Reviewed on this page:
Focus - The Portal Tapes - Gordian Knot - Emergent - Above The Buried Cry - Æon Spoke
- Traced In Air - Carbon-Based Anatomy
Florida-based guitarist/vocalist Paul Masvidal and drummer/keyboardist Sean Reinert put together Cynic in 1987, and after several lineup changes and false starts - during one of which the pair spent some time in another well known Florida metal band, Death - they cut their debut album, which more or less put progressive death metal on the map.
The band split after one disc, and all the members except Malone promptly formed Portal, which soon disbanded as well; Masvidal and Reinert then lit out for the West Coast and formed Æon Spoke, which wrote mood music for film scores, while bassist Sean Malone embarked on a solo career. They've occasionally come together in various combinations ever since.
Paul Masvidal, vocals, guitar; Sean Reinert, drums, keyboards; Tony Choy, bass; Jason Gobel, guitar. Choy left, 1993; replaced by Sean Malone; Tony Teegarden, vocals, also joined. Group split up, 1994. Reformed 2006, without Teegarden and with David Senescu replacing Gobel and Chris Kringel replacing Malone. In 2008, Malone returned and Tymon Kruidenier replaced Senescu. Later in 2008, Robin Zielhorst replaced Malone.
As of 2011, Malone plays studio bass parts while live performances feature Brandon Giffin, bass; Max Phelps, guitar.
Focus (Cynic: 1993)
Cynic wasn't the first band to combine death metal with jazz (yet another Florida crew, Atheist, had done so), but their sound stood out a mile: melodic sections with vocoder; loud sections with death grunt vocals (courtesy of guest Tony Teegarden); luminous fretless bass lines from Sean Malone ("The Eagle Nature"); highly technical drumming from Reinert; mystical, contemplative lyrics ("Veil Of Maya"). Years before Opeth, the album established the proposition that death metal could be serious music, paving the way for bands like Behold... The Arctopus. And unlike so many prog bands, they know when enough is enough, keeping the running times fairly brief.
For all the positives, though, the melodies themselves are often commonplace ("Sentiment") and the sections often sound thrown together at random.
So despite Masvidal's enviable, freewheeling yet controlled lead style ("Celestial Voyage") and the brilliant closer "How Could I," the record doesn't live up to its promise. Produced by Scott Burns and Cynic.
The Portal Tapes (rec. 1994-95, rel. 2012)
Portal was envisioned as a successor to Cynic, but came apart before completing an album. The demos were released in early 2012 under the Cynic rubric.
Most vocals are from Aruna Abrams, and they're in the dreamy style Masvidal and Reinert would return to on 2011's Carbon-Based Anatomy.
Reinert expansive drumming and the atmospheric keyboards recall 80s Rush ("Circle") - and the high-pitched vocals do nothing to dispel the impression.
Cortlandt (Sean Malone: 1996)
Malone was the first band member to release a follow up Focus; this solo project features Reinert as well as Trey Gunn and Reeves Gabrels. Though mostly self-penned, there are covers of "Giant Steps" and J.S. Bach's Sinfonia #4 in D minor.
Gordian Knot (Gordian Knot: 1999)
Malone put together a revolving-door backing band; this debut features Reinert and Gunn plus several others.
Generally, the sound is atmospheric guitar-led fusion with lots of arpeggiation ("Singularity"), seasoned with occasional bursts of hard rock ("Reflections," featuring Glenn Snelwar). "Rivers Dancing" covers acres of ground in a seven-minute running time; "[Grace]" is sort of a Methenyish rewrite of "Black Mountain Side"; and there's also another Bach interpretation ("Komm Süs Tod, Komm Sel'ge"). Decent but unexceptional: Listen to "Code/Anticode" and if that doesn't do it for you, you probably shouldn't proceed further.
Emergent (Gordian Knot: 2003)
The talent collected here is remarkable: the full Focus-era Cynic lineup plus Bill Bruford, Steve Hackett and Fates Warning guitarist Jim Mattheos.
Consequentially, "Mutterprache" (for example) sounds like Cynic playing Crimson, while "Some Brighter Thing" sounds more or less like a fusion act playing metal. The vibe is too laid-back for my taste, whether the volume's turned up or down ("Arsis," no relation), but it's hard to quarrel with the musicianship ("Singing Deep Mountain").
Includes a remake of "Fischer's Gambit" from Malone's Cortlandt, and a live version of "Grace" from the eponymous debut.
Above The Buried Cry (Æon Spoke: 2004)
What's weird about this project is not how different from Cynic it sounds - I wouldn't be shocked by these guys tackling any particular genre - rather, how middle of the road and unambitious it is.
The record sounds quite a bit like Crowded House at their mopiest, but not nearly as engaging or substantial.
Some traits persist: the use of open space to build a mood, alternating with anthemic refrains ("Pablo At The Park"); Masvidal's comprehensive mastery of guitar tone ("Nothing"). But in the service of such toothless tunes it's just so much sleight-of-hand.
Æon Spoke (Æon Spoke: 2007)
Strangely enough, three years later Masvidal and Reinert re-recorded most of the previous album ("Emmanuel"). Of the three new tunes, only "Sand And Foam" stands out: driven by a strong pseudo-tribal rhythm, it has much of the smooth anthemic force that would come to the fore on Traced In Air. Even more strangely, the re-recordings are strikingly similar to the originals, bringing new shades of meaning to the word "pointless."
Traced In Air (Cynic: 2008)
In 2008 Masvidal, Reinert and Malone resurrected Cynic with Tymon Kruidenier on death grunts and additional guitar, and put together this brief, ecstatic album.
The highly accomplished combination of fusion-y, vocoder-sung soft pieces and harsh metal is intact, though the fretless bass and keyboards are downplayed.
More importantly, this time the disparate elements are better organized into songs ("The Space For This"), so the longer suites like "King Of Those Who Know" shift smoothly from tense brutality through low-key syncopation and soar to dramatic heights.
In Masvidal and Reinert's hands, even the heaviest passages seem high-minded, while the mellowest falsetto radiates integrity;
as a result, they can get away with occasional pretentious touches like the Latin-titled intro and outro ("Nunc Fluens" and "Nunc Stans").
Re-Traced (Cynic: 2010)
Devo's not the only band to make Muzak versions of their own songs.
One of the few heavy metal remix albums - for which I am grateful - and the new mixes basically strip out anything of interest in the original Traced In Air material. There's also one new track, "Wheels Within Wheels," which is worth hearing for fans.
Carbon-Based Anatomy (Cynic: 2011)
Strikingly similar to the long-shelved Portal material, with loads of atmosphere and only a couple of certifiably heavy cuts ("Box Up My Bones"). Amy Correia adds impressionistic vocals to a few songs ("Amidst The Coals"); though not officially a member, Malone handles all the bass parts.
Continuing a mini-theme, "Bija!" has roughly the same canned tabla groove as "Redemption's Way" on Gordian Knot.
How could I?