I’m just going to assume you know TesseracT by now. The UK progressive metal pioneers have, like many of their peers, become an increasingly polarizing (or Polaris-ing, am I right?) act since One‘s release in 2011. The group’s fourth release, Sonder, will be available on April 20th. ‘Sonder’ means, more or less, to be amazed by the idea that each and every one of the people on this planet have complex, multi-faceted lives. As such, this review pulls together three writing staff for what will hopefully be a multi-faceted review of the group’s new record. Staff writers David and Andrew, as well as Editor-in-chief Landon, got together to discuss TesseracT‘s fourth outing. A podcast review will follow after the album’s release.
I will begin with the short version: Sonder is the best album TesseracT have made since their debut. They have not beaten One in terms of combining technicality, melody, ambiance, pacing and writing on Sonder, but they come damn close, and they no longer need to make any excuses. Gone are the ‘who’s our singer this month?’ days of Altered State (an album which I, perhaps controversially, feel suffered from a lack of dynamics and pacing) and the Perspective EP (the less said about which, the better). And we are also past the ‘lookee here! Tompkins is back!’ statement that was 2015’s Polaris (not an un-excellent album by any means, but it was too explicitly a vocal showcase). No, Sonder shows all of TesseracT’s strengths at once, with enough variation between songs and balance between their strengths on display to make an artistic statement of near peerless beauty and impact.
Full disclosure needs to be made before I further sing Sonder’s praises any further. Few bands hold me in awe as much as TesseracT. The only band who successfully challenge them for the top-tier spot in my list of favorite bands would be Dream Theater. This would not be due to a mere case of aesthetics and taste, but also due to timing. I credit their One album of 2011 for awakening me to what some of my peers deride by calling ‘modern metal.’ I am a native of the 90s, and a connoisseur of old-school death metal. Most metal got so bad in the mid- and late 90s that I started to prefer classical music. I was content to listen to my old favorite metal albums until One came out. That album so struck me with its combination of technicality, heaviness, and melody as to make me want to hear more. Such was the folly that brought me to this scene and I never looked back.
The ambiance on Sonder never overpowers the album’s heavy moments. And those heavy moments truly occupy the spaces of prominence in the songs where they count the most (“King,” “Juno,” “Luminary,” and the reworked version of last year’s “Smile” single), not seeming at all like token heavy riffs as they did at times in Polaris. The album’s proggy elements never make the individual songs lack distinction, which I felt happened on Altered State at times. The album even djents at times (again, “Juno”); a thing not necessary for greatness, but never unwelcome when done well.
I welcome Sonder to 2018 like the return of an old friend whom I have missed for seven years.
Personal Score: 9.5/10
TesseracT are well within the upper echelon of modern progressive music, and rightfully so. Their commanding, emotionally moving performances are near legendary. Altered State has always been their peak for me and while Sonder doesn’t directly square up to that coveted spot, it does offer their strongest work since then.
The most TesseracT song on here is “Juno”. It has thick, groovy bass licks with some oddly timed mid-range guitar riffing that is synonymous with the band’s sound. To me, the band is amazing at creating these atmospheres that sound mechanical in tone, but still carry the heart and vulnerability of humanity. This is a track that could seemingly fit in anywhere in the band’s catalog and work fine, which might be good or bad depending on how you look at it.
“King” is the closest they have come to recapturing the magic they bottled for Altered State. This song marks the return of bassist Amos Williams’ screamed vocals for the band, but it’s still Daniel Tompkins’ clean singing that catapults this song into the stratosphere making it one of the best of the year so far. It’s more emotive and dynamic than “Juno” which is nice; the vocal harmony at the end of the track layered over ambience is outrageously powerful.
Likewise, “Smile” is another highlight. The vocal melody is smooth, verses parsed out well into clean and quite singable meters. This track bleeds into “The Arrow”, which is a strong but short ender, comprised of trademark ethereal instrumentation. It sounds like what floating in a kind, soothing, healing ocean feels like.
Sonder only falters in that it isn’t the best I’ve heard from the band. It may be unfair to compare a band to a time five years ago where they were surely in a different headspace, not to mention had a different vocalist, but this album is still comparatively safer and less experimental than what I’ve heard from TesseracT before.
Everything TesseracT has done in their career has been at least good to me. Sonder does nothing to break that streak. It’s a beautiful gem that plays to the band’s strengths, keeps it short and sweet (only 36 minutes!), and will likely be a highlight in prog metal for 2018. I only hope the band can keep moving forward and surprising us more in the future while hitting all the normal beats that they do so well and that fans expect from them.
Personal Score: 8/10
TesseracT has had my attention since their debut full-length was released in 2011. They introduced a meditative focus to a genre that often sought to be chaotic. Seven years later, Sonder continues this tradition but with a renewed focus on concise pacing, focused instrumental performances, streamlined arrangements and pronounced vocal delivery.
The UK quartet has always known how to start a record, but even then, “Luminary” is particularly gripping. From its opening feedback to its powerful, restrained groove and soaring chorus, the song is both more gritty and catchy than much of the material I’ve heard from the band. It is immediately apparent that vocalist Daniel Tompkins is more on his game than has perhaps ever been heard on his TesseracT work.
“King” builds on the momentum from “Luminary” while adding an angry edge. Though I have no demands that screaming be a part of my metal, it was a pleasant surprise to hear a more aggressive vocal performance on the track to match the song’s intensity and lyrical themes.
TesseracT stretch out on the eleven minute “Beneath My Skin/Mirror Image” while practicing minimalism on the sub-three minute “Orbital” and album closer “The Arrow”. “Smile” is also reworked to great effect, with a more industrial and aggressive tone than what we heard on last year’s single version.
Sonder is a welcome entry into TesseracT’s catalogue, especially after the somewhat lukewarm Polaris. The band’s song structures are increasingly accessible, while the album’s seven tracks and 36 minute length keep the act’s meditative approach from becoming monotonous. My only complaint, and a substantial one, is that the group’s instrumental performances seem to have been refined almost to the point of repetitiveness. I would not for a moment question the band’s ability to create catchy, commanding grooves. However, the their repeated use of slow, down-tuned riffage and ambiance leaves something to be desired in terms of versatility. Perhaps this lack of musical diversity was a necessary trade-off for Sonder’s aerodynamic pacing, potent grooves and mesmerizing melodies. But I’ll leave that to you to decide.
Personal Score: 8/10
Average Score: 8.5/10
Notable Tracks: “Luminary”; “King”; “Juno”; “Smile”
FFO: Skyharbor, Brutai, Johari