posted on 6/2010 By:
Somewhere on the 210 freeway, I realized that I was never going back to my old life.
Even if you're Brad Pitt in True Romance, spending your days sucking kush out of a bear-shaped honey bottle, skipping work is still tough on the mind. It's like Catholic guilt for the proletariat. You feel like you should be stuck in an air-conditioned purgatory, fulfilling your designated societal function, carrying your Christ-like burden of spreadsheets so you can be a normal, wage-enslaved human being. But that hidden hunger to just get the fuck out and piss it all away supersedes any of your greatest urges to be society's man; that urge to spend your life in faithful service to a faceless monopoly who is always looking to make the pinkslips rain if you can't jump high enough. Sometimes that hunger is satiated by a grand gesture that punches your ticket to freedom--you tell a customer to die in a fire and start dragging your lighter against the wall--more often, though, it's innocuous shit that you hope someone notices, like a message in a bottle on a crowded SoCal beach filled with tanned self-absorption. It's about pouring yourself into little deviations from the expected, little deviations that are like a secret warning to anyone that's the least bit perceptive. "I wanna stop doing this," your spelling out of HELL in brightly colored thumbtacks on your cube wall says to passing management, "I don't want to live inside the walls of your expectations any longer." Then, when no one notices, you run.
At 9:02 AM, I went AWOL. I guided my car around a trucker barely keeping his haul between the dotted lines thanks to a cocktail of meth, horny goat weed and an Ann Coulter book on tape. I merged with the hungover and the apathetic, the throng of travelers that were enviably out of the corporate death cycle. They would guide me towards the promised land, I hoped; at the very least the land of self-actualization. With the unfamiliar feeling of adrenaline pumpin' through my veins, still amazed that I took a left instead of a right, I hit random on the battleworn 'Pod, only looking for something to fill the silence that was forcing my brain to be judge, jury, and executioner of my impending, career-sabotaged doom. I triggered cruise control, leaned back and forced my mind to reflect on only the music. Cynic's tweener EP Re-Traced crackled over my blown 5 x 7s. It became the soundtrack to my brief exodus.
Somewhere on the 210 freeway, I realized that I am Paul Masvidal.
Cynic has always been a favorite, ever since someone tossed me Focus and said the robo vox were bullshit. I got the criticism, but I loved it. Who else wanted to "O Superman" death/thrash? The interplay between what was becoming traditional grunts and the dualistic, technocratic warbles of the machine was wonderfully fresh, adding another layer to the polyrhythmic onslaught that brothers-in-arms/sometimes-bandmates Atheist and Death were utilizing to push this whole death metal genre forward. It was fresh and it had a hell of a shelf life, still sounding bracing and inventive years down the line when it hit my lap. And, during this time, the legend only grew as greenhorns such as myself reveled in the swirling complexities. Naturally, the demand for a Cynic reformation grew until they finally indulged us.
Coming back with Traced in Air was like their Death Magnetic, though; an album that was hailed as success 'cause it hit the perceived marks set by the old stuff and really didn't do a whole lot more. For a band that seemingly only had innovation on its mind during its initial run, that lead to a solid but kinda stale set of tracks. It was competent retread, just years late; like watching some freshly divorced gent in a bar haphazardly spill into middle age by leaning on the jukebox and shooting unsure fuck-me stares at the barmaid. That shit might've netted him some poon when he was a young buck, but this is a different world and that song and dance now seems dangerously old hat. Come Cynic 2.0, autotune had raped and pillaged the pop world like some pastel Visigoth, trip-hop had met metal again and again since Perdition City threw it into the heavy metal bag of tricks, and every teenage swinging dick with fingers free of tendinitis and a jazz theory book had been churning out licks with a nod to Focus, Piece of Time and Human for years.
Point is, Traced felt like a way to appease the hypocritical progressive fans; the ones that laud their ability to digest intricate music, but that balk at a band trying to shake up the status-quo if they've already established their niche. To me, Cynic just didn't seem comfortable within the confines of the Simon Says game that Joe Metalhead was looking for; didn't seem comfortable with a death growl underpinning verses that didn't need 'em or burying melodies under distortion and busy leads. But it was kinda lose/lose. You either nailed an approximation of the old stuff and got cheers, or you continued on the Portal/Aeon Spoke path and got jeers. And, those jeers are brutal and Cynic knows it. The arrows of the dickhead portion of the metal population, the segment that haunts the dark corners of the net that provides them a needed veil of anonymity, clearly perforated their intended target and made Paul suck the humanity out of his singing voice upon his return to the mic, like he could dodge criticism because it was more soundboard than vocal chords. A restoration of the Neanderthal meets Big Blue concept it was not, it echoed, ugh, Enya more than anything. 'Course, duder never seemed particularly jazzed about his metal career path. He seemed trapped and looking to run himself. Until, well, now.
