A Celestial Voyage: The (Brief) Biography of Cynic
“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”Ralph Waldo Emerson
Cynic doesn't fit; they never have.
For every word one might associate with their music, its opposite could apply in equal measure: aggression and tranquility, fluidity and stasis, grace and abandon. For more than two decades, fans and critics alike have struggled to explain, or perhaps contain, Cynic. Some have offered detailed musical analyses, while others have suggested that words are the very last place to look for meaning. But forces in opposition don't necessarily give rise to contradiction: As dedicated as Cynic has been to meticulous craftsmanship, they have been just as open and responsive to chance, which is precisely what brought Paul Masvidal, Sean Reinert, and Sean Malone together in 1993.
Masvidal and Reinert, together with band mate Jason Göbel, began recording Cynic’s début CD Focus in 1993 with engineer Scott Burns at Morrisound Recording in Tampa, Florida. The adversity the band faced even before they set foot in the studio has become the stuff of legend: everything from confiscated equipment languishing for months with a British promoter, to one of the most devastating hurricanes in recorded history leveling their rehearsal studio. The band refused to be discouraged though, galvanized by the thought that the worst of these obstacles must be finally behind them. Difficulties would follow them into the studio however, one of which resulted in the need for a new bassist. Sean Malone was working part-time at Morrisound as an assistant engineer and attending graduate school for music theory and composition. Getting to know one another during the studio downtime, their mutual interest in standards, fusion, and world music soon became apparent, but it’s the musical history they didn’t share that may have played the most pivotal role in the forging of their sound.
From the very beginning, the studio sessions for Focus were saturated with expectation. The record label expected to capitalize on the momentum and reputation established by the band’s early demos, as well as Masvidal and Reinert’s work on Death’s Human album. The band’s nascent-but-growing fan base expected a full-length CD, scorched with music in the same vein as their demos. The critics, both professional and self-styled alike, expected to champion a powerful new musical voice in a death metal genre that was already suffering from self-parody. But come Fall of 1993, none of them got what they were expecting.
Focus was released in September of that same year, and was nearly universally panned. The death metal community was unwilling to accept the clean breaks and vocoder-enhanced singing, and fans of progressive rock couldn’t manage the brutal vocal style also featured. The band dutifully mounted a tour of Europe but to subdued reaction, followed by an awkward if earnest U.S. tour opening for death metal titans Cannibal Corpse. But unknown to Cynic’s record label or even to their cult fan base, these tours were about the past rather than the future. The band accompanied its one and only release into the world with no less dedication and sincerity than went into recording and composing it. But with a reception that ranged from indifference to hostility, the end of Cynic came swiftly and conclusively.
The band’s final performance was on June 24th, 1994 at the Limelight in New York City. Exhausted, disheartened, and with nothing left to give, they returned home—however, this wasn’t surrender; it was just the first in a series of metamorphoses.
"Tradition ist nicht das Halten der Asche, sondern das Weitergeben der Flamme.”Thomas Morus
Starting This Day Again
Masvidal, Reinert, and Göbel returned to Miami, ready to put Cynic behind them. They forged ahead with a band they called Portal, which included vocalist Aruna Abrams and bassist Kris Kringel, who had subbed for Malone during Cynic’s European tour. Portal’s sound was slower, darker, and softer than Cynic’s but no less detailed or refined. The band shopped newly written and recorded demos, but despite interest from major labels a sense of disillusionment pervaded; the music industry was still too hostile a place for musicians still so young and sensitive. The members of this short-lived band amicably parted ways in 1995, each free to pursue their own interests.
Masvidal, followed shortly by Reinert, moved to Los Angeles to reinvent themselves once again. Inspired by the richness and intensity of their new environment, Masvidal and Reinert began producing music for television and film, while ingratiating and hardening themselves to the machinery of the entertainment industry. During this time they would nurture an even more introspective band effort: Aeon Spoke.
Seeking ever increasing asceticism in his songwriting, Masvidal stripped every last musical gesture bare as if to bring the listener into direct contact with emotion itself. This musical monasticism was not only spiritual, it was also physical: gone were the layered guitars and processed vocals of the past. Reinert, with his singular ability to contort every rhythmic twist and texture, sought a purity of expression that bordered on silence: now, only the essential would do.
