Bri­tish prog met­allers and pro­gen­i­tors of djent Tesser­acT have found sta­bil­ity in their ‘old’ new line-up, and their lat­est con­cept al­bum may be their most ac­ces­si­ble yet. From tak­ing inspiration from vis­ual cues to get­ting the fans in­volved, they re­veal

Prog - - Contents - Words: Alex Lyn­ham Images: Steve Brown

The djent boys go con­cep­tual but con­sise on al­bum number four.

“I think it’s taken that pe­riod of tour­ing to­gether to re­ally get us to feel­ing as strong as we’re feel­ing now.”

James Mon­teith

The piv­otal mo­ment of Tesser­acT’s bril­liant 2015 live DVD Odyssey/ Scala comes about half­way through, when vo­cal­ist Dan Tomp­kins takes a sec­ond to ad­dress the au­di­ence. “From the bot­tom of my heart, thank you so much for wel­com­ing me back into Tesser­acT.” Hav­ing left the band, Tomp­kins had re­turned af­ter an al­bum recorded in his ab­sence, and Tesser­acT were hav­ing to re­cal­i­brate and re­align.

With Tomp­kins back in the fold, they re­turned to the line-up that had recorded their de­but al­bum One, for which this magazine awarded them the New Blood award at the 2012 Prog Awards. De­scribed as a “mile­stone” for the band by Tomp­kins on that afore­men­tioned DVD, that set and tour drew a line un­der a com­pli­cated pe­riod for Tesser­acT and ush­ered in both a new sense of pur­pose and a rad­i­cal change in their sound.

Shortly af­ter Tomp­kins’ return, the leaner and punchier stu­dio al­bum Po­laris show­cased a new side to the band, at the cost of dis­pens­ing with some of the more nar­ra­tive or con­cep­tual fea­tures of their ear­lier records. In hind­sight, Po­laris is prob­a­bly seen as a step­ping stone, al­low­ing the band to set­tle back into their iden­tity and be­gin to chart a course for­ward.

Their up­com­ing LP Son­der is un­equiv­o­cally the most am­bi­tious state­ment the band have made yet. A sprawl­ing mono­lith of huge riffs and vast, cin­e­matic spaces, it sounds like the sound­track to in­ter­stel­lar travel, even though con­cep­tu­ally and lyri­cally it’s firmly rooted in con­cerns at the gran­u­lar­ity of the in­di­vid­ual. It’s also a clear sign that the band are able to unite high-con­cept prog with easier-to-di­gest riffs, cho­ruses and lyrics, sug­gest­ing that a long bet on Tesser­acT be­ing a fu­ture fes­ti­val head­liner in the metal world isn’t too far-fetched.

Unit­ing the heady con­cep­tual metal of

2013’s Al­tered State – their sec­ond al­bum, which was recorded with re­place­ment vo­cal­ist Ashe O’Hara – with the ac­ces­si­bil­ity and snap of Po­laris has re­sulted in a record that is

some­how al­most un­be­liev­ably mas­sive, and yet clocks in at a mere 37 min­utes. It’s just one of many seem­ing con­tra­dic­tions about Son­der that some­how just work.

“I don’t think it’s a con­scious de­ci­sion but maybe it’s gone back to Al­tered State in a way – it could have pushed us to write some­thing a bit more proggy, so to speak,” says Acle Kah­ney, the band’s gui­tarist and prin­ci­pal song­writer.

It’s to the band’s credit that they’ve been able to pull off some­thing that’s as am­bi­tious as this so soon af­ter fin­ish­ing a lengthy and ex­haust­ing tour­ing cy­cle.

“A few things hap­pened on tour, I guess, writ­ing-wise,” gui­tarist James Mon­teith ex­plains. “There were lots of sort of de­mos be­ing emailed around and Ai­den [O’Brien], who is our front-of-house man and co-writer, and does some pro­duc­tion work here [at Acle’s 4D Sounds stu­dio], he was de­vel­op­ing some ideas in his bunk.”

That at least some of the record was writ­ten on tour should come as no sur­prise – Tesser­acT have been on the road tour­ing Po­laris for nearly three years, along the way play­ing shows with the likes of Go­jira, Me­gadeth and Meshug­gah, in­creas­ing in swag­ger and sta­tus with ev­ery run of dates.

So much of this new-found con­fi­dence comes from the fact that the band’s line-up has now sta­bilised. When Tomp­kins orig­i­nally left af­ter the One al­bum cy­cle, the band spent sev­eral years try­ing to find a re­place­ment, with mixed suc­cess.

Though there are plenty of fans will­ing to ar­gue the point one way or another on­line, the sim­ple fact re­mains that the band have gone from strength to strength since Tomp­kins re­joined, reap­ing the re­ward in terms of an in­crease in pro­file and rep­u­ta­tion.

