As someone gets older, it’s inevitable that some degree of mellowing out will occur. While the pessimistic among us might chalk it up to losing steam and passion, a more realistic way to look at it would be to see it as a reinvention of perspective, a natural development that comes with insight and experience. At least such has been the case for Cynic. Death metal was indelibly changed in 1994 with Focus, its unique blend of death metal, prog, jazz fusion and space ambient remains a unique statement that has never been repeated, even with the release of Traced in Air in 2008. With such a distinct and firm grip of style, Cynic would and could have forged a remarkable career without having changed a thing about their sound…
As it so unfolded (and as anyone who has been following the band will be able to tell you) change was exactly what happened for Cynic. Fast forward to 2014; fans are up in arms over Kindly Bent to Free Us. I’ve heard it called everything from a masterpiece to the worst piece of garbage this side of Cold Lake. As is usually the case, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Cynic‘s third album may lack the ‘instant classic’ masterpiece appeal of their first two, but the band’s evolution into mellower depths has still yielded an impressive set of material. Death metal purists should go back to polishing their Demilich records; Kindly Bent to Free Us isn’t quite what we had been expecting or hoping for, but its solid songwriting, tight fusion musicianship and a knack for atmosphere have made for a successful prog rock record.
Two things have changed most prominently with this record, when compared to their past work. Most notably, the growling has been tossed out entirely, instead lending the weight of the vocal duties to Paul Masvidal’s fragile cleans. Even though the preceding EP Carbon- Based Anatomy followed the purely clean format, a far greater emphasis in the music have been placed on clean vocals, drawing it closer to a more traditional rock format. Secondly- and far more importantly- the atmosphere and tone has filtered out much of the dark heart and melancholy. Check out a song like “The Lion’s Roar”, and everything from the trademark synthesized vocals to the tight and peppy guitar riffs deliver a vastly different emotional atmosphere than what one might be used to from metal or even progressive rock.
The musical approach feels more straightforward on the surface, but Cynic deliver an impressive level of sonic depth to the performance. Kindly Bent to Free Us enjoys a masterful quality of production and recording; this is headphone music at its most sublime. “True Hallucination Speak” fleshes out an otherwise straightforward rock tune with effects manipulation that would have sounded incredible even on its own. Masvidal’s guitar tone has some bite to it, but there’s an evident emphasis on clarity. Sean Malone’s bass tone has been getting a fair bit of recognition as well, and for good reason; his fretless bass lines sound like they’ve been drawn from a purely jazz context, and sound incredible when placed among Cynic‘s rock (or metal) foundation. I don’t mean to imply thatCynic‘s songwriting relies on production wizardry or strong musicianship to get by, but Cynic‘s execution is far more impressive than the substance of the work itself. The only exception to this lies in Masvidal’s vocal performance itself. Although I don’t think he is a bad singer, his fragile vocal style really needed the growls to balance it out, and the almost ubiquitous ‘robot’ vocorder effect feels less like an artistic statement at this point and more of a way to pad an otherwise thin performance.
Kindly Bent to Free Us has certainly grown on me, at least enough for me to acknowledge it as being better than what its detractors have dismissed it has. Cynic haven’t lost a shred of their technical abilities, and fans of the fusion metal template won’t come away empty handed. I’m still enjoying the album, even long after the familiarity has set in. Without the context of Cynic‘s past achievements, I may have been more enthusiastic about it; the truth is that in spite of my enjoyment, I cannot help but feel disappointed. Carbon-Based Anatomy included, I have fallen in love with everything Cynic put out before this. Kindly Bent to Free Us, via unfavourable comparison, strikes me as more of a passing affection. “ Focus has solidified its place in the legendary pantheon, and Traced in Air felt like an instant classic had been born when it came out. Kindly Bent to Free Us offers none of that awe or promise. It’s a disappointment in itself that the impression has been brutalized so much by the context, but expectations were expectations. Fortunately enough, if you’re able to get past that red tape and approach the album without the context, there’s plenty of enjoyment and wonder to behold in the mellower approach. Take it for what it is, I guess.
01. True Hallucination Speak
02. The Lion’s Roar
03. Kindly Bent To Free Us
04. Infinite Shapes
05. Moon Heart Sun Head
07. Holy Fallout
08. Endlessly Bountiful
09. Earth Is My Witness (deluxe CD book exclusive bonus track)
* Paul Masvidal – vocals, guitars
* Sean Reinert – drums, percussion