Cynic – Ascension Codes (Album Review)

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2020 sucked for everyone for many reasons, particularly for those who live on the arts. And while the health of those in the Cynic circle wasn’t directly affected by the covid-19 pandemic, 2020 was book-ended by the deaths of longtime drummer Sean Reinert and on-again/ off-again bassist Sean Malone, who together brought the intricacies of jazz to the attention of hordes of prog and death metal fans. Nearly thirty years after its release, Cynic’s debut album “Focus” remains one of the most influential and masterful records of the then-burgeoning tech-death genre, which bizarrely also introduced fans of the gore and Satan-obsessed Florida death metal scene to eastern philosophy and mysticism.

It’s no exaggeration to rank the Reinert-Malone rhythm section as one of metal’s deadliest. What set them apart from other forces of nature was their staggering ability to mirror the human experience by rumbling the ground and hitting things. It wasn’t enough for these guys to merely tickle 12-string Chapman and play along to a dryer full of pebbles without ever missing a beat. Even at a young age, the Seans had mastered the art of saying it all while barely uttering a word, and the immense vocabulary they’d obtained by studying the Weckls and the Jacos of the world ensured that every metaphorical whisper carried weight. That a couple of metal-heads just happened to be on these particular  wavelengths while laying down the groove for one of the many South Florida metal bands whose CDs my mom refused to buy for me just based on their names is, I daresay, a goddamn blessing. Even as Allen and DiGiorgio shredded everything in sight with Sadus, and Portnoy and Myung made nerdiness cool with Dream Theater, it was The Seans of Cynic who took the flair of Joyce, leashed it with the biting restraint of Hemingway, and thus propelled their craft both outward and inward. Their gifts were our gifts, and this Thanksgiving I will be grateful that not only am I and mine alive and thriving, but that we got to share our brief time in the sun with The Seans, their fruits, and the fruits of their many harvests.

But poor Paul.

He may have been brütal enough to collaborate with Chuck Schuldiner in Death, and introspective enough to acquaint three generations of death metallers to transcendental meditation, and resolute enough to continue the band  after Reinert left in the wake of their 2014 album “Kindly Bent to Free Us,” but the loss of his Cynic brothers has surely devastated bandleader Paul Masvidal. Which is why I was pleasantly surprised (and more than a little skeptical) to hear earlier this year that a new Cynic album was in the works. Matt Lynch had already been performing admirably in Reinert’s stead, but the thought of Cynic but sans The Seans hovered nervously between “what better way to honor them?” and “no fucking way dude.”

Paul has delivered the latter. “Ascension Code” is without question worthy of the Cynic banner. And to address the point that most concerned me: there is no suitable replacement for Sean Malone (though Robin Zielhorst of Exivious) did a damn fine job on the “Traced in Air” tour), so there’s no damn bass guitar on this album at all. Instead, we get the contributions of one Dave Mackay, a British pianist notable for having toured as Art Garfunkel‘s keyboardist. On “Ascension Codes,” Mackay shrewdly creates sonic landscapes not unlike what you’d hear on the new age Pandora station while synthesizing bass parts – think of a metal Ray Manzarek – that honor Malone‘s legacy without attempting to ape it. He even takes the spotlight on a number of the album’s bumper tracks whose unorthodox titles – take “Da’z-a86.4” – seem to hint at the “ascension codes” that are apparently a big deal for people who value chakras, light mastery, and all that.

Mackay’s backdrops notwithstanding, “Ascension Codes” sees Cynic forgoing the earthier, more organic approach of its predecessor in favor of the group’s heavier past. Several moments on this monster of a record sound like a more fully realized take on what Cynic did on those incredible first two albums; “In a Multiverse Where Atoms Sing,” for example, is the throwback to “Focus” many Cynic fans have been pining for since the 2008 release of “Traced in Air,” while “Diamond Light Body” – easily one of the finest compositions of the Cynic discography – could literally have been on that latter album.

None of this is to imply that “Ascension Codes” is merely Masvidal spinning his cynical wheels. From the opening salvos of the beastly instrumental “The Winged Ones,Masvidal makes clear that regardless of who does or does not perform alongside him, the spirit of Cynic lives on and continues to grow. This point is punctuated during the jazz breaks that lift cuts like “Elements and Their Inhabitants” and “Mythical Serpents” into that astral plane that has been Masvidal’s lyrical focus for some thirty years now. The informed listener could be justified in asserting that Masvidal is plowing forward by reaching into his past to both cope with the loss of The Seans and to venerate their massive contributions to their crafts. Hell, we even hear echoes of some death growls on “Mythical Serpents.”

So where does all this leave “Ascension Codes? In a very tough spot, to be frank, as it marks the point where Masvidal has been robbed of the opportunity to create more magic with the only rhythm section who had ever recorded under the Cynic banner while also being the most fluid offering in Cynic’s catalog. I cannot understate how much “Ascension Codes” is a monument to both The Seans and to Masvidal’s own desire to persevere. I just can’t bear to ponder the anguish that went into creating this shockingly complete piece of work.

Released by: Season of Mist
Release Date: November 26th, 2021
Genre: Progressive Rock

Musicians:

  • Paul Masvidal / Vocals, guitar
  • Matt Lynch / Drums
  • Dave Mackay / Synth, bass synth

“Ascension Codes” Track listing:

 1. Mu-54* (0:32)
 2. The Winged Ones (5:08)
 3. A’-va432 (0:28)
 4. Elements And Their Inhabitants (3:09)
 5. Ha-144 (0:30)
 6. Mythical Serpents (6:24)
 7. Sha48* (0:19)
 8. 6th Dimensional Archetype (4:07)
 9. DNA Activation Template (5:25)
10. Shar-216 (0:23)
11. Architects Of Consciousness (6:20)
12. DA’z-a86.4 (0:34)
13. Aurora (4:34)
14. DU-*61.714285 (0:30)
15. In A Multiverse Where Atoms Sing (3:48)
16. A’jha108 (0:28)
17. Diamond Light Body (5:43)
18. Ec-ka72 (0:47)

9.0 Excellent

A lesser human would have understandably given up. Paul Masvidal instead offers us so mighty a testament to endurance and so gallant a triumph of resolve over devastating loss that I almost feel as if we as a species do not deserve it

  • Songwriting 9
  • Musicianship 9
  • Originality 9
  • Production 9
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