Issue #173: Focus by Cynic

August 5, 2019

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Focus by Cynic
Released On September 14, 1993
Released By Morrisound Recording

This Week’s Selection Chosen By Steve Lampiris

I didn’t understand Focus the first time I heard it. I didn’t get it the second or third time, either. It just went over my head. You see, before Wikipedia, I used AllMusic to study pop music’s history and to find all the important records that a music fan should hear. I came across Focus while diving into the history of metal. I read about how brilliant and forward-thinking it was, as well as being highly influential.

I (illegally) downloaded “Veil Of Maya” and… I was confused. What was happening here? How does any of this make sense? The lack of verse-chorus-verse structure was a roadblock for me, probably because “metal” at the time meant Slipknot and Marilyn Manson and Metallica’s Black Album. I was in high school at the time, so that should explain it. I didn’t grasp the deep philosophical ideas within, or why a death growl and a vocoder were being used to express them.

So I moved on to other stuff, even as a part of my brain couldn’t fully let go of such an important release. It wasn’t until the summer of 2006 that I truly got into metal and its extreme varieties. That summer, I was living with my mom in Ohio. It was just me and her, and some distant cousins. My friends and father were 400 miles away in Milwaukee. What I’m saying is, I didn’t have much of a social life for those three months so I had a lot of free time to explore music. Thus, I discovered The Black Dahlia Murder, As I Lay Dying, In Flames, and Children Of Bodom. Then I found Death, Deicide, and Cannibal Corpse. I went deep down that rabbit hole.

And then I decided that I’d give Cynic another try. It was that same summer that I’d just gotten into jazz, too. I’d started with Miles’ Kind Of Blue (duh, of course) and then Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. Finally, I was able to “get,” or at least begin to get, what Paul Masvidal, Jason Gobel, Sean Malone, and Sean Reinert were doing. They were mixing the harsh winter of death metal with the warm sunshine of jazz (and the complexities of both), and using this sound to explore abstract ideas that were largely positive. They weren’t into violent or anti-religion themes. Instead, they looked inward to find identity and strength and even happiness.

Indeed, the key to enjoying this record is right there in the title: Focus. This is music that requires patience and thought. You need to set aside time to consider this album, to think it over, to explore it. This is music and lyrics that observe and wonder and feel, and the listener needs to grant them time to do so in their own mind. It’s metal without the menace. It’s welcoming, or as much as extreme metal can be.

I’ve often thought of Focus as an “alone time” album. It can be (thoroughly) discussed with others, sure, but I find that it’s best experienced by yourself and with headphones. And it’s this idea of being alone that is tied to 2006 for me. I was alone with my mom — me and her against the world, as it were. At the time, I was frustrated and bored with the situation. I was 20, so naturally I wanted to be social and be with friends. I couldn’t wait to move to Madison to attend the University Of Wisconsin in the fall and finish the degree I had started at Arizona State. I couldn’t wait to have a social life again and live like what I imagined a 20-year-old should be. What I didn’t know at the time — what I couldn’t have known — was that I only had seven years left to spend with my mom before cancer took her from me at age 62.

It’s been six years since she passed, and I’ve often thought of that summer I lived with her away from the rest of the world — that’s how it felt, anyway: the two of us on an island — and I’ve almost as often felt guilt over those feelings I had at the time. After all, it was selfish to think that spending time with the woman who raised me, mostly by herself, for a summer was somehow a punishment.

But music got me through the loss of the most important person in my life, then and now. It’s always been there for me. And with metal, it’s something that, much like running, can’t be explained to those who aren’t into it. They both provide a catharsis that can’t be achieved by other means. An album like Focus requires effort to understand and appreciate. When given the proper care, it pays back in dividends. It needs and causes reflection and meditation, both on the present and the past. It’s probably why it’s so intertwined to 2006 for me, and it’s also why it’s something I consistently return to when I need time to think and look back. As paradoxical as it sounds, sometimes you need to go deep inside your mind to escape your thoughts. Or put another way: Sometimes, you just need to focus.

Steve Lampiris (@stevenlampiris)
Sure, Let’s Go With That

Genre-blending metal innovators yielding insatiable musical talent & immeasurable influence.

