Some bands just conjure a frame of mind as much as a sound when you think of them. Just the name Cynic calls to mind a unique and bold sound the band has laid down in their storied career. Few too many bands these days challenge you mentally and spiritually, they way this band has. One of the leading lights of progressive metal and prog rock, their influence on two generations of bands is undeniable, and they are gladly back with us, making new music again. Their new album, only their third full-length, Kindly Bent To Free Us (Season of Mist) takes the listener on a mental and metaphysical sonic journey. Chatting with Ghost Cult chief editor Keith Chachkes at length about new music, the process of creating art, lyrical inspirations and many other topics is guitarist/vocalist Paul Masvidal. Paul casts a striking figure as a person who is more than just a creative force, but a an enlightened, modern artist who is trying to get us all on the same wavelength.
Since Cynic’s rebirth with 2008s Traced In Air (Season of Mist), the band has been slowly building up to another full-length release. From the experimental Re-Traced EP, to last year’s Carbon Based Anatomy, the band is not interested in repeating itself in any way. Paul goes on to discuss at length the process the band goes through to make a new music: “This is a record that has been a long time coming. We released a couple things in-between our last full-length, and we did a lot of touring, but I think the real buckled down days were this past year. Essentially, we delivered it last summer, after the last official tour ended, which was December of 2011 for Carbon Based Anatomy. So, it’s been a couple years. Maybe eighteen months since we’ve had this tunnel vision, delivered the record, and just trying to get it done. For me it’s just another chapter in our story. It’s hard for me to speak objectively about this music, because I just feel way too close to it. I’m excited about the songs. It’s a great collection of material. It has everything that we were going for. It does what we wanted it to do. It took a while for us to reach that place for it. When we go into the studio there is an organic way we cultivate something, that just has to happen for us. I don’t know what else to say. In terms of the art in general, it’s so subjective that it is always odd for me to try and talk about it, first person.”
There are bands, and then there are bands making artistic statements. Cynic certainly takes it to that level with every element of their beings. Paul of course, embodies this spirit fully, and while he is mindful of the process it takes to create this music, he doesn’t do it for the accolades: “It is just one of those things, you are doing this regardless of what all of the outcomes are. At the end of the day this is really just pure in process, driven by art. The feeling that comes from making art that drives the whole thing. It’s not the best sounding thing to say from a promotional standpoint. (laughs) That metaphor that goes ‘it’s not about the goal, it’s the journey’. It’s the nature of where this stuff comes from. We are all kind of in that head space. It’s nice to have it be loved and shared, and I want as many people as possible to hear it, but at the end of the day, that’s not what drives the process. So it feels like it’s all icing, it’s a nice thing, but again especially when the response is all positive, I try to avoid all research and reviews. I just get a sense of stuff occasionally from a friend, or someone that is filtering things for me, of how it’s going, but this isn’t going to effect what I’m doing. I just try to keep my head. I’m doing it because I love doing it, and not to get caught up in results or outcomes. Obviously there’s aspirations, but it’s not dictating the process or based on that. You just want it to have a healthy life. These songs, the music you write, especially to a songwriter, these songs are like your children. You want these kids to be loved, and for the world to accept them. To do something, not for some reciprocal process. It benefits us, just making the record. Really it’s the idea the genuine interest in having it be appreciated. As appreciated as any artist would want with their work to be, but again, that’s not the end goal. It’s just a by product.”
We chatted about the perception of the band, and how much the band is debated about in the public sphere of heavy music fans. If somehow Cynic has changed too much from its earliest efforts, being measured against your past, and the sometimes unfair expectations of fans, Paul has his own feelings on this:
“I mean it’s funny, because it’s the same attitude I have right now, the mindset I have right now, this is the same person that created Focus. They want us to to recreate a sound would have never happened had I not been this person. It contradicts the very nature of the band to try and play it safe, do something familiar, repeat a pattern, stay in a cocoon, of “we found a sound, let’s just recycle it”. That goes against everything this band represented. Especially at the beginning with Focus, we were going against the grain. Everyone was offended and everyone was confused, we had a really hard time back then. It took a while for people to come around and realize there was something there. And now they want to keep you in the same place. It’s the eternal dilemma that every artist goes through, that has a work that maybe it’s received well. It represents a time and place, and has a sort of historical reference, and people want to keep you there. They are forgetting, we change too. We evolve. Art is not a static thing. It is alive. The very nature of Cynic is to honor that process of being open and having skill as a musician, enough to develop a voice that keeps expanding and exploring. For me anything but that, would be the death of this project. It is all about a platform for freedom and exploration. Art is not a thing, it’s changing. That is how I view it. I can’t imagine it any other way.”
