Cynic’s continual state of development has met its share of challenges over the years, hurdles that threatened to dismantle the entity’s forward surge. Yet through hurricanes, breakups, and assorted acrimony both personal and existential, it remains inspired to create.
Their name is synonymous with what it means to be truly progressive in music. Cynic’s top-tier performance acumen and cerebral/spiritual/yogic themes finds them inhabiting a corner of the musical spectrum all their own. Their Venn diagram shows intersections with death metal, prog rock, thrash metal, experimental, new age, jazz fusion, and a myriad of other sonic expressions.
Debut album, Focus (1993), is a certified classic. Although that era ended with transformation into the short-lived Portal, and then a further splinter toward Aeon Spoke, Cynic’s reunion-era has found them embraced in a way that proves how ahead of the times they were in the ‘90s. Through monuments such as the Traced in Air (2008) and Kindly Bent to Free Us (2014) albums, the Carbon-Based Anatomy and Re-Traced EPs, and a surprising rebirth with the “Humanoid” single of 2018, the Cynic legacy remains untarnished. Yet early in the creation cycle for their fourth full-length album, they experienced horrible events that tested the entity’s resolve.
The year 2020 will go down in history as a tremendously difficult time for the global human population. For the Cynic family, the struggle was not restricted to a pandemic. It was two utterly senseless losses that threw the band’s immediate concerns into the background: the premature deaths of drummer Sean Reinert in January, at age 48, and bassist Sean Malone in December, at age 50, were shocking and unthinkable.
Reinert, a founding Cynic member since formation in 1988, was highly influential to a multitude of young drummers. His work on 1993’s Focus and Death’s watershed 1991 album, Human, found him sculpting extreme technical metal with a jazz fusion-inspired approach. Now taken for granted, that approach to the instrument and the genre was undoubtedly pioneered in large part by Reinert. Though parting with Cynic in 2015, his imprint on Cynic is inescapable.
The death of Sean Malone dealt another horrible layer of tragedy to Cynic’s 2020. In his many years with the band, Malone’s virtuoso playing meshed intuitively with Reinert’s. Together they formed a nucleus of kinetic, highly capable rhythmic dexterity that fueled Cynic’s celestial aims.
One of these deaths would have seemed unimaginable by itself. Both of them, in the same year, nearly broke surviving member Paul Masvidal. But the seeds of a fourth Cynic full- length existed long before the deaths, and the guitarist, through a haze of grief and disbelief, pushed forward. “I wanted to make this record right after Kindly Bent to Free Us,” says Masvidal. “I was raring to go, hyper-creative, in this total flow state. And then it all imploded.”
Parts of songs were in the gestation process as early as 2014. Masvidal says that Reinert and Malone heard elements of what ended up on the fourth album. Slowly, methodically, and with much careful deliberation, Masvidal eventually completed an album titled Ascension Codes, to honor the memory of his fallen band mates. And while the album honors the lives and contributions of Reinert and Malone, it also pushes Cynic forward for its own sake and through its own will to live. The album, paradoxically, acts as both swan song and rebirth. It is, throughout its 49 minutes, a vivid and highly cosmic journey into the very core of every impulse this band has ever explored.
As of 2021, the future of Cynic is unclear. Does Ascension Codes mark their final phase of growth? Surely the music finds them laying out a most ambitious trail of spiritual sonic travel, but to call any Cynic album “ambitious” is redundant. They are, by their very nature, an ambitious band. Yet Ascension Codes is a remarkably far-reaching work. Its nine main songs are infused with explosions of color and energy, and throughout these compositions are embedded the “codes”: “Mu-54*,” “A’-va432,” “Ha-144” and so on.
Though clearly an album best listened to in its entirety without distraction, for full impact, there are definitive Cynic songs here that stand strong on their own. “Mythical Serpents” is imbued with propellant adventure, exciting peaks and valleys that tug at the heart while its mathematical sequences challenge the head in a dizzying push/pull dynamic. It’s that quintessential Cynic approach of kaleidoscopic intensity and mannered discipline.
