More then a few hearts started to beat a little faster (in 13/8 time, no doubt) when, in 2006, the legendary progressive metal band Cynic announced it was reforming after a 12-year hiatus for a European tour. But a successful tour is one thing — reigniting the brilliance of its early days is quite another.
Against all conventional wisdom on reunion albums, Cynic’s Traced in Air (due Nov. 25 on Season of Mist) is one of the finest metal albums of the year, and might even trump its highly influential predecessor, Focus (1993). Just a few days after returning from the ProgPower Fest in the Netherlands, Cynic’s leading man, Paul Masvidal, dropped by to share his thoughts on Traced in Air and the creative process in general.
How did the ProgPower Fest go?
It was good! A bunch of nerds in a room. Not your typical fanatic fan kind of thing. I’d say about 50 percent of the audience was musicians. It was amazing, because we played for a bunch of bands that were huge Cynic fans and we got this whole other layer of validation after the show from that world, which we normally don’t get. We played with Alarum from Australia, who have some interesting stuff going on. And also Zero Hour, who I had never heard. It’s in a 500-person venue, not that large. But I’ve learned that [ProgPower organizer Rene Janssen] gets help from the Dutch government, so he can afford to lose money. He’s a big prog-head.
Since the reunion, you’ve exclusively played Europe. Is government support part of that?
No, we originally had a U.S. thing that started to get set up. We were going to do the Maryland Death Fest in 2007, but it was just too soon. So we unfortunately had to cancel that, and then there were a bunch of minor moments that almost developed and then fell apart. Not intentional. It just seems like European promoters have been more aggressive in terms of saying “Let’s do something.” We haven’t had a lot of American promoters saying that, and that’s really what it boils down to.
But we are, of course, going to make up for it with some serious touring starting in January. And the record’s coming out in the States, so hopefully we’re going to be more balanced and not just do this Euro thing. It’s a shame that we didn’t get to do a Focus show, though, but maybe we’ll do that at some point in the future.
What was the catalyst for Cynic reforming, and how did you go on and decide to make Traced in Air?
Initially, it was kind of cosmic. By 2006, I had pretty much closed the door on Cynic and had no intention of opening it. I was in another world as a songwriter, when I got an e-mail from a Russian fan who said “I had a dream that I saw you guys reunited at a festival, and there were all these people,” and this and that. That was the first Cynic thing that happened. And then I think it was seven things over the course of two weeks, a concentrated Cynic infiltration. Sean [Reinert, Cynic’s drummer] and I having the same dream. Phone calls. More e-mails. One of the final things was Kelly Shaefer from Atheist calling me and saying, “You guys gotta get out there.” And I was like, “I can’t believe you’re saying this to me right now!” Kelly had just gotten back from Atheist’s reunion tour, and there was such demand. At that point, I just called Sean and I said, “I think we’re supposed to do this.” Pretty much just taking direction from the universe, surrendering to this instruction and just going for it.
That was the beginning, and then we got to work, started learning the Focus material again. It was like an old muscle. Once I started playing it I thought “OK, I can do this.” We did it for so many years that it was in my biology after a certain point. So the initial reunion shows in Eastern Europe in 2007 went great, and when we got back from the tour, I thought “If I’m gonna do this thing, I feel weird just doing a record that’s fifteen years old.” I had this song “Evolutionary Sleeper” that was sitting around, and I tweaked it and made it more Cynic-y, and I was like, “Let’s just see what happens.” The response was phenomenal.
By the end of one of those one-week or two-week tours, we had people singing the lyrics. They knew the tune already, just through YouTube and streams and blogs. I was blown away by that, the energy, the fervor, the enthusiasm for something new. So we got back and as an experiment, I got together with Sean and we fleshed out some ideas. At the end of a week, I knew that we had something to say again. And then as we got deeper in the process, it became even clearer to me that I was supposed to be doing this. It was a snowball at that point.
So it just sort of felt right.
