Album Review: Cynic – Ascension Codes

Album Review: Cynic - Ascension Codes
Reviewed by Sam Jones

Cynic are a big name when it comes to Progressive metal. For some they’re one of the most important names in the history of extreme metal, carving out a niche but explosive record back in 1993 that had the rest of the metal world gasping for breath as to how groundbreaking it was for its time. Formed way back in 1987 out of Florida, United States, the band was formed primarily between the power duo that was Paul Masvidal and Sean Reinert (R.I.P.) who, with various other musicians, churned out a number of Demos before releasing a Split and the aforementioned Focus in 1993. The impact this record has cannot be understated, progressive metal wasn’t an unknown entity by this point but Focus was something else; carving out its own distinct identity for progressive death metal as Black metal and conventional death metal had already begun to do so. People may put down the 1990s in regards to metal but this period was a gold mine for experimentation and underground metal development. Things didn’t remain rosy for long though as Cynic would break up by 1994. For fourteen years there was nothing until finally in 2008, a Demo, followed by their second album, Traced In Air, were each released within the same year. But it demonstrated a radical shift in Cynic’s direction: the death metal was no longer a prerogative. This continued to be the case with 2014’s Kindly Bent To Free Us and also brings us to 2021’s Ascension Codes. So, I wanted to see what Cynic had done this time. Its been seven years, was the wait worth it?

What I picked up on pretty quickly as the album began to unfurl itself was how it’s been structured. Aside from one instance where we have two standard length tracks following each other, every single other normal sized song is immediately followed by a small ambient/sample piece that is then proceeded by another normal length track. Sometimes a track structure like this can result in a choppy and misshapen sounding record but for once, that isn’t the case here. As you listen to one track, it’s end will soon be bleeding into the other. As a result, when a track ends and blends into the start of a small piece it is in fact a preparatory phase to atmospherically continue what the album is all about before leading us into the next main piece. Therefore, the album sounds like a single full track that has in fact been split up 18 times; now that may sound pretty excessive but it never became wearisome to trudge along. I think it’s also down to how effective the band have been in restraining their power, if they had gone for a far more crushing sound some cracks may have appeared so it’s entirely down to the gentle and spacey vibe of their soundscape that has given this record the easy, approachable atmosphere you’ll experience.

It’s well established by now that Cynic have vastly left behind their death metal aesthetic and identity, marching towards something that’s much more progressive and down to earth. However, as their 2014 album showcased there’s nothing wrong with it, I particularly took to that album and still think it’s a deeply underrated progressive work amongst similar records of the past decade. I still think it’s amazing we’ve even got another Cynic album after all this time, but if something concrete can be said it’s that Cynic never release the same album twice. The progressive nature to this record isn’t thrown in your face in some narcissistic bid to show off their craft, instead the band really do allow their songwriting to unfold in a natural and rooted way. The guitar work possesses this spacey and ethereal vibe to it that I really enjoyed, which when backed up by a strong and pronounced bass background gave their sound an added dimension that, even now, we haven’t heard from Cynic before. People going into this record expecting crushing riffs or empowering double bass drumming will definitely be disappointed as Cynic, the progressive chrysalis they are, have altogether shed another layer of their skin and given us perhaps their most stripped and serene work yet. There has always been some kind of power to their performance and Ascension Codes is no different, but that power isn’t obvious. It’s much more nuanced.

Album Review: Cynic - Ascension Codes

Much like the guitar work and the overall direction Cynic take here, their drumming is just as light yet competent in its performance. That’s what I really grew to appreciate about this album, the songwriting and instrumental aspects have this serene and feathery texture to their sound and yet as weightless as its impact may seemingly possess the band have managed to make their performance count. The drums are never going to initiate any kind of blast beat or overtly strong, aggressive drumming patterns herein however they stop for nothing; whether it’s a cavalcade of Tom-Toms being struck from one side of the kit to another, the keen and crisp taps of the cymbals that only continue to exert that light and gentle theme the band harness or how the drumming canvas if you will is always being populated by some kind of drumming showcase and then it’s never the same thing for too long. The drums have this rather fluid but structured approach to their writing, from a progressive point of view I think they’re my favourite instrumental piece throughout this record seeing as to how they provide the rhythm and the backbone to the riffs and vocals in this case.

The bass is so thickly satisfying in the same way that ice cream oozes in the viscous and smooth way you see at restaurants or seasides. With guitar work and drumming that is rather light and a general band aesthetic that isn’t vying to be the most aggressive progressive force out there, the Bass being what it is really comes in handy. That’s not to designate the Bass as this saviour piece of instrumentation for the band’s dynamic, far from it, but the Bass definitely provides an impacting and enveloping angle which the rest of the instrumentation would admittedly be lost without. The bass here fills in many roles throughout this record that the primary riff delivery would retain in most other records: grabbing your attention, being the main force at filling out the album’s space and shape and being a focusing, central crux which the audience’s attention can zone in on.

In conclusion, this is an album that isn’t going to blow people away and for those after an aggressive piece of progressive metal you’d best off turn away because Ascension Codes is continuing the sonic themes and textures that Cynic have been making their own since their late 2000s reunion. Since that time, we’ve seen Cynic slowly but gradually peel away the aggressive and violent aspects of their death metal past to the point now where we can venture into a Cynic record in 2021 without the fear of thinking that it’ll be a poor reception because their development has been so well followed that we know for sure by now what to expect from Cynic. So frankly, people who look down this album for what it’s not, are looking at Ascension Codes all wrong as we need to acknowledge Cynic for what they bring to the table as they are. With 18 tracks structured throughout the record as we’ve so covered it may be easy to think it’s a super chopped up record with too many starts and stops, however as we’ve seen each track flows into the next really seamlessly which helps to further the cosmic yet physical and tangible world that Cynic have crafted with this record. It’s another Cynic album which is the most down to earth comment I can make in regard to Ascension Codes, they’ll never recreate the magic that Focus did back in 1993 but honestly, I don’t think Cynic are too bothered by that. They’re doing their new, established thing so they can give fans two completely different, opposing yet equally entertaining aesthetics for their choosing. All in all, I liked this album and loved how easy going it was and, at nearly 50 minutes, I can confirm it went by rather quickly.

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