Cynic – Focus on the Spiritually Progressive
WHO: Cynic, the quintessential artisans of jazzy sand spacey progressive death metal. Focus featured Paul Masvidal (vocals, guitar, guitar synth) and Sean Reinert (drums, keyboards), both famous for recording on Death’s Human. The album also featured Jason Grobel (guitar, guitar synth) from Monstrosity’s Imperial Doom and Sean Malone (bass, chapman stick).
WHERE: Florida, the hotbed of progressive death metal in the early 90’s, home to like minded countrymen Death and Atheist.
WHEN: After some trials and tribulations involving touring Europe with Death, a storm that destroyed their rehearsal space, and a handful of lineup challenges, Roadrunner Records released Focus in 1993 (the same year as Individual Thought Patterns, Atheist’s Elements, Pestilence’s Spheres, and Gorgut’s Erosion of Sanity). The band would splinter in 1994, and did not release another album until 2008’s Traced in Air.
WHY it’s a classic: Although their aforementioned peers were moving away from the gore-based lyrics and morbid, harsh sound found in the early days of death metal, Cynic brought new elements in abundance. Pioneers of the progressive, they went farther than simply introducing complex jazz structures into songs; songs like “Textures” feature minutes of jazz at a time. In an uplifting dichotomy, ethereally flowing melodies elevate heavy riffs, leaving gory, macabre crypts and travelling into the enlightened and free-flowing heavens. While some bands fill their songs with riff after riff, Cynic brings an intricately melodic vehicle to higher realms that make even complex bands look positively primitive (see album closer “How Could I.”)
This sonic carriage to the skies above is fittingly accompanied by spiritual and metaphysical themes. Example: the album opens with synth and robotic vocals, professing the enigma of “In Maya’s grip illusion transforms verity/ perceiving thus a delusive world of duality” from Indian religions. Such paradigms are often delivered by a mechanical but celestial voice, paired with the raspier mid-ranged vocals. This showcases a dichotomy of the more physical, traditional death metal, in contrast to the divine, seraphic beings that lead listeners to the astral plane. Furthering said unearthly pairings come odd time signatured riffs and frantic drumming with double bass backings, elevating death metal to new heights with celestial keys and rhythm guitars that put the leads of many modern bands to shame.
HOW: Cynic’s transcendental and enlightening instrument Focus dealt with life and peace rather than death and violence, eschewing the terrestrial themes and instead bringing in new age spiritualism in the very definition of “progressive death metal.” With a complexity rooted in intricacy and jazz, Cynic is never alienating like “weedly-deedly” bands of today. Instead, Focus is an empyrean tapestry composed of complex and interweaving melodies that has helped to move metal out of decay and into forward thinking journeys to the cosmos and the heavens beyond.