Oh, yeah, it felt honest. That had been our whole thing — why would I do this if it wasn’t real to me? Now I genuinely feel connected to my metal roots again. I’ve gone full circle, and I keep saying this, this rebirth of Cynic is a return to innocence for us, us going to the purest creative states. It’s an amazing, full-circle life journey thing that one could never predict or anticipate. You just stay on course, stay in your process. The unpredictable beauty of the creative process is that it takes you on a ride.
Did you have to get yourself into that Focus mindset again after having spent so long playing non-aggressive music?
For the reunion, there was a lot of listening to Focus and just revisiting. But for the new album, not at all. I intentionally didn’t listen to Focus. At that point, I felt like it was just a radio station called Cynic that I tuned into, and once I had that frequency, it was a strong signal, and I just had to interpret what I was hearing. So at that point, it was more of a default "roots" thing — this is my foundation, now I’m just trying to document where I’m at with it.
On the track of everything you’ve done in between Cynic phase one and Cynic phase two, is there one musical project that you’ve been the most proud of or has influenced your work with Cynic the most?
I don’t think so. It’s just being a songwriter, you know? Having written an average of ten to fifteen, sometimes twenty songs a year, it becomes a muscle: You just develop and the skill gets refined, and I feel like my chops are pretty good with songwriting, in terms of understanding how to create a shape, a feeling, a mood. Some of my film and TV work helped refine that skill, too, in terms of creating moods and understanding how to shape a feeling. Now when I think of a song, I do think in terms of a line, like a graph. Go up here, drop down, and then it gets squiggly, and then there’s a circle, and there’s a square here. You look at all those little details, and then you look at it from afar, and you get this bigger shape. It’s kind of just being in process and cultivating this image. It’s abstract. It’s hard to articulate that process.
Traced in Air, in comparison to Focus, seems more dynamic in an organic way. The songs take on interesting shapes, textures go from thin to thick and so forth.
Focus was, being as young as we were, about four musicians trying to get heard. There was a certain statement to be made on the chops level beyond serving the song. Although we were pretty much all about the tune then, it was like the early-20s version of that. Traced in Air is the 30s version of it, where it’s just a little bit more mature, a little bit more OK with reduction, the subtraction element, and also indulging and knowing how to do the expansion, reduction — there’s a lot of that tension/release. That’s definitely more calculated and conscious.
There are a lot of non-Western elements to Traced in Air. Does that relate to your interest in Buddhism? Were you trying to reach outside standard Western ideas in the music or lyrics?
I think it’s just default lyrics language for me. I’m always pulling from different philosophies, and of course the Eastern thing has always been a big one for me. So I just like that reference and it just made sense. “Unknown Guest” has to do with astrology, and it’s a certain type of mantra used to deal with Saturn energy when Saturn is in your chart. So it’s almost meant to be used literally. And “Adam’s Murmur” is similarly a self-healing song that has to do with the energy centers and chakras, so there’s that imagery that’s woven into it, which is very eastern. But probably in a way that’s not obvious. It doesn’t sound Indian, it’s just the words.
There’s an attempt to transcend the ego in Buddhism, an aim that would seem incompatible with music as much about the abilities of individual players as Cynic’s. Did you try to reign in the technicality on Traced in Air, or put in a different context?
It’s funny: I don’t think of our music as technical or even progressive, per se. We’re calling the new thing we’re doing “progressive breath metal.” It’s more about what makes the arrangement interesting and fun to listen to. The chops factor is just where we’re at as musicians. It’s probably easier for me to use it in this kind of music than in Aeon Spoke (Masvidal and Reinert’s progressive rock band), which is more reduced, simpler. It’s harder to do that because you’re trying to say more with less. That’s why I worship Emily Dickinson and great poets — there’s so much depth in these little fragments.
There’s more of that kind of awareness woven into Traced in Air. I don’t really feel like it’s me writing; that’s where the loss of ego is. Again, it’s more that I’m taking direction and trying to document this thing I’m hearing, but it’s not really mine — it belongs to the universe, or everybody else. We intentionally didn’t put a band picture in the booklet this time. Labels always want to do that, and even the label is pushing the musicians, your endorsements and your guitars. We decided to make this more a concept and a feeling than an individual thing.
