Thrash ‘Til Death #13: Cynic (United States) 1987-1993

THRASH ‘TIL DEATH is a 50 week long set of features exploring the legends who crossed over between thrash and death metal between 1983-1993. The focus is primarily on under-served, unknown, and exemplar bands/releases. The selection is comprehensive but the numbering is not indicative of any type of rank or value: The order of appearance is arbitrarily chosen. E-mail me if you want to suggest any relevant bands!


The complete story of Sean Reinert and Paul Masvidal‘s Cynic is no less compelling in the twenty six years beyond what I’ll cover here on this brief retrospective of their first six years but there is no doubt that what put them on the map in the early 90’s is what resonates most with enduring progressive death metal fandom since. ‘Focus’ was undoubtedly a mind-bender, a step outside of existential angst of death metal amateurism and a truly progressive event that would surprise even the most ardent Atheist or Death fan into shock. Here I focus (…) on their formative years as a technical thrash metal band that’d quickly shift towards progressive death/thrash unto full-blown progressive death metal beyond their involvement in Death‘s ‘Human’ and the incorporation of bassist Tony Choy into their evolving sound. These demos represent a sort of ‘holy grail’ for technical/progressive thrash metal fans as well as death-thrashers because, as it turns out, Cynic were essentially ‘Human’ before Evil Chuck would capitalize on their complex and intuitive structural insight.

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Artist Cynic
Title [Type/Year] Demo ’88 [Demo/1988]
Rating [3.75/5.0] LISTEN on YouTube!

Formed in Miami, Florida in 1987 as a quartet of drummer Sean Reinert, guitarist Paul Masvidal, vocalist Jack Kelly and bassist Mark van Erp there was no indication that these guys were onto anything particularly conceptual here beyond their ‘brutal’ thrash metal style and already stunning ability to string together distinct riffs into effective song structures. To put things into perspective, Mantas/Death had perhaps figured out basic song structures, pulling from garage jams, after roughly four years of trying. You might hear Pestilence, Death, and Slayer in pieces but folks often mistake that need to play fast with some kind of hardcore punk/crossover thrash affect. Masvidal‘s playing and van Erp’s bass work do collide in a sort of pre-‘Control and Resistance’ era Watchtower-esque twist but ambition overreaches in some cases. They were hard at work and this first checkpoint resolves nicely and should impress for its intensity and generally ‘catchy’ take on thrash at a time when sheer brutality was all anyone in Florida wanted.


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Artist Cynic
Title [Type/Year] Reflections of a Dying World [Demo/1989]
Rating [4.0/5.0] LISTEN on YouTube! | Remastered

‘Reflections of a Dying World’ was the first recording to feature Masvidal on vocals and again they’ve opted for a hardcorish New Jersey style thrash vocal. The major point of interest here comes with an insane uptick on all instrumental fronts. Reinert is faster, Masvidal is always on-time and quadruples his technical intent with the addition of second guitarist Jason Gobel who would stick with Cynic through the Portal years, and also provide additional guitars for the first Monstrosity record. Mark van Erp would exit after this record and not only play on the first Malevolent Creation demo but also join Monstrosity and stick with them until ‘Millennium’. Consider what Nocturnus were doing around this time and I’d say Cynic had about as much of a handle on things both technically speaking. The hint of progressive thrash I’d heard on the ’88 demo might’ve been a misconception as this second demo is fully in the realm of brutal thrash a la Demolition Hammer, early Pestilence, Num Skull, and their ilk with very hard and ripping fast death/thrash. At the very peak of my thrash metal fandom this was one of my favorite demos, not only because it was shockingly different from what ‘Focus’ was but that it was roughed up around the edges and not fully formed.


