Friday 10 December 2021

Cynic - Ascension Codes (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Progressive Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 26 Nov 2021
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It's almost a shock to realise that Cynic are only on their fourth album, given that they're one of the true pioneers of progressive metal. They formed in Florida back in 1987 and their 1993 debut, Focus, is seen as a pivotal release in the genre. However, they broke up a year later and remained gone until 2006, so losing all the momentum they had built. A second album wasn't released until 2008, with a third in 2014 and this fourth in 2021. Prolific they aren't.

The main man in the band now is Paul Masvidal on guitar and lead vocals (and I choose that order deliberately). He's the only founder member left, as original drummer Sean Reinert left the band in 2015 and died in 2020, while Sean Malone, three term bassist, also died in 2020. In the face of all that bad news, the good news is that the new fish, Dave Mackay on keyboards and synth bass and Matt Lynch on drums, feel like they've been there for years. They're certainly more than up to the sheer complexity that playing in Cynic requires.

This is an unusual album in that only half of the eighteen tracks are actual songs. Each of them is accompanied by a very short, ambient and often instrumental interlude with a cryptic name that presumably represents a star. This all feels science fictional and it wouldn't surprise me if there's a concept in play here that might show up if only I read the lyrics. Having only listened, any theme isn't obvious except in this structure. Also, while these interludes all run well under a minute, one of the longer pieces also fits alongside them and that's the five and a half minute DNA Activation Template, which, until the four minute mark, feels like it could have been lifted verbatim out of a movie.

The reason I haven't sought out the lyrics is that they just don't seem to be important here. This is prog rock with a metal edge that feels like it's all about the music. We're here to embark on some sort of adventure, with the interplay of guitars and keyboards the transport mechanism. Sure, the songs proper often feature vocals but Masvidal's voice is just a musical texture laid over whatever soundscape the guitars and keyboards have conjured up, just like Mackay's bass synths, which are often delightful if without any real bite. They're not always there to serve a traditional bass role.

I struggled to hear any of these songs in isolation. This is a fifty minute slab of music that happens to be broken up into parts with different track names. I enjoyed Architects of Consciousness and Diamond Light Body, for instance, but I couldn't really discern when either began and when they ended. They were just there and they sounded good, just like Mythical Serpents stands out in quality but not from its surroundings. I do wonder how they'll tackle this on stage: will they just introduce a new song called Ascension Codes or attempt to break it up into more palatable fragments?

Because of this, it's hard to judge how good this actually is. It certainly sounds good but it's oddly elusive. I left it with a tone firmly in my mind, but little else. In some ways, listening to this album may be like I imagine abduction by aliens might be. I can see someone explaining a feeling to the camera without any capability of describing the experience: "There was beauty and light and complexity and it all washed over me in pleasurable waves but I can't picture any particular thing that was there at all. Maybe it was light blue. Maybe it was green. But it was soothing and it was everything. It was like being born."

And, given that I'm stuck with that, I'm failing in my job as a critic. If this album isn't an automatic purchase for you and you're intrigued by what I'm saying, I'd suggest finding Mythical Serpents on YouTube because your response to that will be your response to the album as a whole. For me, I'm going to listen through again because this is simultaneously relaxing and challenging to me and I kind of like that feeling, but I'm still lost as to how good it actually is. I think I'll play safe with 7/10 because it's clearly good but ought to be more tangible.

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