Review Summary: One big blur from beginning to end.
Experimentation is one of the riskiest gambles in music, particularly in metal music. On one hand, there's the task of catering to the already established fanbase, but then there's either the hunger to expand that fanbase or to explore completely uncharted territory, usually with varying degrees of success. Most of the time, successful experiments have still managed to receive some sort of backlash from the community, going to show that you can't please everyone. Cynic's second album, Traced in Air, is pretty much the epitome of that phrase in the progressive metal world; while being a fantastic follow-up to the groundbreaking prog/jazz/death metal debut Focus, there was still a certain crowd who didn't think it was "metal enough" or more prominently, "long enough." If you were in the "not metal enough" category, then you're really going to be shocked at their newest effort Kindly Bent to Free Us. Then again, judging by the group's EPs following Traced in Air (Re-Traced and Carbon-Based Anatomy), there was a clear indication that the band were heading toward a softer direction. Hell, Traced in Air was already much lighter than Focus. When you get down to it, experimentation is a refreshing change when it's done well; however, this new record (reinventing Cynic's sound yet again) is nothing short of complete garbage.
Kindly Bent to Free Us is quite aptly named, as the entire experience sounds kinder and gentler than the group's previous records. You'll hear 100%-clean vocals from Paul Masvidal, as well as a more layered, textural sound based heavily on jazz phrasing and chord progressions. While the jazz influence was prominent on Focus and Traced in Air, it really becomes the forefront on this record as most of the guitar chords and bass lines are built around a jazz fusion framework, albeit frequently on the calmer side. However, the first song "True Hallucination Speak" is a bit of a false alarm, its guitar intro being quite atonal and suggesting something a bit more frantic. Even the groove it settles into is pretty technical from an electric guitar and bass standpoint, but then once the vocals enter the picture, everything sorta crumbles. First of all, Paul is not a very engaging singer for this album's more-distorted moments, often making the music underwhelming and pretty awkward. Truthfully, adding a few growls or vocoder singing would possibly have benefited these moments pretty nicely, but as is, the singing's not very fitting.
The music, while not offensively bad, seems really directionless; one of the worst things you can say about an album is that it doesn't leave any impression at all, and this album sadly nails it. "The Lion's Roar" has a verse in the beginning that sounds as if it were lifted straight from "Integral Birth" from the previous album, similar rolling drum beat and all. While it doesn't last long, it gives off a recycled feel about it and seems like a bit of a cop-out. Some song sections sound completely out-of-place and don't match with a given tone. The title track opts to build its dynamics up gradually, leading to an intense climax around the middle, when all of a sudden it just comes to a complete halt. The instruments die down, then drop off completely for a sparse guitar and bass segment before randomly bursting back into the distortion again out of nowhere. Why? Was there any purpose? It certainly didn't flow well, given its placement right in the very middle of the track. Perhaps if it was near the end it would have been able to serve more of a purpose to build to another climax, but it comes off as really awkward and unneeded.
The biggest issue with the album is that everything just becomes a giant blur after only a few minutes of listening. Nothing ever stands out or comes off as being engaging, no matter the dynamics. While "Infinite Shapes" has an extended clean intro that seems welcome to break up the monotony, the distorted portions go right back to the same old jazz chord progressions and the same slow pace. Despite the experimentation on this album, as it consists of more clean sections and even more jazz fusion and soft rock elements, I think the boys in Cynic forgot that it's not just the experimentation that defines an album, but what how you execute it as well. On another note, Sean Reinart's drumming is seriously underplayed here. He usually goes between 6/8 and 4/4 time signatures, and oftentimes his drumwork will simply follow a precise stacatto guitar and bass melody or just keep the rhythm section in check as Paul's lead work and vocals adorn the foreground of the music. Considering how talented Reinart is on the drums, this seems like a serious step back in his work with the band. Hell, despite some solos here and there, even Paul Masvidal is really subdued here as well. It's worth noting that a decent chunk of this album bears a strong resemblance to a certain Cynic side project known as Aeon Spoke, which does indeed focus more on the lighter elements of Paul and Sean's musical influences. This just begs the question: why would Cynic go this far in Aeon Spoke's direction when there's already an Aeon Spoke around? It brings the already-tenuous credibility of Cynic's recent sound change to a pile of rubble. This album is just not worth listening to for any reason other than to hear how far a band can fall in such a short time. This isn't a slight dip in quality, it's an avalanche. As the final track "Endlessly Bountiful" slowly crescendos from a soft progressive rock ballad into a beautiful burst of distortion and energy, one can only wish that this musical epiphany had occurred way earlier in the record. As it calms down and ends with a whimper, it's realized that the album ends the same way as it began... being unmemorable.