Re-Traced changes that in a big way, and it's not just because the vox is finally unvarnished, sitting out in the open, wonderfully vulnerable. Redoing four songs plus tacking on an unreleased track seems like a cop-out, but it's more than that; it's a coming out. This is a Cynic that feels comfortable with their surroundings, pumping out a set that effectively says farewell to metal without losing sight of their signature sound. It's a Cynic that has stripped off excess for something stately, bringing together the sonics of a My Bloody Valentine student with the hushed desperation of Portishead, but with the refined chops of an experienced fusion jazzer; just one that trades skronk for the protective patina that comes via the constant exploration of a melodious hook. Yet, it's still Cynic through and through, even though the re-contextualized flow of these cuts makes 'em sound like a different outfit with a different group of musicians entirely. I mean, it's hard not to notice, right off the bat, that the busy guitars and growls are M.I.A. This turns out to be a boon though because the melodies don't have to fight to be heard this time around. And, really, the hooks are some of Masvidal's greatest; simplistic yet sweeping, wonderfully realized through calm, impressionist-esque brush strokes instead of the convoluted and complicated drips and sprays of a manic Pollock.
However, that uber-tech side is still there; it's just subtler. Pop the hood and this engine still needs 91 to run. Instead of announcing its intentions with distorted dissonance though, it whispers them in your ear, like a shoegazin' siren. Take opener "Space." Beginning with the otherwordly percussion that normally highlights an Autechre record, it gradually layers strains of space-rock guitars while utilizing a distinctly Eastern rhythmic sensibility. Suddenly, the bottom drops out and you're treated to a drone that dives while Masvidal's vocals ethereally soar. That smart juxtaposition and its general stop-on-a-dime proclivities cause me to call this record quietly spastic. Fucker jumps from timbres and genres like a coked-up peeper, but it does so in such a noninvasive way that it's tough to notice when they flip the switch unless you're intently hanging on every note. Even then, the effect is like growing old with someone; each new wrinkle doesn't sound alarm bells because you get to experience the gradual changes as they happen. It's only when you flip through the photo album that you see the startling transformation brought on by living. The fact that Masvidal nails these reserved shifts only speaks of his growth as a songwriter. (Further evidence: "King" wonderfully uses the negative space as a leaping off point. It's a career high-point). The fact that all of these shifts lingered underneath Traced makes me feel like, well, a bit of an ass for not sniffing 'em out. But that was a Masvidal that was stuck in a life that he didn't want, suffering from Stockholm Syndrome and enabling his captors with the co-dependent crawl through the safe life. Re-Traced is the key to the cuffs. It's brave, because it's now mining the unknown and shaping a future for Cynic that isn't stuck on what made metalheads nod decades back. It's his escape down the 210.
Somewhere on the 210 freeway, I realized that I was probably transposing my feelings on my proposed folk hero.
Yeah, I mean, I sincerely doubt that Cynic was looking to break the mold, nor do I think that Paul is that disenchanted with metal (I want this to be the beginning of a bizzaro Naked City situation, where an extreme band explores more tranquil jazz roots, but I bet the next full-length is just as loud as the last one). But Re-Traced might stir those feelings up if you're at that point in your life, when the responsibilities of the day-to-day weigh down your psyche, like concrete slabs on the feet of your American Dream. Because it just feels like such a clean break, such a one-eighty, that it's damn near invigorating. I hate to saddle it with a tag so lame, but it's almost an adult daydream album in that respect. At the very least, it was pushing me down the asphalt, away from my personally-created Tartarus...
...until my alarm went off. 7:15 A.M. Bleary-eyed with a lukewarm shower in my future. An hour and forty-five minutes away from another day of silent ignominy. I will sit next to hundreds like me, our collective sigh matching the dying wheeze of overworked CPUs. Yet today it won't drown out the sound of "Space," of "King," of the achingly beautiful "Integral." It'll be a sound that's self-assured, one that's in the running for the year's best because it chopped through the manacles of expectation and delivered something different, something new, something that the creator actually wanted.
Somewhere on the road to work I will wish I was on the 210 freeway. Thanks to my idealized vision of Paul Masvidal and Re-traced, though, I might just get there.
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