In the early 1990s, death metal got interesting. Outfits like Gorguts, Death, Pestilence, Meshugah, and Atheist pioneered what would later be called progressive death metal or technical death metal. This amalgam of styles typically leaned on King Crimson as much as Slayer, with complex rhythms and solos, longish instrumental breaks, and extremely fast drumming. Occasionally a keyboard or more esoteric instrument might enter the mix, along with the obligatory (and largely unintelligible) growling.*
But of this initial wave of groups, there is one that still stands out – not only for being unabashedly on the progressive side of things but also because of the tragedy that befell two of its members.
Cynic’s Focus came out in 1993 to acclaim from fans of bands like Watchtower and Sieges Even, two groups that had the “technical” and “progressive” down, but not the death. Unlike their peers, Cynic incorporated jazz-oriented breaks as well as the interlocking guitar-work of 1980s Crimson. They also employed two styles of vocals – the typical growling as well as a smoother but heavily vocoder-processed (almost robotic) version. The group even threw in a hint of non-Western percussion.
Veil of Maya famous starts off the album with keyboards and processed vocals accompanied by heavy chording from both guitarists. The two different vocal styles trade lines above a rhythmically sophisticated main riff. Then the surprise – a jazz-like interlude of contrapuntal playing from both guitarists and the bassist on the Chapman Stick. Veil of Maya also includes an extremely well-crafted guitar solo. It is only a few seconds long, but varies its tempo and has an “inside-out” character that is oddly compelling.
Paul Masvidal led the band, singing and playing guitar. Jason Gobel was the second guitarist, while Sean Malone was on bass and the aforementioned Stick, and Sean Reinhart was on drums. Masvidal and Reinhart had just finished a stint in Death, while the previous Cynic bassist, Tony Choy, had gone on to play with Atheist. Like many music scenes of note, the bands in this one were linked by common members.
The lyrics, written by Masvidal, are thoughtful and hint at Eastern philosophies. After several tracks exploring the nature of consciousness, the album ends with, How Could I?, an ode to humility and accepting one’s emotions. This content is in stark contrast with the typical metal fare.
Focus is brief by today’s standards, running only 35 minutes. But it was a short burst of labyrinthine energy that became something of a culture bearer. Nonetheless, despite some glowing appreciation for the album at the time (myself included), the death metal community did not fully accept Cynic.
I found this out first-hand when I saw Cynic perform in Berkeley, California on their 1994 tour. They played as a five-piece with Masvidal handling processed vocals and a young woman on keyboards and death growls. The crowd was split – there were plenty of fans but a notable (and vocal) minority were not. I left after their 45-minute set, happy to have seen them and not terribly interested in the main act.
Cynic broke up shortly thereafter. They were musicians who just wanted to make music. Perhaps the mixed response they received while on the road was a bit much.
After a dozen or so years of endeavoring in other projects, Cynic reunited for live performances and a small number of albums and EPs. While I’ve heard most of these once or twice and they all get a decent thumbs up, none have the sheer power of Focus. Nor did they contribute to launching an entire genre of music.
In 2020, dual tragedies struck. In January, Reinhart suffered a fatal rupture to his aorta. He was only 48. I have one image of Reinhart etched in my mind – seeing him kicking a soccer ball against the Berkeley venue wall as I walked up to it. Whether he was just killing time or distracting himself before going on stage, I’ll never know.
In December of the same year, Sean Malone died of suicide.** He had been grieving over the loss of his mother and of Reinhart. It is speculated that the pandemic had also upended his life. He was 50. Over the course of 11 months, both members of one of the least recognized creative rhythm sections to play in a metal band were gone.
In 2018, Focus was reissued with three additional remixed tracks and three more new tracks. The new tracks lack Malone’s contributions. Cynic is currently touring for the first time since the passing of Reinhart and Malone, and will be playing Focus in its entirety.
* Death metal growls are also referred to as “cookie monster vocals”, a term viewed as pejorative by some. When I first heard it used in reference to said vocals, I laughed out loud because it was such an apropos description. I use the term fondly and without animus.
** Mental health is a serious topic and there should be no shame or stigma involved.