Acknowledging that we are at a zenith of popularity and relevance for progressive rock and metal, Paul took some time to reflect with us on his peers, and other bands that Cynic has inspired across several sub-genres. He remains as humble as ever and bristles at the notion that he somehow he should take a little more credit where credit is due: “It goes back to… there was an article, and this was years ago, where Meshuggah mentioned us in Rolling Stone, maybe ten tears ago. And Mikael from Opeth telling me “there would be no Opeth, if it wasn’t for Cynic.” I’m not trying to take credit, but it’s obvious that there was a mutual respect and admiration as colleagues. When I follow these bands that are doing well, like an Opeth or Meshuggah, or even the next generation of bands; like Between The Buried And Me, The Ocean; some of these new, experimental progressive bands that are almost post-metal hybrids, but very schooled; it’s an honor. I think it was Emerson who said “the end goal of any artist is to inspire another artist.” That is really the greatest gift you have and opportunity you can give as an artist. That is the job of art, to help inspire others to make more art. If we achieved this to even a slight degree, it’s pretty cool. I am in awe of that. I never imagined it would turn out this way. I never thought about in those terms, I just wanted to make cool art. It’s awesome. It’s a testimony to following your gut, against all odds. Trusting your instincts. Just being a weirdo, and knowing it, and just believing okay with that. We never fit in anywhere. We were outcasts, nerdy kids, living in south Florida, who didn’t belong in any particular scene. We went with whatever we were doing, and I don’t know how it happened except our own stubbornness and willingness to just go off on a limb. To put everything aside and say this is what makes us feel alive. We’ve all had odd jobs and other things to make a living, but this is the thing fuels our existence and gives us a better sense of purpose. Against all odds, we gave this everything we had. We really have been lucky to be able to do what we love. The rest will take care of itself. The end result of this seemingly selfish endeavor helps and inspires artists to make more art. To me, what greater honor is there, really? It’s pretty damn cool.”
Although since reforming, Paul has clearly been leading the vision of the band, as a whole the songwriting process is a collaborative as ever between the players. The contributions of Reinert and Malone in creating the music cannot be understated either: “Since Traced In Air, we’ve generally stuck to the same process. I flesh out songs on an acoustic level, just like a little folk ditties. I could play them all right now. Once I am content with it, I make a demo. I make a lot of demos for the guys actually, and we filter those demos and see what they organically gravitate towards. We usually write a lot of songs. And we basically filter as we go. Usually we start off with a lot of songs and narrow it down to what sounds like an album. And this could be lots of songs, whatever I am working on, because I am writing constantly. Then we basically we curate these songs, and we generate an album based on existing material. Once we do that, we’ll jam and we will flush out rhythmically the aspects and tempos to do another layer of refining and editing. Once we get past that, we cut another demo, at least two or three preproduction demos. Once we all feel like we have pushed it until we have what we going for, or a state of wholeness, since we never really feel done. (laughs) But we find out where everyone feels solid about what they are doing individually. Then we book a date and go cut a record. These things take time. The big thing with me in the context of writing for Cynic, is giving it space. I like to write, and step away and then take a look back. Tweak this and tweak that. It’s like the weather. The mind changes like the weather. Your mood changes like the weather. It’s nice to reference it through those moods. If it survives what I call the “mind weather experiment”, if it survives those waves, you have something substantial. I put it through that process, even at the demo stage, before the guys even hear the songs. It a constant, on-going disassembly and assembly process, deconstructing and reconstructing on multiple levels. It’s art! Trying to understand what it is, you never understand what it is. I don’t know what’s happening here. We are just showing up. You just make it. It’s pretty abstract. We’re not German about it! (laughs) There’s no manual. It’s very free and messy. My studio turns into a fucking pigsty every time I make a record. It’s a mess, there’s papers every where, and it looks like crap. I just get lost in it. I just held a little party at my house as just my way of saying farewell to the album, and releasing it out into the world; and one of my friends emailed me and said “so that’s where you’ve been hiding!” I don’t even realize it. You just fall off the grid because you are caught up in your process. But it’s cool. What else is there to do?” (laughs)
Kindly Bent To Free Us isn’t exactly a concept album, but Paul’s own journey in his life certainly colors the themes that encompass his lyrics and stories.
