Cynic Focus
1993 Roadrunner Records RR 9169-2
Reissued 2000 Roadrunner Germany
Produced by Cynic and Scott Burns
Engineered and Mixed by Scott Burns

Now this is an album that really needed to be reissued! Virtually the entire Roadrunner back-catalog has been deleted, and this masterpiece was reissued by the German, not American, branch of Roadrunner. Until recently, Focus was so scarce and in demand that copies of it were selling on Ebay upwards of $30. My guitar teacher even asked me for a copy! What makes it so special? To call Cynic unique would be an understatement. Cynic was an experimental heavy metal band that combined the cold, technical precision and talent of four of the greatest musicians in metal with elements of jazz, tribal music, reggae, you name it.
The band was far ahead of its time. Some people call their music “math rock.” Indeed, the album has that precise, digitized feel. Half the vocals are computerized, as are much of the drums, and the disc itself was digitally recorded, mixed, and mastered. Unfortunately this was the band’s only album, although you could probably fill up another disc with all their unreleased demo tracks.
Sound quality on the disc is very good, but not great. The disc lacks the transparency of a truly great recording. The album has a very thick bass sound too, the trademark quality of Scott Burns’ engineering. The technical accomplishment of the band is unmatched, as they seamlessly lead us on a journey through the intensity of the heaviest metal to the funk of modern metal-jazz. All tracks are highly recommended, but my select cuts are “Veil of Maya,” “Celestial Voyage,” “Uroboric Forms,” and “How Could I.”

Iced Earth Alive in Athens
1999 Century Media 77275-2
Produced by Jon Schaffer and Jim Morris
Engineered and mixed by Jim Morris
Domestic album available as a double CD
Foreign album available as a triple CD or 5 LP set

Prior to this 3-hour live recording I had never listened to Iced Earth. How could I have missed them! This CD has quickly become my all-time favorite live metal recording. It has a crisp, clear sound, and the live energy of the performance extends straight from the arena through the speakers. The only real technical flaw I could find with this album is that the picture of the concert on the back of the box was reversed (but they corrected that on the 5-LP set).
Iced Earth played two different sets in two nights at Athens, Greece for this recording. They chose to record the album in Athens because Greece is actually the country with the most Iced Earth fans. This CD already went platinum in Greece. Much of the material on this album comes from their latest album, Something Wicked This Way Comes. Honestly, I like the performances on the live album better than the studio recording! Whatever was missing from the studio they sure filled in here.
Although Iced Earth is not a unique band, they are quite good at what they do. Playing a refreshing mix of Iron Maiden-ish power metal and old school thrash with operatic vocals, they sound like a blast from the 80’s. If this sounds like your cup of tea, definitely pick this baby up. You won’t regret it! I would definitely go for the 3-CD version; for a couple dollars you get 9 more songs!

Forbidden Twisted Into Form
Originally 1990 Combat Records
1999 Relativity Records (Re-masters of Metal series) 1757-2
Produced and engineered by Michael Rosen

For reasons unknown, rap label Relativity (who now owns Combat) decided to re-master and reissue ten select metal albums from the Combat back-catalog. Among them was this little gem, Forbidden’s thrash opus Twisted Into Form.
Forbidden was a San Francisco Bay-area thrash band that didn’t really achieve fame, but this album is, in my opinion, essential. Everyone loves the operatic vocals of Russ Anderson, and the addition of guitarist Tim Calvert (now in Nevermore) added a new dimension to their sound. Song structures became more complex, with greater variation and melody. The album begins with an acoustic solo by Tim Calvert, which quickly evolves into a bludgeoning thrash attack! The attack doesn’t cease until the third song, the catchy-yet-thrashy “Step by Step.” The rest of the album proceeds in the same manner, and we are treated to a second Tim Calvert instrumental in the seventh track, “Spiral Depression.”
The album is not perfect (few are); the last two songs I could do without. But as a whole the album is superb. Production is average, considering the era and style of music. The re-mastering job was thankfully loud and clear. I understand Relativity really goofed up a couple of the other titles. My favorite cuts were “Parting of the Ways,” “Infinite,” “Out of Body (Out of Mind),” and “Twisted Into Form.” To be played at maximum volume.

