In order for me to talk about this album, you're going to need some [CONTEXT].
If there's one thing I absolutely hate about Cynic, it's their squandered potential. In 1993, right in the middle of the technical death metal craze that bore the likes of Atheist, Nocturnus and Suffocation, as well as refined the raw sounds of Death, Sarcófago and Meshuggah, Cynic stood out among the crowd for their 35-minute debut and opus, the aptly titled Focus. A pulverizing mixture of death metal, jazz fusion, and unadulterated technical proficiency—not to mention the novel inclusion of artfully abused vocoder-based robotic vocals—all helped in pushing them to the forefront of the tech death scene and immediately established them as one of the immovable pillars of the genre.
Or, at least, it would have.
Cynic's history since then has been a tale of steady decline and general laziness, as the band seems dead set on attacking their own foundations as giants of progressive metal. They went on hiatus and didn't release another album until 2008's Traced in Air, which is best described succinctly as "a steaming piece of shit." The album completely abandoned all of the band's innovation and originality in favour of a bland, boring style of progressive rock that's been played time and time again by countless other acts. Everything about the band that showed their forward-thinking sensibilities, their ability to push the musical envelope, was discarded in favour of a generic, accessible style full of tripe and blandness. Sure, they had expanded and evolved their sound, something I will ever fault a band for, but they took several steps backward in terms of quality while doing so, forcibly moving themselves from the cutting edge to the doldrums of mediocrity.
They followed this up with the Re-Traced EP in 2010, billed as a reimagining of four tracks from Traced in Air. At this point, I was still willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. If they could radically re-imagine themselves once, even if it was into absolute garbage, they could definitely do it again. And yet, like clockwork, once again they overhauled their sound, and once again I was let down. If there was anything enjoyable, no matter how minute, to be heard in Traced in Air, Re-Traced did its damnedest to strip it away, reducing already boring and cookie-cutter music into somehow even more staid staleness. By the time the band released the Carbon-Based Anatomy EP last year, I had pretty much given up on them. It was clear at this point that the band desperately wanted to break themselves away from their death metal roots, but couldn't find the right way to do it. They were looking in every direction, almost stumbling in the dark, hoping to find something that clicked, and though they again managed to re-orient their sound, this time with a heavy ambient focus, the music itself still turned out inexcusably derivative.
It was with this state of frustrated disillusionment with the band ([/CONTEXT]) that I first grabbed a copy of The Portal Tapes. Recorded under the name Portal, these are polished-up versions of some demos the band had originally recorded as the follow-up to Focus, prior to their hiatus. The sole reason I even bothered to listen to this album was because it was written and recorded shortly after the band's only album actually worth its salt; maybe, just maybe, it would still have the strong writing the band had shown before they began upending their musical foundations. Shocking even myself, this turned out to be the case.
The Portal Tapes is what a less death-oriented, more melodic, progressive rock Cynic could, no, should have sounded like. This album actually sounds like a logical progression from Focus, completely overhauling their sound (as they desired) while still retaining the important facets of their original sound that made them a worthwhile band in the first place. This particular album actually leans more towards soft jazz fusion than progressive rock, featuring smooth and stylish percussion, seductive female vocals, and looser, flowing musicianship. It's a perfect variation of the sound they tried, but failed, to achieve with Traced in Air.
Though, yes, the songwriting is still softer and more rock-oriented than their previously explosive metal fest, and the songs are very simple at their core. They seem to flow together in a rather predictable fashion, shifting from verse to chorus in a regular and expected manner. However, and this is an important point, the music isn't boring as a result of it. The songs are still very interesting on their own terms. Though you'd expect songs like "Circle" to be hokey at first blush, they actually have a way of ingraining themselves in your mind and becoming memorable. This problem was what plagued Cynic's later releases, and continues to this day: I still can't listen to any of their releases from Traced in Air forward without wanting to gouge out my eardrums from sheer desperation.
A large part of why these otherwise simple songs are still interesting is that the band's trademark attention to detail is present. The instruments seem to dance around one another rather than play directly in sync, each of them focusing on their own part but still performing around an established framework. It's all delicately put together, as if the tiniest slip up could throw the whole piece out of balance. The excessive displays of technical ability have become subdued in favour of more straightforwardly melodic constructions, but they shine through in other areas. The soloing, for example, is still fantastic, as can be heard on the slick guitar work on "Cosmos" and "Karma's Plight," or the eerily enchanting keys on "Circle." In addition, the band incorporates a near-indescribable subtle flair throughout the songs that emphasizes each musician's own particular flavour of playing, creating pieces that are much stronger than merely the sum of their parts.
I'm not saying it's perfect, mind you. The album still feels like it loses power by the last quarter or so, and even though the songs are very polished, they're still demos, and you can hear how they are a little rough around the edges. Though the potential behind them is promising, whatever they may have eventually became remains hidden away.
Fans of any era of Cynic's music will find this album a welcome addition to their collection, but especially for those who felt let down by their later releases, The Portal Tapes may represent the much desired, and deserving, follow-up to Focus. This is the sound of a band self-assured that they didn't have anything to prove, and at the time, it was actually true.
7.5 / 10
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