Though often associated with death metal bands like Death and Atheist, Cynic was never as genre-specific or overtly metal. The band’s debut, Focus, was a prog smorgasbord, bursting with long guitar solos, unusual time signatures, and jazz flourishes. Their instrumental prowess was formidable and daring, and their challenging and experimental songwriting was an influence on metal genre-breakers like Dillinger Escape Plan and Mastodon. Fifteen years later, Cynic returns with their follow-up, Traced in Air, and though the band never really got its due, it doesn’t sound like they reunited to cash in like so many other aging metalheads. Instead of rehashing what they did before, the band returns with an album that features a more developed, cohesive, and unique sound.
Traced in Air shares more similarities with Dream Theater and Yes than Carcass and Cannibal Corpse. About the only death metal attribute is some out-of-place growls amid Paul Masvidal’s soaring melodies. His crooning might seem incongruous with the aggressive metal music, but it’s actually a welcome departure from the vocals on Focus and it complements the band’s new material.
Yet vocals have never been Cynic’s strong point. This is a band’s band, and every instrumentalist excels at his craft. The guitars are the primary instrument, with Masvidal and Tymon Kruidenier’s quick-picked riffing method balancing the metal moments with clean, fingerpicked jazz chords on “The Space for This” and “King of Those Who Know.” Bassist Sean Malone manages to cut through the dual guitar work on tribal-esque opener “Nunc Fluens,” while drummer Sean Reinert’s jazz flourishes constant push and pull deserve particular notice.
Cynic, however, suffers from what ailed many technically proficient bands before them. While they can dazzle with their musical live performances, they fail to convey much feeling or passion on record. The songs morph into one another, and while the album spans a relatively short 34 minutes, it grows tiresome and exhausting. Cynic knows how to switch tempos on a dime and blend polyrhythms as if songwriting were a juggling act, but such tricks lose their impact when repeated in nearly every song.