01. Of Matter – Proxy
02. Of Matter – Retrospect
03. Of Matter – Resist
04. Of Mind – Nocturne
05. Of Mind – Exile
06. Of Reality – Eclipse
07. Of Reality – Palingenisis
08. Of Reality – Calabi-Yau
09. Of Energy – Singularity
10. Of Energy – Embers
It’s probably fair to say that the last couple of years have not gone according to plan for TesseracT. In 2011, with the release of acclaimed debut One and some high profile tour appearances, their star was firmly in the ascendant. But the sudden departure of beloved vocalist Dan Tompkins and the brave but short-lived recruitment of Elliot Coleman somewhat broke the momentum. The discovery along the way that an alarming proportion of their fanbase were whiny reactionary dingbats can’t have helped, either. So the band retreated from the spotlight for the second half of 2012 to work on second album Altered State.
What is clear from the first listen is that Altered State is weighted more towards the prog than the metal in this equation. New boy Ashe O’Hara‘s vocals contain not a single bark, growl, screech or bellow, and remain melodious – or ‘clean’ – throughout. This might dismay some of the aforementioned dingbats, but I felt the screaming on One was a bit surplus to requirements, so I can’t say I miss it. Most importantly, Ashe’s voice suits the music even better than Dan’s did. It was a hard road for the band to travel to get here, but it was worth the effort.
Musically, Altered State is more evolution than revolution from One, and even the guitar tones seem largely unchanged. Tesseract’s key construct is to not separate out the contrasting light and shade into quiet verses and loud choruses, but to play them simultaneously, layering Ashe’s plaintive vocal lines together with ethereal guitar and keyboard atmospherics over their trademark, off-kilter staccato chuggery.
All of this is in turn propped up by the truly exceptional rhythm section. The rock solid contribution of bassist Amos Williams and drummer Jay Postones cannot be underestimated. Less imaginative or talented pairings could easily have dragged these songs down into dirges, but instead they inject an intelligence and vitality that lifts the tunes above their peers in an ever busier genre. I don’t have a copy of the instrumental version of the album, but in all honesty I would be perfectly happy listening to a guitar-less version, which is a rarity, to say the least.
The band are now comfortably occupying the halfway house on a path that connects Meshuggah to Tool. Altered State does have a fairly introspective, almost melancholic feel throughout, which is perhaps a reflection of the band’s recent past. In penultimate track “Singularity”, however, they break out into something more extrovert, cautiously hinting at a brighter future ahead of them.
Whether you call it prog-metal or djent, Altered State is probably one of the most complete examples of the genre to date, and my appreciation of it has grown with each successive listen. This is definitely a slow burner, instead of the more immediate gut-punches of some of their contemporaries.
The album does sit in a slightly odd place in terms of temperament, though – it’s a bit too frantic to be considered chill-out, yet not quite beefy enough for head-banging, and too rhythmically complex for dancing. I’m sure there is an activity that Altered State would be a perfect soundtrack for, I just haven’t quite figured out what it is yet.
I’m also slightly concerned that TesseracT may be painting themselves into a sonic corner, falling into a similar trap to Meshuggah. They do what they do very well, but pleasing and unexpected surprises are few and far between. However well executed the songs are (which is ‘very’) they rarely stray far from the template laid down by Concealing Fate. One genuine surprise is the appearance of a saxophone towards the end of the album, and I can’t help feeling that a couple more curve-balls like this would have enriched the experience further.
Altered State feels like a consolidation and a reboot, providing a strong platform for the band to grow from. There are moments on this album that sound like Ashe, in particular, is pushing right to the very limits of his abilities, which is commendable. I’m sure the inevitable hard touring the band will now embark on will only help to push those boundaries outwards.
Fundamentally, if you liked One then you are probably going to come to love this, but I’m not sure it’s going to change the minds of previous doubters.
I’ve already said this album is a slow burn, and with a weekend between me writing the bulk of this review and this final paragraph, this point has only been reinforced. This is a powerful, mature album that represents a certain amount of triumph over adversity. And one that is well worth investing some of your time in to ensure its treasures are fully appreciated.