Concert Review: Cynic live in Melbourne, 3 January 2010

13 Jan

If I were writing in 2006, I would be telling you about how Cynic released the definitive technical death metal album, Focus, in 1993 and then disbanded. Along with Atheist and Death, Cynic were one of the most outstanding members of the late 1980s/early 1990s death metal scene in Florida, and pushed the limits of metal more than any. Focus incorporated compositional techniques drawn from genres well beyond metal, primarily jazz, and thematically it was a positive, uplifting, and humble album, lyrically infused philosophic meditations and spiritual mysticism.

Moreover, out of all the wildly technical metal bands going around, I would consider Cynic to be easily one of the most listenable, possessing a fluid style led by astonishingly complex guitars woven together into a vivid fabric, buttressed by Sean Malone’s warm and full bass, and resting on Sean Reinert’s skilful drumming. Oh yeah, and let’s not forget how all the clean vocals of Paul Masvidal were processed through a vocoder, giving the band a distinctively synthesised and robotic sound.

That is everything I would have told you in 2006. Cynic were done, leaving just one album and a collection of demos as their deeply influential legacy.

Cynic - Focus cover

However, this is 2010.

In 2007, Paul Masvidal and Sean Reinert, the only consistent members during Cynic’s original 1987-95 existence, reformed the band to perform live. In 2008, they released the band’s second album, Traced In Air. Sean Malone, unable to tour due to commitments as an academic at various US universities (how metal is that!), nonetheless rejoined the band for the album, lending his trademark bass style to an even more fluid sound that picks up where Focus left off. Traced In Air is perhaps a less metal and more progressive album, showing the band’s maturation in their 15 year break. Even the robotic vocals have grown up, and now Masvidal’s vocal effects are more human. As a whole, I find it even more coherent than Focus, though Focus contains my favourite Cynic songs.

Cynic - Traced In Air cover

Even with this album out and the band touring again, I never expected Cynic to grace Australian shores. I was thus thoroughly delighted when Cynic’s concert in Melbourne, on 3 January 2010 at Billboard The Venue, was announced.

I was less delighted with the line-up. Cynic, for reasons beyond my comprehension, were paired with power metallers Edguy of Germany (both accorded the same setlist time, but Cynic playing first), and with Australian power metallers Black Majesty opening. A Black Majesty/Edguy bill would have made perfect sense. Squeezing in Cynic? Baffling. And for $80 including fees, I dithered for a while about whether to attend. In the end, I sucked it up. I’d endure worse for Cynic. I would have, however, thought it much more logical if Cynic had toured Australia with support from local acts such as Alchemist, Alarum, or Ne Obliviscaris, or even Sleepmakeswaves.

I arrived at the venue not long after Black Majesty’s set began and scored a rather nice vantage point to watch the action. Rarely have I seen a band look so troublingly identical to their promo photograph; I wondered if they had ever changed clothes or washed. They worked the receptive crowd well, but it wasn’t for me. Their style was just as you would expect from an Edguy support; overblown power metal with high vocals and wanky guitars. One song featured a guest appearance by the vocalist of Aussie prog metallers Eyefear, though you would have been hard-pressed to differentiate him and I can’t say his appearance added much, though it got some of the crowd nicely warmed up. I may have found something to faintly enjoy from Black Majesty when I was 18, but not now. I politely clapped when they departed, relieved. They weren’t offensively bad or anything, just … the cardboard of metal.

Cynic took to the stage slightly late. The touring band naturally is Paul Masvidal (guitars, vocals) and Sean Reinert (drums), joined by Robin Zielhorst on fretless bass in lieu of Sean Malone and fellow Dutchman Tymon Kruidenier on death vocals and guitars. Put simply, Cynic were astonishingly tight. Little did I expect them to reproduce their sound with such an impression of absolute ease. Masvidal and Kruidenier’s guitar parts wove together flawlessly; Zielhorst did Malone’s bass parts justice; and the instrumental star of the night was undoubtedly Reinert, dominating his drumkit as if he himself had invented drumming.

Paul Masvidal was the exact antithesis of the stereotypical metal frontman. His stage presence is devoid of ego or posturing; he was deeply humble and sincere, and between his own statements and a couple of pre-recorded quotes between songs, the band’s positive, uplifting, and mystical message was made clear. It was abundantly obvious how much the band’s music means to him, and how much of him is in the music. Some members of the audience clearly there for Edguy seemed a little put-off by this lack of showy bombast – indeed, at times it was pretty obvious who was there for Cynic and who was there for Edguy, and it just confirmed in my mind how inexplicable the pairing was.

Although Cynic were allotted just over an hour, they in fact played for just under an hour, which I found rather disappointing. I had to wonder if there was some sort of fault or problem, as there was a lengthy break before Adam’s Murmur while the band consulted. Before the band began, during their final soundchecking, a brief snatch of the intro of How Could I?, my favourite Cynic song, was played, but it did not make it into the setlist – despite online setlists indicating it is often performed as the closer. The set unsurprisingly drew on a wealth of Traced In Air material; of the 10 songs, 7 were from Traced In Air and 3 from Focus.

The Traced In Air material was performed with the maximum of class, a profound display of talent mixed with passion. The Space For This resoundingly announced the band’s depth of skillful feeling early in the set. The new material peaked with the intensity of Adam’s Murmur mid-set and the closer Integral Birth, which to me has a strong Focus aesthetic. And speaking of Focus, its three representatives in the setlist were Celestial Voyage, Textures, and Veil Of Maya. Celestial Voyage, early in the set, served to effectively tie the band’s history in with its present. The sublime instrumental Textures allowed Zielhorst to show off his skill. But it was Veil Of Maya that dominated the concert. Beforehand, Masvidal expressed his gratitude to those of us in the audience who have kept Cynic’s music alive all these years, and then launched into the crushing, technical, transcendent opener from Focus. It was everything I could have expected and more. The only disappointing aspect of its performance was that it had to end.

The full setlist was:

1. Nunc Fluens
2. The Space For This
3. Evolutionary Sleeper
4. Celestial Voyage
5. Veil Of Maya
6. Adam’s Murmur
7. King Of Those Who Know
8. Textures
9. Nunc Stans
10. Integral Birth

There was a chance to meet Cynic after the gig, but unfortunately, I had to catch the last tram home. Sunday timetables can be terrible. Which leads me to Edguy. I had a simple choice – end the evening on a high note and catch the last tram home, or stay for a juvenile power metal band that I already know I don’t like just to be “polite” and have to fork out an exorbitant taxi fare to get home. Well, Edguy don’t need me to be “polite”; they already have their own fans there to provide more than enough enthusiasm for their silly, cheesy songs. Consequently, I joined more than just a handful of others who made their exit after Integral Birth.

Clearly, Cynic need to come back to Australia for their own headlining tour to their own audience. I had a good time, but it was undeniably an overpriced good time. As far as Cynic’s own performance goes, they get 4.5/5 from me and deserve every increment of it. How Could I? could have propelled it to 5/5. As for the concert’s bill overall, it gets a baffling/5.

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