You know, I was thinking of starting this review by talking about something like Cynic’s past or their influence, or maybe how this album is being unnecessarily panned, or maybe the production or the vocals on this record, but I just can’t, because there really is just one thing to talk about here, something this entire album revolves around and something that is simultaneously absolutely amazing and incredibly irritating. It took me several listens to pay attention to anything that wasn’t this; I just couldn’t get past it at all. Without it, I’m sure I would have some comment on the actual music to begin, but I just can’t hear anything else.
BASS TONE BASS TONE BASS TONE BASS TONE
Jesus. I don’t know whether it’s flawless or terrible or neither but I hardly ever find an album that I can hear the bass in, let alone one when I’m constantly focusing on it. I don’t think I would know a single lyric or guitar riff to this whole album if I hadn’t forced myself to ignore the bass on the last few listens before I wrote about it. The bass is so prominent and so unique sounding that focusing on anything else is near impossible, it’s just shouting “DOESN’T THIS BASS SOUND FUNKY” at you for 42 straight minutes. When “The Lion’s Roar” first dropped as a single, I was enthralled with it as well, the sole comment I made to my friend was “New Cynic single. Bass tone.” The music was always second to the tone, and I still can’t really listen to this album without zoning out and just listening to the bass. Even when it isn’t prominent, because it’s playing actual bass notes in an actual bass range, it’ll come up for a high note every now and then and you’ll forget about the music because bass. Like during the middle solo of the title track. When I eventually listened to the guitar part, it’s actually a pretty great solo, but the bass is just too distracting to give it any attention, and the best part is when the bass gets a little solo near the end, playing right up in guitar range.
If I were to describe the tone, which of course isn’t possible, it would be something near a high-range tuba being patched through a synthesiser. It sounds like a sphere, although not quite like a sphere, like an ellipse or a sine wave. I just know it’s something round. The word ‘plump’ comes to mind a lot whilst listening to it, and I think that if John Petrucci’s guitar tone from Dream Theater was a slice of chocolate cake, then the fretless bass tone on Kindly Bent to Free Us is like a soft meringue. Not the shitty hard ones you buy in supermarkets, the stuff when it’s freshly made and the chef has just lightly blowtorched the top so the skin is ever so crisp, yet it’s closer to marshmallow than meringue. Actually, no, marshmallow is probably closer, since this doesn’t really have a crisp skin, it’s just pure roundness, but meringue tastes and feels so much better than marshmallow, and I’m trying to sound elegant and shit, so meringue it is. I’m rambling.
But to be honest, I’m not sure if this tone is beneficial to Kindly Bent to Free Us as a whole. Sure, there are times when it’s insanely cool and it really raises the music up a lot, like during “The Lion’s Roar”, when the bass is popping up and down under the lead riff, giving it this wonderfully bouncy and upbeat feeling, really making the song quite a happy and fun one to listen to. The same style comes back again in “Holy Fallout”, but there are other times, like during the opener, that I feel Cynic are trying to connect at an emotional level, and I just can’t feel anything when there’s a tuba fart constantly playing over everything.
But I guess I should actually talk about the music a bit, since the bass tone doesn’t really cover the reasons why so many people are disappointed in this. But first, let’s get some context. Cynic were once a death metal band in the 90’s, then for some odd reason they decided to reunite 20 years later as a not death metal band. Although Traced in Air was hardly similar to their sole tech death release, Focus, it was just as well-received, due to the ambitious and inventive take on progressive metal they played with that record, bringing elements of avant-garde and electronic to a very unique style of metal. But let’s not forget that Cynic didn’t really break up. For quite a few years during their hiatus, Cynic, or most of the members of it, existed as alternative/pop rock band Æon Spoke, playing trendy tunes that could fit the radio perfectly, a far cry from the death metal of their past. So when Cynic reunited, especially when they dropped their less-than-metal 2011 EP Carbon-Based Anatomy, many people accused of Cynic just making Æon Spoke music under the Cynic name for the sake of selling more, because the name was more renowned.
Of course, the fact that it was melodic and accessible doesn’t exactly mean it was pop music in the vein of Æon Spoke, many of these criticisms ignored the fact that Carbon-Based Anatomy was an insanely technical and progressive EP, with incredibly unique riffs and production, some great ambient tracks, and some really cool vocal lines. And that sound most certainly has followed onto Kindly Bent to Free Us, to the disdain of many fans. This record has been getting a good slapping since it leaked a couple of weeks ago, being called “hipsterish” and “indie prog”, saying that this is basically the Sunbather of progressive metal, however ridiculous that statement might be.
A lot of the criticisms and wild claims made about Kindly Bent to Free Us may certainly stem from both the shoddy and compressed production and the fact that vocalist Paul Masvidal doesn’t sing a single note on this album that isn’t filtered through a mass of effects and vocal changing software, making him sound rather generic and unemotive. It’s nothing new for Cynic, both Traced in Air and Carbon-Based Anatomy had him singing through a vocoder-like effect that made some really cool tones (although sometimes sounding a lot like autotune), but here on Kindly Bent to Free Us, this new effect makes him sound rather drained and lifeless, I could even compare it to bands like Linkin Park or My Chemical Romance, as much as that would look like a bad thing (check my ratings). Most of this album is sung in a high range, regularly going into falsetto, but it often feels like he’s straining, like during the bridge of “True Hallucination Speak”, when he’s singing mostly falsetto lines nearly a cappella. Another problem with the vocals is, because they’re in an uncomfortable range for him, they regularly sound weak and without power. The melodies here are fantastic, but the voice behind them just feels average at best, like during “Moon Heart Sun Head”, which has one of my favourite choruses on the album, but it feels it could be so much more epic if it was sung by someone with a more powerful voice, and who is more comfortable within that range.
But I think aside from the vocals and production here, there is little reason to complain. The riffs are just as ambitious and interesting as the Cynic riffs of the past, even if some of them border on a bit wanky for my taste, but people who were fans of their first two albums really shouldn’t be complaining. Although the bass and its marshmallowness control a lot of the groove on this album, some of the guitar parts are equally catchy, the lead riff from opener “True Hallucination Speak” being a favourite, pushing a really interesting phrasing of 4/4, which sounds like it’s running an odd signature, but the loop back at the end brings it back into 32 in a really neat fashion. There are other consistent good riffs here, and Cynic even begin to play their own style of riff that I’ve never heard before, like the riff after the chorus of “Holy Fallout”, which sounds kinda similar to the lead riffs in the first three songs, but still different. Cynic have created a new sort of sound with the riffing that I can see bands emulating in the future, something that most modern bands strive for in composing.
In the end, I guess I can kinda level with the people who are disappointed in this. It’s nowhere near as unique and spellbinding as Traced In Air or as well-produced as Carbon-Based Anatomy, but I feel the melodies, interesting influences, and of course the bass tone make up for this, creating a pretty decent album and an enjoyable listen. It’s no masterpiece, and it’s certainly not as good as I wanted it to be, but I can’t say that it’s bad.
Originally written for my Facebook page/blog: www.facebook.com/neoprogisbestprog