Review Summary: As confounding as it is interesting, "Kindly Bent to Free Us" continues Cynic's increasingly pop-oriented direction with mixed results.
If Kindly Bent to Free Us
is your first impression of Cynic, then you’ll be in for a shock upon looking into this metal legend’s back catalogue. Paul Masvidal, Sean Malone, and Sean Reinert comprise Cynic’s core, and while they’ve left an indelible mark on extreme metal over the last quarter-century, Cynic has lately left its fan base divided, if not totally bewildered. Sure, the upbeat swing of “The Lion’s Roar” bears little face-value resemblance to cuts from the band’s classic 1993 album Focus
, but in a weird way it seems like we should have seen this coming all along as shredded leads and death growls have steadily given way to ethereal atmospheres and intricately layered compositions. Thinking back, though, is the intro of “Kindly Bent to Free Us” really so far from that of “I’m But a Wave To”? For long-time followers, it seems high time to let go of our notions on what Cynic was
and appreciate what it is
, and has always been – a group of musicians willing to push the envelope of progressive music in any way possible. Unfortunately for Cynic, it seems to have taken a wrong turn somewhere along the way.
2011’s Carbon-Based Anatomy
is the obvious starting point for Kindly Bent to Free Us
, as Masvidal finally brought his brainchild fully into the realm of progressive rock. It also gave us the first glimpse of how totally bizarre his lyrical concepts are becoming, with titles like “Elves Beam Out” and “Bija!” Farther back, the chorus of “Adam’s Murmur” seems like a precursor to Kindly
’s equally strange “Moon Heart Sun Head,” a song whose hemiola-based rhythms are interesting but unsteady. While Reinert’s drum work certainly lacks the pace of much of his other work in Cynic and Death, his polyrhythmic precision nonetheless remains vital to Cynic’s new sound. “True Hallucination Speak” revolves around bass and cymbal hits that never seem to land in the same place twice, lending the song a live-jam feel until its halfway point. After a double-time peak, Masvidal’s falsetto vocals take over, and a riff is gradually re-established through the song’s fading conclusion. It’s a relaxing but somewhat unconvincing way to start the album, and fortunately things pick up soon as it gives way to the lively shuffle of “The Lion’s Roar.”
If you’ve read any of Masvidal’s interviews, you’ll get an idea how convoluted the band’s own view of the album is: “It's kind of like, to me, coming into Cynic's body more...I'm big in the space. It's definitely new. It's not like anything we've done before. It's a new color, a new space…it's a new space for Cynic, for sure. It definitely sounds like us, except completely new." The gist there seems to be lots of space, a lot of meditation, and probably some mind-altering substances. There is, indeed, lots of space in the album, as evidenced by the closing track, “Endlessly Bountiful.” Whatever groove the song has is totally buried behind sci-fi synths and echoed chants of the song’s title, foregoing anything resembling popular music until a short spurt of drumming two thirds of the way through. Just as it seems the album will close with all this spacey nonsense, a jazzy duet between Malone’s walking bass and Masvidal’s glassy guitar tones wraps things up beautifully. It’s moments like this that keep Kindly Bent to Free Us
from being a total disaster, as Cynic lives up to its reputation as a progressive mastermind, if only for a moment here and there.
For all Masvidal’s claims about how “We’ve had a lot of time to let this material develop and gestate, and it finally feels ready to be unleashed on the world,” something about Kindly Bent to Free Us
still seems incomplete, like the ideas didn’t always quite coalesce. Songs meander without a climax, ideas – even some great ones like the explosive first riff of “Infinite Shapes” – hover and leave without making their point, and the whole exercise generally begs as to what could have been. From a technical standpoint, Cynic is as impressive as ever as it fuses jazzy guitar lines with sinuous bass playing and fleeting song structures, but the whole of it feels more like a brainstorming session than a complete experience the way Traced in Air
did. Cynic’s musicianship is still top-notch, even if you’re among those who (understandably) cannot stand Masvidal’s feather-soft vocals, so even the more scattershot songs on Kindly Bent to Free Us
are valuable from a musical standpoint. Still, it is an exercise that is often more curious than convincing, leaving many of us wondering when Cynic will finish its celestial voyage and return to its more comprehensible, earthly – and ultimately more fulfilling – roots.