The progressive turn: Cynic and Obliveon

I’ve made much of the progressive turn that death metal took in the early 1990s. But this is usually from a cultural angle over a raw analysis of the music. What did it mean that extreme metal – a rampantly chaotic form of music with such primitive origins – fused with jazz via King Crimson, and essentially became metal’s shot at highbrowism, and this at a time of postmodern flux where such demarcations were losing all grounding? This is interesting for many reasons, not least of which is the violent backlash that such noble intentions were met with. At the commercial end of the spectrum a regicide of death metal took place at the hands of utilitarian groove or alternative metal offshoots. But the metal faithful also turned away, either throwing their lot in with black metal or looking once again to old school values for wisdom, a minor prelude to the Retromania that haunts us today. But as trailblazers in the likes of Pestilence, Atheist, Death, and Cynic undergo a latter-day reappraisal thanks to the vaulting popularity of bands like Blood Incantation, a closer look at the music itself might well be in order.  

It’s almost impossible to say anything new about Cynic’s ‘Focus’. Released in 1993, from Watchtower to Dream Theater, precedents for such an overt fusion of jazz and metal were not in short supply by this time, and the likes of Death, Atheist, and Pestilence had already cemented progressive death metal as a legitimate subgenre. So why the focus on…’Focus’? Well there’s the obvious Demilichian mythology to this album as a singular outlier, boasting both an immediately identifaible sound, and the original incarnation of the band breaking up before they had the chance to ruin its legacy with a half-baked follow up to dilute this calling card. But there is an answer that reaches deeper into the legacy of this work: ‘Focus’ is not a metal album.

Statements like this tend to confuse genre-preoccupied metal fans so let’s attempt to unpack it a little, becasue it’s not intended as a slight. Whilst other progressive death metal acts were still easily recognisable as death metal, Cynic were essentially offering a concoction of new wave era King Crimson, jazz fusion, Watchtower offcuts, and vocals split 50/50 between death metal growling and vocoder effects. Within these obvious touchstones Cynic range freely over an enormous musical territory, and they make much of integrating these influences into a unified work. Despite its many meanderings and frequent shifts from metallic guitar tones to proggy breakdowns, this is a streamlined and…focused work (I’m so sorry).

But the simple fact is that ‘Focus’ does not behave like a death metal album, it behaves like a showcase of progressive music mores with a smattering of distorted guitars and vocals. It does not flow like a metal album, one that uses an exchange of riffs to build a narrative foundation. Instead, Cynic function more like traditional jazz, in that a repeated riff is used to ground individual passages, leaving each individual instrument free to take turns in improvising (or at least create the impression of improvisation) around this central, grounding refrain. Once an improv cycle is complete, the riff is dispensed with and a new passage is constructed. But because the focus (I’ll show myself out) is on creating a hook to hang these freeform jams on, little regard is given to the transitions themselves or the overall flow of each track. How each moment connects up is of little concern, therefore each passage exists free of context or premises, it simply and amorally is. Hence the reason why a lot of metal fans are turned off by what Cynic were doing here.  

Much like King Crimson on ‘Discipline’, when Cynic hit their stride the effect can be mesmerising. The fact that King Crimons’s indulgent take on new wave and the well documented excesses of progressive rock at large are so often dismissed as musician’s music does not mean we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. The appeal simply lies in totally different territory to albums like ‘The Rack’ or ‘Onward to Golgotha’. When so much music is thrown at the listener, particularly music that has a different understanding of rhythm and cadence as opposed to what our ears are accustomed to, it’s easy to dismiss it outright. But the reality is, when done well, it can offer unique expressive spaces that other forms of music simply cannot reach.

But equally, people can easily become over enamored with the apparent sophistication and density of this approach, placing all their stock in exponentially complex sonic information for its own sake. ‘Focus’, whilst far from perfect, walks this line well. Seek death metal and you shall be disappointed, but for a display of the progressive music tendency in its most honest and pure form one cannot go wrong with spinning this album. That being said, a fucking vocoder is a cool little effect to use at certain times, BUT WE DON’T NEED IT ON EVERY FUCKING TRACK YOU SELF-INDULGENT DINGBAT, HAVE SOME SELF-CONTROL FOR CHRIST’S SAKE.