Do you feel you owe anything to the fans that are expecting Cynic to release something in line with Focus?
I couldn’t make a record with that kind of pressure because it would kill me. For me, the creative process is so free and raw and liberated and open that I can’t go in thinking that I have to live up to something. It just needs to be honest and where I am now. If it’s not coming from that place, I’ll feel strangled, really. During those reunion shows, I received a lot of input from bands that fueled us, put gasoline in our tank, and helped inspire some of what was happening. But that’s more of a subtle, almost physics-y thing versus something tangible. It’s more of a reciprocal thing; it’s not a concern or anything, it’s this circular thing that happens between somebody who appreciates the work that you’re doing and the work itself. There’s no way of measuring that, it just happens.
What kinds of responses are you getting to the new album?
I read my first bad review yesterday. He was like, “This doesn’t live up to the hype.” He was bashing progressive music in general, and saying “I never liked that computer android vocals to begin with.” But otherwise, I’m sure I won’t be seeing a lot of the bad ones, just because those people don’t want to interview us. The other side is the love factor, which is incredibly high — it always was that way with Cynic. It’s a love/hate thing; either you get it or you don’t. And I think it is a certain kind of headspace too. You either tune in and understand or you don’t, depending on where you’re at with your own experience.
This is with any art. Wherever you’re at, you’re gonna get a certain amount of it or not. And one review, which was really amazing, I think it was a Norwegian magazine, they did a big spread, and the guy had never heard Focus, so he was coming in clean, and gave an amazing review. That, to me, was really kind of as pure as it gets. Overall, it’s been really positive.
Are people disappointed that it’s not more brutal?
I think it’s where Cynic was obviously headed. With Portal (Masvidal and Reinert’s post-Cynic project), we totally left the metal thing and turned into a jazzy Cocteau Twins group. On this record I’m using growls more as an instrument and a color, than the featured lead vocal, and that probably is a lot of where it’s seen as less brutal. It’s probably more King Crimson than it is Death, you know what I mean? I don’t think that’s a bad thing — that’s just where we’re at. And probably truer to what we’ve maybe been trying to do all along. The more heavy, aggressive thing was part of our earlier years and an extension of that got woven into Focus. But thank God we made Focus when we did, because if it was six months later, or a year later, it probably would have sounded completely different.
But I still like the use of growls. Part of the Cynic thing has always been the dynamic of this ethereal quality with this earthy raw thing, and it just happened to be that on these songs, the growls felt appropriate only in certain places. Maybe there will be another record where there’ll be more. Who knows?
So you didn’t make a conscious effort to distance yourself from the death metal in your past on this record?
No. Again, I’m just trying to document where I’m at as a watery human. I’m ever-changing. You know, it’s just this constantly-morphing thing. People want to contain artists and classify them and put them in a box. We’ve been so watery it’s probably been to our detriment. I actually think it’s impressive how well Traced in Air works next to Focus, considering how long it’s been between the two records. But it’s still the same sound essentially, it’s just record two. I want to keep a continuity, but at the same time I think if we went too jazz, it probably wouldn’t be Cynic anymore. It’s gotta have certain components. It’s just a matter of how far you can push that. I do feel like it’s a boundary-less project — there’re no rules. So it’s just kind of, What is that thread? It’s probably the harmonic and melodic language — that’s something that feels like part of the group’s identity versus just a part of the arrangement. Of course, we’ve got the copyright on the computer android vocals, so that’s always a good one to keep as our signature.
Tell me about that. They’re not the same computerized vocals as on Focus. It almost sounds like an Auto-Tune feature.
It’s funny people hear it that way. But it’s four extra voices, with my voice in the middle, and there’s two octaves higher, and two octaves lower, and it’s this kind of treated, harmonized voice. You hear it in this day and age and it kind of has that Auto-Tune twist on it. It’s a program I designed, and it’s not on a computer; it’s actually on a TC box. I can sing however I want to sing with it, and it’s very free in terms of the pitches and everything, but it just has that sound.
