Cydemind – The Descent
Progressive Rock | Symphonic Metal
For modern TV and film audiences, black and white can sometimes prove an insurmountable obstacle when it comes to going back and watching classics. Black and white was how moving pictures began, and it is how it remained for many decades, but at this point in time we’ve become too accustomed to colour. There’s so much that colour can bring to a work of cinema, especially in the hands of a great director, that in some ways it adds a whole extra dimension. That’s not to say that you need colour to make a great film, merely that it’s something that audiences have grown to expect and demand over generations. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the rare few black and white films that modern audiences still frequent are those considered masterpieces. We can’t settle for less, because in a way a film has to work harder, excel in other aspects, to make up for the fact that subconsciously we feel that something is missing from the experience.
Instrumental music I think faces a similar hurdle. For most of human history the majority of music was solely instrumental, while music with vocals and lyrics is a comparatively newer phenomenon in the scheme of things. Yet switch on any radio station, press play on any random playlist, grab an album off the shelf at any record store, and the chances of finding even a single instrumental will be slim. Vocals have become an expected standard for popular music much the same way colour has for cinema. Many listeners will feel that a key pillar of the song is missing without words there to set the scene, tell a story and give you something to sing along to. Again, we find that it’s only the exceptional that manage to stand out, the acts that excel in storytelling through deep, expansive and captivating instrumentation to the point where you don’t even notice what’s “missing”.
Canadian prog band Cydemind proved themselves to be one of most entrancing instrumental outfits around with their 2017 debut Erosion. Their approach of putting violin centre stage, square in the spotlight, gave them a unique and distinctive sound, one which drew you in and lent the tracks a real cinematic flair. Paired with the way they structured their songs, designed to grow and shift and take you on a journey, they were a superb case study of modern instrumental rock done the right way. They passed with flying colours. That’s still broadly true on their new record The Descent, but as is so often the case with second albums there are a few cracks starting to show. The two tracks that bookend the album in particular occasionally fall victim to the common prog pitfall of complexity for complexity’s sake, letting the technical take precedent over the emotion.
The Descent‘s main issue however is its overuse of recurring leitmotifs. These can be an incredibly effective storytelling device when used well; signalling the arrival of a certain character, marking the return to a particular setting, denoting a certain tone or emotion, emphasising a central theme etc. However, without any lyrics or visuals or background context, we have no such ideas to anchor these leitmotifs to, at which point they just become a repeated section of music that you’re subjected to over and over without rhyme or reason. The opening riff of ‘Obsessions’ that kicks off the album is by far the worst offender. It feels like you’re never more that two minutes away from it. Pretty sure I’ve begun hearing it in my sleep at this point.
But when you get away from the moments that make the songs blur together, and instead focus on the areas where each track sets itself apart, you find that the band’s magic touch is still there. ‘Hoax’ injects some funk and jazz elements into the formula in the vein of Thank You Scientist, while ‘Breach’ embraces the band’s heavier side, kicking off with some of the album’s best drum work, and with some crunchy riffs acting as a backdrop for playful violin melodies. Taking a fittingly darker tone ‘Call of the Void’ plays around with some Eastern inspired influences and sees some incredible interplay between the keys and violin, at times blurring the line between the two, while the album’s most accessible and cinematic cut ‘Slumber’ takes you someplace haunting and melancholic in glorious gothic fashion. The latter is a strong contender for the album’s highlight, but that honour has to go to ‘Hemlock’. It may be the album’s longest cut, but it doesn’t waste a moment. A slow-burner that starts with much the same airy and mysterious vibe of ‘Slumber’, it gradually builds in scope, intensity and complexity until a climactic false finish around the 8 minute mark. The final minutes of ‘Hemlock’ are then devoted to an astonishing overdriven bluesy guitar solo, with a fathomless well of emotion and expression in every note, that unexpectedly reminds me of the late great Gary Moore.
No matter how tastes and culture changes, there are certain black and white classics that everyone should try to view and experience at some point in theirs lives. Likewise everyone should make space for instrumentals amongst their listen habits, no matter how much popular trends may lean towards vocals at the expense of instrumentation. Rough edges aside, Cydemind are still one of my go-to recommendations in this regard, and remain among the gold standard of enthralling instrumental acts.