Originally written by Dean Brown.
To have a classic album nestled away in your discography can be both a blessing and a curse: fans may worship you for it but it will be the measuring stick by which they’ll critique all future releases. Sometimes the only way around it is to travel outside the sound that made your classic album so popular—and with that comes risks.
Cynic’s handling of this very predicament has been interesting to watch from afar. The legendary band—spearheaded by Paul Masvidal (guitars, vocals) and Sean Reinert (drums)—sky-rocketed death metal into the cosmos in 1993 with the release of the now-seminal Focus. There was a progressive flair to Focus, but also a deep transcendental touch that made the album so exceptional when considered as an entire piece of music; its individualism still resounds around its copyists today.
Back when Focus was released, experimentalism within extreme metal wasn’t as welcome—or as frequent—as it is now. However, death metal did have its visionaries at the time, though there were few with the fluidity, grace and intelligence of Cynic. Masdival and Reinert took the technicality that ran roughshod through Death’s music at the time (both players were drafted into Chuck Schuldiner’s crew for the genre milestone, 1991’s Human) and applied their own jazz-fusion expertise and new-age spiritualism to the music, which positioned Focus light-years away from the bands allied with the gruesome genre at the time.
And then they were no more.
Masvidal and Reinert disbanded Cynic in 1994 because of creative and personal differences, and both went on to pursue musical opportunities away from the intensity of metal as music and metal as a lifestyle. Freed from the pressure to use growled vocals—even though they were already experimenting with vocoders, etc.—and the requirement to write fret-frazzling metal riffs, Masvidal and Reinert explored avant-garde, progressive rock and jazz music as a means to further enhance their songwriting capabilities (See: projects like Portal, Aeon Spoke, and Gordian Knot). In the time they were away from the genre, death metal turned up the dial on its technical side. Young musicians schooled on the freedom of thought Focus demonstrated had pushed the genre into complex spheres of madness. But as all of this was happening, songcraft was left behind in favor of record-blitzing beats-per-minute, show-boating arpeggios, and nonsensical twisting of time-signatures.
When Cynic reformed to play some shows in 2007, the musical landscape had changed a great deal.
Because of the advancement in information technology, the internet began to play a role of breaking down genre boundaries far and wide, and the distinction between genres— particularly those in metal—started to blur. So, when it came to creating new music under the Cynic name, Masvidal and Reinert had some choices to make. They could either compete with the current crop of musicians that was warping death metal, or they could take the lessons they learned practicing different styles of music and apply it to Cynic. Anyone familiar with the band’s second album, 2008’s Traced in Air, knows that the latter option was the mature (sensible) choice—and it was the obvious move.
Traced in Air was built on lithe, unusual melodies and searing instrumentation, with very little grounding in extreme metal. Although, technically speaking, the playing was at times more complex than Focus, but understatedly so. Since its Traced in Air‘s release and subsequent success, Cynic have released new music or re-interpretations of their own music on a consistent basis, and have become almost prolific, considering how mute they were for so many years.
The band’s third full-length, Kindly Bent To Free Us, released on February 14th (Season of Mist), is the next chain in the band’s evolution, and it’s a development the band has been—consciously or subconsciously—lining up since their reformation.
Where their last full-length studio effort vaulted into ethereal space above the clouds while remaining anchored by metal, Kindly Bent To Free Us, like Alcest’s Shelter this year, cuts the metallic cord completely. However, there is a major difference in the progression of both bands, as Alcest may have alienated their entire fanbase through their development (even though it was a natural choice), while Cynic’s fanbase post-Traced in Air shouldn’t be thrown too much by the band’s full embrace of pop-centred progressive rock. (Those looking for Focus Mark II at this stage in the game must have been trapped in a galaxy far away for the last twenty years.)
That’s not to say Kindly Bent To Free Us is an immediate listen because of the suppression of metal, or an album that fully surrenders itself to you during an early courtship. It’s quite the opposite, really. This album can throw you for a loop, because even though Masvidal is using his vocals—which are mostly devoid of studio skulduggery—to lead the music more so now than ever, his choice of melodies and phrasing do not make direct contact for a number of spins… and even then, in some instances, they never connect at all. This blockade appears to stem from the band’s internal conflict between trying to mine emotional depths to establish a deep connection with the listener versus trying to sustain a detached, alien and technically adventurous sound.
The search to find equilibrium between head and heart produces varied results throughout Kindly Bent To Free Us. Outside of the serene verses, the asexual vocal melodies and jarring phrasing of “Infinite Shapes,” never resolve, sounding cold and borderline annoying at times. “Gitanjali” begins with some authoritative drumming from Reinert, who is noteably restrained on this release, before drifting off into the ether in terms of its base connection with the listener. And the same can be said for the Mew-like lullaby that finishes the album, “Endlessly Bountiful.” It’s the epitome of anticlimatic, fancying itself as a dreamy meditation that, in reality, ends the album in rather unremarkable fashion.
By pushing Masvidal’s voice to the forefront songwriting-wise (though his vocals are positioned deep within the mix) instead of his enviable guitar skills, the focus shifts to his voice more than you would expect. Nevertheless, it’s the songs that find the necessary balance of instrumentally and vocally affecting that secure Cynic’s revered status as a progressive rock powerhouse. Opener “True Hallucination Speak” excels through its tangled riffs and fluid basslines (ever-dexterous bassist Sean Malone is dazzling throughout), and its marriage of prog with Far-esque alt-rock (and even some hints of Queen in Masvidal’s vocal layering) are superb.
The upbeat feel continues through to “The Lion’s Roar,” which now holds claim as the catchiest song in Cynic’s catalogue. Its joyous opening riff leads the way to delicate verses and a hook-heavy chorus only bettered by the song’s catchy lead riff; it has more in common with bands like Coheed and Cambria or Circa Survive than any modern technical death metal band. This song will be the deal-breaker for strict Focus fans who still want to give new Cynic a chance, but for everyone else it may be one of the singles of 2014.
The real emotional weight of Kindly Bent To Free Us is found in the three songs placed a opportune moments throughout the record: “Kindly Bent To Free Us,” “Moon Heart Sun Head,” and “Holy Fallout.” “Kindly Bent To Free Us” and “Holy Fallout” would have fit seamlessly into Traced in Air; the band’s natural ability to create a unique space where bass, drums, guitars, synthetic textures and vocals all exist in harmony shines iridescently. “Moon Heart Sun Head” manages to capture exactly what Cynic hoped this album would achieve in its entirety but doesn’t. Its intention is alluded to in its title: it connects head and heart and the internal with the external through a pivotal balancing of Cynic’s desire to be musically aloof and alien while being vocally and lyrically poignant.
Kindly Bent To Free Us may be a transitional release for Cynic as they try to work out how to give each aspect of their newfound sound equal footing, as they do so superbly on “Moon Heart Sun Head.” Typically for this band, there are moments of genuine genius at play and Masvidal, Malone and Reinert are as technically impressive as ever; it’s just for every successful song there is another which doesn’t scale the same heights. This leaves the album on a disjointed axis, as Cynic search to find the perfect symmetry between head and heart while continuing to travel across the stars.