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Altered State: Same TesseracT, Now with Less Metal

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Tesseract - Altered State

If not already the case, I think it’s high time people stopped referring to Tesseract as a metal band, and I say that without the slightest shred of elitism. Fact of the matter is, ever since Dan Tompkins laid his dreamy tenor and punky yells over the roomy production of One, the Tesseract of old was redefined as a post-hardcore/alt-metal band that knew how to play the fuck out of their instruments, and they were all the better for it.

Their way-too-long-awaited debut, the aforementioned One, took several aspects of modern heavy music and contrasted them in ways no one else at the time really had the guts or talent to do convincingly; angelic, almost androgynous vocals soaring over technical 7-string riffs, slap bass jousting with post-rocky reverb. Two years and two singers later, Tesseract makes their resolve and distance from metal even clearer. Another not-quite-metal-band that came to mind in hearing One was Karnivool, a band that mixes similar elements while achieving a different but vaguely comparable result. With the artistic choices Tesseract have made on their sophomore album, Altered State, the parallel seems all the stronger.

In addition to the surface similarities — powerful clean vocals with a slight and amiable accent, Meshuggah’s idiosyncrasies channeled through alternative sounds — both groups’ debut albums had an instantaneous and innovative bite, followed by sophomore albums that were less heavy, less hooky, and, on the surface, far less memorable. That last part perhaps gives away some of my stance on this record, but not the whole picture.

How does new vocalist Ashe O’Hara fit into the mix and stack up to his predecessors? For anyone who’s heard the songs released so far (not to mention O’Hara’s other project, Voices From the Fuselage), this isn’t much of a question — Ashe has an amazing voice. If there were ever a singer out there more fit to carry on Tesseract’s melodic vocal legacy cast by Dan Tompkins, it is certainly O’Hara. You will notice though, I haven’t said anything about the harsh vocals, namely because there aren’t any. Tremendous talent or not, I’m still not sure how I feel about that.

As I said earlier, I’ve never really considered Tesseract to be much of a “metal” band, but because of the fact that they used their truly heavy sections and screams sparingly, and in such an otherwise dreamy context, these moments of release were all the more heart-wrenching. Moments like the bridge of “Nascent” or the jagged intro of “Sunrise” made the rest of One feel like such a complete and emotionally diverse experience, adding a touch of madness and desperation to the whole. There aren’t really any moments on this record, vocal or not, that I can call “heavy” in any apparent sense. Expressive, intense,sure, but heavy, not quite. I can’t shake the feeling that it’s not just a matter of evolution on Altered State; there really is something missing.

The lack of immediate crunch (the even smoother production doesn’t really help that cause) and chorus-centric songwriting makes Altered State a difficult first listen; everything sounds nice, but there isn’t much to latch onto. In spite of this difficulty, I always find it frustrating when people can’t bring themselves to accept change in a band or put the effort forth to give a sophomore album a fair shot so … five listens later, forward and back, and my opinion has evolved a bit.

Change of direction notwithstanding, Tesseract are still a very good band and Altered State is a strong record in its own right. While the album arguably skimps on metallic appeal it redirects with a more expanded approach toward the progressive extremes. Mid-song funk jams in “Proxy” and “Eclipse” don’t sound all that far removed from something King Crimson or Gentle Giant might have attempted in the 21st century (did they really need the saxophone though…). Jay Postones is still a hella cool drummer, capable of effortlessly navigating the winding rhythmic labyrinth around him, and the tricky “is it bass, or is it guitar?” interplay has taken on a Tool-ish level of grandeur as on the album opus “Singularity,” which ranks right up there with the best tracks on One.

All things considered, I’m not sure I have a complete opinion on Altered State. I’m glad I did my due diligence in slogging through it, as you guys should as well, but my initial instincts remain: it isn’t as good as One. These “one song in many movements” kind of albums that have become fairly popular in progressive music over the last few years are always hit and miss and the content on Altered State follows that familiar pattern between sublime and tranquilizing. But even as I’m finishing this sentence, I can still hear the pieces coming together and the nuances I didn’t notice on the listen before giving those odds and ends a sense of purpose I didn’t realize they had. Give this one some time, then, by all means, bitch away.

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