For Those About to Think
Cynic’s Paul Masvidal puts an intellectual spin on his prog metal
When rock musicians draw comparisons between their work and poetry, one might be forgiven for looking askance in many cases, recalling too many self-serving, blatantly false claims—like Derek Smalls insisting that his Spinal Tap band mates are on the level of Byron or Shelley.
Cynic guitarist/singer Paul Masvidal’s reference to a muse, however, not only shows his good taste, but also a sense of perspective in an era when music stardom seems far too quixotic a goal.
“The integrity of the art comes before anything, and that allows me to sleep at night,” he writes via e-mail. “Although I do aspire to the pure intention and detached heights of an Emily Dickinson—who never saw reciprocation in her lifetime and yet persevered, delivering a tremendous wealth of poetry. As artists in the public domain, we all have to admit there is a sense of validation that comes when someone ‘receives the work’ and makes it their own.”
Masvidal can speak with authority on this feeling thanks to the surprising story of Cynic. After having recorded and fairly quietly released only one album, Focus, in the early 1990s showcasing the Florida-based band’s ear for and background in both raging death metal and elaborate prog rock, Cynic broke up and pursued other projects even as Focus turned into a cult classic.
Then, a couple of years back, Masvidal and band mates Sean Reinert and Sean Malone decided to reactivate the group, bringing in new members. They embarked on a series of well-received tours, including their upcoming date at the House of Blues with Meshuggah, and recorded a new album, last year’s strikingly beautiful and aggressively ferocious Traced in Air. Masvidal’s serene singing, rather than sounding at odds with the frenetic arrangements on songs such as “The Space for This” and “King of Those Who Know,” works as a perfect counterpoint to the band’s louder moments, while also setting the tone for the more calm ones.
Given how the status of the band and their debut release had built up over the years, potentially overshadowing the group’s present existence, Masvidal proclaims himself more than satisfied with how Cynic’s new work has been received by fans and the media alike.
“Back then, I could count the good reviews, no less interviews, on one hand; with Traced In Air, it’s been relentless in the best of ways.”
He explains how this relentlessness is matched by the group’s live performances, particularly considering Traced in Air’s elaborate arrangements. “The nature of live is inherently raw, imperfect and more energetic, so that becomes woven into the dance, too,” Masvidal says. “All songs have no real beginnings or endings for me. They are endless, and I think I could take any one Cynic song and reinterpret it for years, if you let me. We will probably head into a more improvisational space when the live journey begins to settle in and we feel a need to take the predictability out of it. For now, absolute presence and delivering the song’s vibe with relentless abandon is enough of a task for us each night.
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“We had a handful of shows on this last European tour where the energy was amazingly palpable, and the audience was tuned in and co-creating this massive circular dynamic that allowed the event to just happen, without a witness. Those shows are magical, where the room turns into one huge ball of light. If we can even approach that space each time we perform, we’re in good shape. Calculating this kind of gig is next to impossible, so we keep surrendering to the process and letting go of the result.”
But even the best possible moments can fall apart when it comes to the vagaries of performance. Masvidal recalls a specific incident in Barcelona: “Tremendous audience energy reaching a peak . . . [and] suddenly the power goes out onstage. We look at Sean [Reinert], who, as the drummer, is the only musician capable of real noise at that point, and he launches into a drum solo. He finishes, the power comes back on, and we are told that our set has gone overtime and we have to stop. We later learned someone behind the stage tripped over a main power line.”
If nothing else, in a situation like that, there is something that Cynic and Spinal Tap have in common after all.
Cynic with Meshuggah at the House of Blues, 1530 S. Disneyland Dr., Anaheim, (714) 778-2583; www.hob.com. Sun., 7 p.m. $17.50-$20. All ages.