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The 90's were certainly the apex for death metal. Between the years of 1990 and 1999 death metal evolved from an un-melodic, testosterone fueled, raw form of metal to a genre that matured and began incorporating prog rock, jazz, electronica, and even classical into the music.
Death kicked the door down with the release of "Human" in `91. At the time it was easily the most ambitious death metal album ever and helped pave the way for a new breed of death metal bands that were actually intelligent as well as incredibly brutal. `93 saw the release of Sepultura's masterpiece, "Chaos A.D." and Death's brilliant follow up to "Human", called "Individual Thought Patterns". In `94 Tiamat's "Wildhoney" broke new grounds in death metal by experimenting with psychedelic, ethereal, and even beautiful Pink Floyd-esque soundscapes and melodies that showed death metal didn't have to be ALL about pure aggression.
`95 was unquestionably the biggest year death metal had ever seen. Meshuggah's "Destroy Erase Improve" literally shattered the concept of what "progressive death metal" could be with its mathematical riffs, bass, drums and vocals. At The Gates "Slaughter of the Soul", Dark Tranquility's "The Gallery" and In Flames' "The Jester's Race" all broke new melodic ground, with each featuring a unique take on the genre and all being undisputed masterpieces.
But despite all of that, perhaps the pinnacle of the decade was Cynic's 1993 stunning tour de force "Focus". "Focus" was unlike anything that had come before or after it. With one album, Cynic created a sound and music that was so original and so staggeringly amazing that no death metal band has equaled it since.
"That's a pretty big claim" you say... well, yes it is, but it's all very true. Cynic threw in everything but the kitchen sink on "Focus", seamlessly melding progressive death metal, distorted jazz riffs, solos, and often drumming. Then came the biggest innovation: the interplay between the computerized voice that "sings" half the lyrics and the more traditional death metal growls.
But all of that wouldn't matter if the songs themselves weren't good. And the songs on "Focus" AREN'T good, they're amazing! It just takes one listen to "Veil of Maya" before you realize how truly talented & original these guys are. Through the entire album, there are NO weak spots whatsoever.
That being said, picking a favorite song or moment is almost an exercise in futility. "Veil of Maya" is perhaps the catchiest song on the album. "Celestial Voyage" is beautiful, heavy, and complex. "I'm But a Wave Too..." is perhaps MY personal favorite. It builds on ethereal, jazzy guitars (one clean, one distorted, and one using feedback like sounds to create texture) before exploding into a series of mind-blowing riffs. "Textures" is a great instrumental that never loses `focus' (hehe) and will keep your attention throughout. The closer, "How Could I", is perhaps the most varied song on the album, shifting effortlessly between styles to create a perfect portrait of the entire album.
It's such a shame this was the band's only album. I can only imagine where they could've taken this fascinating sound with future releases. I seriously can't recommend this album to metal fans enough. Also, if you're a fan of "Focus", check out all the other albums I've listed in the review, along with Opeth's entire catalog (they happen to be my favorite band of all time). A good start would be "My Arms, Your Hearse" or "Still Life". And I can't forget to mention Death's "The Sound of Perseverance".
May metal be as spectacular in the 21st century as it was in the last decade of the 20th.
Although commonly associated with death metal, it sounds nothing like Morbid Angel or Cannibal Corpse. A comparison to Death would probably be closer to the mark, but even that is pretty dubious. The music of _Focus_ is fast and technical, intricately woven together, with complexity at times seeming like a jigsaw puzzle with no solution. The style is defined by an abundance of complex meters & polymeter, microtonality, interlacing non-synchronous parts between all instruments, textural arrangements, refined percussion that is equally understated and fierce, and ostinatos held by one instrument while others weave around it. There are various changes in tonal shades but they are extremely unpredictable and follow few traditional chord changes. The music sounds spontaneous and subtly energized, like the band is channeling it and recording the first take -- but with the complications in meter would make this impossible. There are some elements of world music, but they are very understated since they appear more in compositional concepts than actual exotic timbres in the songs.
Mid-ranged throat-gouging rasps are the dominant vocal feature, but there are also synth-processed vocals and female vocals which lend atmosphere at timely moments. The rasping vocals are not terribly harsh and I like them a lot -- instead of sounding intimidating and aggressive they sound like they are in the midst of some sort of transformation.
Lyrical concepts are far beyond traditional metal, tending to be spiritual and/or occult. From the opener, "Veil of Maya": "In Maya's grip illusion transforms verity, perceiving thus a delusive world of duality."
Best of all, Cynic's music has a sense of unusual beauty and intensity, not unlike the "Angelic Manifestation" painting which serves at the album cover art.
Gordian Knot and Aghora are strongly recommended for Cynic fans, and vice versa. Technical metal savants should devour this album.