Cynic‘s debut album Focus is undoubtedly one of the most influential works in metal. It influenced countless artists and shaped the nature of progressive metal for decades to come. But where did they come from? What happened to them? In the wake of their second (and perhaps final) break-up (assuming all the drama around the break-up resolves), it’s worth examining the culture that led to the formation of Cynic, their rise to fame, and how they’ve been interspersed with the rest of the metal scene and how far their influence reaches.
Picture the Florida death metal scene in 1989. The eponymous death metal band Death had recently released their sophomore record Leprosy to great critical acclaim. After a troublesome European tour cycle, the band let go of their guitarist at the time, but they still had a tour of Mexico lined up. Chuck Schuldiner recruited a player from a local underground band who had just recorded a demo. This player was Paul Masvidal, and while he was offered a permanent position in Death, he had declined, stating he’s committed to his own band. Considering how big Death was back then, this was a very bold move that caused a lot of people to start asking questions about his band. And thus his project, Cynic, started to become a name of interest in the metal scene by the end of the 80s.
While Cynic continued to record demos, they didn’t put out a full length release for a while, but even their demos were enough for them to earn a recording deal with Roadrunner Records, which was a pretty big deal. In the meantime, Schuldiner, due to contractual troubles and frustration caused by several poorly organized tours, decided to turn Death into a band without any permanent members other than himself. He went back to Masvidal, and this time brought along Paul’s fellow drummer from Cynic, Sean Reinert. They recorded the fourth Death album, Human, yet again to great critical acclaim, and were obliged to tour along the cycle of that album, yet again shelving progress on a Cynic record. Paul’s jazzy style of soloing that would later become his trademark was first hinted at here, and the album was much more progressive than Death’s previous records, setting a new standard for the genre.
Finally, with the obligations to Death being over, Masvidal and Reinert could return to Cynic. However, in between Paul’s first stint with Death and this time, a shift had started to occur in the Florida death metal scene. Atheist had become a big player in the scene. In fact, due to financial troubles Death had during their tour, Masvidal and Reinert were out of commission for a while, and Cynic’s then-bassist Tony Choy left and joined Atheist instead. Instead, they recruited local jazz player Sean Malone who was an assistant engineer at the studio where they were going to record their album. Trouble struck yet again and Hurricane Andrew hit Florida, destroying the band’s rehearsal space. In this time frame, with their new member, and a new outlook on the scene provided by the success of the jazz-fusion influenced Atheist, they rewrote most of the material they planned for their album, letting their inner music theory nerds loose. Finally, they recorded and released their debut album, Focus, in 1993.
Focus was a huge success. The band already had the attention of the media, were on a major label, the scene was prepared for jazzy metal by Atheist and their sound took it to the next level with unprecedented technicality and complexity juxtaposed against beautiful smooth jazz and vocoder-enhanced cleans. Masvidal and Reinert’s presences in Death earned them a lot of respect from the scene, and Malone’s unique fretless bass technique was so powerful and intriguing that it still defines technical death metal bass playing to this day. As a result of their success, the band toured extensively throughout 93 and 94. To the point that they had grown tired of playing the songs, and when they returned in 1994, the band disbanded due to “creative and personal differences”.
The first disbanding of Cynic has always been considered a tragedy in the metal scene. Focus was so singular, so unique and well-made; and nothing made by anyone else ever came close. Yet over the years its influence kept growing further and further. In fact, to this date, Focus is still unmatched and is still ahead of the times. The line-up that recorded the album dispersed throughout the scene to make more influential metal. Masvidal and Reinert made alternative rock under the name of Æon Spoke, Sean Malone became a household name and participated in many influential records, and he also formed a progressive rock/jazz-fusion project titled Gordian Knot which also featured Masvidal and Reinert at times. At some point Cynic guitarist Jason Gobel got together with Masvidal and Reinert to form a band called Portal, but that project was short-lived and its material was later assimilated into the Cynic repertoire. Reinert also participated in jazz-influenced metal band Aghora, which carried aspects of the Cynic sound except with female vocals.
