Cynical Optimist

Cynic in concert at The Village. Photographs courtesy of Luke Butt.

Cynic frontman and progressive metal icon Paul Masvidal talks to Cormac Duffy about spirituality, side projects, and being in a band since elementary school

If ever an award is doled out for nicest man in metal, Paul Masvidal is a shoe-in. A gently spoken, warm character, the Cynic vocalist/guitarist is the type to make sure he individually shakes hands with each member of the crowd before going off-stage. After gracing an adoring, full capacity crowd in The Village with a blazing set, Masvidal and his musical other-half, drummer Sean Reinert, could be found hanging outside with fans, swapping stories, posing for photos, and signing more records than HMV sell in a week. When Otwo catch up with him, he is unwinding backstage before the show while Reinert is out searching for a good place to eat. We later discovered that as we spoke to Masvidal, Reinert was across the road engaged in a disappointing experience with an Eddie Rockets burger. Welcome to Ireland.

Masvidal and Reinert are the only two remaining original members of Cynic, who formed in Florida in the late 1980s, then a thriving hub of heavy metal and the epicentre of the nascent American death metal sound. “There was a real scene at the time,” Masdival recalls. “There were all these bands playing and everyone sounded different, which was kind of cool.” He contrasts the “extreme bands” such as Morbid Angel, Deicide and Obituary with Atheist and Cynic, fittingly lumping his own band in with arguably the first group to take a progressive, fusion approach to the template. The group cut a few demos, but were to show their real promise working with another band. In 1991, they cut their teeth, and made their name, playing on fellow Floridians Death’s seminal album Human, an undisputed touchstone of extreme metal due in no small way to the pair’s own virtuosity. When they finally unleashed their own debut, 1993’s Focus, the attention was on them. To this day, it’s a beloved classic, introducing brutal riffage to fusion instrumentations that incorporate jazz syncopation, world music, and the Masdival’s own vocoded vocals.

Yet it was fifteen years before the group would record again as Cynic, on 2008’s captivating return to form, Traced in Air. This long interval did not see the band drift apart of course. Reinert and Masdival worked together on other projects, notably cutting demos as Portal, as well as making two records as Æon Spoke, a project whose melodicism has fused into Cynic’s latest material. Masdival presents the two as a complimentary dialectic; Cynic representing futurism, Æon Spoke a tribute to roots. To him, everything they do shares a common tongue. “You can call it a different name, but it’s the same artist.”

For all their collaborators, most notably regular recording bass player Sean Malone, the story of Cynic from their early days, through the numerous side projects, to now, is the story of the friendship between Reinert and Masdival, the band’s two constant members. Masdival humorously admits that he has effectively been in Cynic since elementary school, when a mutual friend introduced the pair on the grounds that they were the only guitarist and drummer in the school. “I remember when he was introduced to me; we were in the cafeteria and Sean, who is a real jokester you know, puts some pepper in his hand and then just blew it in my face.” This moment has set the tone for everything that has followed. “Our relationship hasn’t changed since. He’s still blowing pepper in my face every day.” Masdival comes across as pleased as he is baffled by their enduring friendship. “I can’t believe that we are here after this many years [and] still doing it, it’s kind of crazy. I don’t get it and I’m not going to try figure it out!”

Talk turns to the act’s latest work, the Carbon Based Anatomy EP. In terms of the sounds it works with, it plots a fresh course to place heavier emphasis on the bands ambient and world music interests. “I think we’re just kind of documenting where we are, it’s not really a calculated thing” Masvidal explains. “We’re just artists in process and this is where we happen to be now.” Such is the EP’s break from their back catalogue; were one to approach the EP unaware of its creators, there are only a few moments on it to warrant it being received as a metal record. Masvidal agrees, confessing that the idea of the genre is not one he pays much attention to. The artistic freedom that disavowing purism and its constraints has resulted in has made for some exceptional works. At its most adventurous, the new EP’s overture track ‘Amidst the Coals’ is centred on a traditional icaro; a healing song used by Amazonian tribes.

The use of such a spiritual piece of music shows how Carbon Based Anatomy follows the lineage of its predecessors, with a lyrical focus on philosophical issues. Time and time again, it deftly deals with notions of mortality, the infinite, and humanity’s elusive role in it. A practicing Buddhist, Masvidal has always had an immense interest in the nature of reality. In his humble phrasing, he is just “trying to figure out what the hell’s going on here.” When asked why he thinks uses the spiritual aspects on music, he replies that “There are really so many unseen, esoteric components to music that are therapeutic. For us, this record is a lot about that, trying to get in there and work the heart a little, soften it up.” The EP suddenly also became a personal issue for Masvidal. “I lost somebody over the summer, an old friend. There was a death theme there.”

As we talk to Masvidal, it is a little more than a week before the tenth anniversary of the tragic, untimely passing of his old band mate, Death frontman Chuck Schuldiner. A towering, influential figure within the genre, he was a hero to legions of fans, and to Cynic a close friend. “He was like an older brother to us” Masvidal recalls, “I knew him since I was really young, since high school.” Asked if he often reflects on his time with the band, he points to his experience writing the liner notes for the recent reissue of Human. “I kind of lived in it for a while, spent a few weeks thinking about all the time that I knew him.” Yet Masvidal seems to prefer to not dwell on the sadness of the past. Much like his belief in never looking back musically, his personal views are aimed squarely at the here and now. “I try and stay here”, as he puts it. It’s a wise mentality, and one that has enabled Cynic to continue to break boundaries, and as Masdival hints at a summer 2012 release for a new album, we can but hope it will do so once more.

Carbon Based Anatomy is out now.