The thing that’s liberating about it now is that it’s more human. Especially when you hear it live, it’s just warmer, and glassier in a warm way. The Focus vocal, I think there was literally no human voice. It was all processed. That was colder in some ways. That was more of a result of my insecurity as a singer, but also wanting a non-human voice — I just wanted something futuristic and different that still had this melodic quality. It seemed to have this interesting shape to it that gave this other kind of color to the music.
I’m guessing that you didn’t process the growled vocals on either record, so in a way, those are almost more human than the melodic ones.
And the thing with the computer vocal is to sound androidy, to sound like this futuristic being that’s half-human, perhaps the person on the cover of the album. Maybe he’s the singer. And probably the more human quality on Traced in Air is being more confident as a singer, and just saying “I trust my voice more now, let’s bring it in here a little bit.” But at the same time, just giving it a new color, it sounds more modern and refined and cleaner. It’s not this gritty, cheap ‘80s technology.
You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that it felt like there was a beginning, middle, and end, like there was some growing up and dying toward the end.
It makes more sense as I talk about it more, because when you’re in process, it’s just about doing. It’s just a feeling, instead of a literal story, which is how I’ve usually gone about lyrics. [First and last songs] “Nunc Fluens” and “Nunc Stans,” that means “the passing present unfolds into the eternal present” in Latin. For me, “Nunc Fluens” is the birth song. It’s this bubbling up of energy, and in fact the entire album is contained in all those noises. There’s little slices of the album in there if you listen closely, brewing in this pot of alchemy, and then it bursts. And then “Nunc Stans” is the death song, the farewell. And it’s almost the reflection of what it’s like to be a human. It’s a song to the earthlings, saying “Here was my experience,” but with a real spiritual perspective. It’s very like “we don’t own anything, this is what our life means essentially, at least what I got out of it. Goodbye.” Maybe it’s him again [points to the character on cover of album].
I’m beginning to think this is the main character. “The Space for This” represents that state when you’re an infant and you can’t differentiate between yourself and the world around you, and you’re in a state of bliss in a sense. You surrender to what is, and you’re OK with what is, and there’s this thing that happens in terms of stages of consciousness. If I look at each song I can see the storyline. But ultimately, I don’t want to be too literal about it, because it’s really the listener’s journey. And they can bring their own thing into it. I figure as long as I can tell the truth, people are going to relate, because that truth is universal. You’re OK, as long as it’s honest, in whatever that is.
Lyrics are such a tremendous undertaking for me. It’s like finding that literal sense of the story the music’s telling, with just the 26 letters of the alphabet. Finding that marriage is so tricky, because it can often be really ambiguous. But when it works, it’s this seamless, beautiful marriage. I live in words. 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.
I’m often asked about Chuck [Schuldiner, the late leader of Death], and some guy today said, “I’m hearing that you guys had a horrible end of your relationship.” And I was thinking to myself, “Should I get into the details of this story? And then if I do, how is he gonna interpret that and translate it into words? And what will it read like?” There are all these variables, and that’s why I’m kind of obsessive about articulation. I want to come at it from as many different perspectives as possible to make sure they get it, you know? But sometimes it’s just better to say less. And that’s really the gig. Less. Less.
It must be especially difficult talking about Chuck, knowing that he doesn’t have any way of answering back.
Exactly. It’s not fair, essentially. It’s riding that line of wanting to be honest, but at the same time, tact, and not saying unnecessary things. There’s a lot of stuff there. It’s too complex to get into in a five-minute interview. It’s a relationship. It’s deep, and messy. I mean, he’s a childhood friend. Chuck’s like my older brother. It’s too difficult to say, “Well, that dilemma was about…” There’s so much to this.
The one person that’s stuck with you throughout your musical career has been Sean Reinert. What fed in to that long collaboration?
