In the kingdom of progressive metal, American outfit Cynic is a rare beast indeed. Rather than assault its fans’ ears with virtuosic speed, overwhelmingly complex arrangements, growls, and exceptionally lengthy track lengths (all of which can be wonderful, of course), they aim to blend mellow, spacy atmosphere and unique vocal harmonies into a relatively simple metal foundation. Many devotees have equated them to a minimalistic version of Between the Buried and Me, which, while not entirely fair, is somewhat accurate. On its newest release, Kindly Bent to Free Us, the trio continues to perfect its trademark balance, making it another fine entry in the Cynic catalog.
Founded and still led by guitarist/vocalist Paul Masvidal and drummer Sean Reinert in 1987, Cynic has previously released two LPs (1993’s Focus and 2008’s Traced in Air), as well as two EPs (2010’s Re-Traced and 2011’s brilliant Carbon-Based Anatomy). Of all their token sounds, Masvidal’s vocoder layers are definitely the most beloved, as they make their formula instantly identifiable and intriguing. Like always, they’re put to great use on Kindly Bent to Free Us, a record that doesn’t break new ground as much as it reaffirms how specialized their music is.
In a recent interview with Molten, Masvidal described the record as “more sci-fi, futuristic and alien but at the same time very song-driven…it feels very modern and at the same time it just feels really cool…it's definitely new. It's not like anything we've done before. It's a new color, a new space. I think people will really take note of even the guitar stuff. I'm really shifting gears, I'm trying things in a different way and the way stuff is played…” Truthfully, Kindly Bent to Free Us isn’t that much different from previous releases, but it’s still a refreshing and gripping listen from beginning to end.
The album starts off by building momentum, as Masvidal's initial guitar pattern sneaks out from behind metallic sounds. It's then joined by the rhythmic section, completing the adored Cynic trance. As usual, his voice is doubled by the vocoder, which adds a subtle yet cool layer, and his melody is simple but engaging, as is the harmonious chorus. Lyrically, the song is very mysterious yet ominous, with lyrics like “True hallucination speak / Inhale / You better get a friend to help you / Exhale / Against the stream / You’ve got to make amends with the truth” oozing prophetic disaster. Halfway through, the music all but disappears as Masvidal's voice moves around itself, creating a dense and chilling cocoon. Honestly, it does recall BTBAM's latest masterpiece, The Parallax II: Future Sequence, but it still feels quintessentially Cynic too.
The title track is another gem; in fact, it's likely the record's most hypnotic moment, as Masvidal's arpeggio and singing join to form a beautiful, ominous lull. Of course, Reinert and bassist Sean Malone deserve credit for keeping up with the frenzy and then quieting down when the mood is right. They keep a finely tuned balance of panic and tranquility throughout, and like everything Cynic does, “Kindly Bent to Free Us” is more intricate and meticulously arranged than it sounds on the surface. It feels epic yet accessible.
Elsewhere, “Infinite Shape” recalls the more sinister approach of the trio's earlier work, including some dissonant timbres, while “Moon Heart Sun Head” is an exercise is tonal fluctuation, as it shifts from an aggressive onslaught to a tribal solace with superb form. Their calmer, more psychedelic grooves are what really set them apart from their contemporaries, and the latter half of this track is a great example of it. “Holy Fallout” is where Reinert and Malone shine the most, as they alternative drastically different tempos and accents with ease. Finally, the concluding mantra, “Endlessly Bountiful,” essentially consists of Masvidal repeating the same phrase repeatedly as the backing track evolves slowly until it dissipates into an assortment of jazzy snapshots. It's the most redundant track here, but it's also the most finite and soothing, so it works.
Kindly Bent to Free Us, like its predecessors, is a fantastic record. It doesn't contain anything as immediately catchy as the title song from Carbon-Based Anatomy, but it doesn't need to, as it's arguably the most consistent and cohesive offering Cynic has yet produced. Rather than provide significantly different experiences with each track, the collection flows like chapters into a singular statement, which makes its lack of diversity acceptable and even cherished. Despite some similarities to peers, Cynic continues to etch out its own sacred place in the world of progressive metal, and the trio shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. Do yourself a favor and check this one out ASAP.