Unearthly Ambitions — The Story of Cynic #3: 1991 Demo, Master and Monstrosity
As mentioned before, the timeline on when precisely Cynic's 1991 demo was written and recorded is, at least by my research, muddy. Despite finding in numerous sources the precise day of the start of recording for the sessions that became Human, the actual time that the 1991 demo was recorded even as much as what half of the year is obscure, often gestured to but frustratingly never in a concrete way. (It goes without saying that if anyone knows any specific information on the date of its recording, that information or lead would be greatly appreciated!) This is frustrating not just in the abstract sense of factorial accounting and trivia knowledge but also more concretely when analyzing whether the time spent with Chuck Schuldiner and Steve DiGiorgio in the studio for Human had a direct influence on the compositional and production choices of this material or vice versa.
What is even more frustrating, at least from a certain frame, is that close analysis of the material on both recordings offers little in the way of clues to this riddle, given the close similarities of approaches, something that makes sense given that they were recorded within six months of each other regardless of which came first. The most evidence I've seen from interviews and material from Roadrunner Records implies it was recorded shortly after the Human sessions but before the album's tour itself took off, in which Masvidal and Reinert both took part, hence its placement after Human. In a manner, this ambiguity of its precise recording date works to its advantage and further to the advantage of this critical exegesis as a whole. That obscuring functionally binds the two works together alchemically, each potentially birthing the other in a brief swirling cycle in an otherwise fractured but still roughly ordered timeline. They are symbiotically bound to each other, each informing the other; further, this relation exists no matter which came before or after, another of the great benefits of the critical shape of wheels and cycles, able to be cut and unfurled into straight lines.
Another usage of its placement after Human is, regardless of its precise recording date, the 1991 Cynic demo is the direct bridge to Focus. This is the first demo where all of the songs find their way onto that first proper studio statement in some form or another. "Uroboric Forms" arrives on Focus almost unaltered, including the guitar solos' production approach and even featuring the first introduction of the robotic vocals that would become a trademark of that groundbreaking first album. "The Eagle Nature" would see more substantial changes, receiving a new middle section and an adjusted ending as well as numerous vocal adjustments. "Pleading for Preservation" at first seems the odd man out, with no song of that title arriving on Focus, but close listening reveals its final section as the basis for the instrumental outro of "How Could I?". That these arrived as recordings from the group in 1991 indicate a sense of the vision for Focus already being more or less formed. Compared to the earlier three demos, the 1991 demo feels again like the same kind of developmental quantum leap each of the preceding demo recordings had taken. The thrash influence which had been so dominant on the first two demos is now fully synthesized into the compositions' DNA, those taut higher-register picked patterns now paired against a sense of drum arrangement that draws equally from the more sharp and astute of technical thrash's post-Rush drum figures with faint hints of the more arranged and orchestral approach to drums taken by fusion figures such as Billy Cobham and Tony Williams. The guitars have now largely abandoned even the distortion levels that would mark death metal proper, merging the tight and punchy compressed sound of peak-era Metallica with the liquid-smooth bio-organicism of fusion and progressive rock, featuring striking legato figures compared to death metal's common soundfield, which erred most often on the side of feral and untamed distortion. That this recording was financed by Roadrunner is apparent even within seconds; the sound here is the most distinguished by far of all of their demo recordings, feeling frankly like finished studio versions of this material rather than demo recordings. It is not impossible to imagine a world where Focus was released in 1991, hot on the heels of Human, a one-two punch that potentially would have revolutionized death metal forever (or, at least, far sooner than they inevitably wound up doing).
The synchrony between these three compositions and the material Masvidal and Reinert contributed to Human is especially striking. "Uroboric Forms" in particular feels like it could have fit on Death's concurrent album synchronously, both in terms of musical and lyrical approach. In one sequence of events, it is easy to see this song in particular being a fine pitch to Schuldiner to on-board the two talents to write with him for a new record, taking on the sonic approaches found here as the necessary ingredient to further develop on the new ideas and approaches initiated on Spiritual Healing. In another, one can easily see Masvidal and Reinert leaving the Death sessions both deeply inspired by those groundbreaking songs as well as still haunted a bit by their ghost, needing to expel them in their own work.