At the complete opposite end of the progressive metal spectrum lies Canada’s Obliveon. Emerging from a thrash tradition that co-opted progressive tendencies along the way but remained very much true to the excitable, punky roots of extreme metal, their debut album fits well in a timeline that incorporates Voivod, DBC, and Coroner. Despite the undeniable musicianship of these bands, they retained a brashness and DIY aesthetic which tempered their more overt flirtations with prog. Obliveon’s ‘From this Day Forward’ (1990) should be considered a watermark of progressive metal articulated in the death/thrash vernacular.

But if mid 80s Voivod and Coroner were offering an audial assault of dense, riff packed noise, Obliveon opted to slow the average tempo down a little, allowing the off kilter riffs some space to breathe, and creating an emptiness behind the music that imbued it with a spacey atmosphere, one that all the strained virtuosity of a Vektor have been unable to replicate. There are faster passages of blunt thrash riffing scattered throughout this album, but they serve as transition riffs between unpredictable development sections and disorientating high end guitar leads that jump out of the music to redefine our place within the narrative. This conflict between understated progressive thrash set to mid-paced, swaggering rhythms and the urgency of traditional atonal thrash serves to pinpoint ‘From this Day Forward’ as a transitional album within metal in every sense of the word.

We see the old servicing the new, just as we see the new raising the aspirations of the old. This delicate balance is perfectly poised throughout this album. Everything is rendered with a faint touch of reverb that gives the music a subtly chasmic atmosphere without the need for any keyboards or excessive guitar effects. Drums are heavy but not too dominant. The powerful snare and thundering double-bass are restrained enough to give clarity to the tight and creative performance. Stéphane Picard’s snarled vocals have just a touch of echo to them, offering the album narration as if from a vast hanger. So creative and numerous are the riffs and solos that the guitars need little to enhance their tone.

They jump from meaty thrash riffs to delicately picked high end staccato leads that are almost haunting in their tantalising relationship with melodic development. At moments of heightened tension the drums will match their rhythmic emphasis, raising the overall intensity of the music, before breaking away into a simple one/two punk beat as the narrative develops. The lead guitars will sometimes trade blows with the bass, as the latter takes up the refrain introduced by the former, gradually building an unfolding concoction of spatial unknowns.

It should be noted that none of this is overtly technical by the standards of progressive music. The riffs take on unexpected shapes and forms as they develop, but owing to the relatively suppressed tempos, there is a deliberation and patience to the way these tracks unfold that grants it a tension and unease lacking in denser displays of musicality. Instrumental breaks of clean guitars also serve to compliment the ever-present empty space that sits behind every moment of this album, offering idiosyncratic harmonies to lead into blunted power chord riffs. It’s an effect that is hard to pin down, seeing as silence lurks behind all musical endeavour. But on ‘From this Day Forward’, the emptiness that sits behind the modest layers of reverb present on instrument invokes a void at the heart of this album, a non-existence that we are acutely aware of between each pause, but can never quite grasp as the music marches ever onwards.   

The obvious metaphor to deploy in comparing these two albums would be one of economic class. If ‘Focus’ is a slick salesperson spitting forth wooing jargon to close a deal, then ‘From this Day Forward’ is a salt of the earth manual labourer. But this assessment only scratches the surface of their differences. The simple fact is that – for all its tension, poise, and unbridled creativity – ‘From this Day Forward’ behaves how we would expect a metal album to. It builds riffs into one another, they connect up to form a narrative, with guitar leads and solos heightening the tension and resolve in their own sui generis framework. The progressive format is incidental to this goal; a means to an end. ‘Focus’ by contrast is a case study in music itself, a laboratory of complex formulas and multi-dimensional experiments with no overarching vision or greater purpose. Whether riffs or passages connect up or not is more by luck than design, their chief purpose being a conceptual framework to hang the musical hypotheses of meandering scale runs and freeform improvisations onto.

So, superficially, one could be forgiven for assuming that any choice to make between these two albums is simply a case of assessing the virtues of blue collar vs. white collar prog. But in reality, a direct comparison is more down to whether you prefer sound showcases vs. sound stories. And of course it goes without saying that there is room for both. Music is created and enjoyed for an infinite variety of motivations after all. But taking these two albums on their own terms, there are simply better examples of progressive music in this vein than ‘Focus’ (King Crimson’s aforementioned 80s catalogue for example). But for progressive metal that sits at the borders of death and thrash, few compete with ‘From this Day Forward’, and for that reason it is my pick of the week.

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