Cynic - Ascension Codes: "a fitting testament to fallen friends and colleagues"

Prog metal visionaries rise above loss and grief to deliver an emotional yet dazzling comeback album.

(Image: © Season Of Mist)

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The arrival of a new, full-length album from Cynic should be a cause for unreserved celebration, yet Ascension Codes emerges from under a cloud of tragedy. While drummer and co-founder Sean Reinert left the band in 2015, his death in January 2020 was keenly felt by his former bandmates and fans alike. Less than a year later, the passing of bassist Sean Malone in December 2020 was a second heartbreaking loss for the Cynic camp.

Guitarist and vocalist Paul Masvidal described his reaction to the news as feeling like he was sinking in quicksand. “I was unable to play my guitar for weeks, and found myself expending whatever energy I had cleaning and organising my home. Grief is the most powerful experience; it wipes everything else away,” he wrote on Instagram.

That sense of loss and mourning precedes the release of Ascension Codes, and the album is being pitched as “both swan song and rebirth”. It’s only the group’s fourth full-length recording since 1993’s debut Focus and comes seven years after Kindly Bent To Free Us, which, combined with the loss of Reinert and Malone, heaps a considerable weight of expectation onto the record. Masvidal is joined in the studio by drummer Matt Lynch – who took over from Reinert in 2015 but whose only recorded contribution up to this point has been the 2018 single Humanoid – and Dave Mackay on keys and bass synthesiser. It’s interesting that Mackay doesn’t play a conventional electric bass on the album and the overall sound is certainly a step away from Kindly Bent To Free Us.

Where Kindly… had a generally organic sound that suggested three musicians playing together, Ascension Codes is a much denser, more overtly produced listen. Masvidal has previously employed a vocoder to alter his voice on earlier albums, but here he seems to go a step further. His voice becomes another instrument and part of the overall soundscape. It’s low in the mix and heavily processed, which is an interesting artistic choice but does have the (intentional, perhaps?) effect of making most of the lyrics indecipherable.

In turn, this makes trying to penetrate themes or concepts behind the music
a challenge. Masvidal has talked about the album expressing the struggle to attain ascension, and there seems to be a sci-fi element herein but the mix makes analysis very difficult. DNA Activation Template points most clearly towards that element – the computerised spoken voice brings to mind Rush’s Cygnus X-1. Perhaps the references to ‘ascension’ refer to humanity ascending into the universe, but it’s hard to say.

While there are 18 tracks in total, there are just eight full songs here, all of them separated by shorter instrumental soundscapes with odd titles like Ha-144 and Shar-216. These brief interludes help make the album more digestible, providing palate cleansers between the full-blown auditory onslaught of the main tracks. Masvidal’s guitar work is a wave of cascading riffs, with melodic lines that weave in and around each other.

Unlike the three-piece sound of Kindly Bent…, here everything is layered, whether with swirling ambient soundscapes, keyboard melodic counterpoints, or Matt Lynch’s constantly interactive drumming. 6th Dimensional Archetype and Architects Of Consciousness exemplify Masvidal’s maximalist approach of going full-on and flat-out. There are moments when he eases off the accelerator in Elements And Their Inhabitants and The Winged Ones, allowing some air into the music but that’s not where this album is going as a total experience.

Sean Reinert was justly celebrated for adding fusion drumming vocabulary to progressive metal and Lynch also seems to be following that path. He’s a nimble drummer, rarely playing straight grooves but constantly firing off fills, even when Masvidal is singing. His quickfire runs around the kit recall Simon Phillips, Manu Katché or Gary Husband, albeit in a heavier musical context.

There’s some sense of circularity here. While younger groups such as Arch Echo, Animals As Leaders and Periphery owe a debt to Cynic for pioneering this very particular approach to progressive rock and metal, the polished, processed sound of Ascension Codes seems influenced in turn by the bands that followed in their footsteps. The exuberance of the playing is in contrast to the understandably melancholic vibe that has resulted from the deaths of Reinert and Malone. Right now, Cynic’s future seems anything but certain, yet with their fourth record, Masvidal’s continuous evolution proves that he can keep pace with the youthful challengers, pushing at the boundaries of modern prog while still delivering a fitting testament to fallen friends and colleagues.

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David West

After starting his writing career covering the unforgiving world of MMA, David moved into music journalism at Rhythm magazine, interviewing legends of the drum kit including Ginger Baker and Neil Peart. A regular contributor to Prog, he’s written for Metal Hammer, The Blues, Country Music Magazine and more. The author of Chasing Dragons: An Introduction To The Martial Arts Film, David shares his thoughts on kung fu movies in essays and videos for 88 Films, Arrow Films, and Eureka Entertainment. He firmly believes Steely Dan’s Reelin’ In The Years is the tuniest tune ever tuned.