20 April 2018 – KSCOPE
05. Beneath My Skin
06. Mirror Image
08. The Arrow
It is always a promising start when an album’s name gives you food for thought before you hear a single note of the music contained within. TesseracT‘s fourth album title, Sonder, is a deceptively straightforward term for a concept that becomes more complex the more you think about it. In short, it is the realisation that every single stranger you pass on the street has a life as complex and nuanced as your own. Thinking about that too hard on a tube train during Monday morning rush hour might induce a nosebleed.
TesseracT’s journey began around fifteen years ago, as a collection of files on guitarist Acle Kahney‘s computer. It is notable that, over all that time, Sonder represents the first collection of songs written by a band in exactly the same shape as those which preceded them. This stability seems to have brought both an assurance in their established sound, and the confidence to bring in some changes. The net result is unmistakably TesseracT, but a new TesseracT. Sonder is not the direct descendant of any of the three preceding albums, but rather takes recognisable elements from all of them, together with some brand new ones.
A significant change is evident right from the start, with lead single “Luminary” opening with a squall of feedback. Sonder marks a clear shift in approach in terms of the tones employed. Where previous albums have sounded like they were recorded under laboratory conditions to make everything crisp and clean to the point of clinical, Sonder feels closer to having been recorded live. There is more fuzz in the distorted tones, particularly at the low end, the clean tones feel less sharp, with their corners rounded off and a more shimmering vibe. TesseracT had hoped to be able to record drummer Jay Postones’ parts live, but practical constraints prevented this from happening – but nevertheless, a combination of experience and technological progress means that the programmed drums sound more natural than on Altered State and Polaris, to the point you’d be forgiven for thinking they were the real thing.
The other big sonic shift is the return, for the first time since One, of harsh, aggresive vocals. It is undeniable that for certain quarters in the metal community, this is a very important thing. But before those people get too carried away, these screams are employed sparingly, for emphasis, and no song has a fully screamed vocal lead. Sonder definitely sits further along the heavy spectrum than Altered State or Polaris, so it makes sense that the vocals could follow suit without sounding gratuitous. So, yes, the screams are back – but whether or not they hang around is clearly going to depend on the context.
It’s also fair to say that Sonder has a psychologically heavier lyrical theme, too. The sting in the tail of the brief definition I opened with is that being surrounded by all this complexity can leave the individual feeling alone and insignificant. Seemingly taking more cues from the mighty Maynard James Keenan, Dan Tompkins‘ lyrics are both vivid and cryptic, with a biting undercurrent, even when singing in beautiful, delicate tones. A particularly good example is the angelic delivery of the potent line “They’re taking away the freedom to be just you” in “King“. There are moments of sadness, of anger, regret and confusion – and also of cautious optimism. All, it would seem, is not completely lost.
Clocking in under 40 minutes, Sonder is startlingly brief in prog metal circles, but that brevity means the album is lean and entirely devoid of obvious filler material. Virtually every song could be slotted into TesseracT’s live setlist, and it’s always preferable for an album to leave a listener hungry for more rather than to outstay its welcome. Yet even with its relatively shorter running time, Sonder covers a lot of ground.
The towering (Monolithic?), bendy-riff outro of “King” melts away, then the song segues effortlessly into “Orbital“, a short, guitarless interlude that has similar ambient soundscapes to previous tour buddies Nordic Giants. “Juno” feels like classic TesseracT with a distinctly 80s twist, some Michael Jackson-esque vocal hooks from Dan and a wonderful, pulsing middle section where the guitars again take a back seat momentarily, letting the atmospherics breathe before building back up to a trademark stop-start riff to close out the track.
We were told when “Smile” was released as a single last year that the track was still very much a work in progress, and the finished version is close to a minute longer, and has had considerable amounts of dynamic flesh added to the bones of the single version, so it slots in seamlessly with the other tracks, and even seems to have a hint of New Romantic influence to it. “Smile” is buttressed right up against album closer “The Arrow“, a bittersweet peon to wasted time that gently ebbs away to silence.
The plain and simple truth here is that Sonder is unquestionably the most mature, most varied and most consistently engaging TesseracT album to date. It is the sound of a band who are increasingly comfortable with themselves and their sound, but are also keen to continue to develop and challenge themselves, so that the comfort doesn’t develop into complacency. The term ‘Djent’ might still be generally relevant in 2018, but its also clear that TesseracT have now transcended the scene they played a considerable part in bringing together at the turn of the decade. TesseracT now make TesseracT music, and when they are turning out an album with this much depth, quality and passion, precisely how it is labelled does feel rather irrelevant. Sonder is indeed a must-listen for anyone interested in seeing where prog metal will progress next.