Son­der is im­por­tant in this re­gard, as it marks the first time that two con­sec­u­tive Tesser­act al­bums have fea­tured the same vo­cal­ist. “In gen­eral, since Dan re­joined, I guess we’ve be­come more sta­ble, more solid than ever be­fore,” says Mon­teith. “I think we’re feel­ing re­ally ready to make a go of this al­bum and see where it takes us. I think it’s taken that pe­riod of tour­ing to­gether to re­ally get us to feel­ing as strong as we’re feel­ing now.”

Like Al­tered State, Son­der is ex­plic­itly a con­cept al­bum. Not only that, but it’s an al­bum that was en­gi­neered from the start as such. “The lyri­cists in the band have been left to their own de­vices,” muses Tomp­kins. “I wanted to take that op­por­tu­nity to sit down with the guys and say, ‘For once can we all just get be­hind not just the mu­sic, but the con­cepts and the lyrics.’

“So for ev­ery sin­gle demo that we had, we be­gan to throw ideas on the table in terms of what we might want to talk about, what kind of images we had in our heads when we lis­ten to the mu­sic.”

From this, a theme rapidly emerged. The con­cept is built around the word ‘son­der’, af­ter which the al­bum takes its name. As Tomp­kins ex­plains, it’s a ne­ol­o­gism coined by the writer and poet John Koenig in his The Dic­tionary Of Ob­scure Sor­rows.

“We started to de­velop a re­ally nice con­cept which we stemmed around the idea of ‘son­der’. When I wrote the lyrics for One, the first al­bum, there was very much a sense of dream-state kind of writ­ing. I’d fall asleep lis­ten­ing to the in­stru­men­tals and I’d of­ten get in­spired by dream thoughts. A lot of the emo­tions I was feel­ing at that time were ineffable. That word has cropped up and been very re­lat­able to me for the past seven years. I’ve not been able to de­scribe cer­tain emo­tions or ex­press how I’m feel­ing.

“When I came across the word ‘son­der’, that was the first time some­body had ac­tu­ally stepped out­side the box and thought about cre­at­ing a word for some­thing, an emo­tion, that was ineffable – ‘Son­der’ be­ing that kind of feel­ing of walk­ing down a street and you sud­denly re­alise you’re sur­rounded by peo­ple that are liv­ing their own lives, their own com­plex and vivid lives, and you are very sep­a­rate to that. You only live your one, tun­nel-vi­sioned life, and you don’t step back and think, ‘Ac­tu­ally, there’s bil­lions of peo­ple liv­ing in­cred­i­bly com­plex lives just like your own,’ and I’ve al­ways strug­gled to put that into words.”

How this con­cept plays out is what ties the mu­sic, con­cepts and art­work to­gether into their grand vi­sion. To sup­port the con­cept, the band so­licited field record­ings from their fans, and the au­dio snip­pets they re­ceived were then worked into tracks or used as

“When I came across the word ‘son­der’, that was the first time that some­body had ac­tu­ally stepped out­side the box and thought about cre­at­ing a word for some­thing, an emo­tion, that was ineffable.”

Daniel Tomp­kins

sonic build­ing blocks as part of the nar­ra­tive con­ver­sa­tion of the al­bum.

“Ba­si­cally we did a call-out to fans to record any sam­ples or sounds or any­thing, and we got about 80 sub­mis­sions,” says Mon­teith. “I think Ai­den used about 40 of those to add tex­tures and lay­ers and ba­si­cally make loads of sounds that you couldn’t have imag­ined would have ex­isted, and he man­aged to cre­ate them from a lot of sounds he didn’t know ex­isted un­til he got them.”

When lis­ten­ing to the al­bum, at many points tex­tures and sounds fleet­ingly ap­pear and evoke the idea of other lives weaved in among the mu­sic, yet some­how they’re still never fully clear to the lis­tener. The rich­ness these sub­tle touches add can’t be un­der­es­ti­mated. Even with­out know­ing the prove­nance of these sounds, the al­bum would still be set apart by their pres­ence.

Though the record as a whole is highly con­cep­tual, the tracks are some of the most im­me­di­ate, con­cise and ac­ces­si­ble the band have yet penned. Take, for in­stance, the al­bum opener and lead sin­gle proper, Lu­mi­nary. Not only does the track reach its epic cho­rus com­fort­ably within a minute, but the song as a whole only just trips over the three-minute mark, a tes­ta­ment to the band not set­ting any hard and fast rules down about how they wanted ideas to de­velop.