Upon entering the place, you’re struck by the sparse crowd. There are only a handful of people dispersed throughout the large, dimly lit room. At the front, just left of the bar, a 3 piece jazz band noodles away on their instruments with a direction that is not apparent to the crowd but the members seem to be acting with intention. As you scan the room, you realize there doesn’t seem to be any staff present but a small sign is stuck to the edge of a stairwell descending downward into a basement level. There seems to be a mist floating at its deepest point and the sign reads “Death Jazz: Enter Here”. You descend the stairwell and open the door to reveal a layer of orange light, the smell of burning cinder and a host of staff and clientele dressed in black leather and satin tanks adorned with logos of obscure metal bands — pagan aliens, UFOs, corpses riding horses, pagan aliens riding UFOs… all manner of sci-fi and fantasy evil. Someone near the front of the stage is expressing his fandom by sacrificing a small goat on large stone slate. Torches burn along the walls as the waitress takes you to your seat right in front of the band. “Cynic” is half way through the length of their genre defining album Focus. Songs which change their dynamics every 4 bars and songs which progress through rapid tempo changes, inconsistent patterns, melodic vocals and bass lines that pop and buzz through elaborate and unpredictable scales. Ever present are the ethereal guitar solos, and snarling robo-vocals which play off of full-on Cookie Monster roars. This is unlike anything you’ve ever heard. Referred to as “Progressive Metal” because it progresses beyond simple catchy distorted guitar riffs and chugga-chugga aggression. This music ventures into the complex arrangements usually reserved for snooty experimental jazz clubs. Few metal bands sounded like this in 1993, but many would begin to incorporate these elements after this album was released. And no, this demon club in the sub-basement of an empty jazz hall jam does not, of course, exist. Put it has now come to my attention that progressive death metal — the genre — does exist. So if you like your metal deep down and suggestive of the chaos that lurks below the surface, enter here.

Darryl Wright (@punksteez)
Lovechild Of The Music & Technology Marriage

There is so much that could go wrong on this Cynic album that its artistic success is a thrilling high-wire act. Sean Malone’s burbling, prog-jazz-fusion bass (somewhat reminiscent of Jamaaladeen Tacuma’s work for Ornette Coleman) would seem an unlikely playmate for the often serrated guitars of Paul Masvidal and Jason Gobel. Then you have vocals that alternate between sepulchral growls and robotic treatments seemingly inspired by the “Lord’s Prayer” section of Pink Floyd’s “Sheep.” The drums eschew a Bonham-esque groove for a busy polyrhythmic approach, with long fills that travel around what sounds like a big kit, which in hands other than Sean Reinert’s could be horribly distracting. Then they have the audacity to insert sections of limpid melodic beauty, arpeggiated layered guitars blending with synthesizers, creating a sense of yearning. But somehow it all works. One key is that they keep the songs fairly short. With eight tracks in 33 minutes there isn’t too much time to get lost in labyrinthine structures that they are then unable to extract themselves with some kind of musical dignity. There are also the lyrics, which I was surprised to find were not about the devil, etc., but more about losing your ego and the interconnectedness of all beings. I also gotta love them for using the word “uroboric,” which after I looked it up I realized was related to the mythical Uroborus, a snake or dragon that is depicted eating its own tail. Stretching back to ancient Egypt, this symbol of the cyclical nature of the years or infinity (among other things) spanned the globe from Norsemen to Buddhists to South American Tribes, especially in pre-Christian times. Carl Jung saw it as a powerful archetype, possibly of the pre-ego state of infancy. This seems to be what Masvidal is singing about in “Uroboric Forms:” “Birth, primal paradise / No gap distance or separation / Between self and environment / Unconditional omnipotence / Nothing is himself, everything is world.” Pretty heady stuff and absolutely not cynical. Just another surprising thing about this surprising album!

Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore

Down by the lake in Forest Hill Park last night, friends brought food and champagne, gathered around the newly engaged couple to give well wishes, trade stories of how everyone met him or her. Careful to leave no footprint, everyone made sure to clean up cans and paper plates, picking up any errant cigarette butts and dumping out liquids so the bags wouldn’t be too heavy or gross. From afar, though, there are some who would be surprised about the engagement, about how adorably sweet the engaged couple are, how happy everyone else is for them. Maybe they would expect a bunch of punks clad in black, tattoos decorating backs, arms, legs with patched-up cut-off jean vests and shitkicker boots to care less about one another and the environment. There’s a sect of the population that would look at the black clothes and tattoos, knowing there’s a generalization of distrust for the government, and think there was no way of group of people would act like that and care that much. It’s shitty and unfair, that closed mindset, and it gets in the way of what could be a friend. In a similar, though less heavy, way, picking up a metal album could be a huge turn-off if the listener was expecting a stereotype of a metal album. Listening through Focus, though, breaks some of those barriers down with the musicality and even calming aspects of the tracks. Turning on the album, the first sounds that hit are a rollercoaster guitar, wailing down, a few hits with guitar and a hard smack on the drums, but then some of the hallmarks of metal begin. Super fast, super fluid drums chime in, a deathly snarl scrawls out lyrics over the musical soundscape. That quickness and growl permeate the undeniably metal album, but the dramatic overtures that fill the album feel more classical, even reminding one of the theater more so than what you would expect from a metal album produced in 1993. There are movements and flows like classical pieces; prog, blues, and jazz influence the production and way the instruments play off one another. No matter your feelings about this genre, coming to this album demands an open mind and open ears to push past stereotypes and really listen for the ambience, influence, and structure of this album.

Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite

Cynic proved to be an unlikely catalyst in the metal scene, with an approach that resonated strongly well over two decades.

