One of the best metal albums of the decade quietly came out last November, Traced in Air by Cynic, their first album in a decade and a half.
The band Cynic was something like a progressive metal NWA: one classic album, a supergroup lineup that went on to do great work in a lot of different genres, and then an early-'90s breakup that seemed to shut the door on any possible reunion.
Until now. 15 years after their incredible, weird, serious, transcendent, brooding debut, Focus, the band reunited for Traced in Air. Only 34 minutes long, if anything, it's even more focused. Their one major sonic change is welcome, as they ditched the dated vocoder vocals of the debut. The songs flow seamlessly into one another, with the guitar washes and doubled death and sung vocals filling the sonic space like a wall of sound from opener "Nunc Fluens" to closer "Nunc Stans." (The titles translate as philosophical concepts of eternity, no great surprise for a band that named itself after an ancient Greek philosophical school and titled its most famous song "Veil of Maya.")
After the breakup, bassist Sean Malone formed Gordian Knot, another progressive metal band, while lead singer Paul Masvidal sang and played guitar with drummer Sean Reinert in a band called Aeon Spoke, which took their sound in an emo singer-songwriter direction. (Wikipedia notes some have called Aeon Spoke's sound "progressive ethereal rock," but never mind that. It's basically acoustic emo, albeit quite good acoustic emo.) Elements from their solo projects, acoustic and prog, can be heard in the work here, as the songs stretch out from verse to bridge to break.
New guitarist Tymon Kruidenier of Exivious takes over for Jason Gobel, and he and Masvidal don't do as many dueling leads as Masvidal and Gobel had on the earlier album. Instead, the guitars tend to track on top of one another, behind the vocals, along with the drums, in the general wall of sound. Pealing harplike guitar tones and jazzy arpeggios give way to death metal distortion, along with cymbal washes and high-register sung vocals harmonized with persistent death growls. The album ends almost suddenly, with the barely distorted song-length album fadeout of "Nunc Stans," whose lyric is nearly as antistereotypical for metal as the music. The last line of the song:
It was not death
It was not life
It was love
Though Cynic was legendary in its day in progressive metal circles, they were unheard of in most others -- go ahead, ask an indie hipster if they've heard of them -- which means that we can cross "selling out" off the list of likely reasons a band might reunite. Some of the album's material apparently dates back to the band's first breakup in 1994, which isn't surprising, considering how similar the two records sound.
Still, I think I like Traced in Air slightly better. Focus was a bit more sprawling, while Traced in Air is a bit more modest, self-contained. The runtime is no drawback. The songs are all constructed from the same sonic palette, and many tend to begin and end in a similar place. The album's movement occurs within the tracks, not between them, which is not surprising for an album bookended by eternity.
I listened to this CD last night as I walked home, and though I'd heard it before, I listened to it as if for the first time, my mouth open in awe. It's majestic, masterful, beautiful. It was worth the wait.