioning, while guitarist Paul Masvidal has credits on Death’s Human along side Sean Reinert.
Cynic managed to weave together an amalgam of sounds by drawing a thread through several seemingly unrelated genres. It seems the soft yet spontaneous melodies and scattered rhythms of jazz and the heaviness and brutality of death metal have more in common than was once thought. While today it is not out of the ordinary to hear a jazzy phrase make an appearance on a ‘tech’ or death metal album, in the later eighties/early nineties this sort of hybridization was only just being explored, most notable by jazz-metal brethren Atheist and Cynic.
From the opening notes of Focus it is apparent that this is by no means a metal release in any traditional sense of the word. Electronically processed sung vocals, which are often sited as Focus’s sole shortcoming from a musical standpoint, open the first track “Veil of Maya” accompanied by short electric drum fills by Reinert. The song begins in earnest not with blast beat drumming or down tuned death metal guitar work but with odd-tempo tom work on the drums and layered guitar employing a strange melody that simultaneously feels out of place and wholly natural. The double pedal coupled with jazz-like cymbal work provided by Sean Reinert and rhythmically fueled on the low end by bassist Sean Malone keeps the pace at a pleasant clip throughout most of the album, breaking at multiple points for interludes of sung female vocals, layered guitar breaks of a progressive and classical nature, and some synthesizer fills, the latter of which I could do without yet must acknowledge as being part of what makes Focus so unique.
Anyone familiar with the original recording of Focus will notice that the overall volume of the album has been taken up a notch or two contributing greatly to a higher level of clarity for all instruments. Given how layered Focus is with multiple guitar sounds, drums (both acoustic and electric), a variety of vocal styles, synthesizer, and the occasional sound sample, the original 1993 production was indeed ahead of its time. For the re-release three Focus tracks have been remixed as well as remastered (“Veil of Maya”, “I’m But A wave To…”, and “How Could I”) and these tracks hint at what Cynic may have sounded like had Focus been recorded with the studio techniques and electronics now available.
A surprise of sorts comes with the final three tracks of the album. Written and performed not by Cynic but by Portal (essentially Cynic with a new name and style, formed after bassist sean Malone left the band), these tracks provide additional texture to the album that, after the richness and depth of the previous eleven tracks, I’m not sure is needed. Nary a hint of metal can be heard on the Portal tracks; stylistically much closer to what Malone and Reinert were doing in Aghora, Portal explored the more atmospheric and experimentally jazz-oriented flavors that Cynic spliced into their music but never let take control.
If you’re unfamiliar with Cynic, now is as good a time as ever to immerse yourself in their decidedly progressive and relentlessly talented sound. There’s something for everyone on Focus, especially if you’re a fan of a band whose work has benefited from the ground broken on Focus; Psyopus, The Dillinger Escape Plan, Alarum, Aghora, and Opeth, to name a few, all display evidence of Cynic’s lasting musical legacy.
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