Sean and I, it’s really mysterious. It’s a musical bond that’s kept us together. It’s really weird. But maybe that’s enough — it’s not weird. It’s just one of those things. Our whole relationship has been about music from day one. We were introduced to each other in elementary school as the only drummer in the school and the only guitar player. It was through a mutual friend of ours, who’s come back into our lives recently so I was able to thank him. I was like “You don’t know what you did that day when you introduced me to Sean,” because it’s turned into — it’s a lifelong path. It’s amazing. Sean and I have always seen eye to eye with musical ideas. We always liked the same things in terms of getting it, sonically. So it’s kind of effortless in that way. I haven’t struggled with him as a musical partner. There’s never been a push and pull with the egos. We understand each other. Obviously a lot of it’s been me writing the core thing and introducing him into the rhythmic aspect, although Sean’s quite a pianist and composer in his own right.
Did you ever feel like there was a gap you had to bridge between your spirituality and the nihilism and sometimes anti-spirituality of metal?
With the Cynic demos and stuff, that earlier writing was more political. It was about government and vegetarianism, all these things that I was active about. And the spiritual language got woven in as a result of doing the work. When you meditate, you can’t help but integrate it. It’s going to be part of who you are and how you think. Now I don’t see a difference between being a musician and having a spiritual practice. It’s all about presence, and being here, and just living.
In terms of the clash with the metal thing, we got that. Like “this isn’t allowed” you know, and metal is about a certain kind of rebellion. I remember a certain contingent of fans in the extreme music underground being like “that’s weak.” What people don’t realize is that Buddha was the biggest rebel of all. He went against everybody, and basically said, “Don’t believe anything until you experience it yourself.” These really profound, intense things that he practiced, and became part of his whole philosophy. To me, that was a deeper rebellion than anger that, to me, is almost misused. There’s nothing wrong with anger and all these wonderful tools of extreme emotion, but it’s the way that we utilize them. I don’t think that being self-destructive is a cool thing. To me, anger loses its value at that point. The empowerment comes through the self-investigation. That’s the most courageous act.
Also the Gandhi figures. These people who by not doing, by just being, by their presence, don’t have to say anything. It’s an act of humility. That to me is way bigger and stronger and way more powerful and interesting, in terms of what to integrate into art. And it’s not that every song needs to end with a positive story or anything, because I’ve had some really miserable moments. I went through a really dark period when I first moved to L.A. and kind of re-opened a childhood wound that threw me into a tailspin of depression and severe sadness. It was so good for me, later, and I didn’t realize that until later, but I couldn’t spin out of it while I was in it. It was just consuming.
In terms of the spirituality and Cynic, now that I see that it hasn’t been done that much, it certainly makes us more original than most of the other bands. To me, it’s the duty of the artist, to some degree, to tell the truth and to do something unique, and to be honest about your path. There are so many bands out there where you can hear their songs and say, “There’s the Metallica riff, and there’s that Slayer part.” And you know they’re just lifting and borrowing, and it’s just the younger, cuter version of it right? I just don’t get that. I don’t understand why you would create from that place. Although, a lot of times that’s just what they’re capable of.
But again, I’m just always trying to be honest about where I’m at as a writer, and the spiritual aspect has been just a natural evolution. It’s just kind of what feels true, versus, “Let me write spiritual lyrics.”
So there’s no disconnect between your spiritual pursuits and the music that you write? It’s all just one immersive you-ness?
Exactly. That’s the creative process. I don’t go home and become a songwriter — I’m a songwriter right now. It’s beingness, it’s part of being alive. Especially the magical properties of music, which are so incredible mysterious, and in some ways esoteric and beautiful. And there’s so much to that which is just unexplainable. Here we are, shaping sound and doing these really mysterious things and creating environments with this thing that you can’t touch. It’s really kind of cool. And at the same time, we’ve got no idea where it comes from, why I decide to shape these kinds of sounds or I’m hearing this shape. That alone is deeply spiritual. I’m so grateful to be a musician and have this path. It’s such a gift.