Cynic is a legendary and influential band. Since news that drummer and founding member Sean Reinert has left the band, many fans have wondered what is on the horizon, if anything. While there’s still no word on new music from co-founder and guitarist/vocalist Paul Masvidal (who vowed to continue the band), late last year, an announcement from the realm of music archaeologists got nerd minds spinning. Uroboric Forms: The Complete Demo Collection would be released and fans would maybe get some answers about how the hell Cynic went from being in Death (which was basically a Chuck Schuldiner backing gig) to dropping an absolutely groundbreaking gem in Focus. Southern Florida in the late 80s and early 90s is hallowed ground in extreme metal. Would Uroboric Forms rewrite the narrative?
Alternative archaeologist and author Graham Hancock has some pretty weird, out there ideas. If you haven’t explored Fingerprints of the Gods or the more recent Magicians of the Gods, and you enjoy unconventional thoughts, click on over to your favorite online book haunt and pick them right up. The gist of it is this: humanity is way older than we thought. Hancock uncovers what he asserts are ties between ancient civilizations that suggest a global cataclysm well before recorded history, and that this cataclysm has been carried on mythologically in stories like Noah’s Ark, which are present in slight variations in the holy books of multiple major religions. It’s well-argued, even if it unfolds a lot like a conspiracy theory, albeit a fun one. No Alex Jones sinister new world order here. I love the way Graham Hancock boils it down every time a new find from the alleged time before civilization existed that supports one of his theories: “the world just keeps getting older.” Cynic seems to feel the same way, given the clever way they have sequenced this new release, front-loading it with more recent material and working backwards before finishing with a one-two punch of material recorded just before Focus.
So, things keep getting older. That’s great for archaeology. But is it good for rock ‘n’ roll? Is it helpful that virtually every note ever played by Jimi Hendrix will eventually be available commercially? Or that you can hear absolutely shit recordings of The Beatles in their early years? On one hand, yes. It’s history, and it’s great fun to hear where these bands come from. On the other hand, no. It waters down the brilliance of the real gems. Some people enjoy wading through a catalog and finding those pearls, but for more casual listeners there’s not much point.
So, when Cynic announced Uroboric Forms, those inclined to overthink the history of this seminal band were left with one choice: to overthink this as well. Where would this fall into the Cynic museum?
Part of what makes this interesting is that Cynic has made a habit of developing and progressing their sound between major releases; on The Portal Tapes after Focus, but years prior to Trapped In Air and Carbon-Based Anatomy before Kindly Bent To Free Us. When listened to in order they fit like jigsaw pieces. Also, the band’s recorded output is ridiculously sparse given their influence. Their three full lengths hover somewhere around two hours total (excluding Portal, which was not originally conceived as a Cynic record and predominantly featured Aruna Abrams on vocals).
Focus is one of the best metal debuts of all time. It’s still inspiring musicians 20+ years later—look no farther than Obscura’s Akroasis and the striking use of vocoder effects and fretless bass as evidence. This brilliant album is so heavily indebted to Focus that it sounds, at times, like fan fiction—and that’s a compliment. And, yes, Focus has some death metal elements, notably the harsh vocals that work to such great effect on songs like “Veil Of Maya,” one of the greatest extreme metal songs of all time (even though it’s not really that extreme). But if you listen to Focus in a vacuum, you’d be forgiven from walking away thinking “what the fuck does this have to do with death metal?” It’s something we all have to confront sooner or later.
Most Cynic listeners probably know the back story. Masvidal and Reinert were part of the Death lineup in the Human era before splitting to concentrate full time on Cynic. So there’s some death metal legitimacy there, and they were from South Florida, after all. But Cynic was never really a death metal band. Though they broke up for years before reforming for 2008’s Traced In Air and 2014’s Kindly Bent To Free Us, which really put the progressive in progressive rock, they barely even sounded like the same band that recorded Focus. So, is this death metal stuff all a folk tale, forged in the storied halls of urban legend? “Fam, I had a friend that had a friend that knew Cynic back in the day and those guys were death metal as fuck.”
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But now, the missing link has been unearthed, freed from whatever air-conditioned vaults (or sweaty garages) where this kind of stuff is kept. We now know that there are, in fact, reasons that Cynic is considered a death metal band besides their brief run with the legendary Chuck Schuldiner. But, is there any value in releasing these ancient history type demos?
Their albums are impeccably recorded and virtually flawless. Would putting out a bunch of demos do anything to spoil their batting average of 1.000? This set is unlike many demos that accompany remasters and/or reissues. First, the demos have to carry the entire package, not just be something stuck on the end of a great-sounding remaster; and two, these are primarily unheard songs, so it’s this or nothing. There will be no recordings polished up shiny with studio Pledge.
The end result of all this earns Uroboric Forms a key place in Cynic’s history. The early recordings sound exactly like ones you would expect from some dudes who were peers of Death. The 1989 demos thrash in a way that is totally consistent with the year, despite the presence of the innovative bass playing that would later come to be part of the band’s signature. Strangely, there’s even a hardcore vibe at times, which is intriguing and unexpected given what Cynic later produced, a catalog with nary a hint of the punk rock. This may be due to the popularity of “crossover” at the time; punk-based bands like DRI and Stormtroopers Of Death were mining thrash for a way to expand their sound, which may have been an influence here and is particularly noticeable on the 1988 material.
But what of “Uroboric Forms” and “The Eagle Nature,” the clear centerpieces of Uroboric Forms? Both of these songs appeared on Focus and appear here twice, both ’91 and ’92 recordings. All three versions have running times within a few seconds of each other, reinforcing the consistency. The 1991 “Uroboric” sees the songwriting fully in place, highlighted by complex chord progressions, tricky riffing and stop-on-a-dime direction shifts. The ‘92 version ups the tightness and the intensity of the vocals. But the real quantum leap in style does, in fact, occur between 1992 and 1993, when the beast positively breathes for Focus. The vocoder vocals are added, the tightness is wound like a spring and the clean guitar parts are much more contrasting to the distorted parts, not to mention the fretless bass lines that move to the front of the mix. In short, the true Cynic sound was clearly born in the time between the recordings of ’92 and ’93.
“The Eagle Nature” is similar in its evolution. For ’91, the talent is clearly there and had this been the well-known recording, the band would have gotten some attention but perhaps not the international acclaim. The ’92 recording of “The Eagle Nature” contains very dry vocals, just as the corresponding “Uroboric” does. There is a harshness that hints at the intensity present on the work from earlier years, something that vanished from the band going forward as they took a more reserved stance on their sound. Not surprisingly, the ’93 “Eagle” flies out of the speakers. The vocoder is there, the bass pops, it’s Cynic. Focus is a truly unstoppable record.
In essence, Uroboric Forms is a prequel, and Cynic’s imagery has always invoked sci-fi; it’s well-known how that can go wrong. Yes, the infamous Star Wars prequels—at times unfairly maligned, at least until Disney somehow reboots or redeems them. Let’s not forget, though, that Revenge of the Sith had two really, really cool parts, and Uroboric Forms is the same way. Anakin and the temple killings, for sure. But, even cooler, is hearing Darth Vader take his first breath. That machine labored inhale and exhale is an epic moment no matter how you slice it, and for Uroboric Forms to really work, you need that moment. And it finally comes, after things get older and older. In fact, the end kinda saves the day and sets the stage for Focus. The last two songs are exactly what most listeners want, and arguably, are more like Rogue One, taking those really paying close attention right up to Focus. But something about Darth Vader’s first breath feels like the appropriate metaphor here. Listeners hear the band come to life, and it’s really something. Long live Cynic.