The Genius Of… Focus by Cynic
Cynic’s Focus was derided by metalheads and got the band booed off stages. Today, it’s hailed as a jazz-metal masterpiece decades ahead of its time
Paul Masvidal of Cynic. Image: Steve Thorne/Redferns via Getty Images
The American heavy metal overground had no idea what it was doing in 1993. After the nuclear bombs that were the grunge craze and Metallica’s eschewing of thrash on The Black Album, the genre’s mainstream scrambled in search of the next big sound. The heroes of the day ranged from Pantera with their marching groove metal to the funky and eclectic Faith No More. The sole space that had any semblance of identity was Florida’s death metal underbelly.
In the early 1990s, Tampa Bay upstarts like Obituary, Deicide and Death all struck a commercial peak. Their blast beats, snarls and tremolo picking all over-delivered for anyone that still had an appetite for white-knuckle nastiness. Together, they made Florida’s west coast a safe haven for people who just wanted heavy metal to be heavy with a capital H. Then Cynic exposed the scene to sensitivity and were hounded for it.
The debut album by the Paul Masvidal-fronted enigmas, Focus, is rightfully reflected on as a pioneering moment today. It’s a genre-straddling masterpiece that considers everything from ambient music to jazz and Buddhism. Even thirty years after its release, it’s lightyears beyond anything else metal’s attempted: Masvidal’s vocoder-filtered singing evokes a robot from the year 2486, while drummer Sean Reinert is near-mechanical in his pace and precision for 36 minutes. The basslines are pure funk, the intermittent roars channel death metal and the guitars play Indian-inspired melodies out of the most distorted amplifiers. Replete with such enlightened philosophical lyrics as ‘Balance every joy with a grief’’ and ‘Freedom and reason shine through’, Focus still seems like music gifted to humanity from a higher society across the stars.
Death metal didn’t want songs from the next galaxy over back then, though: it wanted the soundtrack to hell. With Cynic being based in Tampa and Focus getting released by noted death metal label Roadrunner Records, the album became an unintentional wolf in sheep’s clothing, positioned for failure despite the abject genius on display. The fact that Masvidal and Reinert were both ex-Death and that Cynic were thrown to the lions on a 1994 Cannibal Corpse tour only exacerbated purists’ outrage. The band imploded merely a year after they debuted.
The only problem Cynic ever had, if you can even call it that, was that they viewed genre constraints as bullshit. As Masvidal neatly summarised in a 2007 interview: “We were just really into good music. There were no rules for us.” It was never an outlook destined to gel with the tribalist heavy metal underground.
Even when Masvidal first started jamming with his then-schoolmate Reinert at age 14, he was both a punk and a metalhead. By the time the pair christened themselves Cynic and bassist Tony Choy and guitarist Jason Gobel rounded out the lineup, “the four of us were huge jazz heads,” Masvidal said in 2005. They also separately had fascinations with classical, progressive pop, Indian and ambient music.
Cynic’s earliest demos fell more neatly under the death metal umbrella than Focus would, but the oddball influences shined through from the start. The songs were wildly intricate, especially when compared with the nascent brutality of hometown boys Deicide and Obituary. In the process, the band became forerunners of the “technical death metal” subgenre. Roadrunner Records frothed at the mouth upon hearing their third demo, quickly offering up a contract. Then Masvidal and Reinert’s reputation grew even further when they joined Death for their madly complex Human and the supporting tour.
There was buzz behind Cynic going into Focus. However, although it came two years after such lauded tech-death discs as Human and Atheist’s Unquestionable Presence, it ended up being just too forward-thinking for its own good. While those albums paired the core of death metal with jazzy time signatures, all Focus had in common with brutes like Morbid Angel was some screaming – and even then it was always interrupted by Masvidal’s digitised crooning.
It took a complete overhaul of the heavy music landscape for Cynic to flourish. By the mid-2000s, the likes of Gojira, Mastodon, Tool and Dream Theater had made progressively minded metal massive, and Focus had been cited as an influence on a next generation. The scene welcomed a Cynic reunion when it began in 2006 – and, after the band had been booed off stages 12 years prior, their second run relaunched their career.
Today, Focus persists as a statement against tribalism carved in marble. Cynic were mocked for never fitting the ’90s’ death metal mould, yet today their perceived slight against their genre continues to stand as a peerless sound. Rules were made to be broken and Focus finds the beauty in their destruction.
ReFocus is released on June 9 by Season of Mist. Cynic is touring North America with Atheist from June 10.