CYNIC — Ascension Codes (review)

CYNIC — Ascension Codes album cover Album · 2021 · Metal Related Buy this album from MMA partners
3/5 ·
lukretion
It’s impossible to start this review of Cynic’s fourth full-length album Ascension Codes without mentioning the sad twist of fate that in 2020 claimed the lives of both drummer Sean Reinert and bass-player Sean Malone in the space of less than 12 months. Although Reinert was no longer part of Cynic (he had left the band in 2015), his premature death due to heart failure hit hard the Cynic family, possibly contributing to Malone’s bout of depression that lead to his suicide. Faced with such terrible events, surviving band members Paul Masvidal (guitar/vocals) and Matt Lynch (who joined Cynic as drummer since 2017) were left with the painful task to assemble a new line-up and complete the music for an album that had been in gestation since 2014’s Kindly Bent to Free Us. Masvidal felt immediately that it was not possible to replace Malone and therefore asked pianist Dave Mackay to perform the bass lines of the album on bass synthesizer instead. The trio of musicians were further helped to put together the record by a small number of guest artists, including guitar wizard Plini (who guests on “The Winged Ones”), vocalist Max Phelps, and ambient artist DARK (guitar textures).

The end result is Ascension Codes, a 49-minute cosmic journey divided in 18 individual tracks that alternate between short ambient interludes and lengthier “proper” songs. Musically, the album sounds unmistakably 21st-century Cynic, merging together progressive rock, jazz/fusion, ambient music and a touch of alt/post rock. It follows closely in the footsteps of Cynic’s previous LP Kindly Bent to Free Us, accentuating even further the jazz/fusion/ambient influences and toning down the metal vibes instead. The music is spacey, mellow and atmospheric, engulfing the listener in a hazy sea of mesmerizing drum patterns, groovy bass lines, and layered swathes of dreamy guitars and keyboards. The guitar riffs are nervous and angular, yet strangely smooth and immersive. Lynch’s work behind the drumkit is simply astonishing, his performance a treasure-trove of clever, hyper-technical drum patterns that are nevertheless always played in the best interest of the song. Mackay’s dexterous keyboard playing is also a great addition to Cynic’s music, contributing smooth jazz vibes to the proceedings as well as excellent grooves on the bass synthesizer. Masvidal’s dreamy, high-pitched clean vocals fit perfectly with the mellow atmosphere of the songs, channeling a sort of futuristic Jon Anderson (Yes), both sonically and lyrically.

The album packs some excellent tracks, like the emotionally-charged “Mythical Serpents” where Masvidal’s delicate falsetto tugs the right heartstrings, almost pushing the song in Sigur Rós territory. “Aurora” is more urgent and direct, adding some subtly catchy alt-rock influences that make it one of the most memorable songs of the album. Meanwhile, “In a Multiverse where Atoms Sing” and album closer “Diamond Light Body” are pure prog heaven, reaching levels of hyperactivity and melodic sublimity that are reminiscent of Devin Townsend’s best work.

However, elsewhere the album loses a little bit steam, especially towards the middle where the long, ambient piece “DNA Activation Template” is rather monotonous and breaks unnecessarily the flow of the album. The short interludes between the main songs are also not fantastic in terms of flow. These ambient pieces do not work very well as intros or outros to the songs they bookend, but rather give the record a sense of “stop-and-go” that is incongruous with the immersive ebb and flow of the main compositions. Another complaint I have with the album is that it’s a tad too samey and homogeneous. It lives in its own very definite sonic space, made up of mellow and spacey atmospheres that are endearing, but also fail to leave a very strong first impression on the listener. Repeated listens are certainly necessarily here, but even then I sense a general struggle to ascend beyond the album’s self-imposed dreamy confines with something that is truly momentous and unforgettable.

With a better flow and a couple more arresting songs in the vein of “Mythical Serpents”, “Aurora” or “In a Multiverse where Atoms Sing”, Ascension Codes could have easily crept up on my top 10 of 2021 albums. While it probably won’t end up there, it is nevertheless a very pleasurable album to sit through and will no doubt please Cynic aficionados as well as fans of the mellower, Floyd-infused brands of progressive rock and metal.

[Originally written for The Metal Observer]
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lukretion wrote:
50 days ago
I wasn't very impressed on first listen either, but after a few spins it grew on me. It's not all gold for sure, but there are some good moments
Nightfly wrote:
51 days ago
First impression was some very good parts but too much aimless noodling.
UMUR wrote:
53 days ago
I must say my first listen left me with a feeling of disappointment, but I´m going to give this one a lot of listens before I write my review. I owe Cynic that much, since I`m such a huge fan of their previous work.

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