In terms of influence, Focus started a trend towards more jazz being featured in metal, and softer elements being used to contrast harsh, technical music. Among bands influenced by Cynic are Obscura, The Faceless, The Contortionist (due to contrasting jazzier elements with technical music and usage of vocoders), and this is only before they got back together. Exivious was another band that were heavily influenced by Cynic, playing jazzy technical metal, but without vocals.
In 2006, Masvidal announced that Cynic would reunite to do a short tour next year. While he and Reinert participated in that tour, the rest of the band were unavailable or unwilling, and they hired session musicians, including Chris Kringel whom they worked with in Portal and Æon Spoke. They played Focus, Portal material, a Mahavishnu Orchestra cover and a new song that sounded a lot like Focus material. Everyone was excited, the tour and new material was very well-received, and Cynic moved on to record a new album.
Tymon Kruidenier from Exivious joined the recording sessions for the new album on guitars and screaming vocals, and Sean Malone returned on bass to complete the lineup. A lot of material was left over from the Focus days, and they repurposed that, added influences by Tymon and their newfound life experiences to create a record that was similar to Focus yet still different. In the years since Focus, Masvidal had become more entrenched in Eastern philosophy, and had become a Buddhist. These influences also drove the sound in the album, as the album was less ominous and more, by Reinert’s admission, “upbeat and energetic”. The album was finally released in 2008, titled Traced In Air, and it was yet again a success. While some longtime fans who had been entrenched with the sound of Focus for fifteen years were mildly disappointed, overall the album was a worthy successor if not necessarily a replacement. With the band’s sound now able to reach newer audiences, their influence on the scene was redoubled and many bands took on elements of the Cynic sound.
They spent several years touring Traced material (together with bassist Robin Zielhorst of Exivious, as Malone had other obligations), including with bands that were heavily influenced by Cynic such as The Faceless and Between The Buried And Me. During one of these shows in 2010, they debuted a much more mellow, psychedelic track titled “Wheels Within Wheels”, and they announced a more experimental EP to be released soon afterwards. Indeed, soon after that they released their EP titled Re-Traced, which included minimalist, psychedelic and ambient interpretations of several songs from Traced In Air, along with the newly debuted track. After a series of shows, Tymon and Robin announced that they were leaving the band due to creative differences, and they went back to Exivious. While the EP was actually one of the first signs that the band were changing direction, most thought it was a one-off experiment, and due to the revolving-door nature of the band’s lineup, no one batted an eye at the Exivious crew leaving either, but with hindsight these creative choices had deeper impacts than initially thought.
With the departure of these two members, Masvidal and Reinert announced a new Cynic release, and officially announced what everyone already thought: that Cynic would be considered the duo of the two of them from now on, with members temporarily participating for tours and albums in order to keep everything fresh. With that being said, Sean Malone yet again returned for the recording process of this new material, and Masvidal announced it would be an EP, and that it would be a “philosophical as well as a musical journey, one that begins in the Amazon jungle on the lips of a shamanic wisewoman and ends in outerspace”. Articles written by Masvidal around this time showcased his further entrenchment in spiritualism, Eastern philosophy and New Age thought in general. The band released the single “Carbon-Based Anatomy”, which would also be the title of the EP. Curiously, the single was a reinterpretation of an Æon Spoke track. That, combined with the previous EP, signified a shift in Cynic’s sound towards a more mellow, ambient and New-Age-music-driven approach, which was criticized by many, which Masvidal defended by saying “Cynic was always outside the box and never a traditional metal band to begin with, so we’re probably going further in a direction that’ll sound more like Cynic and less than anything else familiar”.
While Carbon-Based Anatomy was released to mixed-to-positive reviews, the band’s sound continued to be unique and influential. Their more mellow approach reached even larger audiences and drove a subset of progressive metal bands to incorporate elements of smooth jazz, shoegaze and more ambience into their sound, including The Contortionist with their 2014 release Language. The ambient and relaxed nature of the music was divisive for fans who viewed Cynic as the originator of modern technical death metal, but the band continued to remain wholly influential. Many comparisons were made with this material to Æon Spoke, questioning whether it would be better suited for that project, but certain elements of the Cynic sound still remained present, including prominent vocoders and jazzy interludes.
