The lost demos are a treasure to behold
Many may not know that Cynic was originally a progressive metal/jazz fusion band in their early origins before switching to a more technical death metal format after their reunion in 2008. While 'Traced in Air' did put them back on the metal map, there is a bit of a lost history that is only known to those who heard the band's debut album 'Focus'. 'Focus' was an entirely different world as it was more dreamy, melodic, and down tempo and even featured female vocals; a dramatic change from the heavier, yet still prog heavy 'Traced...'. It did feature some of the death metal elements, but not nearly as much as the recent work that came out in 2008 when Cynic resurfaced. Recently, Cynic has released a collection of demos and rare tracks called 'The Portal Tapes'- which have better production than most may expect- and show off the original side of Cynic.
Rather than the focus being on the vocals from guitarist Paul Masvidal, the voice of Cynic belongs to Aruna Abrams who also performs keyboards on the album. Her voice, soft and calm, suits the atmosphere of the music perfectly and forces Paul to tone his voice down a bit too, making their duet works like the Fusion version of Dead Can Dance. Tracks like "Costumed in Grace" are more ambient and keyboard focused which help instate that whole dream world effect whereas "Road to You" is a bit more upbeat, and even though still highly reliant on keyboards, throws in a high amount of percussion and jazz elements- thanks to Sean Malone, Cynic's current drummer- that make things more prog metal oriented as opposed to fusion ambient.
The only downside to this collection is that it does leave a huge gap between those who were expecting death metal to be involved here. This version of Cynic is soft, but not as technical and obviously progressive as the current version, which may have some listeners thinking that the songs here can end up sounding quite similar. The shift may be a bit radical to some fans, but hopefully those that listen to Cynic are listening to them for their progressive and fusion elements in the first place as opposed to hoping that the band would be even rawer and heavier in their earlier years compared to the present.
At the same time, those who felt that 'Focus' was a gem among gems and wished to hear more of Aruna's vocals will get to hear her in full glory here; it is a shame she was not included on the reunion launch as to have her involved would make Cynic a complete arsenal of varied musical tastes that almost anyone could get into. Still, 'The Portal Tapes' is a great collection of rather new music that many fans, new or old, will probably not have heard before, so it is like a brand new album altogether to get into. Although it marks as a memory, rather than a progressive step, for Cynic, listeners can still hear Aruna's vocal and keyboard works and remember her with fondness at just how much talent she brought to the band in a different time.
(Season of Mist/Riot! Entertainment)