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Artist Cynic
Title [Type/Year] Demo 1990 [Demo/1990]
Rating [5.0/5.0] LISTEN on YouTube | Remastered

Cynic‘s third demo is the main event here and perhaps the finest death/thrash demo to come from the then-exploding Florida death metal scene. Masvidal‘s vocals here are searing, just fiery with their rasping and the band had finally sped up to Atheist‘s level while also welcoming in Tony Choy (Pestilence, Atheist). This is perhaps the first moment beyond ‘Piece of Time’ that truly gripped me, the speed, the riffs, the menace, the technical abandon, the thrashing madness of it all possesses me to no end. It is my favorite death metal related demo (next to ‘The Penance’) and no question the finest set of songs Cynic would ever release. Am I just that much of an ‘Piece of Time’ and ‘Human’ fan? Yes, probably! In fact this would appear to be the catalyst for Reinert and Masvidal‘s entrance into Death for ‘Human’ along with Sadus‘ bassist Steve DiGiorgio. To have heard this demo along with ‘Souls of Black’ and been able to grab those folks still speaks to the taste level and foresight of Schuldiner.


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Artist Cynic
Title [Type/Year] Demo 1991 [Demo/1991]
Rating [4.25/5.0] LISTEN on YouTube! | Remastered

In many ways modern progressive death metal has never really improved upon what Cynic would produce on this three song promo pitch for Roadrunner Records in 1991. Divisive as ‘Focus’ would be for its various bold choices, this demo was both outrageously over the top and (in hindsight) far more subdued than the album that would result. Synths don’t factor in here, and I’d say the versions of these songs that’d come after were just slightly slowed by comparison. As an all too enthusiastic Atheist fan for probably a decade before I’d heard Cynic‘s demo era work I was entirely surprised at what level they’d reached in 1991 only to kill some of that momentum with a two year build-up towards ‘Focus’. Of course the world didn’t get this tape until much later, and the three year silence leading up to the full-length must have been a shock to folks.


Artist Cynic
Title [Type/Year] Focus [Full-length/1993]
Rating [3.25/5.0] LISTEN on YouTube | Remastered

‘Unquestionable Presence’ was a paradigm shift that eternally took me out of  ‘classic’ death metal tunnel vision and provided an upper-echelon of extreme music, something that transcended what surrounded it and created such a high that it was hard to come down from. I understood how progressive music fans become pretentious as they have those ‘ah ha!’ moments where they are spellbound and there might not be any going back if you choose not to. ‘Focus’ was the step beyond, something deeper removed than the ‘almost there’ developments from Death, Pestilence, and several others at the time. The rhythmic fluidity, the weird vocoder vocals, and how it all remains a death metal album impresses as a spectacular event… So, why don’t I like it? Shits too tasteful, really. It all comes as an extension of my die-hard Atheist fandom and how this record made a bad first impression with me as a teenager, it felt like a rip of ‘Unquestionable Presence’ and for the life of me I have never been able to take ‘Focus’ all that serious. Today I sit with it and the vocals are the main issue and I can look past my negative association by nostalgia and see an artful prog-metal record that was actually unlike anything that came before it (in most respects). Despite my own messy opinion, this is a classic that influenced every progressive death metal band since.

Cynic would split in 1994 and become Portal for a few years before giving up the ghost completely. The 2004 remaster of ‘Focus’ would signal a sort of rebirth of the band around 2006 and they’ve released two progressive metal/rock records since. Just as a general PSA, try to get the non-remastered version of ‘Focus’ or get the 2013 vinyl issue that as remastered separately as it sounds far, far better. The 2004 remaster is perhaps misleading as they’ve cleaned up the sound of the electronic drum parts and sounds too ‘good’ to get an accurate historical look at what ‘Focus’ originally sounded like, original run CDs can be difficult to find and expensive but the context is worth it if you’re obsessed with this ‘old school’ style of progressive death metal. I guess I’m well aware that in talking about a band as popular and well-loved as Cynic I’m preaching to the choir and educating nobody but I think a trip through the thrashing demo days of this Floridian outfit can provide some serious insight into a band that aren’t often lumped in with the most important bands to come from Florida’s late 80’s/early 90’s death metal inquisition.


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