Cynic – Traced In Air
01/01/2009 § Leave a comment
Title: Traced In Air
Label: Season Of Mist
Genre: Progressive metal
01 Nunc Fluens
02 The Space For This
03 Evolutionary Sleeper
04 Integral Birth
05 The Unknown Guest
06 Adam’s Murmur
07 King of Those Who Know
08 Nunc Stans
Reunions are becoming increasingly fashionable. Not only have Cynic decided to reform and treat us to another eight-track prog smorgasbord peppered with extra-terrestrial vocals and spidery basslines, but Aethiest have threatened a comeback record in 2009, as have Pestilence. It’s the battle of the pioneering death metal bands, first prize going to those who make their metal the most jazzy and have the most elitist fan base. Now all we have to wait for is Chuck Schuldiner to rise from the grave and give us an eighth Death album in the ultimate posthumous reunion to really take the wind out of Cynic and Atheist’s sails. How the hell can you compete with that?
The problem with reunions after a long period of absence is the looming threat of a flop. Or worse still, a mediocre record. I sincerely hope that Atheist can pull something good out of the hat after sixteen years but I won’t be surprised if their sabbatical has sapped their inspiration and we’re left with something that’s as exciting to listen to as Frank Muir reading the shipping forecast in binary. As for Cynic, they’re really at the mercy of the legacy they helped create: it’s like the British inventing football and cricket only to be beaten at them by every other country.
Fifteen years on, it would almost be impossible to live up to the expectations that their sophomore album would amass. It’s not like the Cynic members have been totally silent though – they’ve had their fingers in multiple other projects such as Gordion Knot, Aghora, Portal and Anomaly; each one retaining a progressive flair to the music whether it be in the field of rock or metal. Nothing they’ve done since Focus in 1993 has been quite as heavy though, and it’s probably still the most intense album that Reinhart, Malone and Masvidal have come out with. Traced In Air differs from its predecessor mainly by removing all the ‘death’ from the death/prog side of the band’s sound and we’re left with a more or less straight progressive metal album that still sounds very much like Cynic, but with not as much auditory assault for those who couldn’t quite take it in the first place.
Still, the problem for me wasn’t that I couldn’t take Cynic’s sound, I just couldn’t understand it. Such a sentence will have many a fan convulsing and gnashing their teeth in glee since they’ll tell you that you have to work hard to really ‘get’ Cynic and if you can’t, well, that’s your loss. However, the problem is there’s really not much to ‘get’ with the band, especially when filed alongside their contemporaries. The technical proficiency isn’t up for debate – each member is clearly a very skilled and talented musician – but the music is quite crushingly bland.
Traced In Air is certainly more accessible than Focus though, mainly through the use of hooky riffs. The first two tracks, Nunc Fluens and The Space For This, both include simple guitar riffs to retain your interest and keep the flow of the music moving nicely, but when the vocals come in it feels like we’ve taken a step back. A lot of people will know that the vocals in Cynic were always different to other bands’. Mixed in with the death vocals you’d get ‘alien vox’: slightly distorted and digitised clean vocals – sometimes called ‘Cher’ vocals since they sound like someone’s got a bit trigger-happy with the autotune after one two many Camparis. This certainly sets the band apart from others, but does it make the music sound good? Well – yes and no – it’s great to have a different herb thrown into the progressive metal mash it does get quite irritating and the vocal melodies are also deserving of improvement: the notes seem to hover about a central point by one or two tones only and when you have such astoundingly dull vocal passages fronting a song, it doesn’t really matter what the instruments are doing. I have tried, time and time again, to concentrate on some of the excellent basswork and drumming in Traced In Air but failing because of the Twiki-esque vocals getting in the way. It’s like trying to appreciate Spastic Ink when someone’s blowing London’s Burning into a kazoo over the top – you just want to pick them up and throw them into a soundproof box, David Blaine style, so they don’t sully the much better stuff that’s going on around them.
Otherwise, Cynic are still able to create quite spacey, relaxed progressive metal. Traced In Air has an almost ethereal feel to it and isn’t that demanding on the listener, unlike many other progressive metal albums. Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean it’s particularly interesting either and a lot of the songs run together like overdiluted watercolours on the same palette, and by the time we get to King of Those Who Know it becomes more and more difficult to care in spite of one or two more interesting moments on Adam’s Murmur or Integral Birth. As a result, a lot of the album ends up sounding like Aghora, but just not as strong.
Returning to Cynic after fifteen years was certainly a bold move but a lot has happened since then. Death metal has evolved, progressive metal has evolved and now there are albums which have surpassed the template that Cynic laid down. If you’re already a fan, Traced In Air will certainly float your boat but it won’t turn many of us onto them if we haven’t got the hype yet. Cynic haven’t really set themselves apart much with this release, and when put alongside all the other progressive metal bands of the 21st century don’t have much to offer apart from slightly strange vocals and Sean Reinhart’s idiosyncratic bass-playing. A lot of people may look at Traced In Air as a glorious continuation of their sound and a perfect successor to Focus, but in 2008 that doesn’t mean much. Cynic may have advanced a stride or two with regards to their own sound, but everyone else is halfway round the course.