As a young prog fan, Cynic was a revelation. That there were musicians who were incorporating such diverse sounds into Floridian death metal as early as 1993 blew my fledgling metal mind. By making use of fretless bass, Chapman stick, vocoder-ed vocals and more unconventional elements, Cynic was able to create a distinct, signature sound with their debut album Focus that made the metal world stand up and take notice. It only took 15 years, but 2008’s follow-up Traced in Air was a triumphant return, successfully modernizing the Cynic sound while staying true to the style they innovated in the ‘90s. Re-Traced, released in 2010, was more of a stopgap than a true new release, only containing one new song alongside four “remakes” of Traced in Air tracks, making this Cynic’s first all-new release in three years.
For a band known for advancing both their own sound and their whole genre with each release, Carbon-Based Anatomy doesn’t disappoint. Leaning heavily on indigenous South American music as an influence, vocalist-guitarist Paul Masvidal and drummer Sean Reinert (joined by returning recording bassist Sean Malone) have taken a more atmospheric, percussive approach to Cynic’s music. Though purists may find themselves disappointed in the departure of heavier material, it comes with another new addition-clean, unaltered singing. Though this may sound pedestrian, any Cynic fan will tell you that hearing Masvidal’s voice clearly is a revelation, and if Cynic were waiting for the right material to start using unaltered vocals, this is the place to do it.
The EP begins with “Amidst The Coals”, heralding the return of female vocals, this time incorporating the aforementioned world influence. Though an effective mood-setter, the record truly begins with the next song, “Carbon-Based Anatomy”. Reinert’s busy drum work fades in alongside Malone’s fretless bass hum, eventually giving way to Masvidal’s wavy guitar lines over the top. His vocals seem much more confident than on previous Cynic records; while previously they were reserved, letting the program do the talking, here they’re confident and take the center stage. After an off-kilter bridge full of Cynic-isms (I’ve been waiting this whole review to say that), a typically Masvidal guitar solo rears its head, full of fluid life and liquid tension. (The prog puns abound!)
“Box Up My Bones” is maybe the poppiest Cynic track ever written. With a big ol’ chorus, lots of vocal harmonies and an emphasis on melodicism that made me question if this is even metal anymore, this seems like a #1 radio hit from Jupiter. The interesting twin-vocals dynamic during the verses puts a Cynic-al (ok, I’ll stop now) spin on the traditional pop formula, but the standout part of the track might be Malone’s tasteful bass lead during the bridge. Even when being poppy, Cynic will never forget how to sound like themselves.
Track 5, “Elves Beam Out”, is probably the heaviest song on Carbon-Based Anatomy. Masvidal again embraces the vocoder, and a bevy of distorted guitar tracks give the shifting-meter chorus some crunch. The ending of the song goes thick on the keyboards, giving way to the synth-y “Hieroglyph”. That female vocalist from the beginning returns to talk about cosmic ascension or something for two minutes…and then it’s over. Probably the biggest complaint I have about Carbon-Based Anatomy is it’s runtime, a scant 23 minutes or so. Though it’s clear Cynic chose quality over quantity, six tracks – only three of which are real songs, the other three being short, atmospheric interludes – feels like I’m being shortchanged, especially considering the three-year wait for proper new Cynic material. The band has promised a new full-length in 2012, so maybe the new year will offer something more substantial, but it makes this EP seem like an unsatisfying appetizer.
Though short, Carbon-Based Anatomy has a lot to offer its listener. Old-school Cynic fans might wonder where the death growls have gone, but the band’s new, lush sound is exciting territory for those who understand the band’s truly progressive nature – always pushing forward.