By David E. Gehlke
2020 began for heralded progressive rock/metallers CYNIC with the devastating news that ex-drummer and co-founding member Sean Reinert passed away at 48 due to an aortic rupture. By then, Reinert had been out of CYNIC for five years after a falling out with fellow co-founding member Paul Masvidal, leading to a contentious battle over the rights to the band's name that eventually led to their label, Season Of Mist, stepping in and resolving the situation. The year ended on a similarly tragic note: Bassist Sean Malone took his own life after slipping into pandemic-related depression. He was 50.
The twin loss of Reinert and Malone only added to the complex storyline surrounding the band's long-awaited fourth studio album, "Ascension Codes". The album marked a new beginning for Masvidal, who remains the sole original member from the band's classic 1993 "Focus" debut. He tapped Matt Lynch to replace Reinert but opted to forego traditional bass parts in favor of a bass synthesizer courtesy of multi-instrumentalist Dave Mackay. The result is still CYNIC: ethereal, complex and airy, but now further imbued with melody and less tied to "Focus" and even their successful 2008 comeback album, "Traced In Air". Ultimately, the album shows that CYNIC remains fluid and evolving in the face of tragedy and less-than-ideal circumstances.
Masvidal maintained a low profile throughout 2020 and 2021 as he coped with the passing of Malone and Reinert and worked on "Ascension Codes". (He has also started work on a documentary on the careers of Malone and Reinert.) But in this exclusive interview with BLABBERMOUTH.NET, Masvidal spoke about the long journey to complete "Ascension Codes", how Lynch and Mackay impacted the album's creation, his relationship with Malone and what the future holds for CYNIC.
Blabbermouth: You worked on "Ascension Codes" for a while with many notable setbacks. Can you describe the feeling of finally seeing its release?
Paul: "It held a spectrum of feelings and emotions and spaces…it was an entire spectrum. It's the widest spectrum I've ever felt in that way. There's a lot, like ancestral stuff. It's interesting. It's one of those things where it's been neutralized in terms of feeling like a reward and more just like I feel grateful that it found its way because I didn't think it was going to happen."
Blabbermouth: You were ready to keep going right after the release of "Kindly Bent To Free Us" in 2014, then all of these obstacles appeared.
Paul: "Yeah, it was collective. We were all in on it. I think it's more about saying these things that were happening were part of whatever was happening rather than calling it a setback. Why does it have to be broken out into a record? There's a lot of life happening in that period as well, other kinds of life. CYNIC is curious in that way."
Blabbermouth: When was the point when you hunkered down and got to work on the album? Did the pandemic help in that way?
Paul: "On a practical level, being kind of captive in your own space, per se, your space feels captive — mine doesn't. It could give you more time to have fewer commitments. You could redirect the energies, so we did that. There was also grieving; a lot of subtle textures, not such a black-and-white environment either. It's active, very active." [Laughs]
Blabbermouth: Did you become more creative when all these things were happening in your life and in the real world?
Paul: "There was a time when I think I may have chased versions of discomfort as a familiar space and hung out there, hung out in the discomfort. It's a living organism. [Laughs] It's moving."
Blabbermouth: Speak a little about Season Of Mist's support. They've been huge backers of your work since CYNIC came back in 2008. What is it like to have such good partners as a label?
Paul: "I am so grateful that Michael [Berberian, label owner] really appeared when he did. We were in a situation where things were not moving and it settled into this blobby space that was not comfortable and Michael came in and said, 'I think I can help,' and he did. He became the liaison between Sean [Reinert] and me, which settled the situation, which played a huge role in moving forward. Huge. Integral to the whole thing. I have just grown to connect with them. I really bonded with Katy [Irizarry, North American label public relations rep]. I talk to Michael constantly. He's become more of a cousin or something. [Laughs] We have a really interesting dynamic that I've never had before. I'm grateful for that."
Blabbermouth: Is Michael someone you can use as a sounding board for your ideas?
