Our multi-part Cynic retrospective continues, discussing the band's activity after their first round of demos.

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Cynic's 1990 demo saw the band, from one vantage point, ready to begin their careers proper. Their first two recordings were spotty affairs, with ups and downs to each, but that third magical demo seemed to finally develop a sound hybridizing technical/progressive thrash metal and early death metal in an exciting and energetic form. There were, after all, any number of also-ran bands at the time, ones that produced scant material before disappearing forever; listening from the past forward, it is easy to imagine that the next step for the band would be to produce a record and rocket past those groups, asserting themselves as tech thrash legends alongside groups such as Toxik and the like. But we know this is not the band's legacy, that this series is not being written because of the thrash metal legacy they left, but instead of deeply progressive metal, starting with death and moving far, far beyond. The 1990 demo's sound was tremendously advanced but still ultimately not an adequate precursor to the sound the group would discover themselves and develop both apart and together for the next several decades. There was still something missing.

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The next year of the band's life is somewhat murky. These are the facts: in 1991, the group recorded a new demo and sent it off to Roadrunner Records who, in their excitement, signed the band to a contract asking for an album. Sometime around the same time, Masvidal and Reinert had taken a call from Chuck Schuldiner, a clear idol and influence given the material and approach demonstrated on their earliest demos, and accepted roles writing and recording the new Death album Human. Simultaneously, Masvidal would write and track guitars for Master's debut, On the Seventh Day, God Created... Master. The position in Death came with some strings; they were to tour for the record, as well, as members of the live lineup, and the touring would last until March of 1992. This delayed the group's ability to capitalize on their demo, and, in 1992, Jason Gobel joined Monstrosity in the studio with original Cynic bassist Mark van Erp (as well as a young George "Corpsegringer" Fisher -- not to mention the band's other members) to help write and record their debut record Imperial Doom. In 1991, Tony Choy had left Cynic to join the substantially more active Atheist, a group already with a record under their belt and in the process of finalizing a second. He was to be replaced by Sean Malone, the bassist who would become part of the central core of Cynic from that point until his passing decades later.

It is from these events that bridge between that promising and compelling 1990 demo and the release of the still-futuristic Focus is found, not just filling out the chronology, but also answering certain key questions about their aesthetic development, charting the path from the thrash of their '80s material to their jazz fusion progressive death metal. Each of these four recordings is important in marking that progression and, while the 1991 demo would most keenly premise where the band was to go and the Monstrosity and Master recordings would seemingly expel where the band would never go again. But none of these documents is more important to understanding Cynic's aesthetic development than Death's 1991 death metal masterpiece Human.

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Masvidal and Reinert had been in contact with Schuldiner since the mid '80s, having initially made contact with him through the underground tape trading scene. To say they were admirers of Death, the project Schuldiner spearheaded, would be a vast understatement. Death did not invent death metal, but they did revolutionize it, being commonly cited by functionally every death metal band of the era as a major inspiration. Their fingerprint is noticeable on the early Cynic demos, which seem to follow closely behind the same path Schuldiner himself was treading, starting with raw punky roots and gradually developing a deepening technicality and progressive flourish not to derail a piece for lengthy showing off, but instead to spice up compositions and make them feel more organic and breathing. Masvidal, in fact, was even invited to play with Death as early as 1989, filling in for a series of shows in Mexico instead of attending his own high school graduation. As per Masvidal, there had actually been mild attempts on Schuldiner's part to get him to join Death even earlier than Human, efforts rebuffed in order to focus on Cynic. Eventually, however, with Death's complete band turnover, the opportunity was ripe, and both Paul Masvidal and Sean Reinert seized upon the opportunity to work with their friend and clear idol.

