When Cynic returned in the mid-00s after a decade-plus absence and released their long awaited second album, Traced In Air in 2008, they made it quite clear that they were a different band now. The band that released Focus in 1993 and turned death metal inside out was gone, despite the fact that many people that grew up on that album had started their own bands and cited the record as a huge influence. The Faceless, anyone?
With a rotating line-up, Cynic has been helmed by the usual duo of Paul Masvidal and Sean Reinert, with long time Cynic collaborator and bass luminary Sean Malone popping back in every now again (he returns again on this new album). Strangely, the band has been uncharacteristically prolific, releasing two EPs since 2008, something that would have been unthinkable say ten years ago. Once again, it’s a different band now.
Where Traced In Air saw the band drop nearly all remnants of death metal, the follow-up EPs, specifically 2011’s Carbon Based Anatomy, showed flourishes of another shift in direction. This would lead us to believe that this desire to evolve again would blossom on album number three Kindly Bent To Free Us. Not quite.
Many expected Kindly Bent To Free Us to be Cynic’s total immersion in modern prog rock that’s not afraid to tinker with hooks. Kindly Bent To Free Us is definitely within that realm but there’s still a push and pull going on with the band’s former Traced selves.
In many ways, the band hasn’t taken the big leap for the move that was hinted at on the Re-Traced EP and especially on Carbon Based Anatomy.Rather than take this final step, the band has stayed largely within the remit of Carbon Based Anatomy, where massive hooks and tranquil guitar work runs the show. It’s not a bad formula and CBA was an impressive release but it’s unlike Cynic to stagnate musically.
With all that said, Kindly Bent To Free Us features impressive songwriting and memorable moments straight from the off with the opening track ‘True Hallucination Speak’ and its follow-up ‘The Lion’s Roar’, a brief number with a massive radio-friendly riff that is the closest thing Cynic has ever had to a single. ‘Infinite Shapes’ meanwhile feels like it was culled from the studio room sawdust of Traced In Air and feels altogether tacked on to the altogether poppier album.
Perhaps where the fault/credit (whatever your feelings are) lies with Kindly Bent To Free Us is the newfound emphasis that Paul Masvidal’s vocals have received. Produced on the forefront of the album, almost at the expense of the guitars, Masvidal’s angelic croon is undeniably beautiful but the right balance between vocals and instrumentation has been lost.
The glistening jewel on this album is actually the closing curtain call of ‘Endlessly Bountiful’. Bizarrely it sounds more like an intro track to a Khoma record but nevertheless, Cynic use it as a means to end this mixed bag of a record, with gorgeous repetitive vocal arrangements from Masvidal that’s ceremonial and hypnotic, the one instance where his vocals absolutely deserved to be front and centre, all creating a reeling conclusion.
It would be unfair to call Kindly Bent To Free Us unfocused as musicians like Masvidal, Reinert and Malone are unfamiliar with words like ‘unfocused’ such is their skill but the album feels like it’s missing a few important seams.
With all of that in mind, Kindly Bent To Free Us isn’t a surprising album stylistically. While it differs greatly from the shamanistic vibes of Traced In Air in favour of ebullient prog rock, the evidence of its arrival was certainly laid out before us, which becomes all the more clearer now. Just go back and listen to ‘Elves Beam Out’ from Carbon Based Anatomy.