Band: Cynic | Album: Ascension Codes | Genre: Progressive metal, Progressive rock, Jazz-fusion | Year: 2021
From: Miami, USA | Label: Season of Mist
Cynic is one of my absolute favorite progressive metal bands. They’ve got a singular sound that weaves together death metal, jazz, and astral progressive rock. Though they have drifted away from explicit death metal after their 1993 debut, their evolution has been natural, and they’re still recognizably the same band.
Ascension Codes is the band’s fourth full-length album and the first since the untimely deaths of founding drummer Sean Reinert and longtime bassist Sean Malone. These two are sorely missed, but the musicians assembled by guitarist/vocalist Paul Masvidal pay fitting tribute to the unique styles and incredible skills of their predecessors. Notably, instead of utilizing a bass guitarist, the bass parts here are all played on a synthesizer, which lends a unique character to this album in the context of Cynic’s discography.
This album is structured somewhat oddly. There are 18 total songs here, but fully half of them are sub-one minute interludes (and mostly sub-30 second). I was wary when I first saw this, but these tracks are so brief and fit into the flow so well, they’re easy to miss. As such, I won’t be discussing them, but know that they do not detract from the experience.
“The Winged Ones” is the first proper song on the album. It is an instrumental with a gentle, drifting intro. It featuring a descending synthesized bassline, and clean guitar and deft drumming dance around each other in this spacious soundscape. Gradually, the song builds to a high-energy place where guitar and synthesizer trade the lead. As is often the case with Cynic, jazz elements are prominent, but there are also dashes of post-metal in the expansiveness of this cut.
Following this is “Elements and Their Inhabitants”, which is more immediately metallic. Chugging guitars and Masvidal’s unique synthesized vocals signal that this is undoubtedly a Cynic track. The increased prominence of keyboards is very nice here, and the warm throb of the synth bass makes everything feel full and fleshed out in the quieter moments.
The lead single, “Mythical Serpents” follows. It opens with burbling synthesizers and light, jazzy percussion. The verses are driving and urgent, and the robotic vocals spouting sci-fi imagery all feed into the extraterrestrial vibe. The song continues on an upward trajectory until it erupts into a twisting, contorted guitar solo.
“6th Dimensional Archetype” has strong forward momentum and succeeds at giving a sense of interdimensional travel. It eventually arrives at a slower, mellower place, but it’s an exciting trip there. Immediately following this (no interlude) is “DNA Activation Template”. Looped electronics open it up slowly, along with especially-processed vocals. It’s a spooky soundscape which reminds me of the midsection of “Sheep” by Pink Floyd.However, it goes on for too long and is the one weak spot on Ascension Codes. After nearly four minutes, though, it concludes with an exciting 60-second instrumental jam. The guitar is weird and jagged, the synth bass buzzes enchantingly, and the drumming is nothing short of masterful.
“Architects of Consciousness” is another slow-opening song. Electronic elements again play a large part here as synthesizers sizzle during the intro. When the guitar enters, it is speedy and nimble, and the first verse is beautifully pared-down. This song shifts between slow, simple verses and flashy, high-energy instrumental passages with great skill.
“Aurora” is a warm song that sounds like it would have fit in well on Kindly Bent to Free Us. This song starts off nearly as a ballad, but by its end, it has grown in intensity with dramatic vocals and swirling layers of guitar.
The opening riff to “In a Multiverse Where Atoms Sing” is about the closest Cynic have gotten to their death metal roots in a long time. It even features some unclean vocals in the background in the second half. The song is ragged and energetic, and it’s the perfect backdrop for some skillful instrumental interplay.
Ascension Codes closes on “Diamond Light Body”. Pulsing synths and Eastern-tinged guitar lines feature in the intro to this track, and the intensity ebbs and flows very well. The extra-heavy processing on the vocals add a sense of claustrophobia, and the last two minutes features a huge, majestic riff that acts as a fitting climax to this record.
Cynic has never been a very prolific band, but they’ve always made the wait worth it. Seven years after Kindly Bent To Free Us, Ascension Codes is another strong addition to their oeuvre. It features all their hallmarks of complex instrumental passages, synthesized vocals, and diverse influences.