While it would be tempting for me to start by saying “The Cynics are the best band you’ve never heard of,” a quick use of a the Music Enthusiasts Secret Decoder Ring would reveal that I was actually saying “The Cynics are a band that never hit stride in a massive commercial manner, but I have a personal and emotional investment in them, and I want to make the case for you to introduce them into your personal canon of cool.” And its true: what you’re reading now is not only a review, but also part of a personal crusade to get people to stand up and notice a band that for a nearly three decades has been a stalwart of what the late great Bill Haley termed “real-rock-drive” – the kind of music that makes you want to grab your gal and circle like a top.
Doubt it? Well nearly thirty years of LPs and singles bear me out. While MTV spent the ‘80s trying to make us coo over how big Mark Knopfler’s thumbs were, The Cynics were ripping out poppy, angst ridden garage rock records. While ‘90s radio fed us The Offspring’s lifeless covers of Damned songs for equally lifeless Batman movie soundtracks, The Cynics kept going steady with records would have made Adam West blush with their raw sexual energy. In the aughts? Well, I can’t tell you what was popular because I stopped watching TV and listening to the radio, but I do know the Cynics were still awesome.
So, while I’m pleading for you to get on the bandwagon already, I suppose it’d be fair to ask if the band’s new album, Spinning Wheel Motel, is a good place to get on.
For those of us who are suckers for novelty packaging, the gatefold jacket for the LP version caters to that guilty pleasure. The front of the jacket is a pop-up book style pinwheel with separate windows that show you a different set of graphic graphics and photos for each song title. Not 100% original seeing as Led Zeppelin III amongst others did similar pinwheels, but hey, it’s still damn cool.
As always, Spinning Wheel Motel features guitarist Gregg Kostelich and singer Michael Kastelic at the core. It’s the dynamic between Gregg’s masculine guitar yang to Michael’s… feminine would be wrong… let’s say, manically elfin vocal yin, that makes listeners nod, smirk and cuss approval under their breath when hearing a Cynics song. Keeping with what seems like a tradition of changing out rhythm sections every release, the new album feature’s newcomers Pibli Gonzalez and Angel Kaplan behind the drums and bass respectively, and their enthusiasm brings some strong chemistry to the group. Given the amount of time The Cynics have spent touring the Iberian peninsula over the years, it shouldn’t come as much of shock that both hail from Spain and fit neatly in line with Gregg and Michael. No need for me to take my crusade there: the Spaniards got hip to The Cynics years ago.
Diehard Cynics fans will notice immediately that while most of the band’s previous material had that “we wish we knew how to replicate the wall of sound” sound pervasive in ‘70s rock records by The Ramones, Heartbreakers and Dead Boys, their latest is engineered by Jim Diamond of Ghetto Recorders / Dirtbombs fame, and the production is analogous to the difference between RCA-era Elvis recordings and Sun-era Elvis, except in reverse. While older Cynics records have a meticulous, deliberate sound, “Spinning Wheel Motel” sounds like a bunch of guys kicking out songs in a weird little room at three in the morning. Like the band’s previous release “Here We Are”, the album has a higher ratio of melodic janglers like “Gehenna,” “Junk,” and title track “Spinning Wheel Motel” than buzzsaw-esque, angry, fitful snarls like “I Need More” and “Rock Club”. And at times the band even mixes in a few songs like “Bells and Trains” and “Circles Arcs and Swirls” that very nearly verge on folksy – think hippie-cum-psych artists like Sky Saxon’s Seeds and The Blues Magoos.
So is “Spinning Wheel Motel” the record to start a love affair with “the greatest band you never heard of?” Given the even quality of material throughout their career, it’s as good a place as any. Despite the title’s innuendo of a brief, possibly illicit, one night road trip stop-over, The Cynics’ Spinning Wheel Motel will likely take up permanent residence in your music library.
Ken Eppstein is the Editor of Nix Comics Quarterly