Album Title: Ascension Codes
Label: Season Of Mist
Date of Release: 26 November 2021
There are some albums that get released that leave you scratching your head, wondering ‘how?’ ‘Ascension Codes’, just the fourth full-length release from US progressive outfit Cynic is one such record. Beginning life back in 1987 but suffering more break-ups, line-up changes, and internal friction than most soap operas can deliver in a lifetime, it’s a wonder that we can still talk about the band being a functioning entity. But functioning they remain, even after one of the most turbulent and tragic periods in their already tempestuous history.
Cynic circa 2021 sees only one original member remaining in the collective following the departure back in 2015 of drummer/keyboardist Sean Reinert, who sadly then passed away in January 2020. And then long-term bassist Sean Malone committed suicide in December of 2020. The fact that we have ‘Ascension Codes’ in any shape or form then, is something of a blessed miracle. Assisting vocalist, guitarist and keyboardist Paul Masvidal on this release, is drummer Matt Lynch, and bassist Dave Mackay. And the question on mine and everyone’s lips is ‘is this record any good in this new incarnation?’
The fact that Paul Masvidal remains at the helm, means that ‘Ascension Codes’ is recognisable as a Cynic album, even if it does offer something new once again. Always a name synonymous with creativity, experimentation, and progression, no two albums have ever truly sounded alike. And the same is true here, although the greatest single reference point here might be ‘Traced In Air’ albeit there are nods to all of the band’s back catalogue within ‘Ascension Codes’ if you care to listen for them.
Unusually for me, I want to have a bit of a moan first and pick on the aspect of ‘Ascension Codes’ that doesn’t work as well for me, personally-speaking. The album is comprised of an initially hefty-looking eighteen individual tracks but take another look and it becomes apparent that the album can be divided equally in two. On the one hand, you have the ‘regular’ tracks, what I would call the actual songs. And on the other, you have nine interlude pieces that all last under a minute. I’d not mind this too much were it for two important factors. Firstly, the interlude pieces don’t really add anything; they are a collection of snyth-heavy ambient, sci-fi musings if you will. I’m sure they are important in the mind of Masvidal and his overall vision. For me though, it leads to the second issue – the interludes interrupt the flow of the music. Just when I get into a heavier, meatier composition, it all stops for thirty seconds or so before beginning again.
But even then, it’d not be the end of the world were it not for the fact that one of the longer compositions, the five-minute ‘DNA Activation Template’ is effectively one of these interludes on steroids. Nestled at the very heart of the record, it means that we have to endure the better part of six minutes of dead air. That’s a bit harsh as the blips, digitised voices, and atmosphere does lend itself to a dark sci-fi film score that will appeal to some listeners for sure. But it’s just not what I want to hear from Cynic; at least, not for so long and so frequently throughout the album.
The plus side is that we still do get 39 minutes of ‘real’ Cynic music to sink our teeth into and this 39-minute affair is largely wonderful. Beginning with the instrumental ‘The Winged Ones’, this track is built around a bold synth intro complete with strange deep vibration-inducing bass tones upon which the drumming of Matt Lynch comes to the fore, as well as delicate guitar work from Masvidal. The whole track has a light and airy feel to it, something that is a trend throughout this album in fact. It’s difficult to articulate better how the music sounds; on the one hand, it is very Cynic, with jazz overtones and technicality aplenty, whilst it does have a hint of progressive death metal about it, within some of the riffs that emerge in the latter stages. But the music just doesn’t really ever feel heavy per se.
We have to wait until track four, ‘Elements And Their Inhabitants’ before we get to hear the unmistakeable hushed, ethereal vocals of Masvidal. I’m a huge fan of his original delivery, so it fills me with joy to hear his voice atop such a great new song, that flits from heavy to delicate and back again with the most impressive deftness, as well as delivering a spritely, mischievous energy that’s rather infectious.
‘Mythical Serpents’ is another fantastic track that contains some of the most immediate melodies, and fantastic musicianship from both Masvidal and drummer Matt Lynch, who is clearly an incredibly talented musician. It was always going to be a tough ask for bassist Dave Mackay to live up to the sadly departed Sean Malone, but he is no slouch either, even if a little of the magic seems to be lacking. Take nothing away from the trio however, who come together to create a six-and-a-half-minute tour de force of intelligent and beautiful heavy music, the kind that really only Cynic can deliver.
The album continues in the same high-class vein but if anything, the best is saved for last in the form of the exquisite ‘Diamond Light Body’. With vocals that are more digitised and effect-laden than normal, you get the feeling that the track is building up to something. There are twists and turns aplenty, into jarring, almost discordant free-form jazz at times, but there’s an intensity to the music that is palpable. And as expected, the final moments of the song provide some of the heaviest and extreme music on the album, albeit wrapped up in a beautifully euphoric release of tension and outpouring of emotion. This would have been the perfect closer but yes, you guessed it, there’s another quick final outro interlude to see us out. Unnecessary, but expected.
Given all of the context and sub-plots, it feels incredible disingenuous not to just congratulate Paul Masvidal and Co. and move on, especially when you consider just how strong much of this album genuinely is. However, it is far from perfect for all the reasons I have outlined, and not referencing the missteps would also have been disingenuous for different reasons. As it is, three quarters of ‘Ascension Codes’ is fantastic rather than the whole thing. As I listen for the one hundredth time while I type this conclusion though, I have realised something – I’ll happily take three quarters of an album from Cynic because it’s still light years better than the entirety of many other albums out there. And that’s a cold, hard fact.
The Score of Much Metal: 90%
You can also check out my other reviews from previous years right here: