Cynic has developed quite a legacy despite the relative sparsity of their collective output. Part of this is the involvement of constituent members in other legendary projects like Death, but much of the credit falls squarely upon the shoulders of the debut Focus. If any album was to be considered an anomaly among the burgeoning death metal scene of the early 90s, it was this one. The band had eschewed the sheer technical thrash of their earlier demos to evolve into an entity the likes which we had simply never heard. Progression had not been unheard of by this time: bands like Pestilence, Atheist and Death were clearly exploring and expanding the boundaries of the genre's definition, grafting fluctuations of form into the marrow of their compositions. But for Cynic, thinking outside the box was not some surreal infusion developed over a number of official releases: it had already been molded into their vertebrae by the time Roadrunner put this album out.
Describing the music here is almost as much a challenge as it was to first listen to it upon release. Highly technical, meandering melodic guitar lines are set in a latticework of talented jazz and rock drumming, with abundant leads set off the primary rhythmic patterns almost as tangents to the central emotions. Instead of simply growling, which might normally have sufficed, guitarist and front man has incorporated a robotic vocal filter which casts an otherworldly, cybernetic gloss over the sheen of the hectic instrumentation. The level of proficiency here is staggering. Cynic made progressive-peak Death sound like rank amateur schoolchildren, and all without the expense of losing strong songwriting values. Copious amounts of guitar synthesizer were incorporated (akin to Pestilence on their Spheres album), but most impressive is the use of the Chapman Stick. In fact, Sean Malone is the backbone of this entire recording. At times I feel like I could just crank down the guitars, vocals and percussion and just listen to his bass playing, a stunning evocation of adventurous fusion that was unrivaled at this time.
The intelligence of Focus is not only found in the music, but in the conceptual groundwork for the lyrics. Applied mythology, astrophysics, and philosophy are woven into its considerable curves, and no expense is spared in creating an ambient awning that suits each thematic extraction. "Veil of Maya" dawns with the mechanical grace of the vocals above a deeper, clean voice and busily percolated bass lines, before the chorus and guttural counterbalance arrive over a stolid miasma of precision thrashing. It's an incredibly uplifting piece, comparable to what Atheist had built on Unquestionable Presence, but more in depth. "Celestial Voyage" is perhaps best known for that snaking, incredulous opening guitar streak, but its subdued, jazzy verses are brilliant as they explode against the metallic current like stars going supernova, witness through the safety of a vast telescope, but no less beautiful. "The Eagle Nature" is marginally more choppy, with the very Death-like guitar tone cutting through it, think of it as a more advanced thesis on what Chuck was trying to achieve through Human. Love those descending vocals around :30.
Then comes "Sentiment" with its pumping bass-lines and wondrous jungle of tribal percussion and sailing, effects-driven vocals. Mid-ranged female vocals are incorporated to create a terse narrative to the musical escalation, and I just love the darkening climax around 1:30. "Uroboric Forms" is again quite similar to the material Reinert and Masvidal were performing on Human, but more intense and memorable, with further female presence, this time ethereal. However, my favorite song here might just be "I'm But a Wave to..." and its scintillating, terrifying architecture of warped synthesizers and cyclic dissonance. I wasn't so compelled by the song "How Could I": it's fascinating, but the individual melodies did not stand out among the album as a whole. As for the instrumental "Textures", it's basically a volcanic orgasm of aural conjecture, and pretty much exactly how you want to pace such a track when it doesn't have the lyrics to back it: sine waves of lucid pleasure exploding into cautious acrobatics, and then back again...
I have noted elsewhere that Brutality's unexpected Screams of Anguish was the best of the Florida death works of 1993, but Focus has one up on even that cult classic, because it simply transcends the entire genre, becomes something OTHER. Something at once beautiful and alien. There are times when I don't love the highly processed production (a similar hurdle that albums like Spheres and Symbolic also face), but Scott Burns manages not to completely cock this up. I can only imagine the guy's face when Cynic presented the material to him. How the fuck am I going to handle THIS one? That he manages to do so without losing many of the myriad nuances is a credit to his ability, though I'd advise that anyone interested lean towards the Roadrunner remaster from 2004 which sounds an inkling better. Focus is not at all a perfect offering because at times it feels as if there is almost too much happening, and one of the tunes seems to trail the rest in quality, but really there was nothing else like it and there hasn't been since...
Hell, this is such an intimidating exhibition of foresight that Cynic themselves would not deign to follow it up for quite some time. I can imagine nigh on endless nights of poring over reams of written material, hurtling it all to the trash bin on accounts of not being good enough. A lot of pensive drinking, or moving on to other projects in hopes that the time apart would somehow surpass what the band started. Ironically enough, they managed that exact feat 15 years later with Traced in Air, a revelatory if more tranquil experience which benefits from far superior and rounded production standards, though a bit of a 'grower'. Alas, the albums are as different as they are the same, and I'm happy to own and experience both on a regular basis: but Focus is the more historically potent, because it helped force open a passage that only the most daring would follow.
Verdict: Win [8.75/10] (balance every joy with a grief)