In 2012, Sick Drummer Magazine and Chuck Schuldiner’s estate organized a Death reunion tour with members who participated in the band, and in contrast to Cynic becoming “softer” over the years, Masvidal and Reinert were invited to perform Death material including the album they recorded. The tour was a huge success, with its proceeds going to charity (supposedly, there were conflicts involving the magazine). Further tours were also done without the involvement of Sick Drummer, but with Masvidal and Reinert still being involved. The duo, along with other former members of Death, performed Death material under the name of Death To All (later Death (DTA)) throughout 2012 and 2013, across both North America and Europe.
Masvidal, Reinert and Malone got back together around 2012 to start working on new Cynic material, and released the third full-length Cynic album, Kindly Bent To Free Us in February of 2014. This was the first Cynic release to have only three members in the line-up. The music had taken an even further turn into psychedelic and ambient elements. It was yet again met with mixed-to-positive reviews, though it was clear at this point that the Cynic that made Focus and even Traced was not going to be back. Still, the elements that were established in the band’s sophomore album were present, with the album feeling like a progression from the upbeat and smooth elements introduced in the 2008 release. Depending on what people viewed Cynic as, this album was either a huge disappointment, or a Cynic album through-and-through. Either way, the band still continued to be unique and trail-blazing.
In a landmark moment in metal, Masvidal and Reinert announced in May 2014 that they were gay. Considering how insular the metal scene can be, the fact that musicians so revered by some the most underground aspects of the scene came out has been an important moment for the scene and many have spoken in support of their coming out, and the duo have spoken up about the troubles they encountered as gay metal musicians and how they had to lead a hidden life. Perhaps the most powerful comment about this revelation was from their other lifelong, straight friend, Sean Malone: “What I’m proud of is that Paul and Sean know that this isn’t really about them — it’s about the kid out there who is struggling and suffering in silence, and that for him or her, this conversation might be a source of encouragement”.
Then, suddenly, in this fateful September day, Sean Reinert announced through Facebook that the band are calling it quits (though apparently Paul Masvidal disagrees). He has cited differences in opinion, musical direction and perspective as reasons, and stated that “no amount of time or effort can resolve them”. The only constant throughout 28 years (well, 15 active years) of Cynic had been Paul and Sean. Perhaps the direction Paul wanted to pull Cynic towards was too great a creative shift from the original vision, perhaps the trend towards the Æon Spoke sound finally became too much, and what made Tymon quit also made Sean quit. Perhaps he felt his talents as an incredible drummer were being under-utilized by more ambient material. We can’t truly know yet, and this is all speculation, but the drastic change in the band’s approach over the years is undeniable, and perhaps keeping material separated across two projects (Cynic and Æon Spoke, or any other side projects Paul has had over the years) could have prevented such a split, and preserved the band’s legacy as technical death metal pioneers. Perhaps not. Perhaps they’ll even continue without Sean, but he’s clearly an integral part of the band, so it’s hard to say what will happen just yet.
Honestly, even if we solely consider Focus, Cynic are one of the most influential bands in metal. That we even got a second shot at Cynic with the 2006 reunion is a minor miracle, as everyone had considered the band all but dead at the time. While the later material of the band was divisive at times, it has always been unique and thought-provoking. The band had always been plagued by troubles, both known to the public, and inner troubles due to their nature, and their resurgence was very productive, they put out quite a bit of material. Even if it wasn’t welcome for everyone, it’s definitely a net positive for the metal scene that we got a second dose of Cynic, and we got to hear what further things they had to say.
So thank you, Cynic, for all the influential, unique material you’ve put out over the years. Even though many have taken influence from you, no one else really sounds like you. You’ve done so much for metal, both musically and in terms of making it a better scene.