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TesseracT – Polaris | Album Review

Award winning prog darlings TesseracT return with their much anticipated third studio album – ‘Polaris’. But was it worth the wait?

Source: Album Art

Source: Album Artwork

For those of you unfamiliar with British prog-scene darling TesseracT, allow us to briefly fill you in. Beginning in 2003 as a bedroom project of guitarist Acle Kahney, the group first became a solid entity around 2009, releasing their first studio album, One, in 2011. They continued building a solid fan base through almost constant touring, and despite somewhat of a ‘revolving door’ for vocalists, pushed on into 2013 and the release of their second album, Altered State.

Now their third full length, Polaris, sees them reunited with ‘original’ vocalist Daniel Tompkins (who was part of the band for One, then left in 2011 to focus on other projects). It also sees much expectation from an ever-growing fanbase, eagerly awaiting the next installment from the forward thinking djentlemen.

To put it bluntly, some fans, especially those from the band’s early days, might be a little disappointed with this latest offering. Despite Tompkins’ return, Polaris is more a spiritual successor to Altered State than to One, and despite the odd callback to their earlier style, it’s more ‘tech’ and less ‘hevvy’ than their earlier works.

Opener ‘Dystopia’ jams in hard after a brief atmospheric synth intro with big, djenty hits backed with Jay Postones’ absolutely massive kick drum sound. It’s similar to the immediacy of ‘Nocturne’ from Altered State, but amped up even higher. Tompkins’ vocals come in over a biting TesseracTian groove and are filled with a sense of urgent desperation. ‘Hexes’ is built up by layers, first of breathy vocals and delicate piano, then into an unobtrusive yet noteworthy drum and bass groove. It’s a little more restrained than the previous track, cinematic in places, and breaks down into frantic riffing suffused with post-rock elements.

It becomes obvious fairly quickly that, although the instrumentation is as always confident and extremely proficient, it’s the vocals that truly shine here. Tompkins’ time away (and one would assume his work as a vocal coach) has seen him return with more breadth to his skill, a wider palette to paint with. Although the harsh vocals are largely absent (save from brief glimpses on ‘Survival’ and ‘Cages’) they aren’t overly missed. The long, crisp and clean held notes are still here, and better than ever, layering allows Tompkins to harmonise with himself lushly, and perhaps a few elements are borrowed from Ashe O’Hara’s stint in the band.

There are, of course, some killer track here, (one would expect nothing less). The aforementioned ‘Cages’ features punchy, stabbing riffs, beautifully shifting drum work and a sense of restraint and slower progression that works to its benefit. ‘Tourniquet’ is all lush layers, Amos Williams’ delicate, warm bass work and building tension that allows the truly excellent rhythm section to show off.

But, overall, there’s a nagging sense that Polaris is something of a ‘holding pattern’ for the five piece. Although all the hallmarks of the individual and original TesseracT sound are there, and are executed well, there’s the mote of an idea that the band are starting to lean on these a little too much. If you’ve listened to their previous works, you can start to guess where the next ‘drop in’ or ‘drop out’ is coming, see round the corners, and anticipate the dynamic shifts. This leaves tracks like ‘Utopia’ sounding a little (dare we say it) by the numbers, and ‘Messenger’ a little awkward and underachieving.

This isn’t helped by a production job that (unusually for these renowned audiophiles) although achieving an excellently dense ‘wall of sound’, leaves little room for individual instrumentation (especially the guitars) to breathe in certain instances.

This leaves us with a few parting questions. Are TesseracT still accomplished, intelligent songwriters who know how to construct tunes? Yes. Is this an enjoyable record full of the elements that fans know and love? Sure. Does it feel as vital or as coherent as their previous efforts? Perhaps not. A solid album, but not a transcendent one. Polaris will polarize opinions.

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