Here’s what I find so interesting about hardcore rap and hardcore rock: on the surface, they couldn’t be more different, but they’re similar in one very profound way. In order to listen to either genre effectively, you’ve got to be “bilingual” in a way. In rap, there’s so much slang, and weird cadences, and regional dialects, and a Marvel Comics-esque world of established characters with their own back stories and near infinite context. It takes a student to truly appreciate what is being said. It’s a language unto itself. The same goes for hardcore rock, in my opinion. Your ears have got to be conditioned a certain way to be able to understand what’s being said amongst the wall of chaotic sound coming through the speakers. I say all of that to say this: I couldn’t understand a word, so I chose to attack this record as an instrumental album. What I found extremely interesting, and completely out of left field was Cynic’s repeated use of vocoders — that “robot” sort of effect that you hear at certain points in the vocals, usually in the chorus. You can hear it used with great effect on “Celestial Voyage,” “The Eagle Nature,” and “Uroboric Forms.” In 2019, most of us are used to similar vocal effects from the likes of T-Pain or, quite frankly, any pop record in the last ten years, but in 1993, this must have been quite a trip. All vocals aside, the musicianship here is undeniable. I especially enjoyed “Textures,” which is an instrumental track surely meant to showcase Cynic’s chops. The track runs that gamut with soothing atmospherics to stabbing sprinkles of heavy metal. It’s almost like a DMT trip set to electric guitars. Or so I’ve heard.

Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator

The problem I usually face when trying to get into new genres of music is the issue of not knowing where to start. Genres have subgenres, subgenres have subcultures, and on and on and on until the landscape of music becomes one big cluster of interwoven sounds and worldviews. This is my explanation for why I’ve never really gotten into metal, progressive rock, or what have you. Not to mention the fact that, as a musician, they’re such specialized genres that it’s sort of like straight jazz in the sense that you either play it or you don’t — there’s not really an in-between, or “sort-of” level of involvement. When I pressed play on the first track of this record, I was excited to get an “easy in” on a new genre, from a reliable source. This music is definitely rooted in progressive rock and metal, but the beauty of those genres is that they pride themselves on pulling from many other genres, which is why there are so many different sounds, dynamic shifts, and tones on this album. There are jazz influences, classical influences, folk influences, and even some early electronic meanderings that make up the half hour-long run time. Even the sound of nature made it onto “I’m But A Wave To…” Sometimes I feel like a broken record when I reiterate how much I dig the blending and bending of genres, but maybe if I say it enough times, more music that I dig will magically appear before my ears. I’m not going to stop trying.

Joel Worford (@joel_worford)
Confused & Confusing Since 1965

Playful. Brisk. Airy. These words feel almost antithetical to the concept of metal music, but those are just the kind of words that come to mind when you listen to “Textures,” the penultimate track from death metal band Cynic’s debut record Focus. And really, much of Focus seems antithetical to the concept of metal music. Sure, there are plenty of big, bombastic guitar moments backed by a thundering rhythm section, but when you stack them up next to all of the record’s daring musical parts, those are the moments that end up feeling out of place. In most songs, those moments serve more as “bridges,” connecting errant musical thoughts that couldn’t be packaged together otherwise, creating flashes and flurries of musical radiance that truly defines the importance of Focus. Some points are subtle, like the vocoder helping to flip the script on traditional metal vocals, while others are far more overt, like the shifty breakdowns that dart between art rock, jazz fusion, and prog rock. And while the genre blending defines the lasting appeal behind Focus, it’s important to know that none of it feels indulgent or gratuitous. From start to finish, Focus sounds organic and feels natural, even at times when electronic elements take center stage, and it does so by looking to highlight the similarities between metal and all of these other styles. Not really a hard concept to grasp there, but by 1993, the metal scene had begun to isolate itself, with the success of the ’80s dissolving in the wake of grunge, hip hop, and electronica. Metal was now out of favor, close to being shunned, and in walks Cynic, looking to integrate itself within the musical consciousness rather than disconnect like so many others. And perhaps that’s why the reaction was so mixed when this album was released, a point of contention that had a big hand in Cynic disbanding a year late in 1994. Here was Cynic with this open-source approach to something very primal and instinctual at a time when the scene was beginning to insulate itself with harder riffs, sharper vocals, and darker aesthetics. To say one approach was “right” or “better” is missing the point that Focus makes, but at least Focus didn’t waste away by itself for a decade or two like other influential records. Dozens of bands that came to the prominence in the 2000s bore the mark of Cynic’s daring spirit and cunning skill, and while you probably won’t see words like playful and airy used to describe metal today, at least the concept doesn’t seem implausible like it must have 25 years ago.

Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart

Next Week’s Selection:
Manj by Joomanji
Chosen By Joel Wolford

Off Your Radar Newsletter

Editor: Doug Nunnally

Contributors: Laura Burroughs, Erin Calvert, Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford, Dustin Gates, Langen Goldstien, Davy Jones, Chelsea Kostrey, Steve Lampiris, SJ Lebowski, Jeremy Shatan, Joel Worford, & Darryl Wright

Logo By Matt Klimas


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