Review Summary: "Traced In Air" is a well written and masterfully executed piece of progressive metal.
To me "Traced In Air" represents what progressive music should be about. Beyond that it meets my criterion of what music as an art form should achieve. I don’t give it a “classic” rating lightly. Reviewers have lauded it for imagination, scope and depth whilst others have decried it for being dull, flat and shallow. I am convinced the disparity in these attitudes is a result a the preconceptions that listeners bring to the table.
As a progression in a body of work "Traced In Air" arguably parts ways with Cynic's earlier death metal influence that was present on 1993 classic "Focus". That album interlaced odd-time jazzy parts with grinding chunk. The harder edged elements were expertly executed and partially owing to Cynic members’ contribution to Death's seminal album "Human". Paul Masvidal's chiming cybernetic vocoder vocals were interspersed with Tony Teegarden's death growl. A balance that was brazen enough to appease lovers of the brutal. Those who bring a similar standard of judgement to "Traced In Air" will be disappointed.
The death growl is still present, courtesy of Tymon Kruidenier, but is less intrusive both in style and in its place in the mix. The guitar tone is more nimble, effervescent and glassy and the drums have been crafted to be more punctuated and less weighty. If the album is judged by the scales of heaviness, brutality and the number of bone-crushing riffs that can be crammed into one song, it will flounder and fail to live up to this standard.
I feel that to judge metal in this way is a gross simplification of everything it can come to represent. For me "Focus" was so earth-shatteringly good due to its depth of meaning, the technical dexterity and weighty sound being the icing on the cake. The sound of "Focus" was appropriate for the slightly darker, more angst filled lyrics and Cynic's latest effort is a progression on those meanings, so it is fitting that a musical progression has also taken place. "Traced In Air" is not trying to be violent, malice ridden or crushing. It is a multi-dimensional exploration of everything held in the bands name: a search for happiness, cosmic reconciliation and harmony.
I am divided as to album opener "Nunc Fluens" as I can appreciate it summarizes the album message along with bookend "Nunc Stans". The two are apparently latin for “the passing present unfolds into the eternal present”…read into that what you will. The opener is a mix of samples from the album that is to follow and this is certainly ambitious. I find this track to be overly long however, often skipping to track 2 after about a minute and a half. Infinitely stronger is "The Space For This". It opens with a glittery clean guitar passage which if you let your preconceptions go will transport you into deep space a la classic Pink Floyd. The song then explodes with agility, giving me the impression of space flight with unsettling riffs in 7/8 time contrasting the darkly serene vocals. Some amazing guitar work follows showcasing technicality without tipping into souless wankery.
"Evolutionary Sleeper" brings the album from strength to strength with a similar shimmering intro that morphs into a writhing and semi-dissonant 4/4 riff (which should dispel accusations that Cynic are technical for the sake of technicality). The multi-octave processing of the vocal is especially effective on this track, making Masvidal sound like the protagonist in a classic 70s sci fi film. "Integral Birth" is lyrically my favourite song on the album. Masvidal has revealed that the album is loosely conceptual, centred around an extra terrestrial visitor surveying earth. The image of a million doves weeping blood adeptly captures a sense of sadness of the alien viewing the conflicts of humanity. Conflicts fought trivially over the lines "dug deep in the sand of belief". This song fills my head with so many images and feelings I can safely say it is an all time favourite. Where do you find this sort of gravitas in “br00tal” death metal about rape and necro-sodomy? Owing to the mix being "thin", as I stated earlier, this sounds better the louder you play it.
By this point in the album I find myself engrossed in the world Cynic create, it is literally like being part of an old sci fi film or novel with that charm you can't quite place your finger on. The next three tracks envelope me in more proggy goodness. With hypnotic chanting, oddly beautiful discord and masterful contrasts of mood and texture permeating each track. "Nunc Stans" ends the album beautifully with a sense of wistful acceptance of our cosmic position that is equal parts joy and melancholy. Reverb-soaked guitar synth, military rhythm section and the pseudo-choral vocal top off the album in a nicely abrupt style. A device that makes me want to listen from the start once again!
Detractors will argue that album is one of three things: flimsy, fraudulent or overly theatrical. I don't feel any of these are fair if the album is listened to in context, and with the open mind Cynic seek to encourage. Would it be fair rate a classic Floyd or Zeppelin album on how many downtuned riffs tore us a new one? No, and this is the same for "Traced In Air", it transcends the normal and narrow boundaries of metal. The accusation of lacking depth is quite at odds with how I perceive the album and from what I can gather from reading interviews with Masvidal he seems to be a thoughtful individual who genuinely cares about the music he creates. He frequently states he could not make albums in a pressured commercial manner, as this a betrayal of the creative process both in its purpose and importance. Finally the "overblown" nature of the album is largely a matter of taste, but if listeners are dabbling in prog anyway I think it is safe to assume they should have no objection to ambitious music and concepts. I think the album is heartfelt and well written rather than depthless and contrived. The former once again evidenced by reading Masvidal interviews: "I’ll obsess over a word for three weeks until I do one thing to it. I have a lot of respect for writers, because I realize it’s not easy shaping, crafting things to feel a certain way. I’m realizing that more, in doing these interviews."
In the all too human and open style of Chuck Schuldiner, who Cynic members had the pleasure of working with, Masvidal and Co continue to push the limits of creativity in progressive music. In terms of both musicality and meaning. Let us hope that, unlike in the sad case of Chuck, their capacity to do so in the future is not cut short. It is possible the best is yet to come.