Yer Metal Is Olde: Cynic – Focus

Dolph does Focus, who could have seen that coming?

Certainly not a ramshackle group of kids in Florida who drank death metal in the wild and jazz fusion in the heat of endless study and rehearsal. Though both Paul Masvidal, guitarist and robo-voice enthusiast (and also studio stand-in for Master’s 1991 release), and Sean Reinert (RIP), drummer extraordinaire, cemented a spot amongst Floridian death metal royalty having shortly prior graced Death’s iconic Human. Fellow Cynic axeman Jason Gobel too had recently helped usher Monstrosity to the scene with their debut Imperial Doom. And bass wunderkind Sean Malone (RIP)? He just happened to be in the studio.

This is the unlikely story of an album that 30 years later sounds as out of place as it did in 1993, as much for what it did do as what it didn’t do. At the tail end of the Florida death metal explosion, Cynic released eight songs that invoke King Crimson and Allan Holdsworth more than any of the now legendary bands who grew around the swamp—no stomp chuggery, no vomitus vocal overload, no guts or blood in sight. With slick and sliding riffs, jazz counterpoint harmony, and ethereal vocoder incantations, these dense and jam-laden distillations of their collective cosmic and philosophical wanderings similarly shared little with the budding progressive metal scene. Equally uncool, the groovy and instrumentally profound Dream Theater, Fates Warning, Psychotic Waltz just hit different. Cynic might have stacked a bill most properly with Atheist1 or Sadist, but the atmosphere would have still rang too death.

Cynic circa 1994 with touring harsh vocalist/keyboard accompaniment Dana Cosley.

Cynic never aimed to be cool or ‘in’ though. Focus landed in succession to demos that gave rise to only light shades of the earthlings who would lay riff and warble to metaphysical chatter around dizzying melody. From the airy chords that catapult “Veil of Maya” toward a tribal and dancing conclusion to the fugal exposition of “How Could I” that fades away in triumphant sing-song synth guitar solo, Focus walks the fine line between calculated joyride and buoyant freedom. The vibrant pulse that guides percussive bass runs through fluid and fervent headless 6-string drilling, and a snappy shifting rhythm caress takes Focus along its own deeply knotted yatra—that journey isn’t perfect, and Cynic wouldn’t claim so either. 

Paul with a Focus 30th anniversary cake at the Teragram ballroom in Los Angeles, CA.

The divisive vocoder intentionally shrouds, yet its then-futuristic and now-dated digitalization of hopeful, forlorn poetry rings right all the same. The guitar tone, regardless of which version you pick up,2 maintains a breathy stance as it fluctuates from riff to alien arpeggio to flanged and filtered rustling in the ether of meditation. In 2023, you’ve probably heard many other individual acts amplify the intensity of each of these individual ideas,3 but the simultaneously rudimentary, explorative, and esoteric nature of Focus persists in defiance of the past and in detachment of the future.

Everyone wants to find their Focus—that special album at the right place, right time that unfolds itself steadily over the course of days, weeks, months, years, and eventually to those around you—love spills.  But who cares what they think, really? Focus is for me. I’ve breathed through the fearless “Veil of Maya,” the slide-and-release “Celestial Voyage,” the divebomb “The Eagle Nature,” the drum circle “Sentiment,” the spindly slither “I’m But a Wave to…,” the swing thrash “Uroboric Forms,” the lights off “Textures,” and the perpetual question “How Could I” hundreds of times.  I may have been dressing as a Ninja Turtle4 and jumping around like a Power Ranger when Cynic ran its first course, but about a decade after as my love for metal blossomed, Focus found its way to me and I haven’t stopped since.5 Cynic left this world a brief and idiosyncratic statement that breathed devotion to music, to ideas, to life for me and so many others.

I often wonder, as a reviewer, whether one day I will accidentally pass on someone’s Focus the way the larger metal public passed on Cynic all those years ago. But I take comfort knowing that, if your Focus is out there, you will find it and love it no matter the absence or cries of others.

Show 5 footnotes

  1. Now tour buddies in fucking 2023.
  2. I like the classic flavor best, sorry ReFocus.
  3. Obscura, Vvon Dogma I, Spiral Architect, Augury, The Contortionist, and so many more…
  4. Raphael.
  5. Well Traced in Air side-tracked me but that’s for another day.
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