Compared to "Uroboric Forms," "The Eagle Nature" as presented on this demo feels less indebted to the work with Death but still not entirely free of that shadow. The middle-section features a mutated Latin groove and substantially more proggy and neo-classical flourish than Death would explore (not to mention what feels like a sly nod to Iron Maiden's "Seventh Son of a Seventh Son'"s ambient mid-section) but the appending verses feel commensurate with the work Death had completed up to that point, especially the material found on Spiritual Healing which featured technical and progressive flourish more as an adjoining element rather than a primary compositional focus. "Pleading for Preservation" likewise feels in its earlier passages like material that could easily have been explored with Chuck before developing into their own sensibility while also featuring the most striking departures of those sounds of any of the songs featured here. The outro in particular, inevitably repurposed on Focus proper, feels immediately like the most defining attribute not just of the song nor of the demo but indeed of the band as a whole thus far. There are glimmers on the two previous songs of moments that feel distinctly Cynic, no longer living within the shadow of their more-esteemed-at-the-time peer Death; the closing instrumental section here however sees the shackles fall fully away and Cynic as we know it step into the light.
Perhaps the greatest conjunctor of the two however is the vocal approach deployed here. Both in terms of arrangement and timbre, the vocal approach here is perhaps the most dynamic element of all within Cynic's demo period, but here the vocals, nearly entirely harsh, settle into a rather Schuldinerian sense of rasp and bite. There is a touch more of the guttural present, folding in a sense of ferality from the Leprosy-era that Chuck himself slowly moved away from, never to return to, but still feel the most self-consciously indebted to Death of any of the other elements here. This is most present when listening to "Uroboric Forms'' and "The Eagle Nature," two songs which would have substantial adjustments to their vocal arrangements and performances on Focus. Comparing the two versions, the lack of the robotic vocoder vocals (often either replaced with harsh vocals or featuring entirely different lyrics here sung with harsh vocals) places more squarely front and center the link between the two bands. The fact that "Uroboric Forms'' even on this demo features a brief single line with effected vocals seems illuminating from the vantage point of the present looking back at the full span of the group's work; it is less in the growling moments that we see the semblance of Cynic's final identity but instead in that brief flash. It indicates a deeper structural issue with the group's work at this point in their career that becomes apparent lurking beneath the consistent evolutionary ties to Death: that they never seemed to be a death metal band to begin with.
The group by this point had spread their listening beyond the self-admitted limitation to the singular world of extreme metal they had followed since the mid-80s, branching out to jazz fusion, progressive rock, as well as world music, various forms of hard rock and pop and all the other vaster types of music one could imagine young and hungry musicians might run into in the early '90s. Their compositions here show those strains beginning to filter in, using thrash and death metal as the backbone against which various explorations not just in terms of arrangement but also in terms of production, tone and mixing are explored. Their primary groundbreaking idiom which they would inevitably seize upon here is approached in much the same manner as their peers at the time in Atheist, Death, and Pestilence, utilizing death metal not as an end unto itself but as a foundational element that could sit more and more equally with other sonic ideas. This is not unlike similar developments in, say, bossa nova as a distinct fusion style of jazz combining American jazz approaches with Brazilian and Carribean pop music or the various strains of Jamaican popular music arising from using a standard approach to various genres (rock, pop, psychedelia, dance music, electronica, hip-hop, etc.). It is not just the differences between this demo and Focus that seem to gesture to a molting but indeed the fuller history of the band from Focus onward as well; too many critical approaches to Cynic's works seem to place Focus at the aesthetic center (seemingly due to preference for its material) rather than seeing it as an evolutionary continuum that forces us to perpetually reevaluate the previous works for what seeds toward the final form they may have contained.
