2008 brings us the highly anticipated sophomore album of one of the metal’s most unique bands. After taking an extended break from heavy music, guitarist/vocalist Paul Masvidal and drummer Sean Reinert brought CYNIC back to life in 2007, playing a string of European shows and making some festival appearances. Along the way, they found the spark of inspiration to compose new music for CYNIC, which eventually coalesced into “Traced in Air.” As clichéd as it may sound, this album sounds like a perfectly logical continuation of CYNIC’s landmark 1993 album “Focus.” If you, the reader, have followed the lives of the CYNIC band members since their breakup in 1994, you would know that they have not been idle since then (aside from ex-guitarist Jason Gobel, who has had little involvement with music since CYNIC disbanded). Reinert and Masvidal moved to California, formed the alternative rock band AEON SPOKE (after disbanding the sadly short-lived PORTAL project), and composed soundtrack music for various TV channels and sitcoms, including the Discovery Channel and That 70’s Show. Bassist Sean Malone has, along with his work as a music teacher and clinician, released a solo album ("Cortlandt," which also featured Sean Reinert on drums) and a few albums on his brilliant Gordian Knot project, among other things. It is thus appropriate that Reinert and Masvidal have brought CYNIC back, as they always were the core of the band, and enlisting the help of Sean Malone for “Traced in Air” certainly doesn’t hurt either. On 2nd guitar and death growls (used very sparingly on “TiA”) is Tymon, a longtime CYNIC enthusiast and guitarist in technical death metal band Exivious. So the big question is: Is “Traced in Air” any good?
Yes. It is everything you could hope for and more. To many, “Focus” is as close to perfect as an album can get. It is an endlessly challenging feast for the ears which cannot be improved upon or “outdone.” Wisely, Masvidal and cohorts have neither tried to re-live past glories by merely imitating their work on “Focus,” nor are they trying to show off their prodigious technical skills which are clearly still intact. One thing is clear, though: they have gone back to their roots, which are in metal and jazz/fusion. They have made an album that is brutal yet subtle, technical yet melodic, challenging yet listenable and, dare I say, listenable?! Obviously, similar statements can be made about “Focus,” but “Traced in Air” merely takes the rough outline presented on “Focus” and moves things in a new, equally mind-expanding direction. While CYNIC could definitely be called “technical,” in that their music has always been sophisticated and difficult to perform (has any band ever attempted a CYNIC cover?), they are not a show-off band playing every exotic scale and advanced drum fill they know. They play music. This is where most technical bands miss the boat entirely. Technique is only a means to an end, it does not good music make. It can lead you to the well, but you still have to lower the bucket and drink the water. Or as Henry David Thoreau once wrote: “I am sick of this stupid pond.”
What about the actual music on “Traced in Air”? In a short 34 minutes, CYNIC take you on a beautiful (celestial) voyage as only they can do. If you have been dying to hear a “Focus Part Two,” the closest you may ever get is third track “Evolutionary Sleeper,” a song very reminiscent of “The Eagle Nature.” If you are curious if CYNIC can still pull out the more technical material of years past, “The Unknown Guest” leans that way, and is perhaps the most unique track on the record. While there are plenty of shredding leads, crazy riffs and throbbing double bass, I would not call this a Death Metal album by any means. First of all, the death growls are used sparingly, and at times are barely even audible in the mix. Secondly, Paul Masvidal’s patented “celestial cyber-vocals” are used almost throughout, and have been modified quite a bit on “Traced in Air.” His true voice comes through much more than it did on “Focus.” At times, as on “King of Those Who Know,” we hear Masvidal’s voice sans-effects, which is actually quite good on its own. In fact, I haven’t considered CYNIC to be Death Metal since their pre-“Focus” demo recordings. If I had to call them anything, it would be Transcendental Timeless Something Something… then I would trail off like I tend to do.
So if “Traced in Air” isn’t Death Metal, what is it? It’s CYNIC being CYNIC…15 years later. Putting tags on music like this is actually rather pathetic. In the case of CYNIC, the result is NOT the sum of the parts. I could say something like “’Traced in Air’ is an incendiary mixture of jazz, fusion, new age, prog, alternative rock and metal,” but that isn’t why Alex is paying me the big bucks to write for this e-mag again. This is CYNIC, you either go along for the journey or you stay home and watch South Park.
By the way, this loses half a point for Paul Masvidal cooing “I’ve taken off my clothes” on “King of Those Who Know.” There are better ways to get girls to listen to CYNIC. Personally I would have preferred “I’m putting ON my clothes.” No matter, this album is a dream come true for us CYNIC diehards. Paul, Sean, Sean…thanks for bringing the force of nature that is CYNIC back to life. Catch them on their US tour in early 2009 with MESHUGGAH and THE FACELESS.
(Online February 16, 2009)