“Getting to Architects’ or Bring Me The Horizon’s level would be a huge step up.” How Tesseract pushed themselves further than ever to become prog metal's most ambitious modern band with War of Being

Tesseract in 2023
(Image credit: Andy Ford)

The 25 or so people gathered in the Cellar Bar in Bracknell, Berkshire on a cold October night in 2007 could be forgiven for not recognising the significance of what they were witnessing. Onstage, five men in their early 20s were blasting out a thrashy if geometrically complex noise that couldn’t quite conceal its debt to Meshuggah. The name on the flyers was ‘Tesseract’, a moniker that evoked hard-to-grasp concepts of four-dimensional mathematics, and this was their very first gig.

“We were a lot more raw and raucous back then,” says guitarist Acle Kahney, who had conceived Tesseract as a one-man project in the bedroom of his mum’s house in Milton Keynes four years earlier in 2003. “I was headbanging all over the place. Now I just think, ‘I can’t move like that any more ’cos I’ll probably make a mess of it all.’”

It’s 16 years since that first show, and 20 since the teenage Acle started creating music under that name. Tesseract have long since outgrown the Cellar Bar in Bracknell to become one of the most influential British metal bands of the 21st century. The tech-metal sound they popularised alongside US counterparts Periphery and Animals As Leaders has grown from a cult concern beloved by YouTube guitar geeks to something embedded deep in the DNA of modern metal – it can be heard in the music of everyone from Sleep Token and Spiritbox to Architects and even Within Temptation, whose upcoming album Bleed Out borders on djent at times. All modern metal has a tech edge, it seems.

Yet Tesseract themselves have constantly stayed ahead of the game, challenging themselves to push forward at every step. Their fifth album, War Of Being, goes further than ever before. Across nine songs that veer from the weighty and intricate (the 11-minute title track) to the melodic and emotional (the soaring Echoes), it tells the story of two characters named Ex and El as they journey across a mysterious environment called The Strangeland. It explores themes of dark fantasy, science fiction, loss, hope, psychology and what it means to be alive.

Except War Of Being is more than just an album, even one with a vivid if occasionally head-scratching concept. It’s accompanied by a videogame created by singer Dan Tompkins that ties in with the album’s story, one that explores the new frontiers of virtual reality and the metaverse. There are experiments with AI, an area most other bands regard with the same warmth as an outbreak of leprosy. There’s even a novel in the pipeline, written by bassist Amos Williams, chief architect of the concept at the heart of War Of Being. So, no, ‘new album’ doesn’t do it justice. The pandemic caused most bands to shrink out of necessity. But Tesseract have emerged bigger and more ambitious than ever before.

In a warehouse on an industrial estate in Bolton, a woman dressed in what looks like intergalactic fetish gear – tight catsuit, foot- high heels, elaborate headgear – is slowly sweeping the shape of a labyrinth into a pile of sand while cameras film her. On the other side of the studio, the members of Tesseract – Acle, Dan and Amos, plus guitarist James Monteith and drummer Jay Postones – wait for their turn in the spotlight.

Everyone’s here to film a video for Echoes, one War Of Being’s most accessible songs. The woman in the heels is Knowledge, one of the characters that inhabit the story that runs through the album, and the labyrinth shape she’s making represents... well, we’ll let Amos explain that one.

“It’s an ancient idea that a lot of religions and cultures have explored the idea of a guiding voice,” he says, speaking to Hammer via Zoom a couple of weeks after the video shoot. “Of listening to and following your own guiding voice. A labyrinth is a convoluted path, but there is always only one destination. Your identity and self-image and voice are important – make sure you listen to them and follow your own path regardless of what is happening around you.”

There was a broad division of labour when it came to making War Of Being. As always, Acle took the lead with the music, while Dan handled the lyrics and the videogame (more on that later). But the concept? That’ll be Amos’s department. Citing the influence of books such as James S.A. Corey’s mind-bending sci-fi epic The Expanse and Haruki Murakami’s vivid, impressionistic novel Hard-Boiled Wonderland And The End of The World, he describes the elevator pitch for War Of Being: “A neo-noir dark fantasy set in a strange land... It’s the concept of finding yourself in a new, scary, difficult position.”

War Of Being’s concept is less a linear story, more a series of snapshots of its protagonists, Ex and El, as they journey through The Strangeland’s bleak, ever-changing imagined landscape.

“Strip it all down, and it’s a simple story of ‘some shit happened to these two people and they have to repair their life by taking stock of and responsibility for their actions’,” the bassist explains. The ‘what’ of War Of Being is directly linked to the ‘why’. At the age of 25, Amos was diagnosed with epilepsy, the result of seven small tumours in his head that he was born with.

