Review Summary: For the first time, Cynic sounds human.
As with many others, Cynic is the reason I began my love affair with metal. Now, only a few weeks removed from seeing a death metal band perform a song called “Dick Filet” then calling the crowd “cocksuckers,” that sometimes feels like a bad
thing. Jokes aside, as a queer, rural Midwestern kid, caustic groups like these allowed me discover an adventurous weirdness; a feeling of intentional oddness that’s clung to me even in my thirties.
When Paul and Sean came out in 2014, it wasn’t a surprise and its impact was fairly muted. But that bland response was what those outside the metal community needed to see. Much has been written about the importance of these death metal pioneers outing themselves due to the perceived nature of the metal subculture. But for many of us, the outpouring positivity was both cathartic and thoroughly expected. Punk and metal have always been a haven for outliers; a voice for individuals looking for belonging and escapism, if only between a pair of headphones.
It’s the aforementioned background which gives the album its impact. As someone who’s written about music for over a decade, it’s easy to fall into a cycle of mindless consumption and commodification, especially when focusing on a genre whose releases can sometimes blend together. But behind these releases are life times worth of experiences and stories, and everything Paul Misdval has lived through has made its way into Ascension Codes
. A lifetime of artistic struggles and personal loss have framed Cynic’s latest, and it’s that emotional resonance which allows the album to sing.
Traditionally, Cynic have played as an extraterrestrial fantasy by way of Eastern mysticism. After the death of friends and bandmates Sean Malone and Sean Reinert, Paul’s writing feels heavier, wearier, and more grounded to Earth than ever before. The voice behind the robot feels real
, and for the first time ever, Cynic sound human. Lyrically, these themes are more veiled, as Paul is as confounding as ever, singing about looping alien visions, metaphysics, and spirituality, all blending into an often eye roll inducing yarn. Lush with thematic gravity, atmospheric interludes, and patience-testing builds, Cynic’s latest plays its sorrows in alternative ways.
While Kindly Bent To Free Us
injected prog-rock right into the veins, Ascension Codes
is more reticent to offer smaller movements to yield more potent results. With Reinert and Malone gone, Paul Masvidal has been given carte blanche over Cynic. His aesthetic runs wild here—spacey interludes and whirling guitars consume the album’s run time. This is Ascension Codes
greatest strength and most profound weakness. Cynic has always, in some deep, primordial way leaned into pop territory—crafting some of death metal’s earliest “catchy” tracks. You won’t find any “Veil of Maya” or “King of Those Who Know” style bangers here—it’s much more winding and traditionally progressive. Coupled with the bevy of interludes which act as the album’s connective tissue, Ascension Codes
becomes Cynic’s least re-listenable record to date.
About those interludes: listeners will quickly make note of quirky track names like “A’-va432,” which litter the album. These bite-sized atmosphere setting pieces live between the record’s more traditional songs. Their existence creates a clear narrative—Ascension Codes
is a singular piece of music, intended to be consumed as a whole. Admirable, but these interludes are skippable at best, grating at worst.
, despite some strange choices, is the most obvious permutation of Cynic to date, sounding most closely to 2019’s Traced in Air Remixed
. That’s a more coy way of saying Cynic have not returned to death metal, playing more like a traditional version of their 2008 selves. Functionally, it is a course correct from Kindly Bent to Free Us
, whose frictionless and goofy prog sensibilities stole the mythos of Cynic. Beefier tracks like “Mythical Serpents” are driven with pure energy, tapping the same breathlessness of hearing “The Space for This” for the first time. However, as beautiful as the album is, one can’t help but wish there was more of it. Despite the 49-minute runtime, much of the record is cannibalized by wistful atmosphere, internal world-building, and indulgent experiments. This is felt even in the album’s longer pieces. “6th Dimensional Archetype” and “Architects of Consciousness” land with decidedly less impact, sometimes running together amongst the confusing track list. When pieces like “Aurora” and “In A Multiverse Where Atoms Sing” reach their apex, however,there’s nothing else like it. It’s unfortunate that Cynic makes you work so hard to get there.
In spite of all the words dedicated to this album thus far, Ascension Codes
might be Cynic’s least momentous release. Not the genre-creating Focus
, the comeback king Traced in Air
, or the misfire which was Kindly Bent to Free Us
, Ascension Codes
is the band simply surviving; a lush and beautiful sign of life in spite of everything.