Heavy progressive music is in an interesting state of flux circa 2013. There are certainly some amazing and inspired bands kicking about, but conversely there is a disturbing number of pale imitators flooding the market with their own sub-par take on djent/prog-metalcore/mathcore… or whatever moniker will next be self applied by some mediocre & generic 8 string toting band trying vainly to stand out from the pack.
Unfortunately this doesn’t bode well for the popularity of the genre as a whole, but the true originators; bands which deservedly have the literal definition of “progressive” (as opposed to the generic definition) applied to them will survive and forge new, interesting and sometimes inspirational paths. Tesseract are often credited as being pioneers of the “djent” sub-genre (Google it if you’re confused, it’s an onomatopoeia) which either means they’re the most venerable of musical deities or they’ve got a hell of a lot to answer for, depending on you point of view!
Taking their name from an 8-cell octachoron (cubic prism), they’ve been around for the best part of a decade now and have released just the two albums, but have somehow managed to churn through four different lead vocalists! New frontman Ashe O’Hara handles vocal duties on this release, and…well, he looks and sounds like an angelic choir boy! But more on that later…..
Well then we’d best get into the nitty gritty. What’s this record like? Can Tesseract save prog from descending into generic mediocrity?
In true prog style, the album’s songs are divided into four suites: Of Matter, Of Mind, Of Reality and Of Energy. Each suite contains 2 to 3 tracks. Within seconds of listening I was slightly dismayed at the fairly weepy vocal introduction and thought I was in for a trudge through self obsessed emo drudgery. However the lyrical content of the opening track “Of Matter- Proxy” hints that the band may be reinforcing my view on their genre:
“Imperfection you will find
They’re close to us
They’re after us
They’re right here”
But lyrics are open to interpretation, so moving right along…
The instrumental performances on this album are nothing short of amazing. Mind boggling polyrhythms, undulating string bends and harmonic complexity adorn each and every track. Not only can the band drop sublimely heavy chugging riffs, they employ many quieter moments which often comprise just vocals or piano and this gives the album a pleasing amount of dynamic shifts. Throughout proceedings there are liberal doses of both organic & digital synth sounds which add presence and atmosphere to the more laid back sections.
These subtle phrases give even more weight to the heavier & more frantic passages. Dynamism in modern heavy music is often sadly lacking, with everything compressed and quantized within an inch of its life…not so on this release.
Some bands of this ilk also prove impossible for the casual listener to follow, blasting through meter changes as if they were but simple chord progressions and this can prove confusing for the music fan who isn’t a musician….or even one that is!
Tesseract, despite their musical complexity can actually write what can almost be considered pop songs and this is largely due to the vocal delivery of Ashe O’Hara. His totally clean and pure delivery won’t be for everyone and I really could have done with a guttural roar or piercing shriek just to add some intensity here and there. But, clean and clear is his style and it prevents the band from being compared too closely to the more brutal likes of Periphery or The Dillinger Escape Plan.
The tracks are refreshingly short by prog standards, with only two exceeding six minutes in length. Despite this, I did find myself losing concentration at times, even after repeated listens and familiarization. Still, that can be the nature of the beast that is progressive rock.
Even amongst the sometimes befuddling nature of the music and the ambiguity of where tracks begin and end, there are definite standouts:
“Of Reality- Eclipse” possesses some disciplined & restrained rhythmic interplay between the musicians that I can only describe as being sort of (oxymoron though it may be) non-confrontationally complex.
“Of Reality- Calabi-Yau” is a tasteful softer track and features the surprising and incredibly effective touch of a beautiful saxophone solo.
Probably the heaviest and most “djenty” track is “Of Mind- Exile” which, (the aforementioned heaviness notwithstanding) has the addition of some exquisite multi-textured and gossamer vocal harmonies which float over the comparative instrumental violence like vapour trails over a relentless & raging thunderstorm.
Despite my self-indulgent bleating and rank hyperbole there, the best track is “Of Energy- Singularity”. It features a bumpy & jerky shuffle rhythm which, despite its convolution, is totally catchy and has a real groove and pulse to it. The track winds & meanders through various moods before a superbly executed (and produced…your stereo will LOVE it) drum phrase builds the energy up and up until the original beat is reprised with some magnificent and soaring vocal harmonies layered over the top.
Fans of the likes of Periphery, The Dillinger Escape Plan, The Mars Volta and Meshuggah should eat this one up (even though it’s comparatively light), but it has a broader appeal than that; fans of most any kind of progressive rock or even jazz fusion will appreciate it on some level.
Despite its propensity to make you yawn a little in places, it’s an incredibly impressive & fairly entertaining album. It’s quite a bit more impressive than it is entertaining though and were it economized or slightly more focused, it would have gained an even higher rating.
Still, a very, very good album indeed