British band TesseracT are among the pioneers of the increasingly popular djent movement but hold a unique identity, one which merges philosophical lyrics, atmospheric instrumentation and internal willingness to progress musically. While most of the instrumentalists have now been long-stays within the band, the mic has shifted from hand to hand, from those of Daniel Tompkins (During the first LP to be precise) to those of other popular artists of the genre such as Elliot Coleman (now with Good Tiger) and Ashe O’Hara; and finally, back to those of Daniel.
To put in context my views of the new album, I thought I’d first put down my story of discovering the band and my thoughts on their previous works. As a devout proghead, TesseracT, and quite a few of the other major djent bands, have eluded my ears for some reason or the other. So, when I discovered that TesseracT are putting out new material this year, I took it onto myself to add this band’s discography to my ‘Saved Albums’ list. Frankly, it took quite some time for me to connect with the band, which may be surprising to their staunch and swelling fanbase. I reasoned along to detractors that I was bothered by the inherent repetitiveness in riffs, the slight lack of variety and melody in those low chugs, and the continuous change in vocal styles with each album. Over time though, I’ve grown to like ‘One’, with the “Concealing Fate” suite and “April”, my favorite track, appealing massively to me. ‘Altered State’ and ‘Polaris’ are a bit more inconsistent in my eyes: I’d be thoroughly impressed by a track (In the case of the former album, each track ‘section’) but find the next one completely forgettable. When I heard ‘Sonder’ was only 37 minutes long, I was optimistic – A trimmed down ‘Polaris’, for example, would make a great album. And I’m glad to announce that “Sonder” is indeed a great album, though a few of the inconsistencies persist.
There is quite the divide among TesseracT fans about who’s the better vocalist between Daniel Tompkins and Ashe O’Hara and who’s better suited to the music. The good news for the former singers’ loyalists is that he puts in a performance of a lifetime on ‘Sonder’, the first and most conspicuous highlight of the new album. The vocal ranges he achieves on the new album deserve to be studied by aspiring vocalists and the emotion rollercoaster he takes us on is one every prog fan should experience. If you need a quick example what he’s capable of, just listen to “King”, already one of my favourite TesseracT tracks. He initiates his delivery with anger, disdain and power, as clean vocals (“…Coexist again”) transition to harsh ones (“Bow DOWN!…”) almost magically. Soon, after a musical transition of dreams, his low range licks your eardrum and tugs at your heartstrings. I covered a lot Kamelot recently and weirdly found similarities in the Tompkins’ approach towards polished choruses to that of Roy Khan’s in “Juno”, for example. Other notable moments are a siren-like cry on “Smile” and the bitter-sweet final phrases on “The Arrow”, comparable in tone and emotion to The Contortionist’s “Monochrome (Pensive)”, also an album closer.
The songwriting is improved as well. On one hand ‘Sonder’ retains the band’s signature booming chugs and poly-rhythms on “Luminary” (Which starts off almost exactly like “Nocturne”) and “King” as well those groovy, bass-heavy riffs on “Juno” and the outro of “Smile”. In addition, it takes a few influences from other popular progressive rock acts, such as Porcupine Tree (including Steven Wilson’s solo works) and The Contortionist, especially in the softer moments of the album. These include the previously mentioned transition on “King”, the intro of “Beneath Skin” and even the atmospherics on “Orbital”. The meditative riff after the first stanza “King” also sounds very familiar, although I’ve not yet come to terms with the provenance. The execution of the instrumentalists is flawless, which should now be a given when taking into the consideration the talent on show here. Amos Williams is wonderful, as always, though I’ve to commend Jay Postones, who didn’t particularly stand out to me on previous albums, but does a fine job here, his best and most noticeable contribution being on “Beneath my Skin”.
The philosophical lyrics have been a strength of TesseracT in the previous efforts and continue to do so on ‘Sonder’. “Insignificance”, a word tying together most of the album is adapted well in prose – case in point the phrase “Invisible to every passing eye” on “Luminary”. “King” lets the shackles loose on patriarchal dominance – “Bow down submit to me and kiss the ground” – before tying into the overall theme with “They’re taking away the freedom to be just you”. “Beneath my Skin” tries to bring out some optimism only leaving you even more distraught as the final words “You wasted half your damn life” ring in your ears as the album culminates. For a first-time listener, I would suggest glancing over the lyrics while checking out the album, they mirror the music perfectly here.
If I’ve to nitpick at a few flaws, I would say “Beneath My Skin” and “Mirror Image”, two of the lengthier and slower songs, are not on the same tier of quality as the rest of the album. The riff off “Beneath My Skin” is forgettable and the song as a whole is a bit too dependent on Tompkins and Postones’ beats for its listenability, without which it would completely fall apart. “Mirror Image” is even slower and more repetitive and is representative of the type of tracks on ‘Polaris’ that I don’t like.
The production, one of Tesseract’s strengths over the years, could be a point of contention on this album. Don’t get me wrong: the riffs, beats and sampled electronics sound as crisp and polished as ever. Even though I wouldn’t dare to claim to be a sound quality expert, I can still point at two minor inconsistencies in the album’s sound. The first one was clear to me right from the very first run-through – the guitar and the djent riffs are way too loud in the mix initially. This maybe intended, but, for example, the opening riff of “Luminary” and much of the first half of “King” don’t need to be this loud and as evident in the former track, sounds much better at a lower volume during the chorus. The next inconsistency is how the vocals are in the mix. Consider “Beneath My Skin”, where they are barely audible even when the instruments aren’t that loud, and contrast it to “Juno”, where they are well mixed.
To summarize, ‘Sonder’ is a strong and concise effort by TesseracT, exploiting its signature sound yet exploring newer lyrical and musical latitudes. If I’d to point out a single reason to check out the record, do it for Daniel Tompkins, who puts in a stupefying vocal performance.
Buy The Record Here: https://www.nervegas.com.au/TesseracT