“Even before I was diagnosed, I had to build coping mechanisms,” he says. One of these coping mechanisms was to never express externally what he felt internally – a kind of duality that ties in with the idea of Ex and El being aspects of the same person, separated during a catastrophic event that happens in the first song, Natural Disaster. What follows is a long and complex explanation of the album’s overarching concept.

Full disclosure: Metal Hammer is struggling to grasp exactly what War Of Being is about. “Good!” exclaims Amos triumphantly. “You shouldn’t understand something from an author’s point of view. That would be fucking boring.”  

The sense that War Of Being is less an album and more a world that Tesseract have built is magnified by the fact that Amos is currently in the midst of turning the story into a novel, or at least a novella. He's still only a third of the way through it, but he's determined to get the story finished.

"And I'd love to create a film from this," he says. "I've been pitching it to film-makers, but I've been scaring them away." He shrugs, then smiles. "We just feel that we have to do something with this that is an extension of the music. We have to see how far we can go."

Acle Kahney insists he hasn’t given the fact that 2023 marks Tesseract’s 20th anniversary much thought. “No, to be honest”, says the guitarist, speaking via Zoom from his home in Milton Keynes while his three-month-old son sleeps in the next room. “I suppose it is, though we always talk about it in terms of when we met as a band, 2007 or 2008, something like that. I’m in a bubble a little bit. I’m kind of focused on what we’re doing right now.”

If Tesseract have their own Steve Harris, it’s Acle. He’s the one who willed the whole thing into existence back in 2003, then transformed it from an instrumental MySpace project into a fully fledged band and has steered the songwriting ever since. He’s not a dictator, just a man with a vision.

Acle was 18 and still living in his mum’s house when he began writing riffs and ideas for what would become Tesseract. He was a member of another band at the time, Milton Keynes prog metallers Fellsilent, but this gave him the opportunity to do what he wanted to do, honing his skills as a musician and a producer as he did it. He posted music to internet forums and MySpace.

“I had a whole album ready,” he says. “But I ended up re-recording it so many times that I just shelved it. Maybe I’ll put it out one day.”

Songwriting is Acle’s favourite part of being in Tesseract. While War Of Being was more collaborative than 2018’s Sonder or its predecessor, 2105’s Polaris, there’s still a lot of work involved. 

“It’s the bit I enjoy the most,” he says. “More so than playing it live. When it goes well, it’s fun. But then sometimes it can be just months of stewing, thinking a riff is crap." He began working on the music for War Of Being straight after Sonder. “There were a lot of leftover riffs that we wanted to use,” he says. One riff, from the album’s title track, had originally appeared on his Instagram in 2019. “People heard it and went, ‘Yes! You’ve finally used it!’”

Releasing an 11-minute song as the lead single is a bold move, but it’s one that signals the scale of Tesseract’s ambition with War Of Being. Acle says it was a conscious decision to go bigger musically. Recording together in a studio for the first time in years helped, as did featuring live drums on the album (the past few Tesseract albums have featured programmed drums). But War Of Being as a grand, multi-strand conceptual project rather than merely just an album? That was more of a happy accident.

“All these things just kind of happened. We could have just released an album, but why not do all this? We haven’t had the time or the budget before. Things need to grow or they just peter out. We don’t want to become Anvil.”

Dan Tompkins, meanwhile, has a confession to make. He doesn’t particularly like Tesseract’s last studio album, the widely acclaimed Sonder. “The mix isn’t right”, he says. “We rushed it because we got a Megadeth tour. It took about three months away from it. This time around we knew we had to get it right and make a statement.”

The singer is sitting on a sofa in the studio he built in the garage of his home in the Nottinghamshire town of Kirkby-in-Ashfield. The elaborate arrangement of computer screens suggest a man who, when he's not working on music, spends a lot of time gaming or on Twitch. "Too much time, he says ruefully.

In many ways, War Of Being is a reaction to Sonder, and not just because the pandemic meant they had much more time to spend working on it. “Sonder was a very outward-facing album,” he continues. “We decided we wanted to bring the camera inward a bit more. We wanted to get people to ask questions and dive into the concept and try and understand it. But it’s going to mean different things to different people.”

And what does War Of Being mean to Dan? “This sounds cheesy, but it has made me think about myself on a deeper level and address certain insecurities I have in my life.”

As he describes them, those insecurities stretch back to childhood.He grew up just a few miles from where he lives today. His “rough” upbringing was compounded by the fact he had severe anxiety, which manifested as muscle spasms that resulted in a stammer.