Aeon Spoke is the furthest outpost, the most distant star in the vast constellation of Masvidal and Reinert’s music, but what had never ceased acting upon them were the same forces that wrought Focus, whose influence slowly and inevitably began to pull them back, closer toward their center of gravity.
During this time Malone would also move to the West Coast, but to Oregon. While he pursued a doctorate in music theory and composition, he continued to write and record, often with one or more of his former Cynic bandmates. A solo CD of fusion-inspired material was followed by two releases under the moniker Gordian Knot. All three would feature Reinert on drums as well as appearances from Masvidal and Jason Göbel on Emergent, who by coincidence was living only a few hours away from Malone in Oregon. The music of Gordian Knot, while instrumental, was still largely song-based. Verses were environments for guest soloists such as Steve Hackett, Trey Gunn, Reeves Gabrels, and Jim Matheos to explore, all supported by through-composed and often contrapuntal textures.
If there were any echoes of Cynic in the music of Portal, Aeon Spoke, or Gordian Knot, they were faint. But the desire for Masvidal, Reinert, and Malone to pursue making compelling music with one another remained, each unaware though that the impossible was about to happen—again.
“Αρετή µόνη της εξασφαλίζει την ευτυχία.”Antisthenes the Cynic
The signs that presaged the return of Cynic were subtle. In 2004 Roadrunner Records, looking to reissue some back catalog and taking notice of Internet chatter, released a 10th-anniversary edition of Focus. The CD featured expanded liner notes, a few remixes, new mastering, and included the Portal demos. Most importantly, this deluxe edition not only exposed Cynic to a wider audience but also re-energized their existing fan base. But it wasn’t until 2006 that something which was once the furthest thing from everyone’s mind would become reality: a Cynic reunion. The band mounted a tour and played to appreciative audiences in Europe and North America, but without Göbel (who was no longer pursuing a music career) and Malone (who had university commitments). The concerts featured songs from Focus plus one new song titled “Evolutionary Sleeper”, and for the first time Cynic could enjoy performing their music for its own sake. No one was more surprised by this enthusiastic reception than Cynic themselves, and though the reunion was not originally designed as a comeback per se, the energy from these performances would carry them forward to write and record a new full-length CD in 2008 called Traced in Air.
The music of Traced in Air has many of the hallmarks associated with Focus: a combination of computerized and growling vocals, intricate and powerful drumming, poignant and antiphonal guitar work, as well as independent and contrapuntal bass. But here is where Cynic, writing as a trio, could also apply what they had each learned during the fifteen years since Focus: an emphasis on the song rather than the parts. Intensity was no longer measured by extremes of volume and tempo, instead, it could be expressed by the contrasts found between them. Ben Ratcliffe of the New York Times would say of Traced in Air that “Cynic should be understood not so much alongside any metal bands, but along with such radical harmonic progressives in the last 45 years of pop and jazz as Milton Nascimento, the Beach Boys or Pat Metheny.” Fans and critics alike took second notice of Cynic, whose musical alchemy had since become a source of inspiration for a new generation of progressive bands.
After expansive touring in support of Traced in Air, exposing Cynic to its largest audience to date, it was expected that the band would cloister themselves once again, and begin composing a third full-length CD. True to form, Cynic would instead do the unexpected: instead of delivering a new album they produced not one, but two consecutive EPs, both of which would challenge their listeners like never before.
The first EP, Re-traced, features arrangements of material from Traced in Air reduced to their essentials—a glimpse into the band’s creative process in reverse. Rather than beginning with riffs and motives then building them layer by layer, Re-traced is Cynic deconstructed; an inward journey of uncompromised discovery. Though this CD had only one new composition, “Wheels Within Wheels,” the compositional attitude they established would set the stage for their next EP: Carbon-Based Anatomy.
2011 saw Masvidal and Reinert composing for a new full-length Cynic CD, after touring in support of Re-traced. They were aiming for a 2012 release when an idea was put forth to record another EP, one separate from the material of the full-length CD, so that they might shorten the length of time between releases. Energized by the challenge, they set about creating a miniature concept CD comprised of three songs, each set within segues and interstices of textured percussion, vocals, and guitars. Written and recorded during a period marked by intense personal and professional challenges, Carbon-Based Anatomy was forged in a cauldron whose intensity dissolved away any musical impurities. The unusual rapidity of its creation—2 months from conception to completion—meant that there was no time to second-guess one another or hedge their bets. This CD would also see the return of Malone on bass, who did not take part in Re-traced, composing his parts to the songs and structures given him by Masvidal and Reinert. Carbon-Based Anatomy is an anomaly in Cynic’s discography; a one-off, an aberration. It has an elliptical, asynchronous orbit around the band’s remaining body of work, but the fiery and clarifying nature of its creation would deeply influence the choices Cynic would make for their third full-length CD, Kindly Bent to Free Us.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding
After a short tour in support of Carbon-Based Anatomy, Masvidal and Reinert found themselves back in Los Angeles preparing to reassess the work they had already begun—some of which dated back to 2009—and to decide what if any additional material would be needed. From the very beginning and throughout the entire recording process, Masvidal, Reinert, and Malone were candid with one another with regard to the direction each one felt the music should take. Even for a band like Cynic, who had experienced very little compositional disagreement over their past four releases, there was a profound sense of unity of purpose: say more with less.
An initial round of demos was completed in their usual fashion: Masvidal and Reinert prepared rough versions of guitar, drums, and vocals for Malone, who then began underpinning the bass. But it was at this crucial stage that the first breakthrough would come: resisting the temptation to layer guitars in the existing open spaces. This would allow for Malone’s interest in completing the harmony contrapuntally in the bass against the guitar rather than reinforcing it primarily with doublings, and it also provided Masvidal the opportunity to suffuse the remaining space with more complex vocal arrangements. Satisfied and energized by this new sound, especially the sections that were truly in trio format, Cynic had gathered tremendous momentum and were ready to begin production. That is, until chance would come to visit—again.
Of all the injuries a drummer might incur, a complete rupture of the Achilles tendon is one of the worst. With Cynic’s history of reasons for interrupted recordings—including, but not limited to, category 5 hurricanes—it seems only fitting that Sean Reinert would find himself in a Los Angeles emergency room rather than a recording studio. While the procedure to repair his heel was brief, the recovery time would be anything but. Compounding the interruption was Masvidal and Reinert’s commitment to take part in a series of concerts celebrating the life and music of Chuck Schuldiner. But it turned out that this forced pause, rather than being a hindrance, was a gift.
Malone, for his part, would spend this time living with the arrangements, periodically revising occasional sections with what he felt were general improvements, mostly by tightening and simplifying the lines. This process continued, however, until he found that he had entirely replaced his original work. Back from the Death to All tour, Masvidal was steeped in a similar phase of self-editing, removing more and more of his guitar work, in some cases down to single tracks recorded in complete takes. While rehabilitating his injury, Reinert considered the changes being made and began transforming the rhythm section. Come Spring of 2013, Cynic were ready to embark on their most considered and internalized recording to date.
The music of Kindly Bent to Free Us bears the essential distinctions for which Cynic are known: complex and challenging arrangements, harmonic depth and nuance, passionate and considered guitar work, and an intuitive rhythm section. Songs such as “The Lion’s Roar” and “Gitanjali” are compositions intricately carved free from the song-form framework, “Moon Heart Sun Head” and “Holy Fallout” are microcosms of thematic, progressive rock, then there is the mantra of “Endlessly Bountiful”—whose coda ends the CD like an intimate whisper of musical gratitude. But most of all Kindly Bent to Free Us, like all of Cynic’s music, is imbued with a sense of transcendence; a trail left for listeners to discover their own paths, on their own time and on their own terms, for art’s sake.
While the surface of Cynic has changed during the intervening years since Focus, the attentive listener will notice that the essence remains. Because of this, Cynic’s music is resistant to summary descriptions associated with “genre” and “style”. But it’s not good enough to simply say that Cynic has no musical boundaries; it’s too nondescript, or worse, can sound like an evasion. Instead, Cynic belongs more to a principle than a genre: one determined to pursue truth, is dedicated to integrity, and bears the two with all its strength.
Cynic doesn’t fit; they never have. Let’s hope they never do.
- Paul Masvidal - Vocals, Guitars
- Sean Reinert - Drums, Percussion
- Sean Malone - Bass (Album)
- Amy Correia - Vocals (Album)
- Max Phelps - Guitar, Vocals (Live)
- Brandon Giffin - Bass (Live)