Monday, February 17, 2014

album review: 'kindly bent to free us' by cynic

First, a question: how many albums do you listen to in a year?

This year, with the reviewing, I'm probably set to break two hundred. The average person I reckon doesn't get much above five percent of that, and even that feels charitable. What it ends up meaning is that I expose myself to a ton of music on a very regular basis from many different genres, and on a technical level, you learn to recognize unique facets of certain bands. You learn to hear guitar texture or triggering in the kick drums or nuance in vocal delivery or true instrumental complexity done in a cohesive manner. But the average listener doesn't care about these things - hell, even most music fans don't care about those elements, which puts me - along with other critics - in a complicated situation when it comes popular acts who attempt more experimental albums and screw it up. The two immediate examples that come to my mind are Mind Over Matter by Young The Giant and The Outsiders by Eric Church, two albums that tried more 'technical experimentation' in their instrumentation and didn't do it well by any stretch of the mind. It wasn't cohesive, it didn't flow well with the rest of the track, and it sounded sloppy - but yet the average listener is never going to pick up on that. Hell, they might find it mind-blowing if they don't know otherwise - and as a critic, it's a delicate balance between recognizing your own perspective and criticizing an act for poor execution.

Now that's not a recanting of my opinions - I stand by my comments regarding those acts, harsh though they may be, and while I can identify possible knowledge gaps in my audience, willful ignorance and blind myopia infuriates me to no end. So let me aim to correct some of that and introduce you all to a band you probably don't know if you don't listen to progressive metal, and one of my go-to acts when pointing out how to make complex, technical music incredibly well: the genre-defying band known as Cynic. Starting in the late 80s, they exploded with their debut album Focus, which is widely considered one of the best progressive albums ever released - even though defining the genre Cynic fit in was always a challenge. Death metal growling juxtaposing with spacey vocoder singing, progressive time signatures fused with jazz-inspired harmonies and rhythms, it was an album that was not looking to make it easy on the listener and demanded a lot of listens to truly decode. It was an awe-inspiring debut album that remains a classic...

And then Cynic split up and didn't release any new material for fifteen years. They thankfully reunited in 2006, and two years later released Traced In Air, an album that took steps away from the band's rougher roots towards a smoother, spacier sound. And the album is goddamn amazing, one of the best of 2008 and a long-time favourite of mine - I honestly like it more that Focus! But that album, along with the remix album Re-Traced and the EP Carbon-Based Anatomy were signs that Cynic wasn't content with being a traditional metal band or one that could be easily defined. And with early buzz suggesting their newest album had dropped the growling entirely and had moved even further towards progressive space rock, I had no idea what to expect from the oddly titled Kindly Bent To Free Us. So how did it turn out?

Well, let me stress that I like this album a fair bit. Even with the additional genre shift, Cynic still brings an impressive amount of technical quality to the table across the board that I really appreciated. However, this album doesn't feel as cohesive or impressive as their previous two albums, and while I do think that was part of the album's overall point, I can't help but feel it's their weakest release. One thing is for sure, this album will polarize Cynic fans, especially those of their early work, and like with every Cynic release, it's one that requires a number of listens to fully digest and appreciate, both the good and the bad, even though with the less-extreme vocals, it'd probably be their most accessible album to date.

Let's start with the element that is arguably least significant on a Cynic release: the lyrics. Given the choice for the vocals to be placed higher and more prominently in the mix, I was able to easily parse out more of the lyrics than most. And at first glimpse, they really don't make a lot of sense: descriptive but oblique, with a lot of intriguing symbolism lurking under the surface. And then you realize that the title was more descriptive than expected, because Kindly Bent To Free Us is an album exploring strange encounters that are beyond the human mind's ability to comprehend - possibly drug-induced, possibly alien, possibly even just in the raw beauty of nature. It's a natural topic for Cynic to explore, and there's a lot of descriptive nuance in the lyrics, most of which involve giving into such experiences and letting yourself get carried along in the spatial ride. In other words, a lot less about the underlying meaning - presuming there is one we're capable of understanding - and more about the experience.

And really, for Cynic's insane fusion of jazz and prog-inspired space metal, it's a natural fit. The death metal elements are almost entirely gone at this point, with no growling and most of the guitars bringing a little less crackle and force. The jazz elements and interweaving harmonies are where Cynic seems to have placed their greatest focus, with the more prominent bass guitar juxtaposing quite well with the cleaner guitar leads. And while I would say I'd prefer a stronger guitar with more force or a more progressive focus when it came to the technical songwriting, I don't deny they execute the jazz elements quite well here. And the drumming, as always, lends the album some badly needed forward momentum.

Unfortunately, the instrumental compositions are where I feel Cynic stumbles a bit. The interplay between the bass and guitars aren't quite as tight and cohesive as they've been in the past, which can come across as a bit of a simplification. On top of that, the space rock elements, while well-presented, can drag a bit, when the melody lines aren't as interesting. Sure, on 'Infinite Shapes' and 'Gitanjali' (the latter easily being the best song on the album) the melodies are beautiful and memorable and the band has a natural gift for atmosphere that means I'll never be inclined to turn off the music, but at points some of the spacier elements can go on a little long, especially on the longer tracks.

But of course everyone is going to be talking about Paul Masvidal's vocals, so let's get this out of the way: it's a good fit for the sound that Cynic was trying to create... but at the same time, I'm not blown away. More than once I was reminded of Porcupine Tree frontman Steven Wilson, but the difference came in Wilson's charisma and ability to write emotionally evocative songs, and I'm not convinced Masvidal has that in the same way. And considering I don't find the lyrics adding up to much deeper subtext beyond some solid symbolism and beautiful description, I have to question the choice to move them to a more prominent position in the mix. On top of that, I wouldn't say he has a lot of emotional range, especially considering the tonal balance on this record can get pretty weird. Songs like 'The Lion's Roar' and 'Endlessly Bountiful' have way more upbeat melodies in the keyboards and more invigorating subject matter in the lyrics, but Masvidal's delivery doesn't really manage to strike a chord with me, and it doesn't feel cohesive with the balancing act between airy melodies and rougher instrumentation that has always made Cynic something special. 

Look, I do like this album, let me stress this. It's frequently beautiful, everyone brings a ton of talent to the forefront, and Cynic really are inventing a new genre of jazz-inspired progressive space metal that is aiming to sound alien and weird and offputting. And on that basis of just being a grand, impossible 'experience', it's a brilliant wallow in technical excess and weirdness. But at the same time the album isn't as tight, focused, or poignant in the way their previous works have struck a chord with me. And coupled with a few production missteps, I get the uneasy feeling that Cynic's experimentation is simply becoming for its own sake to produce music unlike anything you'd ever hear - but at the same time, doesn't really have a greater underlying purpose. And while I don't deny experimentation for its own sake has a big place in music, here it doesn't quite resonate with me as much as I wanted. That being said, this album is still an 8/10 from me and a definite recommendation. If you're looking for music that is challenging, beautiful, incredibly technical, and worth many listens, I highly recommend Cynic's Kindly Bent To Free Us - it might not be an easy listen, but trust me, it's worth it.

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