Tegmentum are an unusual proposition. They started out in 2012 as a PhD thesis of San Francisco guitar virtuoso, Michael Ball, who produced his one-man debut in 2015. He returned in 2017 with a single to precede a sophomore album that should have arrived that year but didn’t. Instead, he disappeared and then re-emerged this year with an assembly of high-performing musicians. This is the second era of Tegmentum, and it’s an exciting one. Chelsea Murphy of Dawn Ouroboros takes the microphone; Kenji Tsunami (Narcotic Wasteland/Ontogeny) comes in on bass; and drummer, Andrew Baird, is back in his first musical outing since quitting Fallujah earlier this year. As if by accident, Michael Ball now has a supergroup on his hands. Most bands have a collection of live musicians, yet it seems that Tegmentum are a collection of live musicians with a band.
Tegmentum’s sophomore release is more disciplined compared to 2015’s one-hour long instrumental effort, Passage. Forty-five minutes for a progressive tech death album should be easier to digest, but there are parallels with the debut Periphery album that will niggle away at you during the listening experience. Like Periphery’s eponymous 2010 LP, most of the songs on Evolvement had already achieved their final form before the other musicians arrived. Eight years of material is hard to condense into a more succinct body of work when so much blood and sweat went into its creation during the early days. This might explain why opener, ‘Innocuous’, sounds so different to the other compositions. One wonders if Ball wrote this song for Chelsea Murphy as a fan of her work in Dawn of Ouroboros. Here, the sentimental guitar-plucking and faint violin caresses set the scene for a nostalgic wander through the golden corn fields as if this is a sequel to Velvet Incandescence by her other band. It’s the last thing you expect from a progressive tech death offering, but it resets your expectations like a surprise visit from a long lost relative in the Christmas holidays.
To say the rest of the compositions are complex and chaotic is an understatement. This is exactly what you’d expect from a virtuoso group. ‘Moments Ago’ is like a death metal interpretation of ‘Have a Blast’ from Periphery II (2012) but with guttural roars that hit between the eyes like a bullet with your name on it. Michael Ball rips through his fretboard in search of the more obscure melodic chord formations while twisting his fingers through the major scales at every junction. Welcome, back, Andrew Baird, is what many Fallujah fans will be thinking. Do we need a reminder that this man is one of the best drummers on the planet? The way he engages with the frantic guitar changes deserves your attention alone.
You can tell that Tegmentum started as an instrumental project. Chelsea Murphy makes a good job of imposing snippets of tangible vocal lines on ‘Accolades’, which most bands would present as six minutes of standard chugging on the bottom guitar strings – not Michael Ball. Effulgent chords overwhelm you like a pack of butterflies while the riffs crunch underneath like a boot on a snail shell. It’s a relief when Murphy changes the palette and treats us to a melancholy tease of her angelic clean voice. The ferocious blast beats and alternating double-kick triplets of ‘Amygdala’ are violent enough to knock you off your chair. Chelsea has no option but to roar through this whirlwind of shredding metal and hope for the best. Why this song finishes at 01:57 with an abrupt cut is baffling? Is it intentional like the outro to ‘Pull Me Under’ by Dream Theater, or is it an editing error on Cubase? The restart jolts your equilibrium with a barrage of Misha Mansoor riffs fed through a Meshuggah paradigm. Do we need seven minutes and twenty-one seconds of complex guitar passages that seldom repeat or leave a chance for you to memorise them? Of course, the answer is no.
Here lies the fatal weakness of this record. You feel like you’re in a spacecraft that’s in meltdown and descending to earth. The chaos and anxiety levels are terrifying. ‘Genetic Assimilation’ has all the right ingredients for a classic, but the fatigue you experience at the end will leave you in a daze. Chelsea’s rasp is glorious in its superhuman savagery. It’s a pleasure to analyse Kenji’s bass phrasings when Ball explores the higher frets of his instrument. And yet the fierce bombardment does not know when to stop. ‘I Remain’ does a much better job by inserting a thoughtful trumpet solo into one of its few introspective moments of calm. Many of us would be delighted if Periphery still dazzled like Tegmentum do here as if possessed by an eye-bulging violence that only they can control. Listen how the volume increases to ear-bleeding levels at the mid-way point when all musicians unite in a staccato fury. This is how you make tech death interesting.
Tegmentum 2.0 is still evolving in its infant stages of development. Baird cannot give assurances that he’s in it for the long-haul. Chelsea Murphy will see her stock go up when Dawn of Ouroboros crash-land into the album-of-the-year polls at the end of this year. Michael Ball might have created a monster bigger than his original conception of the band. Is this why he ends this record with the nine-minute ‘Gospel of Sand’ as if this might be his last composition for a few years? Unfortunately, it’s one of those affairs you see lampooned in the television sketches where the protagonist smashes a stereo to pieces, yet the song keeps on playing. You’ll need herculean stamina to sit through this blitzkrieg of self-indulgent metallic bedazzlement.
The real judgement of Tegmentum begins with their next record when all musicians have had time to contribute their ideas and get to know each other better. One hopes that Michael Ball can sit down and add more space to his next round of compositions. It’ll be a good idea to let Chelsea Murphy have a hand in the direction of the songs to suit the wider range of her voice. Then we will see the true potential of Tegmentum.
Release Date: 25/08/2023
Record Label: M-Theory Audio
Standout tracks: Moments Ago; Accolades; I Remain
Suggested Further Listening: Periphery – Periphery (2010), Anakim – The Elysian Void (2021), The Zenith Passage – Datalysium (2023)