Cynic - Ascension Codes

25 Nov 2021 - Gene

Progressive Rock, Fusion | Season Of Mist | Release date: 26 Nov 2021

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Transcending tragedy, Cynic bravely brings the cycle started on Focus to an unlikely and poignant end.

Who could continue after the stunning loss of two friends and bandmates? I could never do it. Yet Cynic, now the entity of which Paul Masvidal is the sole founding member, has continued the material that was already in the works years prior and somehow managed to bring an intoxicating, unbelievable record to fruition, in what threatens to be the last.

To begin with: aside from any kind of analysis – indeed in the very first listening of this work – I can just feel the disarming undercurrent of grief shadowing this journey to ascension and I am entirely at its mercy. But I cannot predict what you will feel; other than the certainty that this is a momentous progressive record drenched in numinous energy.

Cynic’s scientific spirituality is a fascinating subject, one to which I regret admitting I never paid much heed in their music previously, even though it’s just my style. On the one hand I’m not mad. I’ve enjoyed the work on a purely music-fan level, which is enough, and on the other I must come to terms with not readily grasping it all. It seemed like a lot of work, to be honest, and I must have felt like I was the recipient of information in a form that communicated intuitively. I understood by other means. Nevertheless, Ascension Codes turns up that peculiar otherworldy mysticism that Cynic is known for to a holler I cannot ignore. And maybe I still don’t get it. Still can’t tell you in words. But I feel the love. From the insane technicality down to the arcane easter eggs and naming schemes, this record gives me a similar impression as did Thy Catafalque’s Vadak, reviewed earlier in the year, with the newfound variety, alternate instrumentation (no Bass) and myriad of guest musicians, and above all, an impenetrable brilliance. If nothing else, one can write a Cynic lore Wiki, but it won’t be me. I’ll just be over here listening in ignorance and bliss.

If one thing is for certain it is that this is a different Cynic record. With the outfit now consisting of Masvidal, Mackay and Lynch, gone are many of the elements of extreme Metal that were fairly straightforward previously in favor of a sound increasingly exploring abstraction rather than aggression. Soundscapes pepper the mix where a tireless gunfire of notes would otherwise dominate. The 9 songs are buffered by impromptu-like transitions featuring spoken word and dense effects. Incantations, if you will.

I think that aspect has been done to a reasonable effect with the exception of ”DNA Activation Template”, one of the few moments in which I was hung up on the pacing. This track transitions out of a protracted Impromptu in the last minute to become quite an enjoyable sort of dance number. This is the only track to do that and it is unclear why. Again, there must be something I don’t grasp. But either way, these experiments seem to have opened up the entity to unprecedented variety and I am here for it.

Old fans might object, but my unpopular take is that I started to crave more vocal interpolation since the last record, given the beginnings of that fortuitous branching. I am excited to hear Masvidal step out on new ground. Likewise, I must applaud the bass, of which remains – in deference to Sean Malone’s style – Mackay’s synth simulated baselines, which are entirely on point. As well, on tracks like “In A Multiverse Where Atoms Sing” is showcased by a seamless blend of styles and layered vocals with fantastically tight progressions. Similarly, ”Winged Ones” with stellar progressions over a running rhythm pattern from Mackay. And let us not breathe before we stop and marvel at Lynch’s percussive sorcery during all this. Incredibly solid, expressive, magical! “Mythical Serpents” leads with a blackened roar from the netherworld, underpinned by some of the coolest drumming this side of Tartarus.

Regardless of what I can barely grasp, I like that Masvidal is mixing up the vocal treatments away from the straight vocoder, which remains the Cynic signature sound, but now affords more variety in the vocal delivery, a welcome holdover over from Kindly Bent To Free Us. So, the old Cynic sound shines through, while new impulses take up the gamut. If the new sound doesn’t quite approach the memorable hooks of the previous iteration, the fact is easily surpassed by this newfound freedom of expression, which once again is gaining new momentum and pushing boundaries. The wellspring of inspiration has new horizons, surely!

Knowing nothing and everything, of a sort, all I can say is I sincerely hope this isn’t the last we see of this entity, for it seems to spell an end and a beginning all at once, or at least a beginning of this creative force in any iteration, whatsoever. For while the history of Cynic has been marred by setbacks, there has always been some special confluence of sonic energy, as in the singular Gordian Knot project, that shines through the dust where the dead have settled in their metaphysical spheres. Let us hope Ascension Codes is merely the beginning.