As a founding member of technical progressive band Cynic (and onetime guitarist of influential death metal band Death), Paul Masvidal has made quite a name for himself. However, with today’s release of Mythical, he’s putting out something that he says “terrified” him to make, even though it might have therapeutic effects for those listening to it.
The EP, the first of a trio called Mythical Human Vessel, finds Masvidal at his most vulnerable, often with just a guitar and vocals, while experimenting with brain entrainment, a series of pulsing sounds that are said to lead to enhanced neural perception and memory.
“I wanted to make a really stripped-down, vulnerable record, and I didn’t know how it would manifest, but I felt myself suddenly compelled to get in there,” Masvidal tells Billboard. “It was really driven by this idea of thinking about what freaks me out the most, and going right into that. I was completely terrified of being so naked, and I knew that’s what I needed to do. I had a lot of material that I was filtering through, and when I curated it down to these songs, I saw this story.”
Some of the song ideas had been in Masvidal’s head for years, but he hadn’t thought of using them for Cynic. “I had the embryos, but it wasn’t until I got in there and started to finish it that it only would’ve made sense as this project — it wouldn’t have made sense in any other context,” he says, citing the straightforward lyrics and the feel of the songs as reasons. “Cynic’s material often starts as acoustic and singer-songwritery, but it has a different harmonic kind of element that I approach differently. All those worlds merge, though. I’m writing this stuff, so there’s a certain chromatic language that’s informed by jazz music, and obviously it has a sound, no matter how it’s produced. I thought about doing it under a band name, but … I realized it had to be just as me.”
Mythical’s five songs are certainly a departure from Cynic. Elliott Smith is a touchstone, and Masvidal’s voice is sometimes reminiscent of Thom Yorke. Warren Riker, who produced the series, gave it an airy feel, with subtle flourishes of steel-pedal guitar and keyboards fleshing out the music but never getting in Masvidal’s way. The next two EPs will be released by year’s end. Masvidal says there’s a theme running throughout each.
“Each set of songs has a thread connecting them, and when I narrowed it down to the 15 songs, I saw it,” he says. “The story made more sense being broken up as three pieces like a trilogy and being absorbed that way. I originally did think that I’d release it as a full-length, but once I got in the trenches with this, it started to make more sense to split it up.” Regarding the storyline, he says, “I had a particular story in mind, but I want people to experience it and make of it what they will without any narrative framework that I might impose on it… my personal interpretation is just that — personal — and ultimately beside the point. What matters is the emotional response that it evokes for each listener.”
Another thread that runs throughout the EPs is a series of syncopated pulsing noises called isochronic tones that are said to produce biochemical reactions in the body that increase serotonin, improve focus and help alleviate depression. Masvidal worked with signal processing engineer Stephane Pigeon on developing the sounds, which start and end each song and are subtly heard in the music as well. They also collaborated on a player for Pigeon’s website called Transdimensional Traveler, which is a series of looping guitar tracks that can be manipulated via sliders.
Masvidal explains that he had been experimenting with binaural beats — which are two different frequencies that are combined to create what the ear perceives as one tone — and isochronic tones for years with apps and on Pigeon’s website. Masvidal started working with a player on the website to see if he could incorporate some tones into his music. What he was attempting was beyond what the program could do, so he emailed Pigeon stating that he was a huge fan of Pigeon’s work and was interested in potentially incorporating tones into his music. Pigeon requested some material “and immediately responded, saying, ‘I love the songs, and I get what you’re doing. Let me do these tones,’” recalls Masvidal.
“There’s this whole thing with intention that’s rooted in how [the tones] can work and how they can be used,” he continues. “Then there’s that sixth track [on each EP], which is all the tones from the first five tracks blended together without the music, so you get to experience them directly. In a weird way, you’re experiencing the songs again, but without the music.
“This is the first time, at least in my knowledge, that brain entrainment has been merged with an acoustic environment,” notes Masvidal. “Rock music and electronic music have experimented with it, but I’ve never heard an acoustic singer-songwriter record with isochronic tones. It’s kind of fascinating to me because it goes hand in hand with what was happening. Not only are these songs an offering, but there’s kind of a medicinal component. The end result is fascinating because it’s almost like an experiment of self-hypnosis.”
Masvidal plans on touring behind the EPs. He has spoken to a New York promoter about doing a residency in a black box-type theater in the city and staging an intimate environment around the performance, with a vision of playing shows on the East Coast by September. The songs “really kind of translate without much ornamentation,” he says. “I do want to bring the tones, and that’s a component of the show. The artists I’m working with, Greymar, they’re really into technology, so we’re talking about a show that involves technology. It’s a merging of a highly progressive sophisticated digital environment meeting this super-organic acoustic singer-songwriter. Those two worlds are going to converge.”
As for Cynic, it’s working on its fourth album, with a potential 2020 release date. It will be its first full-length since 2014’s Kindly Bent to Free Us. “We’re in the throes of the next album,” Masvidal says. “We’ve been writing and have a lot of material. It’s happening.”