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CYNIC - ReFocus

Just one and a half seconds of a swelling space sound lead into the first metal chord. "In Maya's grip..."  a weird New Age Alien voice begins the first verse, "illusion transforms verity" Paul Masvidal finishes it in spoken words. [Alien] "Perceiving thus" [Paul"a delusive world of" [Alien] "duality".
The voice glides into an incredibly busy, almost tribal drum pattern in sync with a bubbling Jazz Fusion fretless bass line. But before you can even get a chance to process it we're already in the sraighter double bass beat and Prog Metal riff, which backs up the chorus. [Alien] "Veil of Maya" [mean Death Metal voice] "Balance every joy with a grief" [Alien] "Dual scales of Maya" [Death] "Earth's unending law of polarity". Then a bridge connects everything which has happened musically up to this point. [Whisper] "Ahamkara...veil of Maya". An immediate breakdown into Cosmic Jazz full of synths, beautiful bass harmonies, syncopated drumming and a gorgeous guitar solo by Jason Gobel... We've only crossed the one-minute-mark now and we're already overwhelmed by strange new sensations never heard on a Metal record before. Such a richness of sounds and ideas many artists never come close to during their whole careers. Welcome to 1993, this is Cynic's "Focus".

There aren't many first minutes of other albums I have heard as often in my life as this one. I wouldn't even rule out that there actually is none I have listened to more at all. Visit me at any moment on the timeline between my first exposure to "Veil of Maya" and now and "Focus" will always be there. This is one of the rare albums I never stopped listening to for a longer while.
I could safely say that it is one of, if not the most important album of the 1990s for me. It feels more appropriate to rank this among the best records of any genre of all time though. But if I'm perfectly honest, that doesn't do this singular masterpiece justice either.

No, realistically "Focus" is one of the best things among the entirety of things.

So you have it on vinyl then? - No, actually not. At least until now.

CYNIC - ReFocus (violet vinyl LP) (1993/2023)

So there you have my sole reason for purchasing this re-release. As the different title and artwork suggest, this thirty years anniversary edition of "Focus" isn't just a repress with some new pictures and liner notes, but also a whole new mix! But honestly I wasn't sure I needed that. I'm still a bit on the fence actually. When you are accustomed to one thing like I am to every precious second of this album, every change feels a little off, as if something's not right. So even if the work is done well it just takes some time to get used to it.

The good news is that nothing heretic has happened here. "Focus" is still the same album, which not only featured the quartet lineup of Paul Masvidal, Reiner, Malone and Jason Gobel, but also the crucial input of three guest vocalists. Most noticeable among those was the very specific Death Metal voice of Tony Teegarden, a prominent co-lead vocal on six of the eight tracks. (And mind that "Textures" is an instrumental piece!)

You might sigh either of disappointment or relief now, but I'm not going to give into the tempation to dissect the whole misunderstood upon its release cult classic in all of its glorious detail. I would just get lost over it. And over the years many voices more eloquent and knowledgable than mine have talked and written about this masterpiece, especially since besides its own merits no history of Chuck Schuldiner's Death and the album "Human" featuring the young Reinert and Masvidal would be complete without also touching upon "Focus".

If you knew the growing ambitions in both songwriting and technical skill of Death at the time and probably even more so if you had followed the demo recordings from Cynic themselves from Thrash Metal with D.R.I. shouts to one of the most proggy Death Metal bands of their time, and if you also knew of their connections not only to Schuldiner but also Atheist, then you would have been aware that their Roadrunner Records debut album would be something special.

But how special it would be and how many completely fresh ingredients it would contain - I doubt anyone was prepared for that. The robot alien vocals, the spiritual philosophical lyricism and mostly the absolutely fluid merging of technical Death Metal and Mahavishnu Orchestra inspired Jazz Fusion without ever getting the shredding in the way of songwriting... All that came with such a natural ease, as if this sound had existed and been explored for a much longer time than possible, like something literally from outer space.

And it still stands the test of time. There still is nothing like it.

Of course there are many artists who worship Cynic and some like Obscura or recently Fleshvessel have their passages which come amazingly close to the sound - but the novelty and the whole clash of youthfulness and wisdom, this special pocket of zeitgeist... that's just impossible to recreate.
And that's (by far not all, but an important part of) why "Focus" matters today just as it did three decades ago.

Ok, Stephan, stop it! You said you wouldn't ramble on about it, but you're just starting to do exactly that! Refocus!

Yes, "ReFocus". So, how is this new mix now?

I cannot compare the sound as one-to-one as I'd love to, because I only ever had "Focus" on CD, but don't own a digital copy of "ReFocus", since adding a download card to the vinyl record would obviously been too much of a hassle. But the important differences can be spotted easily nonetheless.

The original album was mixed in a short time, with lot's of "shiny" effects on top, which made it sound bigger, but also washed out a lot of the details of the actual performances.
It was improved by the remastered version, which came out a couple of years later and gave the whole thing a rounder finish. Technically both of them don't put "Focus" on top of the best-produced albums ever, but there wasn't anything to complain about for me neither. It always just was what it was - and part of what I loved unconditionally.

This new mix feels dryer, actually taking some of the focus away from the production and concentrating more on highlighting the performances themselves. No matter towards which element you turn your ear - drums, bass, guitars, even the alien robot vocals... - everything is on display much clearer now. If you want to dive even deeper into the stellar musicianship of these prodigies, this mix undoubtly is for you. So, good job, alright? - I guess so.

Man, this is really hard to judge! My mind says that this is probably superior to the original, but my gut asks if there isn't a bit too much double bass here, but like I just explained - lack of reliable sources for a direct comparison of these things. And my heart, my heart which has a whole chamber reserved just for this incredible work of art I can never get tired of - it just can't connect to the atmosphere of the album in the same way it's used to. Yet?
Time will have to tell. Some parts impress me even more now, but it seems that greater display of craftmanship came at the cost of a bit of the album's mystique.

But then I'm probably talking about factually minimal distinctions, which demand an unhealthy amount of familiarity to even bother about. So if you're just catching up on Cynic's ticket to artistic immortality, take this mix, take the old one... it doesn't matter. You can decide purely based on your prefered colour scheme of the cover artwork.

For me that would clearly be the original. But again: That doesn't mean the new artwork or vinyl colour are bad. No, this truly is a labour of love.

"Cosmic mother, awaken us in
Thine impartial love for all
Bless us that we be free from
The sway of greed and delusion
Inspire us to build a new world
One in which famine, disease and ignorance
Will be only memories of a dismal past"

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