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To this day, the devastation of Hurricane Andrew in 1992 remains clear in Paul Masvidal's mind."It just looked like a bomb hit South Florida," says the vocalist-guitarist for Miami-birthed progressive metal group Cynic. "It was really amazing and surreal — trees flying by — it was totally unbelievable."
At the time the hurricane hit, he and his childhood friend, drummer Sean Reinert, had just returned from Europe. They had been playing as members of Death, a group often called "the fathers of death metal." Arriving back home, though, the teenagers were excited to start work on the debut record by their own band, Cynic.
But Andrew put a stop to that. The pair watched the storm's destruction from Masvidal's mother's home in Coral Gables, near the intersection of LeJeune Road and South Dixie Highway. Although that house withstood the storm, other band members were not so lucky. Then-guitarist Jason Gobel lived with his family in Homestead, and the storm found them "holding the roof in the bathroom, and that was all that was left," according to Masvidal.
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The hurricane also wiped out the band's rehearsal space in Kendall and put the recording on pause. Eventually, though, Cynic was able to regroup and record what many observers consider an extreme-metal masterpiece, 1993's Focus. The album features intricate jazz-influenced guitar playing, death-metal snarls, and pre-T-Pain Auto-Tune vocals — a new blend that incubated during the hurricane-induced down time.
"I'm so grateful for that hurricane," Masvidal says, sitting in his tour bus on a trek that will wind up at Fort Lauderdale's Culture Room this Friday. "Obviously not for what it did and the damage — people died and it was pretty horrific — but in terms of a creative process, it was a blessing for us. It gave us a lot of time to develop and realize ideas that were perhaps not fully realized. It made for a way more mature first record."
Masvidal's story is South Floridian through and through, and growing up in Miami shaped him in many ways to become a well-rounded musician. He was born in Puerto Rico in 1971 to Cuban parents who had fled Castro's regime in the late '50s. His family moved to Miami, between Coconut Grove and Coral Gables, when he was 3 years old. He met Reinert, his lifelong musical foil, while attending Gulliver Academy in junior high. He discovered extreme metal and punk by buying Slayer and Metallica records based on their covers at Spec's Music in the Gables.
The guitarist learned about jazz at Miami Dade College and meanwhile soaked in the Latin music that spills into Miami's streets. Beyond Cynic's space-rock death metal, these influences would also pop up in his later, more prog-rock–influenced bands: Gordian Knot, which boasted members of King Crimson, Yes, and Dream Theater; Portal; and Æon Spoke. (It would also pop up in the music for which nonheadbangers would most likely know Masvidal's playing — the between-scenes ditties of TV sitcoms That '70s Show and 3rd Rock From the Sun.)
But before all of that, during the late '80s when Cynic was starting out, Masvidal was inspired by the death metal that was becoming big business in Florida. Bands such as Morbid Angel, Deicide, and Obituary, all based in Tampa, rode into the mainstream consciousness on a wave of media sensationalism. They played whirlwinds of compact guitar riffs with Tasmanian Devil-like drumming and growled vocals about Satan. And although these bands' lyrics didn't influence Cynic, which sang more about personal philosophies, the death-metal groups' all-in approach to playing left its mark on Focus.
Cynic's eclectic sound, under the influence of death metal, grew only more diverse as it incubated in the Miami heat. "We were kind of like the 'city kids' from Miami that would go up there and kind of peek in," Masvidal says about the Tampa scene at the time. "It just seemed like Miami was bigger and more scattered, whereas Tampa just had a smaller community. The Tampa bands were just really these rebellious kids in this retirement, Bible Belt kind of community, which was not really as present where we were living. Miami felt more international and mixed and had a big Latin music community. It was just different."
The difference made Cynic stand out — in a good way — and the band was soon out of Florida and on the road opening for myriad death-metal bands. It was there where they realized just how different their jazz-influenced riffs and robotic vocals were when compared to the extreme-metal community at large.
"We were opening for a group called Cannibal Corpse, who were good friends, and it was an amazing tour in that sense, but the audiences were tough," Masvidal says. "They just didn't get it. For the most part, we had a few college towns, which were pretty cool, but a lot of it was rough and discouraging for us. We thought, Maybe this isn't right. And in some ways, it led to our first breakup. We were so distraught by the scene and also the business in general. It just kind of ripped us apart." Cynic officially called it quits in 1994.