Cynic (sort of) show a softer, gentler side on long-awaited ‘Portal Tapes’ collection

Portal ... Cynic ... whatever

We all waited long enough for prog-death pioneers Cynic to follow up their epic, highly influential 1993 debut “Focus.” The band disintegrated before they had a chance to do a proper sequel, and it seemed that they would be lost to the sands of time.

And then they came back. About 12 years after the band disintegrated in 1994, they announced some reunion shows and even played new bits live during their 2006-07 road jaunt, pieces that eventually would become important building blocks of their stunning 2008 comeback album “Traced in Air.” That album found the band drifting further away from their death metal roots and adopting more spacey, prog-rock tendencies. From that point, the band just kept giving, and giving, and giving. A 2010 EP “Re-Traced,” comprised of reconfigured, musically transformed versions of some “Traced” cuts, landed in our laps, and a year later, another EP of new music called “Carbon Based Anatomy” dropped. Both efforts offered a glimpse into where Cynic would evolve next and are worthy additions to your collections.

Now comes a pretty big one. See, once Cynic fell by the wayside, some of its members, namely singer/guitarist Paul Masvidal, drummer Sean Reinert and guitarist Jason Gobel, teamed up with bassist Chris Kringel and vocalist Aruna Abrams to form a new band called Portal. Uh, not to be confused with the death metal terrorists from Down Under. They recorded some material together, but the project never really got off the ground. Yet the work they did set in motion where Portal would go musically once they reformed. And it got Cynic fans all worked up because they wanted to get their hands on the music, which wasn’t exactly widely distributed.

So here it is, “The Portal Tapes,” an album misleadingly released under the Cynic moniker even though it technically isn’t a Cynic album. Understand? Season of Mist has a limited release of the collection ready to go, with 5,000 committed to CD and just 1,000 to vinyl. Those who haven’t heard this collection to this point might be surprised just how different the music sounds from what the Cynic members had done before this, and it might even shock some that what they’ll get here is so … soft. In fact, the band members made associations with Dead Can Dance and My Bloody Valentine, though I don’t hear a hell of a lot in the latter. It’s more like modern Cynic with all the barbs removed. You can hear Dream Theater, Steely Dan and Porcupine Tree at moments as well.

I don’t mind softer music, and although this is a site dedicated to metal, I listen to a lot of other stuff, including as lot of folk and old country. So I’m not afraid if something doesn’t rock out. But I can’t really get into a lot of what’s on here, and I love Dead Can Dance and everything Cynic has ever done. The music is really dated, which isn’t surprising or a criticism, and hearing it now, it’s just a little hard for me to get into with enthusiasm. Abrams has a lovely, breathy voice, and had this band made it into circulation at the time it was recorded, she might have become a household name. The music is prog-dork country in a lot of spots, damn near adult contemporary in others. Again, not criticizing, but it’s not a sound that does a whole lot for me. Maybe you’ll feel differently.

There’s a lot of soupy, spacey stuff on here and, as noted, it’s pretty gentle. That’s fine, really, because things that should be cosmic – “Endless Endeavors”; “Cosmos,” especially with the line, “I want to be closer to higher beings”; “Circle” – are the best songs on this collection. “Karma’s Plight” is interesting and has some New Wave flourishes, and Masvidal actually takes lead vocals on that one; and “Costumed in Grace” is proggy and docile, which works pretty well. The rest I can’t embrace. “Crawl Alone” sounds like a late-era Sting song as it seems to try to be a pop hit breakout; “Mirror Child” is R&B-flavored, but not really in an engaging way; “Road to You” would be passable if it weren’t for the clunky lyrics; and closer “Not the Same” is adult-contempo land and never really goes anywhere exciting.

Again, this is just how I feel about this thing. I’m sure other people will be more open to what these artists do on this album. Clearly everyone here is a commendable player, but I don’t think these songs quite measure up to the potential. I’ll probably end up parting with cash for this simply because I’m a Cynic completest, but I don’t see it being played very often at all. When it comes to anything called Portal, I’ll take the band fronted by the guy wearing the cuckoo clock.

For more on Cynic, go here:

For more on their Portal years, go here:

To buy the album, go here:

For more on the label, go here:

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