What’s to like?
TesseracT, the band that put the progressive into their metal, deliver their fourth album and it’s going to prove a controversial release.
The low down
When TesseracT appeared on the progressive metal scene back in 2003, I gave the music a cursory listen but the shouty vocals tended to put me off, and I moved on to other bands.
That changed with the release of their third album Polaris, as the band were clearly aiming for a wider audience than just the metal crowd with this album, and its mixture of progressive guitar and drumming, ambient soundscapes and clean emotive singing won me over very quickly.
And they were able to pull it off live as well. I’ve seen the band onstage twice and they have that rare ability to play technically challenging music but still bring the drama and excitement of a live performance, and on both occasions I could see the audience totally engaged with it.
It’s been a three year wait for new material, and the fourth album Sonder is finally here with us, but has it been worth it? Well, the short answer is….I’m not sure.
I played this one umpteen times over several days, listening to it on the hi-fi and on the headphones, and even trying two different versions of the album, and I’m only now coming round to understanding the album.
For starters, it’s only 36 minutes long, which is incredibly short by today’s standards, and even for old-schoolers like me brought up on 40 minutes of vinyl, Sonder still feels a little on the short side. But not because I feel I’m owed more music for my money. It’s more because I feel I’m only just getting into the vibe of the album and it’s over all too quickly.
Most of the tracks clock in around four to five minutes, and there are a couple of shorter interludes in between, so it’s not a challenging listen in that respect. But because the tracks tend to flow into one another, it can feel like the album is over before you’ve barely begun. There were several occasions, where I’d stick the album on and do something else in the background, and suddenly I’d realise “oh, that’s the album over already”.
But perhaps there’s another way to appreciate Sonder, and that’s through approaching the album as a complete and singular piece of music, almost like a suite. It runs for exactly as long as it needs to, wraps you into the listening zone for those 36 minutes, and then gently lets you go because the journey is over. It’s certainly a bold move by the band to keep things to the core minimum, and you have to admire them for putting art before commercial or fan expectations.
However, the album’s brevity poses a challenge for the listener to home in on any particular songs because nothing stands out. That’s not a criticism of the music – it is actually quite varied within each song, and the music is really well constructed and shaped. You can easily lift any of the eight songs out of the running order and enjoy the song as a piece of music in its own right. Each song is unique, and doesn’t recycle melodies or moments from elsewhere, but once you listen to the songs within the context of the whole album, the music seems to take on a singular form from start to finish.
The title of the album is a word derived from “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own”, and the listener can sense an underlying thread running through the album, but it doesn’t feel like a concept album in tone, and a cursory glance at the lyrics doesn’t reveal anything enlightening either. The listener is simply encouraged to come to their own terms with how the music makes them feel.
The music certainly shows the band continuing to evolve their sound, and while the down-tuned repetitive djent guitar riffs are still in evidence, they don’t dominate the sound in the way they used to. The band sound as if they’re pushing the envelope once again, with more emphasis on tone and ambience, moving ever further away from the extreme metal camp.
Daniel Tompkins’ singing continues to impress, sticking mainly with a softer and emotive tone, but occasionally breaking out into a scream where the music demands it. Sometimes it’s a little hard to make out his lyrics as his voice ebbs and flows within the music, but there’s no denying his range when he soars midway through Smile:
The sleeve notes are frustratingly light on detail, so I’m still stumped as to how much the band use a full synthesiser rig to create their soundscapes, or whether it’s all coming through their guitars, via pedal effects and sustained notes channelled through guitar synths. But however they do it, it sounds great.
And for audiophiles, the special edition of Sonder comes with a bonus cd containing a binaural mix offering a 360-listening experience, designed by Klang: Fabrik for headphones listening.
Bassist, Amos Williams, explains more “the concept is to push past the restrictions of a stereo headphone mix and create an accurate ‘3D’ space in which positioning outside of the normal Left Right axis can occur. This is something that every artist that uses in ear monitors on stage wishes to recreate; the real and accurate positioning of instruments. We immediately felt that this technology could be applicable to us in the studio. TesseracT loves to bring what it does in the studio to the stage, but this time it’s experimenting with bringing a live element to the studio.”
I tried a comparison, on headphones, between the standard mix and the binaural mix, but for me the jury is still out on this one. Certainly the binaural mix sounds a little more open, with the instruments more clearly separated, and the overall sound a little less compressed, and an improvement on the main stereo mix. I’ve admired the sound on TesseracT’s previous albums, hitting the right balance between heaviness and clarity, but on Sonder it sounded a tad denser and compressed to my ears.
If you’ve never heard TesseracT before then Sonder is a good place to begin. It reflects the band’s current musical mindset, building on what came before and taking their sound to a new level that widens their accessibility to listeners outside the metal genre.
If you’re already a fan, and have been enjoying the band’s progression over their previous three albums, then you’ll find this one an interesting blend of the familiar and a gradual shift towards the new. The band are clearly not backtracking to their extreme roots, but there’s enough of their signature sound to reassure fans they’re still the same band.
Sonder is certainly and album worth hearing, if you like your metal to be genuinely progressive, but will it’s controversially short turning time prove to be its undoing with listeners quickly moving on to other new releases? Or have TesseracT come up with an album that feels compact and complete, and yet keeps listeners coming back to unravel more of its layers and ideas?
Time will tell….