In this reversed historical lens, it is hard not to view the vocals here as almost vestigial even if the band themselves seemed not to notice yet. This is not to say that they are poorly performed; as stated previously, it is tempting to imagine an alternate 1991 version of Focus that draws on both the material found here and on the previous demo, presenting a more sharpened and dangerous combination of death metal and technical thrash metal. However, that brief shock of a single effected vocal line in "Uroboric Forms'' feels transcendent and liberatory. There is a spark there, a resolution of the rub created by appending harsh vocals against their increasingly cybernetic alloyed fusion guitar lines, offering a potential stranger and more alien landscape. And not just alien: angelic. This comes with the gradually shifting lyrical and aesthetic approach of the band as well. Gone were the jagged angles and demonic figures of Reflections of a Dying World, replaced with ponderings that were rooted in the same innate acid-smeared psychedelia of death metal but gesturing toward the world of the spiritual and philosophical. The 1991 demo, while musically excellent, feels wrought with this tension, seeming from one end like a band more than ready to make their proper debut but from the other like one unaware of a final eruptive burst that would see them slowly strip away all of the death metal and thrash which had been their initiating impulse.
This sensibility and winnowing are verified somewhat in the span of creative work that followed both the 1991 demo and the recording and touring of Death's Human. The band found themselves at a crossroads and so decided to pursue other projects briefly both to spread their wings as well as bring some attention to their primary group. Tony Choy accepted positions recording with both Atheist and Pestilence in 1991, performing on both masterpiece records Unquestionable Presence and Testimony of the Ancients before departing Cynic entirely (This makes him the sole player to have performed in all three of the major early '90s prog-death bands.). In one world, Choy returned to Cynic for the sessions that would produce Focus; in that world, there is much to say about the intersections of his work within both Atheist and Pestilence, two bands that were as venerated by peers as they were fans in a period where a more progressive approach to death metal was still a relatively untested boundary. Unfortunately, we do not live in this world, and so while his contributions to both of those bands (and the contributions of those bands to the broader scene) are fascinating and compelling, they are unfortunately non sequiturs to the broader story of Cynic.
Guitarists Masvidal and Gobel, however, both wrote and performed on extracurricular records that seemed to inform the final shape of Focus, albeit through inversion and the aforementioned winnowing rather than affirmation or addition. Gobel notably teamed with former Cynic bassist Martin van Erp in Monstrosity for Imperial Doom, performing alongside a young George "Corpsegrinder" Fisher in his studio debut years before leaving to join Cannibal Corpse. Monstrosity's initial lineup is exciting in part for the historical value to Monstrosity itself. By the followup record Millennium, no members save bandleader and drummer Lee Harrison as well as Corpsegrinder would remain, while even Corpsegrinder would depart shortly thereafter to join Cannibal Corpse. As a result, Imperial Doom functions as a kind of formal alternative history to Cynic, almost more than a debut for Monstrosity itself, as well as a snapshot of the initial vision of Monstrosity as a group. Monstrosity, we must remember, was born in part from Lee Harrison's departure from Atheist; that the debut record of his group would feature the bassist of the initial Cynic demos as well as their second guitarist seems commensurate with the initial vision of the group as another tech/prog death band.
The lens is clearly shifted on Imperial Doom when compared to the works of either Cynic or Atheist, however. Monstrosity leaned substantially more brutal on their debut, eschewing both the advanced and future-gazing developing death/jazz fusion methodologies of Cynic as well as the frenetic and half-feral jazz metal of Atheist for something rooted much closer to death metal's Floridian roots. There still remains, however, the same sense of increased architecturalism that began to guide Death from Spiritual Healing forward, marking them at least as siding on the end of the more thoughtful composers and players of the genre as compared to the likewise developing animalistic and brutal wing of the genre in reaction to these methods. Gobel never joined Monstrosity as a full-time member, but his writing and playing are felt through Imperial Doom, the sole record to feature his contributions. There are approaches to lead tones and solos that remind us that Masvidal was not the only player diving more deeply into heady death metal directions. Imperial Doom's lead guitar work, played by Gobel, feel like clear precursors to the work that would come to fruition on Focus as much as Masvidal's work on Human had as well, experiments in tone and dynamic composition that would later bear their fruits.
