“A TesseracT fan is somebody who wants to be challenged when they listen to the music,” says the band’s singer Dan Tompkins.
Given all the changes the band have been through, this is probably for the best. TesseracT started out playing a new brand of metal with a progressive bent, and have evolved into being a hugely varied progressive band with a heavy edge. They have changed singer three times, been appointed leaders of a movement they helped create only to leave it behind, and had to risk the likely shift in fan base a change in creative course can bring. The latter aspect appears to have been the least problematic.
While generally the band’s line-up has been stable – the instrumental players James Monteith (guitar), Amos Williams (bass) and Jay Postones (drums) have not changed since the band’s founder and guitarist, Acle Kahney, first recruited them – the band’s revolving door of vocalists was starting to make Spinal Tap drummers look enduring. Despite singing on their debut EP Concealing Fate (2010) and 2011 album One, Tompkins (not the band’s first singer) left that year. He was replaced by the extremely talented American Elliot Coleman, whose location meant he did not survive to sophomore outing Altered State in 2013. That record featured Ashe O’Hara, and saw the band ditch the extreme vocals of the debut entirely in favour of focusing on the ethereal style of singing that had become the band’s signature. When O’Hara departed in 2014, Tompkins returned – and discovered that the musical changes had benefited the band’s following.
We feel boundless in our exploration of sound and tone.
“On the last tour we did, which was at the end of the Altered State campaign, when I came back and we toured with Animals As Leaders around Europe, there was a wider variety of different ages,” he explains. “And sexes, too – we used to have a predominantly male following, but it’s nice to see that’s broadened, with more females turning up and enjoying what we do. It is growing, and it did especially after Altered State. Going on that twist of moving away from harsh vocals and being more progressive appealed to a lot more people.”
The band’s third album Polaris is a far cry from the singy-bit-screamy-bit “djent” record the band debuted with. For one, the variety of style is markedly increased. Catchy choruses duel with complex layered vocal lines. Crushing riffage gives way to soothing soundscapes. Simple harmonies succeed claustrophobic dissonance. Their Swedish metal influences are clearly behind them, at this point.
“When you first start out, you have influences,” says Tompkins. “You don’t necessarily want to be like your influences, but you want to fit in. I think a lot of our early sounds made it very obvious that we listened to a lot of Meshuggah. It takes a long time to find your sound, and I think TesseracT have proved that they can write whatever they want, and the fan base is so steadfast that they’ll get behind it. People might not like change initially, but I think they really appreciate what TesseracT is and how it’s an evolving, constantly changing, sonically exploring entity that will always be different on some level. There’s no point in replicating the same thing all the time, you’ve got to keep it interesting. That’s exactly what TesseracT is.”
Variation and exploration are noble goals and can reap rich creative rewards. But they can come at a price. When Tesseract started, they helped define a nascent metal subgenre, the so-called djent sound that married polyrhythmic heavy guitar riffs and a high-pitched, wandering lead guitar style, and vocals that owed much to the dominant style in heavy metal in the 2000s. And while leaving that behind has obviously benefited them, the band need to be able to maintain an identity of their own – not easy when your sonic palette began in metal and now stretches as far as recent Anathema.
“You do have to be careful; I think Polaris does run the risk of being too varied,” Tompkins says. “I do like an album to have a theme to it, at least. You do get a sense of that with Polaris, but there are songs that sound like two different bands at one point, which is an interesting aspect. I like bands like Dredg: I find you can listen to an album like El Cielo and there’s a wide variety of styles, but it still has that undertone that you know it’s Dredg – and I’m sure you can get that from Polaris. There’s a big variety in the songwriting, but you know it’s TesseracT.”
Part of the music being identifiably TesseracT comes from Tompkins’ voice – something that has radically improved since his last outing with the band, offering a more nuanced vocal performance than on One. This should not come as a surprise to anyone who kept up with the former policeman’s work during his absence from the band. He has released – by his estimation – five or six records in that period, including two with Indian metal band Skyharbor, and by working with other singers (Devin Townsend is cited as particularly helpful) has sought to learn more about his voice. He has also gained much from a career as a vocal coach. This sideline was needed to make playing in the band sustainable – something that was not true first time around, and led to his departure.
“The difficulty was that when you go away and you tour for so long, and then you’ve got a family, a mortgage, and you’re coming home from an American tour with a hundred pounds after eight weeks, that’s unsustainable,” he explains. “Luckily for the other guys, they were able to commit to that, for one reason or another. But I just wasn’t in a position to, so I had to leave and try and survive in my own way.”
When you’re coming home from an American tour with a hundred pounds after eight weeks, that’s unsustainable.
The time away meant Tompkins missed out on the band’s initial transformation from the metal band they were before to the prog band they are now, something most obviously clear on the album he did not perform on, Altered State. He has no regrets, however, and has returned to the band a better singer, and with the band in far better creative shape. “That time away was good to me, because I developed my voice and honed in on my own craft,” Tompkins says. “I was quite inexperienced as an artist when we did One. I think we all were, to a degree. We didn’t know what kind of direction it was going to go in, we just went with the flow. So when they did Altered State, that was obviously a really dramatic twist in the story for those guys, because it was completely different. It was a lot more soundscaped, a lot more progressive in its nature. There was a really developed concept feel to the album, and obviously Ashe’s voice on it was superb. That in itself divided the fan base a little bit, but it also generated a new fan base as well.
“Now, we’re a lot more mature – not just as individuals but as artists as well. With this album, it’s definitely further evolution, but we’re not conforming to any regulations or direction or specification, we’re just being ourselves, we’re just writing music for us. We’re not too concerned about what people want from us, we’re doing what we want to do, which is really quite liberating. We feel unshackled from any genre tags, we don’t feel like we have to be genre specific now with expectations. We feel boundless in our exploration of sound and tone.”
The risk of freedom is that you are missing a road map, a well-trodden path you can follow that comes with the likelihood of people joining. There is no guarantee that anyone will be brave enough to follow you when you go wandering off into the wilderness. What TesseracT seem to be discovering is that the progressive world is full of people who will take that risk – and that there are enough brave souls to make the risk pay off.
Polaris is out September 18 on Kscope. See tesseractband.co.uk for details.