This album is not a concept album, per se. The general running theme certainly is the nature of the mind, and our relationship to it. It’s mostly third person, some of it is personal and sometimes it’s first person. And it’s really looking at that dynamic. Essentially, this mind of ours is our greatest source of suffering and pain in the world, but also ultimately it can be the source of our liberation. It’s the paradox of the mind. Like Zen Buddhism. It’s just these meaningless riddles you keep asking yourself, like a mantra. Seeing beyond the intellect and beyond the ego and the self. Just a lot of that. Just looking inward and trying to make sense of what is going on. Each song is a varying degree of exploring that. They all explore the density of “who am I, and what’s going on here?” A lot of the album is about learning to let go. And learning to ride the waves. It’s like the metaphor of the album title, Kindly Bent To Free Us. A lot of it is from the Tao Te Jing (by Lao Su), the Chinese text, all those metaphors. Letting go, riding the waves, trees branches swaying in the wind. We must learn to bend. The stiff branches break. It’s a recipe for living. Whether we like it or not. It seems like the more unwilling we are to bend, the more we suffer, that is what is going on in your mind. It is going on around you, regardless. But we are forced to bend. We change. The nature of reality is that it is your friend. It is never conspiring against you. This war is in your mind. Being alive is a precious gift. We are lucky to be here. There’s more of that, it’s a state of mind. A state of gratitude. It’s just what is in my head right now. That is the closest I can get to it.
In and around writing and recording Cynic music, Masvidal and Reinert have spent the last few years with the Death To All tour and band, formed by Death manager/producer Eric Grief. The first iteration of the tour was an all-star cast from every lineup of the band. Last year’s tour focused on the Human lineup and album. The enduring popularity of the music of Chuck Schuldiner, and Paul and Sean’s tenure in the band certainly have brought some enjoyment in hearing those classic songs live and a little closure to the fans and the players from Chuck’s unfortunate passing.
We’ve done a couple of big US runs, a big city tour. Then we did a smaller tour, all the b-markets. And we’ve done Europe. I think we are going to do one more run this summer with a handful of big festival dates and that is it. Maybe South America and Asia too, but I’m not sure. I didn’t anticipate the reaction. Chuck’s work has grown and became bigger than ever since his passing. A whole new generation of people that want to connect with it. We are doing the closest thing to it. Three of the original guys and Max (Phelps, from Cynic’s live band) doing the vocals and singing. He nailed it. He feels and sounds a lot like classic Chuck. It’s pretty uncanny. I’ve been having a good time. It’s really liberating to get up there with a wireless guitar rig and play Death songs, which are fairly easy for me. It’s an unorthodox thing. For me it’s more of an endurance thing. Here we are… I made that record when I was 18-19, I never would have anticipated twenty plus years later, I’m touring it. Especially post- Chuck’s life. The whole thing is surreal. There is a sensitivity to it. You can only take this so far. You do the work, you spread his music and share it with the world, and that’s it. We’ll see. That is what is going on, we’re trying to enjoy it. They are quick runs. It’s fun! Not a gigantic commitment, since it is not an ongoing project and there is no new music. It’s fun to get out there and play this brutal death metal, since I haven’t been in that head-space for a long time. I find it therapeutic and cathartic.I’m in such a different place as an artist and musician, when I do that stuff , I get a weird sense of purging. Like an intense workout or some kind of vigorous exercise. A vigorous intensity that has been really healthy for me to explore, this other side.
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Keith (Keefy) Chachkes