“Diamond Light Body” brings the album to a crashing close – heavy and celestial, with some melodic sequences that feel like new territory for Cynic. An incredibly dense song with inhuman patterns from Lynch, the song’s beautiful urgency and final moments push the album outward into the heavens: “I won’t feed the fear / I’ll choose a different timeline / Ascend / All is flux, nothing stands still / Ascend.”
The expanded Cynic collective maintains focus on Masvidal’s vision, each human element adding to the compelling overall result. Truly, if this is to be the final artistic stroke by Cynic, then they have landed in a place of mastery. The stories told by Focus, Traced in Air, and Kindly Bent to Free Us are now completed with Ascension Codes.
Ascension Codes is perhaps the most ethereal sounding Cynic album to date, but also skews heavier than previous album Kindly Bent to Free Us. The expanded lineup is surely responsible for the album’s far-reaching scope.
After Sean Reinert’s exit from Cynic in 2015, Masvidal and Malone recruited drummer Matt Lynch. Found through a tip from Between the Buried and Me’s Dan Briggs, Lynch proved to be a perfect addition to the band. As Masvidal notes, Lynch’s “hybrid modern style is like a fusion of drum and bass electronic music influences combined with modern jazz/prog approaches. Lynch is a true original in that he’s a fully realized drummer constructing his parts as carefully as any other compositional element always is on a Cynic record. Every single accent and note coming from him is birthed from a precise and inspired place.” We hear this throughout Ascension Codes, pushing the music along with finesse, adding shape and texture in ways only the most sensitive drummers can do.
But how to replace Sean Malone on bass? Masvidal’s answer: don’t even try. The lines of bass notes heard throughout Ascension Codes are performed on bass synthesizer by keyboardist Dave Mackay. A British pianist, writer, producer and Moog/vintage synth enthusiast, Mackay has toured with everyone from Art Garfunkel to Plini (the latter providing the initial introduction between Mackay and Masvidal). Based in Los Angeles and London, Mackay’s work is sensitive to Malone’s touch, while also adding a throbbing intensity that offers Cynic new low-end possibilities. “He’s got a vast jazz harmonic vocabulary,” notes Masvidal, “which is what’s needed in the context of Cynic’s music, especially for bass lines. I knew that I could never replace Malone. Anyone I would find would be expected to play like him, and that’s not fair to another musician. And things were too fresh for me with the loss of Malone, so I had to go somewhere new. With Mackay, I heard his groovy left-hand approach, and how musical he was across the board having played with a variety of musicians and styles. I realized he would bring something fresh to the table, and he provided a space for me to start again with a completely different instrument and forgo any traditional ideas I had about what Cynic bass lines should sound like.
Ultimately Mackay delivered above and beyond, with a real awareness of a bass player’s role in a progressive trio context. First, by holding down the harmony and being “in the pocket,” while also creating an independent and dynamic voice within that space. Mackay has a rare combination of skills and the vibe he locked into with Lynch with sounds like a rhythm section from the future. Plus, his Moog synth tone offers a low-end depth that’s never been heard in our recordings.” On December 5, 2019, Dave Mackay shared the stage with Paul Masvidal for a performance of the guitarist’s solo material. On bass that evening was Sean Malone. After the gig, Malone told Masvidal, “We should bring Mackay in for the new record.”
Michael Berberian, president and founder of Season of Mist Records remained close to Masvidal throughout the 2020 losses of his bandmates. Michael states “I have, by now, released close to one thousand albums. None have been more dramatic, none have even been more difficult than this one. I can’t listen to Ascension Codes without goosebumps, a mixed feeling of pride – because it’s a musical milestone, but it also contains a lingering layer of sadness. I hear Paul’s pain on this record. I can feel it, I can touch it. But it’s transcended. ‘Art is to console those who are broken by life,’ said Van Gogh. Here is a demonstration of that.”
Ascension Codes was mixed and co-produced by Warren Riker, who worked with Aeon Spoke, Cynic in the Traced in Air era, and mixed Paul Masvidal’s solo acoustic trilogy. “Riker’s a wizard who gets inside the music and commits. He expands boundaries as a mixer, always finding new ways to push the sonic envelope,” says Masvidal.
