By Ashley Zimmerman
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It just looked like a bomb hit South Florida," says Paul Masvidal, the vocalist-guitarist for the extreme-metal group Cynic, about the devastation that Hurricane Andrew wrought in his band's hometown of Miami in 1992. "It was really amazing and surreal — trees flying by — it was totally unbelievable."
At the time the hurricane hit, the guitarist and his childhood friend — as well as the band's drummer, Sean Reinert — were just returning from Europe. They had been playing as members of Death, a group often called the fathers of death metal, and came back motivated to record Cynic's debut, but Andrew put a stop to that. The pair watched the destruction from Masvidal's mother's home in South Miami. And the band's other guitarist at the time, Jason Gobel, whose family lived in Homestead, "were holding the roof in the bathroom, and that was all that was left," according to Masvidal.
The hurricane also wiped out the band's rehearsal space in Kendall and for all intents and purposes put the recording on hold. Eventually, the band would regroup and record what many consider an extreme-metal masterpiece, 1993's Focus, which is full of intricate, jazz-influenced guitar playing, death-metal snarls, and pre-T-Pain Auto-Tuned vocals — but it would take them a year to get there.
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"I'm so grateful for that hurricane," Masvidal says now, sitting in his tour bus on a trek that will wind up at Fort Lauderdale's Culture Room on 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 Floridian through and through, and growing up in Miami shaped him into a well-rounded musician. He was born in Puerto Rico in 1971 to Cuban parents who fled Castro's regime in the late '50s. His family moved to Miami, between Coconut Grove and Coral Gables, when he was 3. He would meet Reinert, his lifelong musical companion, while attending Gulliver Academy in junior high.
The imagery of Slayer and Metallica album covers at Spec's Music in Coral Gables introduced Masvidal to extreme metal and punk, and he also immersed himself in jazz at Miami Dade College as well as 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. Nonheadbangers encountered Masvidal's playing in the between-scenes ditties of the TV sitcoms That '70s Show and 3rd Rock From the Sun.
But before 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 like Morbid Angel, Deicide, and Obituary — all based in Tampa — rode into the mainstream consciousness on a wave of media sensationalism. Each played whirlwinds of compact guitar riffs with Tasmanian Devil drumming and growled vocals about Satan. And although these bands' lyrics didn't influence Cynic's songwriting, which opted for 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, only grew more diverse as it incubated in the South Florida heat.
"We were kind of like the 'city kids' from Miami that would go up there and kind of peek in," Masvidal says. "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. So it was kind of an outsider thing, and I think that was a strength for us, because it pushed us to be more original and interesting. And not really follow the pack and do what everybody was doing. We were always kind of on our own path."
Cynic's path eventually led the guys out of Florida and on the road opening for myriad death-metal bands. It was there that 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 recalls. "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.