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.
Cynic: With Intronaut and Dysrhythmia. 7:30 p.m. Friday, August 13. Culture Room, 3045 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $14.99; all ages. 954-564-1074; cultureroom.net
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."
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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.
After playing in other bands for a couple of years, Masvidal moved to Los Angeles in 1996 to spend some time with his brother and get another perspective on life. He eventually earned a full scholarship to the Musicians Institute, where he studied jazz guitar and began doing session work for television and other gigs. Reinert followed him a year later, and the pair continued to work together on music.
Over the next decade, though, Focus became a hit album among clued-in metalheads fond of its ornate guitar playing and Masvidal's mysterious-sounding, effects-heavy vocals. Eventually, it was reissued in 2004 by the label on which it was originally released, Roadrunner Records.
Two years later, Masvidal and Reinert restarted Cynic with a slightly different lineup to play the metal festival circuit in Europe. And in 2008, they recorded a new album, Traced in Air, which featured fewer growled vocals and an overall better-rounded sound. Ever innovating, they released the Re-Traced EP this past May, on which they reinterpret their own music on Traced in Air. Furthermore, the band intends to work on a new album upon completing its current tour.
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Although Masvidal has lived in Los Angeles for 15 years, he still feels connected to the Magic City. He misses his family and friends, as well as the little things Miamians might take for granted. "I miss the warm water," he says. "The Pacific Ocean is not as friendly as the Atlantic, that's for sure."
He then laughs and sounds surprised at his next admission: "I even began to appreciate the humidity, because I realized living on the West Coast, you don't really get a whole lot of it. But when I go back to South Florida and visit it, it's like, OK, I can see where this works."
Masvidal will have plenty of time to analyze the impact of South Florida's humidity when Cynic pulls into town for its Fort Lauderdale show. It's a concert that bears a special significance for him, especially because he and his bandmates will play Focus in its entirety, along with songs from Traced in Air.
"It's amazing," he says. "It's the whole circle. For us to actually have the last show there is just insane. I think everyone in my entire family and friends — everyone's coming. It's gonna be a lot of fun."