Paul: "Sure. I guess, depending on what degree you could call it a 'sounding board.' Sending demos or titles. I don't really do that with [other people]…it really just happens with the musicians, like that kind of exchange. We talk about many things, a variety of things, so there are aspects where he's a sounding board. There's a lot of advice, actually. They're just really [helpful], showing up."
Blabbermouth: Did the songs on "Ascension Codes" evolve once you and Matt got going? Did the arrangements change over the years? Or, when you two got moving, did they settle into place?
Paul: "It was a combination of all those things. Some are more developed than others. Some are going way back. I saw an email the other day of me sending a demo of 'Elements And Their Inhabitants' to both Seans, an early demo. They both heard that one. There are probably two others on the record they heard roots of before there were drums, maybe a loop or something. There's some trajectory, lots of phases of evolution. There's a lot of gestation, then movement, then pause. It was in a cryonic state, then returned. Lots of time to just settle."
Blabbermouth: Can you speak to Matt's involvement and the shoes he had to fill? Was he instinctual, or did you have to steer him in a specific direction?
Paul: "The thing with Matt is, once you understand what his thing is intimately in terms of playing in a room together, it changes the way relationship is with the music. That's really it. Developing trust. Matt's best playing is when he does whatever he wants to do and hears it from the root. Maybe once in a while, there will be some bouncing around. After we had played in the room together, I felt there was an innate trust that was happening. He really is a voice all his own. He has his own sound. He's an independent voice. It's really cool to hear that in the context of CYNIC. It really is a different sound. A lot of sub-dividing in the most dynamic and interesting way. He has his own really interesting groove. It's so cool. I'm grateful for that. Drums are really the whole thing, at the root of it. The whole rhythm section was uprooted."
Blabbermouth: On that note, Dave's playing with the bass synthesizer totally reimaged that role in CYNIC. How did that come together?
Paul: "I want to say Warren [Riker, producer] was the root suggestion for the synth. What happened was, Sean [Malone] was gone. There was a period of him leaving California. Then he was gone. For me, it was two things: It was anger because I felt like he left and stopped communicating. There was no way of knowing with everyone we had in common. There was a bit of anger, like, 'What have you done? We're working on a record, man.' Then, there was the grief, a sense of…whatever it is, he's going somewhere else. He's going somewhere else. Settling into that was a real thing. But Dave is perfect. For me, first of all, psychologically shifting beyond the whole sound of it. The idea of synth as a bass instrument and especially with the Moog, analog vibe, it just feels 'off' enough where you can't compare it to anything."
Blabbermouth: It's a contrast. It makes the album sound a little alien, but at the same time, it has made "Ascension Codes" your most melodic album.
Paul: "What for you makes it the most melodic?"
Blabbermouth: Your singing really drove it home. Your development has been pronounced from 'Focus'. 'Traced In Air' and 'Kindly Bent To Free Us' were big jumps, but how your vocals sit on top of the songs combined with the bass synth playing gives it a more melodic slant than before.
Paul: "Like the way it cuts through is more pronounced. They sit in their own way, that's for sure. Dave is such a beautiful, melodic voice. As a pianist and keyboardist, he's a natural, beautiful improviser of a musician with an incredible vocabulary. He says a lot and he has a lot to say. I feel that's really the beauty of what is making it work is that he's just doing his thing. The last concert onstage I was with Malone was 'Mythical Human Vessel' in L.A. Dave and I had already done some other gigs with him as solo acoustic. I had already worked with him in a bass role. Having him step in as bass player in the context of this record went really organically. He played that last gig; he was onstage with Sean and I for the last song. Malone liked him; he really liked him. There's something there. I really like Dave, too. He feels like a brother to me. He's somebody I enjoy the relationship with. The same with Matt, there's a real brotherhood."
Blabbermouth: I'm sure that was important when doing an album like this, especially after the last year. It had to be important to have good people who shared your vision.
