In the early ‘90s, there was an established Florida death metal scene. In the early ‘90s, death-friendly label Roadrunner Records released Focus by Florida’s Cynic. Anyone not steeped in metal lore might read those two statements and imagine there is some relationship between them. That person would be right, and oh so wrong.
Cynic’s roots are very deathy, and the band deserve recognition for their participation in the scene that encouraged fleet fingers, crunchy tone and insidious riffs. Two of its members (Sean Reinert and Paul Masvidal) contributed significantly to the morphing direction that Chuck Schuldiner’s band Death sought on 1991’s Human. Focus itself is driven by loud guitars and caustic vocals. At the same time, Sean Malone’s sensitive bass work, Sonia Otey’s soaring singing and the colorful spaces that exist within these eight songs have little to do with the bloody-minded bangers by Obituary or Morbid Angel. The fusion of metallic harshness with jazz-influenced structures and sonic flourishes made for an immediate head-scratcher.
But fast forwarding through the decades reveals a couple whole subgenres devoted to deconstructing and reevaluating Cynic’s original ideas. The metal world didn’t just accept Focus; it devoured the serious musicality and earnest conceptual approach and clamored for more. Way back in Issue #60 (October 2009, Immortal cover, and… nearly 100 issues ago? Really?), Decibel inducted the album into our Hall of Fame, so here we subject it to the song-by-song countdown treatment we have given so many of its fellow entrants.
Tone and concept lie heavily on Focus, but on “Sentiment,” the quartet lean on Reinert’s third-eye-widening rhythms for one of the albums more surprising songs. Unfortunately, a track that is otherwise carefully constructed falls prey to nasal spoken-word lyrics. It’s a minor issue, but it cuts through the skull and bleeds impact from a fundamentally interesting track.
7. How Could I
The sound design approach to this song’s intro picks up right where “Wave” left off. The song is a quirky way to end an admittedly quirky record, but after the last seven songs both caught and released lightning from Cynic’s Klein bottle, it’s not clear how many new ideas this track adds.
6. I’m But a Wave To…
There simply aren’t any other songs with solo sections like the one that bisects “Wave.” Add that to the amorphous, languid intro and the impish 80’s synth that explodes into six-string fireworks at the end of the track, and you’ve got more personality than most death metal bands pack into their difficult experimental period. What sets Cynic apart is that none of this feels experimental. They have a firm grasp on all of it.
So good that a second (third?) tier Dutch djent band nabbed their name from this gem. Instruments snake in, around and through each other as the tension of the first 80 seconds builds then disintegrates into jazz prettiness. Hints of distorted aggression leak out occasionally, until the second half of the song finally succumbs to metal’s harsh demands. Still, “Textures” is all about delicate interplay and refuses any meathead glommers-on.
4. Celestial Voyage
After the power of the pristine “Veil of Maya,” the album’s second track seems to serve primarily to cement the record’s purpose and sonic palette. It pulls fewer punches than the opener, jabbing away at the listener almost as if it knows it needs to earn a certain amount of heavy credibility before veering off into some of the album’s stranger corners.
3. The Eagle Nature
Chaos reigns in “The Eagle Nature.” Cynic often like to serialize their ideas, stringing them out for their audience to appreciate in gauzy layers that do not require eight ears to hear completely. “The Eagle Nature” does some of this by the end, but the early sections of the song bristle with complexity in the rhythms, riffs, bass ripples and vocal performances. Anyone seeking something more jagged than, say, “Textures,” can find it here.
2. Uroboric Forms
Higher-consciousness death metal, meet your maker. “Uroboric Forms” feels like the, uh, primordial egg from which all life-affirming fusion throat punches were hatched. In 2017, the number of worthy bands striving for this kind of superego-spelunking reaches easily into the dozens, and while their sounds have had 25 years to diverge and develop their own personalities, “Uroboric Forms” feels like the common ancestor that first learned to use knuckles for something other than dragging.
1. Veil of Maya
What an inspired opening choice! “Veil of Maya” wastes no time, immediately introducing the vocal effects, Death-like guitar tones and harsh vocal roar, the metallic gallop versus the more fluid jazz passages, and Sonia Otey’s vibrant alto. “Veil of Maya” compromises nothing as its wends through various movements, demanding that the audience go all in or get out. Cynic knew exactly what Focus was about, and fans were either getting on board or getting disappointed in a hurry. You’d be hard pressed to find a Hall of Fame inductee with an opening shrugger – being recognizable at once is part of being a great album, after all – but in a crowd of powerful first songs, “Veil of Maya” remains a stunner.