The results are deeply compelling; it is no wonder, for instance, given both this record and Millennium, why Corpsegrinder became such a high-profile poach on the part of Cannibal Corpse. The hybrid form of traditional and technical death metal showcased here, as well as the year of its issuing, feels like a worthy foundational document for the potentialities of death metal without having to venture to its most avant-garde fringes. Even Death struggled with this sense of balance in a way, with Human beginning a trajectory that in retrospect necessarily led Schuldiner to the increasingly progressive and decreasing death metal terrain his career followed before terminating with Control Denied's hybrid of progressive, heavy and American power metal. Monstrosity, meanwhile, have founded a career based on the methods explored on Imperial Doom, a record which produced an enduring bedrock of death metal fusing trace elements of its developing styles at the time. It's perhaps most shocking how closely Monstrosity has hewn to this release stylistically over the years, all without producing the at times frustrating sense of boredom or stultification that can happen to certain bands that keep the same style for prolonged periods. This is due ultimately to the fruits of Imperial Doom and how well, in part, Gobel's contributions to the nascent group's songwriting worked together. In the context of Cynic, it is hard not to imagine it as a good pitch for something the then substantially more death metal sounding group could potentially do quite well.
Gobel has said in years since that he had hoped for a more brutal Focus and for a heavier followup than what we inevitably saw. Monstrosity's debut offers perhaps a snapshot of Gobel's ideal world, one primarily rooted in death metal but spiced up with progressive rock and jazz fusion ideas, as well as a more astute architecturalism, with mature uses of odd time signatures and tightly controlled playing still oriented toward the extreme. In this way, it appears that Gobel's vision most closely aligns with the career we inevitably saw from Immolation, a group that likewise has always played just a bit too whip-smart to feel good calling unadorned death metal but likewise keep a focus on directness and brutality and evil that keeps them from fully joining the legions of technical or progressive death metal. Given the enduring legacy of Immolation as a powerhouse of the genre and a perpetually inventive group, it is hard not to see the pitch from Gobel's end. It is a style of death metal that even genre mainstays Cannibal Corpse have found themselves sliding into and one that has birthed a number of enduring tropes of the style, so powerful that even the old school death metal revival's pitched return to simplicity inevitably fell to the temptations of those more sophisticated approaches within the style.
We also know evolutionarily that this was not the path Cynic was to take. This argument seems boldly apparent even by Focus, where brutality had almost entirely been struck through with increasingly progressive songwriting and tonal ideas, but the fuller history of the group paints an even more robust picture. Increasingly it has become obvious that even the broader field of heavy metal is but a single element in the broader network of nodes that is Cynic's sound; Imperial Doom's investment into the purity of death metal then feels anachronistic to the broader developments of Cynic at the time, an attempted reaction against their obvious path that inevitably failed to shift the inertial thrust of the group. And yet it is not the most boldly juxtapositional extracurricular work from this time period. That honor would go to Masvidal's writing and playing on Master's second studio record On the Seventh Day God Created... Master.
Where Monstrosity took a hybridized form of strains of death metal prevalent at the time, Master skewed substantially further backward in time to the then-fading death/thrash hybrid. If Monstrosity's studio debut read as Gobel's vision of the ideal technically-inclined approach to death metal, then Master's 1991 album was Masvidal's final flash of music he had produced since he was a teen. On the Seventh Day God Created... Master's riffing is not so loose as to feel like the early Atheist material's almost-live sense nor is it the almost sloppy, gunk-caked work that typified death metal's most extreme fringes, but it still leans primarily on the kind of frantic energetic movements of thrash/death hybrids. The compositions here notably were almost all Masvidal. Founder Paul Speckmann contributed to songwriting and is best thought of as the record and overall project's mastermind, but as the sole guitarist, Masvidal bore the brunt of record's riff-writing. His approach to riffs here not only feels like a time capsule opening from the earliest days of death metal, but also the earliest days of Masvidal himself. Not since Cynic's first demo can Masvidal be found playing music this brutal and absolutely feral. Given this record's placement between both Human and Focus, as well as Masvidal's key role in writing for all three of those records, it is hard to envision On the Seventh Day God Created... Master as being anything but a failed attempt to walk back the progressive ideals that had begun to drive his approach to writing in an attempt to return to death metal proper.