Paul: "Yeah, and brought their vision to it and expanded the vision. It's really a collective effort thinking about all these little roles that friends and colleagues play. They are so integral, so beautifully intertwined in the record. These are friends. It has that sense of, at least for me, I don't want to use the word 'security' because there's never a sense of security…"
Blabbermouth: "Traced In Air" was released 13 years ago and was crucial in re-establishing CYNIC and introducing the band to an entirely new audience. Have you ever thought much about what the album did for your career?
Paul: "That question holds so much, you know? It found its own life, for sure. That little alien did its thing and it's still going. It's really got its own frequency; it's such a unique, interesting record that was so specific to a time that it was birthed. Everyone was in there working on things. Then the first few years after 'Traced' were really active. I think some music lives in its own frequency. It can sit in its own little space and sound to exist and not have to have a reference point. It's not like a datable thing; it becomes an artifact, I guess. The sound keeps going. Sean and Sean were on fire on that record, too. Then the re-recording of it, 'Re-Traced', that was all about Malone. He redid his bass because he never liked his original performance. He was coming off a very difficult thing that happened — he was robbed. He had lost everything. They took all his hard drives and computers. This is pre-cloud [based computing]. It really broke him in a way. There was a book he had finished on perfect pitch, an ear-training kind of book for [music publishing company] Hal Leonard. He only had snippets of paragraphs that were emailed. He lost the whole book. No one had the finished [copy]. It never happened. It never got published. Hal Leonard never got the whole thing. He was so at the end of his rope. It can be very demanding and Malone was a private person. He wanted to be alone, if possible. Great company, though. So beautiful to be around when he wants to be around other people."
Blabbermouth: Did you go into "Traced In Air" with any expectations after a 15-year break?
Paul: "Yes. Yes. There's a hook here to project something out there. There's a fine line, right? It's a dance. That record, I feel like, for me, this is really true with 'Ascension Codes', they write themselves. You don't feel like you're leading the show. You're trying to create a space for something to happen. It doesn't feel really personal, but it's super-personal. It holds all of that. It's very full-spectrum music. The album cover holds that iridescence. It holds that spectrum. That was such a grace. The alignment with Martina [Hoffman, 'Ascension Codes' cover artist]. It's a beautiful, unfolding relationship."
Blabbermouth: You had Robert [Venosa] handle your previous covers.
Paul: "This is the first time we've had someone other than Venosa. It's his partner of 30 years. They were together and were married for 20, but together for 30. They traveled around. They're really a family. I've known Venosa as long as I've known [Martina]. She was in the room the first time I spoke to Venosa, so she's always been present. Venosa was the more dominant voice because that's who we were connected to at that time, but I always felt connected to Martina's presence. She was very supportive, a mother-like role. She has a big heart, a big cosmic heart."
Blabbermouth: You had hinted in the album's accompanying bio that "Ascension Codes" may be the final CYNIC album. Is that the way you're leaning now?
Paul: "I can't make decisions like that, not right now. It's impossible to tell. Right now, I'm getting behind this rad record. I want to move into the film; I have an idea that's been brewing behind the scenes with some people. It's kind of an immersive and immediate work. It's not a series of music videos; it will be more sound design. I think the palette of the record is not so literal. That's the next thing and that's as far as I can go as thinking. CYNIC has never been big into planning. It's just more of a thing that happens. You step into things, then step out. I don't know, I really don't know. It really could go either way, but I don't know. Maybe I will know at some point. It's way more subtle and layered. You have to have something to say, right? And yet not say it at all. It does feel that impersonal. I listened back to things often. I haven't been doing it with this record, but I had moments when I listened to it and was like, 'Who did that?' Then you think of the things you've been doing and living and interested in…it just finds its way. It's so beautiful that Lynch in his full expression and it merges beautifully. It's beautiful that Mackay slithered right into that and they danced in a really incredible way. It's really cool. But, the future? Who knows?"