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Welcome to Versus, the series where we look at two albums in metal history, compare them, and see which one was the better record.
In this edition, we are getting technical in this match up in this progressive death metal fight. Two American bands that have been cited as influential acts in progressive death metal. Both debuts cited as memorable releases, making them stand out from the iconic Florida death metal sound that was happening at the time. Standing out from famous death metal acts like Death, Deicide, and Obituary. So let’s take a look at this matchup I’m calling “The Fusion Fight In Florida“.
In this corner, we have Cynic with their 1993 debut Focus. A release that took the bands style of death metal and infused it with other genres, mainly jazz. The band changed direction from being a straight-forward brutal death metal band with a more experimental and progressive metal sound with this release. With this release and their opponent's release in this matchup, have influenced countless bands such as Meshuggah, Between the Buried and Me, and Beyond Creation. Let’s take a look at this progressive death metal release and see what makes this a standout release.
Opening up with a standout track “Veil of Maya”. A song with a great opening bass line with matching drums accenting the playing. The dual vocals of Paul Masvidal on vocoder vocals with Tony Teegarden performing the death growls, they blend perfectly, giving the band its unique and diverse sound that sets them apart from fellow Florida death metal acts. The nice acoustic guitar and bass section at the quarter mark is really progressive and shows the listener this is going to be a diverse record. The female vocals of Sonia Otey add another dynamic to this already diverse band. The death metal elements also shine with great guitar playing, letting the notes hang and letting other band members shine in the instrumentation. Setting the listener up to get ready for the journey this record is about to go on.
“Celestial Voyage” starts off with a very space-like feel to the song. Masvidal’s vocals lead the track off with pulsing drums and technical guitar playing. The growl vocals over the vocoder vocals are blended again very well on the song, with the song featuring a nice light guitar solo at the end with the bass matching the main riff. “The Eagle Nature” has a great guitar opening piece with vocoder vocals syncing and transitioning into the growl parts. Drums shine with intricate playing over intricate double bass. The band’s musicianship shines in the performance of this track.
Another standout track for me is “I’m But A Wave To…”. Progressive as hell and at the band’s finest with the opening of the track. Growl and vocoder vocals kick in with a very progressive death metal riff and intricate playing with elements of jazz fusion, progressive and experimental time signatures. The talent the band has in this song is exquisite and impressive. “Uroboric Forms” is one of the shorter songs on the album and has a strong death metal opening but with the atmospheric, almost floaty interlude pieces throughout give the listener reprieve. The instrumental “Textures” shows the band’s jazz fusion sound with beautiful acoustic pieces with drums enhancing the playing. The album closes with “How Could I” that features a strong synth lead that could almost come out of any 80’s pop song. The music is strong and continues the band’s technical skills and brings the album to a beautiful close.
In the opposite corner, we have fellow Florida death metal act Atheist with their 1990 debut record Piece of Time. Performing their style of metal, infusing death metal and thrash, the band then added elements of jazz-like time signature changes into their sound. Some have said that this release actually influenced its opponent in this matchup, which this release came out three years before Cynic's debut. This release also was influential to other bands like Nocturnus, Behold...The Arctopus, and later releases from Florida legends Death. Let’s see how Piece of Time left it’s mark on death metal and how they stack up against their competitors.
We open the album with the title track, a standout track and a great introduction to the band. Building tension and suspense with nice synths and ocean waves crashing before the opening bass line of Roger Patterson, who is a real standout on this album. This album is a bass players album. The vocals of Kelly Shaefer are a nice unique blend of Obituary and Death in his performance. The frantic drumming after the opening verses is technical, but insanely fast and intricate. I love the short burst of guitar solos before going into a longer solo at the halfway mark and is a great song to showcase the band’s skill at their instruments, shining a light on the technical prowess of the band.
Followed up by the thrash heavy “Unholy War”. Bass shines again in the opening intro with elements of old school death metal in the guitar playing in-between the thrashy riff. One of the shortest songs on the album, but it crams a lot into the timeframe. There is almost no break or slowdown, it is thrash through and through one hundred percent. “Room with A View” has another classic death metal intro with the bass popping up in littler bursts in the mix.
Another standout track is “On They Slay”. A great opening bass and guitar riff combo, the song just hits the ground running and doesn’t stop. With constant slow down/speed up tempo changes, and double bass hitting hard, coinciding with the fast riffage. Another very thrashy guitar solo with driving bass and drums behind it with great classic death metal vocal delivery. The song is a great standout track and a true classic for the band. “Beyond” showcases a more groove metal style guitar playing with pulsing drums accenting the groove. Creating a song that sounds like it could have even come off of Death’s debut record. Songs like “I Deny” and “Why Bother?” show the band continue their deafening marriage of death, thrash and progressive elements on the record. The album’s closer “No Truth” is a strong closer for this album. With synths coming back from the opener, and a somber guitar piece, the band kicks back into overdrive. With a nice guttural scream as the beat picks up and relentless energy in the performance, this song closes out the band’s debut and a progressive death metal classic.
With all the technical musicianship and both releasing influential releases in progressive death metal, who do we declare the winner? In my opinion, the winner is Cynic with Focus. Focus is quintessential progressive death metal. There are so many elements and techniques that separated them from other death metal acts at the time. The dual vocals, mainly the mixture of vocoder vocals, combined with the classic death metal growls, this was a first and gave the band a definitive sound that many bands have yet to attempt to match. Musically, with the jazz fusion elements, it is progressive and experimental. Showing that the band was on to something unique and groundbreaking. Atheist’s Piece of Time is a great record and a strong release from the band. It was more thrashy with hints of progressive, while Cynic dived into the progressive waters and didn’t get out of the water.
Both bands would continue to release music. Cynic would continue to release three more records, their most recent being Ascension Codes in 2021, but would tragically lose drummer Sean Reinert and Sean Malone in 2020. The band would also remix and remaster Focus and re-release the album in 2023 under the name ReFocus. Atheist would continue to also release more music, though tragically losing bassist Roger Patterson in 1991, who was a standout on this release. They continued to release music, with their most recent being 2010’s Jupiter. These bands, through difficult times, continued to record, perform, and influence the progressive death metal genre with their discography. I would recommend both bands if you want to get into the progressive death metal sound, especially if you want to hear the influence on some of the legends of the genre and see where this sound developed and how far we have come.
Do you agree with my decision? Who do you think should have won this battle? Leave your comments in the comments section below and your suggestions who you think should step in the ring next. I’m Justin, your friendly neighborhood metalhead, for This Day in Metal and this has been Versus.
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