Human is rightly regarded as not only perhaps Death's greatest record, not only perhaps the greatest death metal document of all time, but indeed one of the greatest heavy metal records period. If you are reading this right now, there is a good chance that you not only have heard this before but already agree. Still, it warrants making the case here, especially considering its warpspeed shift it initiated against the trajectory Cynic was going in and led so seamlessly into the creation of Focus. There are, as with all things, three ways to understand Human with a full understanding only coming from the dialectical entwining of these three modes together. First is the record for itself and in itself, the bare compositions and album flow. Second is the record as a watershed of the work of the band up to that point; third is the record within the broader and completed legacy of Schuldiner's work. Each of these three positions on their own create a strong argument for Human's elevated position in the rarefied heavenly airs of the canon of heavy music. Brought together, they make effectively an ironclad case, positioning the record only just below things like Metallica's legendary four-album run and the first few Ozzy or Sabbath records.

Human demonstrates one of the earliest examples of a death metal record presenting itself as thoughtful and meditative as opposed to merely a bloodbath of extremist hyperviolence. This is, of course, no knock to those gore-soaked records and bands; when the material is not rooted in bigoted targets or modes of this violence, that kinds of hypergore is one of the foundational elements of the genre, a lo-fi, grainy splatterfest captured on decaying VHS in gruesome color. Human's architecturalism, however, only becomes more refreshing in this company, not as a competitor but a peer. The lyrical themes are focused more on meditations on interpersonal disputes shifted into poetic language. These meditations' historical roots -- Schuldiner's frustrations and disappointments with the group's previous lineups and how they had dissolved, are disintegrated entirely into a poetic foam, the ideal for work like this. Remnant traces of these thoughts' real material origins would scan as petty and catty.

Human's resultant lyrical image meanwhile, presents a philosophical and surreal set of images, focusing more on the inherent psychedelia of deep thought where the metaphor-space becomes detached and disjunct from the material world it is commenting on, shifting into strange permutations that at once strike more to the heart of the matter as much as they smear and obscure the thing they discuss. This plays into the cover image: the bodies, guts revealed, feel less like gore and more like stiff medicalist images, a cerebralist turn for something otherwise gruesome, much like the lyrical approach taken here. Human's insights may not be especially groundbreaking to many who have entered maturity, focusing on topics such as the disjunct between the outward facing self and the inward motivating self on "Secret Face," or how the lingering image of mental illness can shift the course of our lives on "Flattening of Emotions," but, when presented to someone with a passing understanding of death metal, they would be shockingly patient and thoughtful documents.

This lyrical methodology is married against a musical approach that is shockingly delicate and deft without tipping into the realms of hypertechnical flash and bravado. The record's opening sounds are those of Reinert's drums playing a cannon, gradually building in density as the sound fades in only to be joined shortly thereafter by twinned guitars. What's immediately noticeable here is both the drum part's deftness, more sophisticated than the growing standard of loose early blast beats and D-beats of the time, but also the drums' sound. Their production is tilted toward the clicky, punchy sound that thrash metal had been moving towards as it gradually built in technicality. This sound ethos was meant to clarify the soundfield as the parts grew busier and denser, keeping the drums from reverberating after a strong hit and creating a washy, muddy sound. This was a sharp contrast from death metal of the time, and, in fact, even from the sound Death themselves helped curate and inform from their demo years as Mantas up until Spiritual Healing, the albu, released just one year before Human. There suddenly was a sonic fidelity designed to enhance the legibility of the increasingly sharp riffs, adding to the colder and more cerebral atmosphere of the record. This sonic approach may be most immediately noticeable on the drums, but it carries through to the other instruments as well, often creating a dry bed of sound which causes more imagistic response associated with the kind of clinical, almost inhumanely terse levels of thoughtfulness toward otherwise deeply bodily music as captured so well by the cover.

