Tesseract – War of Being


The two most talked-about artists in contemporary metal owe a lot to Tesseract. Without England’s premier outfit, there would be no Spiritbox or Sleep Token. You can identify a Tesseract song within ten seconds – elastic guitar grooves, sophisticated slap bass, emotive tenor vocals, ethereal pedal effects, subtle drum complexities. The Milton Keynes quintet mastered their sound and created their own universe early in their career and now approach album number five as legends of modern prog. If you know little about them, you might balk at the term “djent”. That’s understandable, but Tesseract are more than just disciples of Meshuggah. If anything, their last two albums seem to have invented a form of prog metal that The Cure and Depeche Mode’s audience would enjoy if they ventured beyond Muse for their heavy guitar music.

Five years between albums is a risky strategy for a band on the cusp of greatness, but Tesseract have a remarkable touring infrastructure behind them and a dedicated fanbase that will follow them in any direction. Indeed, those that tuned in for the video singles before War of Being’s release date, will notice that vocalist, Daniel Tompkins, has re-trained his voice to capture the harsher inflections as well as exploring the higher reaches of his tenor range. It’s clear within the first fifteen seconds of opener, ‘Natural Disaster’, that Tesseract are in the mood for the heavier stuff from their 2011 debut. Here, contorted grooves swerve through the mix like Ukrainian drones as Tompkins navigates his way among the rhythms with a rapid shift of styles. It’s not clear if a chorus repeats itself at any point in this six minutes and six seconds of invigorating tech metal. The atmospheric brilliance of Acle Kahney’s guitar effects wrestle with the violent urges of James Monteith’s impatient palm-muted stabs, while Jay Postones holds everything together from the drum stool. It would be hard to maintain normal breathing levels if they didn’t give you sporadic pockets of rest to recover your poise.

Those surprised by the last record’s short running time of thirty-six minutes (see 2018’s Sonder) have nothing to worry about here. Tesseract might have the American stadiums in their sights for this hour-long opus, but they go out of their way to satisfy their prog fanbase on the excellent, ‘Echoes’. This one races towards a chorus with a spine-tingling awakening of light as all musicians push their abilities to maximum capacity levels. Of course, they don’t spoon-feed you with the structure you expect. Tompkins inserts an effulgent multi-harmony serenade where most bands would insert a guitar solo; the third rendition of the chorus does not materialise after a vicious burst of anguished screaming and head-swooping metal grooves.

Like all prog records, nothing happens in the way you anticipate it. This can leave you in wonderment, but it can also leave you baffled. They start with murderous staccato aggression on ‘The Grey’ and deliver the finest bridge-chorus transition of their career with a vocal line close to Michael Jackson’s range in the former and a glorious lament of “I’ve been living life in monochrome,” in the latter. Tesseract obsessives will see this as a sequel to their 2015 anthem, ‘Survival’, but with a cross combination of slap bass and guitar – and a dose of Periphery aggression. By contrast, ‘Legion’, sets you up for a chorus that never appears. Acle Kahney’s ambient textures allow the drums to carry the momentum, and they give Tompkins the licence to demonstrate the full majesty of his voice with a sensational burst of falsetto croons before the song goes into a berserk array of chugging guitar riffs and malevolent screams. There’s no obvious shape here or in ‘Tender’, which is the closest they come to revisiting their 2015 Polaris album.

It’s ironic that the heavier moments on this record sound like Periphery, especially considering the latter adopted some of the trademark Tesseract nuances for their classic Periphery IV: Hail Stan album. This is because Daniel Tompkins roars his way through a big chunk of the compositions like an aggressive metalcore vocalist for the first time since their 2011 debut. The monumental expedition through the title-track starts with a succession of finger-twisting metal riffs and heroic double-kick grooves in line with the band’s famous technical-minimalist approach. Clearly, the group learned a thing or two from their 2016 tour in support of Gojira, but it’s impossible to compare the up-and-down dynamics with any other artist. The more you play these eleven minutes on repeat, the more you learn about the rich tapestry of the instrumentation and the sensational interplay of bass and drums underneath the frenzy of guitars. We used to lament that Tool take so long to complete an album – these concerns are irrelevant in 2023, with the likes of Tesseract and Haken pushing the prog metal genre to new heights.

Tompkins can now entertain the possibility that his continuous striving to be the best has yielded the results he wanted. There is no better singer in the world of rock and metal. Only he could bring the innocuous atmospheric rock of ‘Sirens’ to life with a stupendous expression of emotion and melody. If there’s one criticism of War of Being, it’s the way Kahney relies too much on Tompkins’ charismatic voice when the guitars remain struck in the sorrows of reminiscence. The last three tracks are the complete opposite to the first three. Tempo resets dwell for longer than necessary; down-strumming distortion offers no shape to compliment the vocal heroics. Bass virtuoso, Amos Williams, appears to lose patience with it all on closing track, ‘Sacrifice’, with a forceful injection of slap bass when things start to achieve a monotonous equilibrium. It awakens the axemen from their slumber and leads them to match their bassist with a spasm of squelching guitar riffs that do little more than remind you of the band’s early obsession with Meshuggah. Repeat listens reveal what your instinct knows – the nine minutes and thirty-four seconds of this finale could be just as effective in six.

It’s true that we hold Tesseract to a higher standard than most bands because they’re one of the few original artists in the metal scene. There’s no doubt that War of Being is another career highlight, and it’s a record that will get better with time, when you’ve had time to digest it. Like Tool, there’s so much going on here and so much breath-taking unorthodoxy, but you wouldn’t want it any other way.

If 2018’s Sonder put them in the higher echelons, album number five cements their place in the top tier of the prog metal hierarchy.

JVB


Verdict


Release Date: 15/09/2023

Record Label: Kscope

Standout tracks: Echoes, The Grey, War of Being

Suggested Further Listening: Tool – 10,000 Days (2006), Haken – Vector (2018), Periphery – Periphery V: Djent is not a Genre (2023)