Review Summary: A case of a good album still equating to failure.
Having carved their own legacy through the distortion of tradition and frequent self-reinvention, Cynic stands as one of the most acclaimed and universally respected progressive acts of today. Having never been ones to repeat themselves, it does seem slightly misguided to berate Cynic for a shift in direction. Fans longing for a Focus
part two will not be sated by Kindly Bent to Free Us
, and truth be told, never will. When Focus
dropped in 1993, it was the antithesis of tradition – a jangly yet brilliant synthesis of jazz fusion, progressive rock and death metal – peerless to the extent that over twenty years later, it is yet to be even vaguely imitated. This is what gives Cynic their mystique. To expect a Focus
part two is to misunderstand Cynic’s vision entirely, which is where Kindly Bent to Free Us
both succeeds and falters to varying degrees.
Musically stripped down compared to its predecessors yet intrinsically Cynic-y
, this album was always going to divide the fan base, one side applauding the band’s resilience in creating something new, the other disconsolate by the album’s relative simplicity. Kindly Bent to Free Us
concretely marks Cynic’s migration from progressive metal to rock, the minor traces of metal that permeated Carbon-Based Anatomy
now entirely absent. The band’s technical prowess, while still obvious, is subdued and sparsely flaunted. Rarely does Masvidal’s guitar work or Reinert’s drumming delve into the same kind of rhythmic complexity that characterised both Focus
and Traced in Air
. More often than not, it’s the bass of Sean Malone that adds the extra dimensional touches, ubiquitously oscillating away as the guitars focus more on interplay and timbre than rhythm. The spacey sections that once served as relief mechanisms are pushed the foreground, paired with catchier riffs and drum patterns more reminiscent of those of Aeon Spoke than anything Cynic have previously released. Juxtaposition of the vibrant and the tranquil proves to be the album’s biggest asset, the title track and “Holy Fallout” being the best examples of this by virtue of their excellent pacing and diverse instrumentation.
While more self-possessed instrumentation is potentially an advantage if atmosphere becomes the main focus, the lack of said atmosphere proves to be the album’s Achilles heel. Without the persistent, exemplary rhythms characteristic of previous work, Kindly Bent to Free Us
underwhelms with surprising regularity. “The Lion’s Roar” comes across as Cynic’s attempt to break into the charts, structurally indistinguishable from a mundane pop-rock single and instrumentally superfluous. While an exceptional guitarist, Paul Masvidal’s vocal performance is little more than a nuisance here. The omnipresent vocoder effect does little to mask the flat, dreary delivery, which doubles as being the conveyor of some laughable lyrics. The sound engineering doesn’t do the music too many favours. Apart from some generous mixing on the bass, the general sound is a little compressed and flat, partially depriving the album of the “spacey” aesthetic that was intended. Despite the production however, tracks such as “Gitanjali” and “Endlessly Bountiful” still manage to come across as surprisingly ethereal through the use of instrumental accents and layering. Though a mixed bag, the album generally hits more than it misses.
Kindly Bent to Free Us
is case of a good album still equating to failure, given that it’s the product of a band where excellence is considered a prerequisite. Even at their most pedestrian, Cynic still manage to outdo a number of their contemporaries, but it’s difficult not to be overcome with pessimism when the band’s back catalogue beckons. Nevertheless, Kindly Bent to Free Us
succeeds in introducing a new chapter in Cynic’s career, albeit one that is clouded in mere cautious optimism from a fan’s point of view. The formula for another brilliant album has been conjured, and this album may well have just been a rough transition, only time will tell.