This description may sound at first like a critique. This is, after all, death metal. It is music of the body but just as much it is music of the id, a violent and immediate physical response to things both existentially and bodily threatening. But Human's compositions and playing do something death metal had been struggling to attain up to this point: it captures a mote of thought beyond its genre trappings, not just in lyrics, but now in sound as well. This was the same impetus that led psychedelic and then progressive rock bands in the '60s and '70s to dive so headlong into the sonic experimentalism for which they were known. Even earlier, it was likewise the impetus behind the adoption of the electric guitar in the context of rock 'n roll, abandoning the acoustic instruments that dominated the sound palettes of rhythm music before them. Death metal was young, less than a decade old at the point of Human's release, but metal as a whole had a number of decades and was likewise immersed in a legacy of rock music, both heavy and otherwise, that had roughly a decade more. Devoid of the context of the rest of Death's work, let alone Cynic's, Human reads like a paradox, a death metal record no longer soaked in gore, but instead basking in the cold winds of philosophy and the purity of thought, something no less alien and frightening than death but altogether different.

This is captured no better than "Cosmic Sea," the instrumental just near the close of the record in a move seemingly pinched from Metallica. Like that great of heavy metal at large, the piece is by far the most outwardly progressive of the fare present here, replacing the vocals as sonic centerpiece with the cascade of thoughtfully arranged celestial-gazing guitars. The piece feels less like heavy metal and more like pure progressive rock, using the toughness of metal more as a gestural framework where the eye is instead focused more on programmatic swirls of color and light as opposed to the bestial thunder often associated with metal. The vocals elsewhere are tight focused barks, snapped out of Schuldiner's throat with precision rather than a shapeless growl. Here on "Cosmic Sea," that sense of precision metamorphoses into a delicacy and filigree most would hesitate to associate with death metal. It feels wordlessly like something else, a vision of other spaces, different directions, an expanded scope to a frame that was still wildly young. And, given its release by Death, a band so widely respected within the scene, it suddenly became unquestionably death metal...

Which leads to a view of Human through the historic lens of Death's work. It would be misleading to imply Human was a quantum shift from the band's own trajectory or, at least, a shift more substantial than any that had come before it. Schuldiner's work in general was marked precisely by these kinds of decided heavy footfalls of evolutionary development between phases. The 1984 Mantas demo, the earliest available Schuldiner material, shows a rabid and bestial approach to extreme metal, feeling at once a hybrid of the early death and black metal associated most at that time with Hellhammer and Venom, coming a full year before the Possessed LP largely associated with the creation of death metal proper (Seven Churches). This is not to say Schuldiner created the genre precisely; despite having songs like "Death By Metal," it is better to say that these were thoughts in the air, especially in the demo tape trading scene of the early '80s spurred on by things like the earliest Slayer and Metallica releases paired against the gothic developments in the European underground. The sound captured on the Mantas demos is decidedly a much more ragged affair, driven first by energy and second by speed, with technique present but still a distant third. Most notably, however, is how cluttered and noisy these demos are. These are a far cry from Human's sonic clarity and inhuman flatness. Present instead is a squealing, noisy, and hissing mass of sonic lightning, a tape record seemingly left in the middle of a rehearsal room capturing whatever it might. The next two Death demos would sharpen the image somewhat, but only in gradients. Ultimately, all of the pre-Scream Bloody Gore material belongs as a set, mapping a roughly 18 month span of creative growth.