“Lu­mi­nary wasn’t meant to be a three­minute song – that’s just how it hap­pened, and it finished at that mo­ment and it didn’t have any­where else to go,” ex­plains Mon­teith.

This ac­ces­si­bil­ity is a nat­u­ral de­vel­op­ment from the direc­tion the band had been mov­ing in on Po­laris, where heav­ier and screamed vo­cals made way for more nu­anced clean vo­cals and in­stru­men­tals that bring the vo­cals more to the fore.

When this trend first be­gan on Al­tered State with stopgap vo­cal­ist Ashe O’Hara, the ef­fect was achieved with ex­ten­sive vo­cal lay­er­ing. Tomp­kins’ approach is very much less-isa more by com­par­i­son. Although there’s double track­ing, sup­port­ing vo­cal har­monies and the odd scream, there’s never an ob­fus­ca­tion of the core vo­cal, and the char­ac­ter and power of Tomp­kins’ singing is re­ally pro­nounced.

In be­tween the heav­ier cuts, there’s breath­ing space in segues like Or­bital, al­low­ing the ex­per­i­men­tal, am­bi­ent ten­den­cies in the record to cleanly meet the nar­ra­tive driven by the lyrics. In terms of the melodies em­ployed, cuts like Juno clearly bear vo­cal traits that Tomp­kins has de­vel­oped on his side projects White Moth Black But­ter­fly and Zeta, and they’re used to dev­as­tat­ing ef­fect.

King, mean­while, is an ex­am­ple of the more col­lab­o­ra­tive style of song­writ­ing that’s emerged on Son­der. On pre­vi­ous records, the work­flow the band found most pro­duc­tive was Kah­ney tak­ing charge, with vo­cals and ad­di­tional takes be­ing added much later in the process. This wasn’t the case on Son­der, though. Not only was O’Brien in­volved on more fun­da­men­tal level, con­tribut­ing writ­ing ideas, tex­tures and elec­tron­ics, but within the band the roles and writ­ing process changed as well.

As Mon­teith ex­plains, “Ai­den was more in­volved in this record than be­fore, and I think he brought a lot of ideas, a lot of the other sounds on the record. He also did the field record­ings, which added a re­ally in­ter­est­ing ex­tra el­e­ment.”

Mon­teith’s own role changed slightly too. “King, that started from a riff I was mess­ing with, which was ba­si­cally the in­tro riff, and Ai­den took it and ba­si­cally added the mellow sec­tion af­ter­ward, then the cho­rus at the end. And Acle took all of that and wrote the bits in be­tween and ba­si­cally re­fined ev­ery­thing.”

Kah­ney adds, “I think King is my favourite track on there, ac­tu­ally. It’s prob­a­bly had the most in­put from ev­ery­one.”

Mon­teith picks up, “Again, that’s a song where once the bare bones had been recorded, Dan wrote a melody, which then changed part of the riff in the first sec­tion and made this re­ally cool lit­tle tex­ture that wouldn’t have ex­isted if he hadn’t writ­ten that, so it ended up be­ing a re­ally or­ganic song. Or­ganic for Tesser­acT, any­way.”

Kah­ney con­cludes by mus­ing on a direc­tion that might be open to the band for fu­ture re­leases: “If we’d had more time, that

[writ­ing process] would have hap­pened a bit more. I’m still happy with ev­ery­thing but if we’d had more time, we could have ex­per­i­mented more.”

That’s not the only ex­per­i­men­tal tack they’ve taken with their writ­ing on Son­der, though. One new thing they’ve tried is writ­ing to vis­ual cues. One of the tracks on the al­bum, Be­neath My Skin, orig­i­nated as a spin-off for a piece of re-sound­track­ing that Kah­ney was play­ing around with, us­ing the film Un­der The Skin as inspiration.

“I wrote some mu­sic to [that],” be­gins Kah­ney. “It’s a re­ally weird film. I wrote the kind of in­tro, the clean ‘ding’ to one of the scenes in the movie, and that kind of started that song off.”

When Tesser­acT are asked what they love about mu­sic, they’re quick to re­ply. “I think mu­sic is not only an in­cred­i­ble thing to en­joy and to take part in,” says Mon­teith, “but it’s also very ther­a­peu­tic and it’s some­thing I don’t know how any­one could live with­out.” Kah­ney replies sim­ply, “What he said.” Tomp­kins adds: “I love that it can change your at­ti­tude, so just in the way that when the brain re­leases en­dor­phins when you sing, which are your body’s feel-good chem­i­cals, you get the same re­ac­tion from mu­sic, so it can change the way you feel in an in­stant. I love the fact that you can turn to mu­sic in any situation in life: whether you’re hav­ing a great time, whether you’re hav­ing a low time, mu­sic is there to make things bet­ter.”







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