Traced in Air

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As liberally and recklessly as the term "progressive" is regularly applied to any sort of rock music that breaks with conventional genre templates, there are certain bands and albums for which it still feels not only necessary, for lack of better definitions, but actually appropriate. Cynic and their 1993 watershed, Focus, are a perfect case in point. Even when compared to contemporary releases by other proponents of so-called "progressive" heavy metal that emerged from Florida's teeming death metal scene in the early '90s (most notably original architects Death and jazz-fueled visionaries Atheist), Focus -- with its robotic vocals and synth-guitars -- sounded positively otherworldly in its singularity and, why not, sheer oddity. The rarity of its attributes was only reinforced by Cynic's breakup a short time later, and subsequent disinterest in ever following up their lone masterpiece...until now, with the release of their belated and largely unexpected sophomore album, Traced in Air. And since only guitarist Jason Gobel declined to join fellow original members Paul Masvidal (vocals, guitar, keyboards), Sean Malone (bass), and Sean Reinert (drums) for this reunion (being replaced by newcomer Tymon Kruidenier), Traced in Air's legitimacy is difficult to question -- even as the questions about what in blazes it would sound like start coming fast and furious. The short answer is "not quite like Focus," but there's still an essentially peculiar weirdness present that marks it as the work of Cynic -- even if the group's already tenuous links to the death metal movement survive only in the understated gravelly vocals that occasionally mirror Masvidal's now predominant clean singing and occasional falsettos (an acquired taste are those, by the way). Furthermore, though the hybrid death/jazz rhythmic foundation laid down by Reinert is as busy and aggressive as ever, when called for, Traced in Air's songs are more often than not built around melodic lines instead of heavy metal's basic currency: guitar riffs -- with such numbers as "Integral Birth" and "Adam's Murmur" among the few exceptions. This quality may prove particularly disorienting to unprepared metal-heads, but then it drives home the realization that the reborn Cynic are less a heavy metal band than a progressive rock band and, as mentioned earlier, they wear the term especially well. In short, those expecting a mere sequel to Focus will be mildly disappointed (but should have known better), and those worried about Traced in Air's altogether brief, 35-minute length should rest assured that it is easily offset by the sheer density of strange and beautiful musical nuances layered within, and the time required to absorb them all. And ultimately, the album does Cynic's legacy justice precisely because it challenges the listener to comprehend, by opening more doors than it closes and posing more questions than obvious answers -- and what could be more "progressive" than that?

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