Keeping things in the family, Martina Hoffmann’s original painting entitled ‘The Landing’ graces Cynic’s new album Ascension Codes with breathtaking scope and presence. The visionary work inspired by Martina’s time walking the beaches of Brittany, France after the death of her longtime partner, the artist Robert Venosa (whose artwork adorns all Cynic releases between 1993 and 2018) followed by the loss of her mother, the subject of the piece features the arrival of a great mothership made of light and flesh, not machine but an organic entity that has brought hope and infinite possibilities. Masvidal says of Hoffmann, “Martina’s art has always held a special place in my heart, and I’m deeply grateful for her love and support. When I first contacted Venosa as a teenager, it was Martina who encouraged him to lend his work to the band, because she heard something in our music. She is like the divine mother in this Cynic/ Venosa lineage,” Masvidal says. “Her spirit and multidimensional talents are truly a gift to this world. I feel that she is one of the great artistic voices of our age.”
The struggle to attain ascension is as important as ascension itself. And after much searching, Cynic have again achieved oneness with the numinous. At a time of possible exit for the entity, Ascension Codes is Cynic reaching a previously-unknown state of enlightenment.
Credits and Lineup:
With Masvidal, Lynch and Mackay at the core, Cynic utilized a variety of other artists to help achieve their vision for Ascension Codes, some of the key players include:
DARK (Roopam Garg) performs as “code worker” on the album, providing harmonic, harp-like guitar textures. DARK also known for his other works with “The Surrealist” is an experimental, ambient artist, pushing the avant-garde guitar envelope using extended techniques and consciousness inspired soundscapes.
Max Phelps contributes “holographic-reptilian-voices” on multiple tracks. Phelps toured with Cynic in the Carbon-Based Anatomy and Kindly Bent to Free Us eras, and his own progressive metal band, Exist, have released music on Prosthetic Records. Phelps also took part in Death tribute band, Death to All.
Plini guest solos on “The Winged Ones.” Plini is an an Australian guitarist and composer, producing heart-fueled, progressive instrumental rock. He opened shows for Cynic in Japan, which happened to be their final live performances as a trio with Reinert/Malone.
Anrita Melchizedek is a renowned priestess, healer, galactic ambassador, among other pursuits, and provides vocals to the opening and closing code interludes (“Mu-54*” and “Ec-ka72”). Amy Correia and Joshua Leon vocalize light language and phrases on various code interludes. Amy appeared on Traced in Air and 2011’s Carbon-Based Anatomy EP,and plays with Masvidal in the Onward with Love (OwL) project. Michael Devin plays crystal bowls on some of the code interludes. Devin is also a bassist and has played with the Jason Bonham Led Zeppelin Evening, George Lynch, and Whitesnake. Ezekiel Kaplan contributed a vocal harmony to the final track “Diamond Light Body.”
02. The Winged Ones
04. Elements and their Inhabitants
06. Mythical Serpents
07. Sha48*8. 6th Dimensional Archetype
09. DNA Activation Template
11. Architects of Consciousness
15. In a Multiverse Where Atoms Sing
17. Diamond Light Body
Paul Masvidal – Guitars, Vocals, Lyrics
Dave Mackay – Bass Synthesizer, Keyboards
Matt Lynch – Drumscapes
Guitar Codes ^ Artifacts: Dark
Voice Code Activations: Anrita Melchizedek
Reptilian Collective: Max Phelps
TWO Soloscape: Plini
Crystal Bowl Attunements: Michael Devin
Light Language Teachers: Amy Correia ^ Joshua Leon
DLB MetaTerrestrial: Ezekial Kaplan
Mastering Studio & Engineer: Andrew Mendelson of Georgetown Masters (Nashville, TN, USA)
Mixing: Warren Riker
Production: Paul Masvidal & Warren Riker
The Landing ^ Triptych ^ Martina Hoffmann
Biography: Jeff Wagner
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