Opeth Still Life
1999 Peaceville Records CDVILE 78
Produced and engineered by Opeth with assistance from Fredrik Nordstrom and Isak Edh. Mastered by Goran Finnberg.

One listen to this disc should be all it takes to convince you that Swedish heavy metal is the best in the universe. I am totally nuts about anything Swedish. This disc has every element that you could possibly look for in a great heavy metal album: it is a combination of extremity and melody, the production is sad and bleak, the musicianship is unparalleled, and there are plenty of solos. It’s not mindless brutality like some other acts (Incantation comes to mind). The album has its share of heaviness, but the most beautiful sections are those with clean vocals over acoustic solos. Mikael Akerfeldt can actually sing, too. It’s interesting how this type of music is becoming cliched in the metal community, as bands like In Flames drift from their extreme roots and record more ‘accessible’ albums. Opeth remains fresh and original, as they are one of the few bands out there who can successfully pull off the melodic-yet-evil sound.
Every song is an epic, the average song clocking in at over nine minutes! Much of this time is eaten up by what most would consider to be classical music and not metal. If you judged the album by the third track alone (“Benighted”), you would definitely not know this was a metal album. Being able to successfully integrate variation like this distinguishes the good from the extraordinary. I highly recommend this album to anyone with even a passing interest in melodic heavy metal. It is one of the best releases of the decade! All tracks highly recommended.

Metallica – Master of Puppets
1986, Elektra Records; 9 60439-1 (Vinyl), 9 60439-2 (CD)
1999, DCC Compact Classics; GZS-1133 (24 kt Gold Disc)
Remastering Engineer: Steve Hoffman

This release proves that someone in the music industry has at least a modicum of integrity. DCC could have made boatloads (no pun intended) more money if they had reissued the Black Album, but they inexplicably chose art over profit. For this DCC is to be commended. Master of Puppets isn’t Metallica’s most accessible album, but it is far and away their best. Enough with my sermon. How does their remastering job sound? Audiophiles will be delighted to know that DCC has done a wonderful job revitalizing this monumental work. I have always been pleased with DCC’s discs because they sound very analog-ish. They sound the way digital was alleged to sound, but never actually did. It is like listening to a record without the surface noise, without the tape hiss. The ‘normal’ version of “Master” is plagued with that hiss. DCC has eliminated most of it, creating a cleaner, more life-like presentation of the music. One problem I noticed when listening to the ‘normal’ version of this on an associate’s ultra high-end setup was at the bottom end: it lacked bass. For a dedicated headbanger, this borders on criminal! The cleaner DCC remaster has improved the bass, though it isn’t as earth shaking as the production on the Black Album. I don’t care if the Black Album sold 10 million and spawned 5 singles; this was Metallica at their peak, before they metamorphosed into ‘yet another MTV rock band.’ Now if only DCC would remaster the other classic from 1986: Slayer’s Reign In Blood.

Testament – The Gathering
1999, Burnt Offerings/Spitfire Records; 6-70211-5001-2 (CD)
Mixed by Andy Sneap

All hail Testament for producing one of the best metal albums of 1999! Speaking of Metallica, Testament used to sound exactly like them. When I heard their second release, The New Order, I thought it was Metallica. Guess who has the last laugh? Metallica fizzled out into a cheesy MTV malaise, but Testament has become more and more original and, with The Gathering, has created an enviable masterpiece of their own. New to the band is ex-Slayer and current Grip, Inc. drummer Dave Lombardo. He does a bang-up job here, reinforcing his status as one of the best drummers in the genre. Chuck Billy’s vocals are still Hetfieldesque, but once in a while he slips into the throaty growls akin to the more extreme bands of metal. Could this be a sneak preview at the future Testament? Only time will tell.
The beast begins with a speedy tune called “DNR” (for ‘Do Not Resuscitate’), but as it unfolds we discover groovier songs like “Down for Life” and “3 Days In Darkness.” The Gathering still has its ripping fast songs, like the potent “Legions of the Dead” and the thrashy speed of “Fall of Sipledome.” Testament has outdone themselves with this release. To avoid complaints from neighbors, it’s best if you listen to this raging beast of an album on headphones. Sound quality is clearer than most of this variety, but with a release like The Gathering it’s pretty much irrelevant. Choice cuts include: “DNR,” “Legions of the Dead,” and “Down for Life.”

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