“I couldn’t speak to people, I’d just be stunned into silence. I still stammer from time to time now.”

He joined the police at 18, which gave him a “hardened exterior” but also bouts of depression. He quit the force when he joined Tesseract, but the resulting huge pay cut led him to leave the band in 2011. When he returned in 2014, it was with renewed focus. Since then, he hasn’t stopped working: as well as Tesseract, he’s put out albums as White Moth Black Butterfly, Zeta, Piano and under his own name, and worked with the likes of Skyharbor, Earthside and Chimp Spanner. He also works as a voice coach and runs his own popular Twitch channel. "My biggest fear is not being able to support my family," he reveals. 

That worth ethic is evident in the game that accompanies War Of Being, which turns the musical story into something more immersive and interactive. A lifelong gamer with an interest in the burgeoning field of virtual reality, Dan originally envisioned a Tesseract ‘metaverse’ – a VR nightclub where fans could eventually interact with the songs the band were writing – before realising that wasn’t a big enough proposition. He figured the perfect way of complementing such an ambitious conceptual endeavour would be to create a videogame to sit alongside it. Tesseract’s management were unconvinced.

“I had a lot of, ‘We’re not sure about this, it’s going to take a lot of money’, just because it’s so unknown to the music industry,” he says. “So I did it myself anyway.”

With the help of games designer/programmer Adam Boyt, who had “stumbled into” Dan’s Twitch channel, he taught himself how to use game-building software Unreal Engine and slowly began bringing the world of War Of Being to (virtual) life. The process took the best part of a year.

“As soon as I finished recording the album, I dropped everything,” he says. “I put all my savings into this, I’ve not worked, I’ve not earned any money, I’ve been living off what I’ve saved to do this. Since last September, there’s not been a day where I haven’t been developing or making this game. It was this double whammy. Just exhausting.” There’s a proud smile on his face when he says this.

We’re talking a week before the release of the early access version of the game, which consists of five levels inspired by the album and featuring characters from its songs (several more levels are due out on an unspecified date in the future). There’s a sense of paternal pride as he gives Hammer a pre-release demonstration on one of the four monitors he’s got set up. The pride is literally paternal in one respect – his young son, Jack, provides the voice of a character named The Grey, reflecting a song of the same name on the album.

“I feel like we’re setting a new standard for Tesseract with this”, says Dan. “We’re moving forward, we’re taking it somewhere different.” You said you don’t like Sonder. Are you going to be saying the same thing about War Of Being in five years? “No,” he says firmly. “This is my proudest achievement.”

Last summer, Tesseract played Knotfest Finland alongside Slipknot and Bring Me The Horizon. Dan and Acle watched Oli Sykes’ crew from the side of the stage and were blown away by what they saw.

“We looked at each other and went, ‘That’s a show. It’s theatre, it’s choreographed, it’s all-encompassing’,” says Dan.“We’re a fairly modest-sized progressive metal band trying to do ambitious things with no budget. I’d love us to get to that point where we can have enough money to be even more creative and have that kind of theatre. I’d love to be able to headline festivals and have the most insane backdrops and have thousands of people watching us.”

Bring Me The Horizon and Tesseract have next to nothing in common musically, but both share an ambition and an unwillingness to do anything but what they feel is right for them.

This is the dilemma Tesseract face if they want to break out of the progressive metal pigeonhole. Change their sound to become more accessible and they risk diluting who they are. Stay true to the path that’s got them to this point and they could end up playing to a loyal but ultimately limited audience.

“Getting to Architects’ level or Bring Me The Horizon’s level would be a huge step up,” says Acle. “I’m not saying no to it. But that would involve us changing who we are, and that wouldn’t be truthful. We might be niche, but I listen to niche music. It’s always going to be that way, I guess.”

Of course, they don’t have to change the fundamentals of what they’re doing. The fact that Tesseract are as successful and influential as they are is testament to their single-mindedness, determination and willingness to drop 11-minute singles, head-spinning concept albums and videogames they’ve created entirely themselves. Tesseract are defined by their music, sure, but also their ambition. Right now, there are still worlds to conquer, both real and imagined.

Originally published in Metal Hammer #379

Dave Everley

Dave Everley has been writing about and occasionally humming along to music since the early 90s. During that time, he has been Deputy Editor on Kerrang! and Classic Rock, Associate Editor on Q magazine and staff writer/tea boy on Raw, not necessarily in that order. He has written for Metal Hammer, Louder, Prog, the Observer, Select, Mojo, the Evening Standard and the totally legendary Ultrakill. He is still waiting for Billy Gibbons to send him a bottle of hot sauce he was promised several years ago.