Cynic have long achieved legendary status in extreme metal and prog, introducing jazz fusion influences to death metal in 1993 with their monumental debut album Focus. Previously, core Cynic members Paul Masvidal and Sean Reinert served a number of years in the iconic Death for the recording of 1991’s Human and subsequent touring cycle. In the 30 years since, Cynic fell and rose again, with Masvidal and Reinert moving through various projects with and without the other until the reformation of Cynic proper in 2006. By the time their highly praised sophomore album Traced In Air was released in 2008, the group all but abandoned their death metal roots, but nevertheless rekindled the spirits and goodwill of metal spheres following Traced In Air and the follow-up EPs Re-Traced and Carbon Based Anatomy in 2010 and 2011 respectively.
Despite their legacy, Cynic have been marred with regrettable interpersonal woes. Lineups constantly revolved and the group had disbanded twice, with Reinert splitting from the band following 2014’s Kindly Bent To Free Us, an album which received mixed reaction from fans for perhaps being a bridge too far away from the aesthetic that defined Cynic in the first place. Masvidal determined to continue with Cynic without Reinert and teased new material, including the single Humanoid in 2018, but then, last year, the world lost both Sean Reinert and longtime bassist Sean Malone. This rapid succession of trauma was heartbreaking, and knowing the members’ potentially unresolved conflicts, does complicate the legacy of Cynic somewhat. Without Reinert and Malone, it’s easy for some fans to find it difficult to get excited about the prospect of new material.
Yet Cynic presses on, with a new studio lineup that sees Masvidal bringing in Trioscapes‘ Matt Lynch on drums and keyboard player Dave Mackay (Plini collaborator) to perform synth bass and keyboards to round out the album’s sonic reaches. With a background in intricate jazz-influenced prog, Lynch is as good a Cynic contributor one could hope for after Reinert. Further, the choice to not replace Malone with a bassist and instead opting to utilize synthesizers to play fill out the low end does feel appropriately commemorative and respectful of Malone’s legacy. Mackay is certainly inspired by (and seemingly attempts to emulate) the flow and tone Malone’s signature fretless bass performance, and may be close enough to fool passive listeners. Beyond the low-end, Mackay’s keyboard contributions are a no-brainer, and elevate Cynic’s sound with further opportunities for texture, atmosphere, and dynamic.
Cynic has become increasingly imbued with a meditative and psychedelic new age spirit and is a clear cornerstone to their sound and entire aesthetic, and whether or not you’re on board with that will determine how successful Ascension Codes is at infiltrating your listening habits long-term. That specific esoteric nature is woven deeply into the album’s fibers at levels heretofore unseen, with the 18-track span being padded out with several 20-to-40 second ambient interlude tracks that, while wildly unnecessary, do contribute to the album’s character and helps the album flow between tracks. What’s left are nine “real” songs that are actually deeply satisfying for longtime Cynic fans, and positions Ascension Codes as a proper follow-up to Traced in Air.
In an ambitious move, opening track “The Winged Ones” is entirely instrumental and features guitar work from everyone’s favorite nu-prog virtuoso Plini Roessler-Holgate. It’s a stunning track that establishes the album’s fusion vocabulary and sense of space, with appropriately soaring keyboard and guitar solos in lush passages. We don’t hear Masvidal’s effects-laden voice until approximately six minutes into the record on the propulsive “Elements and their Inhabitants”, which features classic Cynic-isms like vocodor, arpeggiating tremolo riffs, ethereal guitar leads, and a dynamic drum performance. Lead single “Mythical Serpents” leans into post-rock inclinations, and although it features a highly Traced in Air-like familiarity in its chorus, it is a deceptively mild choice for a lead single compared against an album that is markedly heavier than Kindly Bent To Free Us.
“6th Dimensional Archetype” is full-tilt classic Cynic, and is a surefire album highlight. “DNA Activation Template” may spend a bit too much time in shifting psychedelic soundscapes and risks grinding momentum to a halt as it tucks away an inspired callback to the album’s opening track during the last minute-and-a-half. “Architects of Consciousness” is dark and dynamic, laden with hooks, and features some invigorating keyboard solos. “Aurora” is another buoyant Cynic classic, utilizing intertwining guitar leads and shifts in dynamic to craft something monumental. “In A Multiverse Where Atoms Sing” is rhythmically aggressive and relatively chaotic by Cynic standards, and is the most “metallic” the band have been in quite a long time. Final song “Diamond Light Body” follows the chaos with a little breathing room, with Mackay and Lynch grooving amongst themselves while Masvidal vibes through atmospheric chord work before delving into one of the most interesting guitar solos he has ever written.
The press materials accompanying the album seem to leave Cynic’s future in ambiguity. If this is indeed the final full-length album that releases under the name Cynic, then they will be going out on what should be considered a career upswing. Masvidal evidently proven that has much left to say in this style of metal, and was motivated to craft a meaningful statement of intent following all the trauma. The band has made great strides in developing Cynic’s sound in a way that remains true to the core of Cynic, with invaluable contributions from Mackay and Lynch. Further elaboration on the element of synthesizers and solo-laden instrumental prog are no-brainers going forward (if they do at all). Through seemingly insurmountable odds, Cynic have managed to deliver a bonafide career highlight with Ascension Codes.
Cynic’s Ascension Codes is out November 26th on Season of Mist Records. Pre-orders are available at this location.