Of all the bands drawn from the heyday of American death metal, it’s arguable that none came from leftfield as much as Cynic. To date, Focus remains one of the most tantalizing progressive death metal records ever produced. Not one to rest of their laurels, Cynic have since developed into a far more atmosphere and melody-based act. Their recent album Kindly Bent to Free Us was released just this past February. Thanks to Paul Masvidal for taking the time to answer these questions.
Prog Sphere: Cynic, like all great art, grows with the listener as much as it does the artist. I know my tastes have evolved and adapted wildly over the past several years, and such seems to be the case for you and Cynic as well. What can you say about this drift from metal to a more melodic and ethereal breed of rock?
Paul Masvidal: It just what the passage of time has gifted us with as musicians. I’ve always been a fan of numerous kinds of music and I think the nature of Cynic has always been to trust our instincts and continue to make music that simply feels genuine to us. This album is just representative of where we are now.
Was it born out of a conscious wish to extend beyond the boundaries of metal, or in order to better reflect who you’ve grown into as an artist and person?
No, we don’t calculate the artistic path for the band, it just happens. The whole process is super organic and natural without too much thought involved, more about doing the work and seeing what arises.
Everything from the way the vocal shave been produced to the technical guitar work and atmosphere-heavy execution make the music really live up to Cynic’s reputation as a ‘futuristic’ band. You used the term yourself a couple of times the last time we talked in an interview upon the release of Carbon-Based Anatomy - what does this term mean to you? How do elements of futurism (be it atmosphere, a method of songwriting or mindset etc.) connect or relate to the music’s philosophical implications?
I’ve appreciated early futurism artists and thinkers like Syd Mead and Buckminster Fuller since I was a child. I think the work is directly inspired by an appreciation for that aesthetic. Also artists like Robert Venosa and Giger have always spoken to me in a deep way. I think the correlation with the lyrical aspects has to do with a more progressive mindset and how one can view the world in a non traditional way. Essentially getting out of one’s comfort zones and going into the unknown.
As has long been the case for Cynic, the album is covered with some gorgeously fractal artwork. Was there a concept in your head you had for this album cover. Might the similarities in composition between this and the other two albums visually connote a transformation as well?
The album art is by Robert Venosa and is essentially work pulled from his catalog. Most of the paintings you see on our covers were made 20-30 years ago. It speaks to the power of his work that it appears so timeless and beautiful today. Each cover is curated and chosen after consulting with the artist, and since he passed I’ve been in communication with his wife in choosing a cover. The new cover in particular represents three things; a human brain, a mushroom cloud and a tree. There’s a lot of symbolic transformation in those three ideas that are merged with the album’s concept.
What was involved in the recording process of Kindly Bent to Free Us? Do you try anything different this time around?
We stuck to a trio format and intentionally focused on a less is more approach. The album was recorded and mixed over the course of a year.
With the obvious distinction that the growls and other overtly metal elements are gone, Kindly Bent to Free Us sounds more rock-based than ever before, to the point at times where I might have thought I was listening to Aeon Spoke. What inspired this shift towards more concise, melodic writing?
I’ve always been a fan of great songs regardless of genre. I suspect we’ve just gotten better at articulating song in a prog rock context.
Synthesized vocals remain a staple of Cynic’s sound – what attracts you to this robotic signature?
Most of the vocals are actually quite pure on this album but they have a deceptive vocoder element due to how I treated the harmonies. I love the sound of the emotional android quality that Cynic has always strived for. It brings the music into an interesting paradigm shifting space and reflects well on our lyrical themes.
It’s something I have thought as far back as Traced in Air, but as Cynic has continued along this path, I’ve felt that there’s an increasingly wider gap between the art and the meaning of the band name in its modern context. The idea of a modern cynic or cynicism in general may have meshed well with the tone of Focus, but listening to Kindly Bent to Free Us again earlier today, the emotions I’m picking up now feel much more stable and even tranquil, as if many questions and negative perceptions about the world have been set at rest. Is there any truth to this, do you think, or is the band name still connected to this new, matured atmosphere somehow? Not that I would advocate using ‘the Optimist who ultimately found peace and truth in himself’ as a band name… Just a thought!
The roots of Cynicism is quite progressive. The more I researched them the more I realize they were like the yogis of ancient Greece. They essentially elucidated a very Buddhist principle which is that happiness is an inside job, not to be sought out in the external world. So, they lived like homeless people proving that their joy was birthed from a deeper place. The main proponent of Cynicism was Diogenes who when asked where he was from would reply that he’s a “cosmopolitan.” A word he coined and implies that he comes from no place but is rather a citizen of the universe. It doesn’t get more progressive and or spiritual than that. Diogenes also maintained that all the artificial growths of society (in today’s world that would be the technologies that are pulling us away from ourselves) were incompatible with happiness and that morality implies a return to the simplicity of nature. Cynic‘s teachings were quite profound and are quite directly aligned with Cynic‘s teachings. The modern definition of a Cynic has shifted over time but I still look at the root and connect to that.
What do you think of what you’ve accomplished, now that you can sit and look back upon all of it?
I feel like I’m just getting started! So much more music and art to create. I don’t like to look back much, more interested in the present and all the gifts it has for me.
What have you been listening to lately? Anything good in particular to recommend?
I’ve been deep into Charlie Parker and John Coltrane again lately. They both play with such freedom and command, it makes me want to play guitar. I’ve also been enjoying Atom For Peace‘s album Amok and also Bach played by Glen Gould.
What advice would you give to other musicians – myself included- with interests in improving their own musical craft and expression?
Keep playing and writing. Trust your instincts. Be patient and gentle with yourself. Take breaks and come back fresh when you’re not feeling good about what’s happening. Remember it’s all about process and if you’re not enjoying it then you’re missing the purpose. Stay engaged in what’s in front of you. Trust that life has your best interest in mind and all that creativity asks of you is to show up.
Hope the interview hasn’t been too much of a hassle! The final words are yours.
Thanks so much. Check out Cyniconline.com for everything Cynic related.