The world of progressive metal is as broad as it is wide-encompassing. Bands the world over fill the genre with some of the best in technical prowess, musicality, and the truest trait of any progressive metal band: odd time signatures all over the place. But what is it about TesseracT that sets them apart from their contemporaries? To start, the Milton Keynes quintet aren’t ones to stay confined within the usual “prog-metal” circle, which makes them a bit too difficult to really nail down. Call them prog-metal, call them djent, call them whatever you’d like; the bottom line is that TesseracT is looking to rise up the ranks of the progressive music scene, and on their fourth and newest album, Sonder, they are here to not just make a statement, but are here to lay down their flag over the entire scene.
Off the bat, the sound of Sonder is pristine, filled with plenty of presence and nuance in each individual instrument; everything comes through sounding incredibly polished with incredibly clarity. The bass tone of Amos Williams greatly accentuates the dual guitar work of Acle Kahney and James Monteith, with plenty of love for the mid-range all around. Of course, the excellent drum work of Jay Postones is present all over the album, be it in the booming half-time chorus breaks or in the clean syncopated sections; try and count the odd time sections at the end of “Mirror Image” in your head as an exercise, then you’ll grow to appreciate the little idiosyncrasies in the arrangement that much more. As for the vocals, this might be the best studio performance we’ve ever heard from Daniel Tompkins on a TesseracT album; from bellowing out epic elongated choruses on “Luminary” to screaming out lines of frustration and dominance on “King,” he is certainly in his groove and element on Sonder, especially when going back and forth between screaming and melodic singing on the track “Smile” with the lines:
I can feel you getting closer
I can sense you start to smile
I see colossal eyes
There’s a shadow on the sun
And no wonder why
There’s something delightfully sinister about those lines being sung in two diametric opposite manners.
There are softer moments on the album, such as the electronic-infused interlude-of-sorts “Orbital,” which feel reminiscent of White Moth Black Butterfly, Tompkins’ other musical project – it’s not a detraction, Atone was an excellent album from them, one of the best of 2017. The track sets a very moody and atmospheric tone, leading right into the next track, “Juno,” with very hard and booming guitar work to bring everyone back down to Earth. A fine juxtaposition, for sure. “Beneath the Skin” has a bit of somberness to it, both in its musical structure and in its lyrics, such as in these lines:
Are we free to wander the world?
I’m not sure, I don’t think so
I wait my turn to live without my skin
Take another piece of me
And it just might be enough
To drag me under beneath the waves
Take another bite from this worthless corpse
The lyrics are sung in a very subdued fashion, as if Tompkins is trying to pass the feelings of lament and worry of the song’s protagonist direct into the listener, both sonically and emotionally, and when accompanied by the building musical arrangement, it makes the track a true standout of the album. However, the track that would describe Sonder best would be “King,” starting on a very heavy foot with its booming half-time structure that I can best describe as “headbang-y,” and as it builds you immediately get a wide range of Daniel Tompkins’ vocals, going from solid melodic singing to harsh screaming to falsettos, all in the same verse. The track goes back and forth with its heavier section and a quieter, cleaner section, with the entirety of the song built around this powerful bass line in the background, leading to the apex of Tompkins’ piercing screams of “BOWWWWW!!!! DOWWWWWWN!!!!” when the chorus hits.
My one gripe, though, is that when the album ends, it ends leaving a sense of it being a sudden closing gap, fading away in the distance. Even though the closing track of “The Arrow” has that effect of fading into a foggy void, it doesn’t leave a whole lot of closure to the full experience. However, it doesn’t take away that much from the lasting impression that Sonder leaves, once finished. Sonder is a bit on the quicker for the standards of the genre, comprised of eight tracks lasting all of 36 minutes, but it never feels like the album goes by too quickly. The tracks do carry enough weight to them to present a full experience, with the track lengths never coming into question for debate, lack of closure aside.
Really, the best way to describe Sonder is if you took TesseracT’s past works and put them all into a blender: you have the heavier elements of One, the melodic and more syncopated elements of Altered State, and the wider accessibility of Polaris, and when combined, you have Sonder, an album that’s an equal part great entry point into TesseracT and part a fine melding pot of their styles all rolled into one. And in what’s already been a highly contested race for best metal album of 2018, TesseracT is here to show that Sonder not only deserves a spot amongst those ranks, but it’s coming for the top prize. This is an incredibly solid outing from one of Britain’s best progressive bands, and proof positive that TesseracT is coming back to climb the djent-y mountain for their claim once more.
Final verdict: give it a listen and a buy wherever you can, this is well recommended.
Sonder is available from Kscope/Snapper Music on CD, vinyl, and digital download, and is available for streaming on Apple Music, Spotify, and Amazon Music.
Disclaimer: a promotional album copy was provided by Kscope/Snapper Music for the purposes of this review.