Welcome to the most self-indulgent genre of metal in existence: the dreaded instrumental progressive metal. Even I, a lowly and slavishly devoted minion of most things prog, cringe when the internet pleads with me to review an instrumental prog album. This music is tough to do well. Often, it’s much easier to simply wank until your wank falls off rather than write captivating songs. To find an instrumental prog album that sticks in your craw long after the mandatory two-week review period is over is a rarity. Despite this, there seems to be an endless parade of these bands prancing through my inbox. To grab my attention, you need something different, and that’s just what Montreal, Canada’s Cydemind have tried to do: they’ve added a violinist to the mix here, hoping to shake up the genre. Does it work, or is it just wank on a different level?
The first thing that comes to mind when I think of violin-centric prog is the ancient supergroup U.K., with the untouchable Eddie Jobson on violin. But interestingly, Cydemind does not claim them as an influence: they stick with more modern bands such as Dream Theater and Symphony X. They also claim not to be influenced by any of the current or retired crop of instrumental prog bands. Regardless, the important thing here is to write compelling material, and Cydemind get things off on the right foot on their debut album Erosion (they did release an EP a couple years ago) with “What Remains,” an up-tempo, modern-sounding number that might make one think of Scale the Summit if that band featured violin. It’s an engaging song, just the right length, and shows me two things: Cydemind can play, and violinist Olivier Allard has the chops to go with his Master’s degree in violin performance. “What Remains” does display one weakness prevalent on Erosion, though, and that’s a propensity to give each musician multiple solos. The line between wank and restraint is fine, and these guys come very close to crossing it.
Erosion only has six songs, but the album still clocks in well over an hour, due to two songs: the 13-minute “Derecho” and the 27-minute title track. Luckily, these are the two best tracks the record, especially the former. “Derecho” starts with the mild strums of an acoustic guitar, but the arrangement takes this song from whimsical to pensive to menacing to a full-on metal assault – and that’s just in the first half. After the false climax 8:30 in, the bass growls out a sinister groove and the band kicks in again, building it all back up for the real ending. “Erosion” shows the band’s classical influences (and I suppose the Dream Theater and Symphony X influences) with the artful piano intro leading into a full-on dexterity test. You can’t keep that up for half an hour and maintain interest, though, and the band does well here by varying the arrangements and pushing different instruments to the front of the stage throughout.
The other three songs on Erosion didn’t stick with me the way “What Remains,” “Derecho,” and the title track did, which is the weakness of the album. An hour of gripping instrumental prog might be too much to bite off. While the album sounds fantastic, with excellent production and stellar musicianship, the songwriting lacks consistency. “Tree of Tales,” “Red Tides,” and “Stream Capture” are by no means flops, but I found myself struggling to remember any gripping moments in those songs, and if you’re skipping half the songs on an album, well, there’s room for improvement despite the positive qualities.
This kind of music isn’t for everyone (just like every other kind of music, one might surmise, making that a lame statement), but Cydemind have shown me two things on this debut album: they’re damn good musicians, and they have the ability to write compelling music that sticks with you. Granted, on Erosion not every song does, which makes this a bit of an uneven release, but half of the album has me coming back for closer listens, and that’s pretty good for a debut. I suspect – and hope – that through tons of touring and more songwriting experience, their next album will be a step up.