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Scream Bloody Gore, Death's proper debut, sees the production issues, as well as the resulting raw energy, largely done away with, revealing the sobering image of an amateur band. Still, this only serves to prove the deep charisma of Schuldiner's performances, as well as the performances he could draw from the musicians around him. That pivotal sense of heavy metal thunder is present on Scream Bloody Gore, reading often as the mindset of Kiss and Judas Priest filtered through the ravening halls of the post-Slayer and Celtic Frost underground, not to mention interaction with the earliest wave of death metal to hit store shelves proper, such as the aforementioned Possessed. Leprosy, considered by a certain large contingent to be not only Death's greatest album, but perhaps the greatest death metal album of all time (a spot contended for largely by other Death albums), develops from this position by removing almost entirely the lingering thrash DNA. Leprosy feels more "death metal" than any other 80's record in its purest form, be it sonically, compositionally, or in terms of production. Everything that would come to define death metal is here in one place for, more or less, the first time historically (absolutely the first in terms of wider reach): guitars which punch like steel rebar reinforcing primal magma flows, vocals that marry a chest growl with the ferocious bite of thrash, drums that tilt the aggression of hardcore into a tangible sense of physical threat, all assembled into a sonic field that feels more often like it evokes rot and decomposing flesh than the triumphalism more endemic to heavy metal in general and thrash in specific. Spiritual Healing largely differentiated itself through flashes of technicality, one ear clearly fixed first to Metallica's likewise increasing technicality during that magical and perfect first decade of the group's output, and the other on their peers who seemed to be pushing in the other direction, more and more toward bestial and unhinged performance. Schuldiner's ear was always indebted to early metal heroes like Judas Priest, Mercyful Fate, Kiss, Van Halen, and Celtic Frost's sonic adventurousness, while others pursued the increasingly dank and dire tomblike halls of death metal's rotting sound, Death was pushed towards the form's instant canonical hybrid against the main trunk of heavy metal, especially the elements that differentiated it from rock at large.

In this way, Human reveals itself, like each record before it, as the butterfly emerging from the cocoon of the record before, itself once a butterfly as well. The choice when developing the material on Human to not only push into more sharply technical and progressive terrain, but also into a colder and more alien sonic space, feels in keeping with the developments of Schuldiner's project as a whole up till this point. It is important to view Death, even within the context of Cynic's history, as Schuldiner's project first and foremost. Members shifted frequently, with few records sporting any common members aside from Schuldiner himself up until the group as a whole's very final years. In this perspective, Sean Reinert and Paul Masvidal's interpolation served the purpose of furthering Schuldiner's compositional trajectory, simultaneously reaching for increasingly technical and progressive terrain while staying grounded within the traditional heavy metal centrism that largely drove Death's decreasingly extreme sound, as shown on the cover of KISS's "God of Thunder," included on most versions of the album. The correlation between the KISS cover and "Cosmic Sea," Human's progressive instrumental cut, showcases this two-fold sense of development Schuldiner had in mind both in terms of the foundational elements and structures of the sound as well as his ideal filigree to fill out those spaces. Later albums -- from Individual Thought Patterns forward to the Control Denied debut, his final completed studio effort -- would follow this path, sharpening both the progressive flourish as well as the material's hookiness, approaching arena-sized anthemic heavy metal without succumbing to the temptations of melodic death metal or the like. This centrality of Schuldiner's development, with Human coming at precisely the midway point of his discography (three LPs of Death on either side, the Mantas demos on one end and the Control Denied debut on the other), is in large part why, when looking back, Human has the position that it does as one of extreme metal's most esteemed records. It offers manifold roads of development and influence, both toward the progressive as well as toward the primitive.

Importantly, for both Death and for Cynic, Schuldiner chose Reinert and Masvidal for this development. While in later interviews, Masvidal would downplay their involvement, focusing instead on Chuck's overall vision as the guiding principle of the album and their role instead as facilitators to that vision, it is clear when placed in the context of Cynic's music, even as far back as the demos, that they did at least play a significant influence in these developments. In this way, Human's production can be understood not as one camp transforming the other, but instead as each camp achieving a synthesis that eruptively transformed each other simultaneously, with Chuck's pushing Masvidal and Reinert causing them to seize upon their progressive capabilities that had struggled to manifest themselves in the early Cynic demos as much as they pushed Chuck himself to integrate those ambitions into his own work. Late developments from either camp diverging from this doesn't negate this dual-influence thesis but instead reaffirms it; to Schuldiner, what was clearly important was grabbing on to those sharper, clearly more progressive rock-driven elements that were always central to traditional heavy metal a la Judas Priest and Iron Maiden in order to synthesize them into his vision of post-thrash extreme metal while. To the duo at the heart of Cynic, this was a validation of their interest in spaces like fusion or progressive rock by a peer and musical idol, a validation which would underscore the stratospheric heights they would take these developments.