Welcome to another edition of Connecting the Dots, and today we will be focusing on one of the most influential extreme metal bands of all time – none other than the legendary Cynic! Evidence of their influence is clear from the artists we speak with, for members of Ne Obliviscaris, Obscura and Astronoid have all stated that Cynic helped forge their sound.
A slew of projects would branch off from these tech/prog death giants and, whilst sadly the band is no longer active, we can at least look back on all the wonderful music these talented musicians have released into the world.
Featuring Paul Masvidal (vocoder/clean vocals, guitar), Sean Malone (bass), Sean Reinert (drums), revolving door (bass/guitar/harsh vocals/keyboards)
What can we say about this band that hasn’t already been said? Their debut record, 1993’s Focus, was well and truly ahead of its time as the band helped pioneer the fusion between jazz and technical death metal. Sean Reinert proved what a masterful drummer he is, equally adept at both subtle, dexterous jazz playing and furious, pummelling death metal with double kick. The riffs and solos are memorable and the vocals saw an interplay between harsh vocals and the vocoder, lending the record a robotic, somewhat alien feel. Finally, arguably the highlight of the record is the fretless bass playing, as Sean Malone introduced a unique, pulsatingly rhythmical style of playing which has gone on to influence countless rock and metal bands who have followed in their footsteps.
The band fell apart in 1994 only to reunite in 2006. Traced in Air followed in 2009, a record in the same vein as Focus but with sharper, more modern production. The band then changed their sound on the EP Carbon Based Anatomy, which saw the introduction of world music influences and more atmospheric tracks, whilst their final full-length Kindly Bent to Free Us continued this trend of softer, more mellow material. Whilst their final release may not be their most popular, it is still a great album, whilst their first two LPs still stand the test of time as some of the finest work to emerge from progressive metal.
Track to check out: “Veil of Maya”
Featuring Sean Malone (bass), Sean Reinert (drums), revolving door (everything else)
Formed and active during the period of Cynic’s first break-up, Gordian Knot was essentially a Sean Malone project which delivered two albums. The rhythm section is quite similar to Cynic’s jazzier moments; however, the music as a whole never ventures into death metal on this largely instrumental endeavour. The only musicians to feature on both records were Malone and Reinert, whilst other members at one time or another included none other than Paul Masvidal, John Myung (Dream Theater), Trey Gunn (King Crimson), Ron Jarzombek (Spastic Ink, Blotted Science), Jason Gobel (ex-Cynic), Steve Hackett (ex-Genesis) and Bill Bruford (ex-Yes, ex-Genesis) amongst others. With a host of names and associated acts like that, you know there is going to be some quality material and the band feature an exquisite balance of progressive rock, jazz fusion, acoustic passages and world music. Indeed, the sounds of Gordian Knot can even be considered as somewhat of a precursor to the sound Cynic would later adopt on Carbon Based Anatomy and beyond.
Track to check out: “Rivers Dancing”
Featuring Santiago Dobles (guitar), Sean Reinert (drums), Sean Malone (bass), Danishta Rivero (vocals) and Charlie Ekendhal (guitar)
Another band which formed in the late ’90s, Aghora are a progressive metal band which featured Cynic’s inimitable rhythm section on their self-titled debut album. Like Gordian Knot the band are not death metal, and they also share similarities with Cynic, such as the aforementioned rhythm section, the jazziness and, to an extent, the atmospheric parts which are so prominent on their debut. In a bit of a twist, Aghora features female vocals on both of their records, whilst its heavier moments are more akin to groove metal. The release of their second and to date final album, 2006’s Formless, saw huge shifts in lineup which only retained Reinert and primary composer Santiago Dobles. Such wholesale changes influenced their sound as well, as they incorporated Sepultura-esque grooves alongside their jazz influences, atmospherics and expansive guitar playing to craft an interesting concoction.