Temporarily setting aside this lens, it did in fact produce a respected death metal classic. On the Seventh Day God Created... Master captures death metal in feral form, the bristling post-thrash subgenre of its youth rather than either the technically demanding or cavernous and vile evolutions that were to come. It is likewise the most shockingly direct work Masvidal would ever pen, feeling often a direct continuation of the first two Cynic demos in more or less identical form. There's even the same cheeky sense of humor that marked early death metal, especially in the days before grindcore would fully bud out of it (and likewise well before the days grindcore would slide back into the world of death metal), captured on the song "America the Pitiful," a punky death-thrash performance of "America the Beautiful" with altered lyrics. Master play a tad smarter than the gore-obsessed annals of death metal's history, however. The lyrics on On the Seventh Day God Created... Master feature the same kind of lightly socially conscious directionality that figures like Schuldiner had introduced into the subgenre on records like Spiritual Healing, mirroring the increasing social awareness of thrash through the late '80s. Little on On the Seventh Day God Created... Master is particularly mind-bending or insightful but contemplations on sectarianism and theodicy are at least decidedly more thoughtful than ghouls eating their own guts. The album's enduring legacy, however, is not in being prototypical of later branches of death metal like some legendary records, nor of being avant-garde transmissions either ahead of or entirely outside of time but instead of being simply a quality species of death metal indicative more broadly of an era than a style. On the Seventh Day God Created... Master marks not only Master, but also the early '90s, as a period in death metal precisely between its roots in the heavier and more macabre ends of thrash and the later downtuned and bowel-churning regions it would reach, a fine snapshot of death metal in history.
Reinserted back into the continuum of Cynic's development, Master's record with Masvidal represented less a proposed future for the band than a dead past. It is hard not to imagine given the fullness of history that this would be Masvidal's last serious attempt at writing truly heavy death metal, especially given the surveit of material in the style from this point forward. Focus' remaining material which was not captured on the 1991 demo only dove further into the progressive, New Age, fusion, and alternative oriented sounds that would eventually become the band's entirety. It is easy in fact to imagine that had Masvidal not attempted a record such as On the Seventh Day God Created... Master under the decidedly more straight-forward death metal banner of Master that Gobel's vision of a slightly heavier Cynic may have taken root. Focus is, after all, a record not entirely devoid of death metal, and the notion of the next record upping both the progressive and death metal elements was one well-trod by fellow bands both of the time and especially over the past thirty years, but given how deeply death metal-with-no-qualifiers On the Seventh Day God Created... Master is, shockingly direct in its form both historically for Cynic but also when viewing their body of work as a whole, it is hard not to see it as similar to the final intensified thrust into some identity that we find inevitably no longer fits us as it once did. There is no denying that Cynic, as well as Masvidal and Sean Reinert in specific, had their roots in death metal and loved it deeply and truly. One doesn't make records like Human, Imperial Doom, or On the Seventh Day God Created... Master without that intense love, nor does one accept tour dates with Cannibal Corpse only two years later if that love doesn't remain true, but history shows us there was inevitably a divergence and, given the sonic developments both before and after, it becomes clear that this was the subtle but distinct musical turning point that would see Cynic move only closer and closer to progressive music instead of death metal rather than further away.
The two years immediately following the 1990 demo's writing and recording saw a radical series of developments one after another as new avenues emerged and old ones seemed to burn out or have their functioning notions harvested for parts for even newer ventures. The group's core in that span wrote, recorded, and toured on records for Death, Atheist, Pestilence, Master, and Monstrosity, spanning from absolute technical metal classics to guttural death metal, all while working on the material that was to become Cynic's 1991 demo, the first serious step towards Focus. Each of the records and groups they took part in during that time, even if Tony Choy did not inevitably return to the group, outlined various experiments in form and sound that, without them, would not have given us that pivotal first major document that inevitably cemented Cynic's lifelong legacy. Progressive tendencies sharpening aside, there was still one necessary element yet to lock into place that would wind up giving not only Focus but also all of Cynic its final transformative shape: Sean Malone.