Track to check out: “Atmas Heave”
Featuring Paul Masvidal (lead vocals/guitars/keyboard), and Sean Reinert (drums, vocals, keyboards)
As the only Cynic project to feature just Masvidal and Reinert, you would expect Aeon Spoke to be quite different from the rest of the projects featured here. But did you expect them to be this different? Aeon Spoke is basically alternative rock, leaning heavily on the unique timbre of Paul Masvidal. And, indeed, this side project can serve as a powerful reminder to how iconic and unique his vocals can be. Joined by the backing, clean roles of Reinert, Masvidal creates an air of loss, longing and bereavement which is unparalleled in the field. Even in the alternative rock scene, where such voices are replete, his stands above and its emotional impact. Couple this with layered, acoustic guitars, haunting, rusty synths where needed and drumming which ties the whole thing into a neat, digestible package and you get Aeon Spoke. It’s a powerful, yet oddly simple at times, side project which channels the melancholy and estrangement that had always laced Cynic’s main body of work.
Track to check out: “Emmanuel”
Featuring Tymon Kruidenier (guitars) and Robin Zielhorst (bass)
Exivious is the first spin-off from “modern Cynic”, featuring members that were part of Cynic’s lineup after the long break. Despite not being part of the original team, they have a good handle on the original Focus sound. Having been a part of the making of Traced in Air, Tymon and Robin took those elements and formed their own jazzy progressive fusion band. Despite Tymon providing vocals for Cynic, he kept this project instrumental, which, in a way, amplifies its jazzy feel. While their first, self-titled album was truer to the Cynic sound, with their crowdfunded sophomore release Liminal, they’ve deviated more and explored what they could do in the framework they’ve established. It will be interesting to see how they will continue to define themselves (even though they’re already worthy of being considered masters of fusion), as Tymon is also involved in other projects as well…
Track to check out: “Entrust”
Featuring Tymon Kruidenier (vocals and guitar)
Out of all the projects listed here (except, perhaps, for Exivious) Our Oceans is least deserving of the “side project” title. It is a band and a project in its own right, exploring territories which have very little to do with Cynic. Interestingly enough, it perhaps bears strongest comparison with Aeon Spoke. Both are guitar centric. Both feature evocative vocals, leaning on bright timbres and an alt-rock mentality. However, Our Oceans is much more progressive in its arrangements. Both in album structure and in track composition, Our Oceans are much more varied and complicated than Aeon Spoke. Tymon, essential to the monumental Traced in Air release, lends both his voice and his guitar skills to this enchanting project, making sure that the magic of approachable complexity is conjured at all times. Their self titled album is simply a joy to listen to, caressing and yet always interesting. One can only hope that bright things in this project’s future.
Track to check out: “What If”
Featuring Max Phelps (guitar and vocals)
This is probably the project that is least known to readers. Max Phelps was a member of Cynic’s live line-up for five years, handling guitar and vocal duties. Unsurprisingly, Exist, whom he is also the guitarist and vocalist of, takes quite a bit from Cynic. Out of all the bands we’ve covered in this article, Exist are perhaps the closest analogue to the Focus-era Cynic sound. Featuring fusion playing, death metal elements, screaming, fretless bass, jazz breaks and vocoder vocals, the band’s debut (and only!) release Sunlight is one of the strongest contenders to the replacing the void left in people’s hearts when Cynic moved on from that sound. Max has been busy touring with Death to All, taking Chuck Schuldiner’s role of, you guessed it, guitar and vocals, but he’s recently announced that there’s a second Exist album in the works, so there’s more to be excited about! Jazz-fusion-progressive-death-metal needs more love.
Track to check out: “Self Inflicted Disguise”
Now, we know what you’re thinking, WHERE ON EARTH IS DEATH??? Well don’t worry, we haven’t forgotten that Paul Masvidal and Sean Reinert both appeared on Human, Death’s 1991 release which paved the way for the technical and progressive work that would appear on Death’s later albums. The reason we haven’t gone into detail on Death here is because, like Cynic, Death are a titan of metal entirely deserving of a post like this all unto themselves – the fact that they’re explicitly tied together in this way is simply beyond cool. So, with that in mind keep your eyes peeled for another Connecting the Dots in the not too distant future.
– Sean Malone (solo project)
– Roadrunner United