A Review of Tesseract’s "Polaris"

    Tesseract is a uniquely interesting band. Their progression as composers is pretty antithetical to capital-M Metal, in that they started with a fairly diverse set of influences and have steadily chipped away elements to get to a core sound that grows more dreamy and bittersweet every album, instead of grafting on new elements. The first album, One, is a fundamental djent album that combined the instrumental attitudes of early Meshuggah with the slow, iterative moods of ambient music, all in a very competent and fairly neutral production (comparatively). Two years later, they released Altered State with a new vocalist which stripped out a lot of the riffage of One and focused more on long-term soundscapes with edgier guitars and a very hyped production. Two years past that (and a return to the original vocalist) and we now have Polaris, which to me is a further step away from riffage and into building moody, vocal-centered, and highly emotional songs. I’d say this is their least technical album yet – that is, pretty much every section is built around the slow, steady churning of an engine rather than the non-repetitive frantic rollercoaster of your Between the Buried and Mes. Additionally, there’s very little cruft or garnish to any song in the form of transitory material or supporting material; every idea has plenty of focus and space to exist which often helps dispel riff salad-y impressions. This strong tendency towards motivic simplicity often supports Tesseract’s ambient processes, though there are several points on Polaris where I think this lack of micro-development (that is, “little moments” that help connect ideas and shape the pacing of the album beyond the very general) backfires pretty hard.

    But, first off: Dan Tompkins is a really great vocalist. Tesseract has flirted with edgy nu-metal sensibilities before (“Sunrise”, “Hollow”) but the fact that Dan can sell a rapping section at the end of “Utopia” astounds me. For some reason I also really, really love the combination of delivery and lyrics for the line “It’s a combination of numbers”. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ His performances are an exceptional example of intimacy as well; he brought a lot of this to the last Skyharbor album (“Patience” being the foremost example) but his performances here are even more lush and help to balance out the heavy stuff in the instruments, which often completely lack dynamics and suffer from fatigue – more on that later with the drums. The performance on “Tourniquet” is a standout for me.

    Dan brings a little more closeness and smokiness to the timbre of the album, in contrast to Ashe’s relative distance (due to his extensive use of dubbed harmonies) and vocal purity. I love both of them, though, and I can’t pick one over the other. One benefit to Tesseract having switched vocalists is that it really helps Polaris sound more separate from Altered State; if they had kept the same vocalist I would have a much bigger issue with the similarities.

    And there are oh-so-many similarities. So many of the bass-dominated riffs on this album sound indistinguishable from parts of Altered State. I think Tesseract really need to try some different rhythmic tricks that don’t rely on so many groupings of 2 and 3 played on slappy bass and octave-up plucky guitar because there’s honestly very little meaningful difference to me between these sections in “Singularity”, “Tourniquet”, “Utopia”, and so many other Tesseract songs. Also, in addition to the well-executed riffs, I think there are a lot of ideas on this album that just sound like B-side material. I know I just said that I wish they would experiment more with their rhythmic bases, but stuff like the intro to “Hexes” simply makes no sense as a beat. To me, that part honestly sounds like a computer tried to randomly generate a djent pattern. And that pattern is literally only used in the opening 30 seconds of the song!

    One more thing that annoys me is that the programmed drums on this album sound really similar to the drums on Altered State–they’re not using the same sounds, but both have a very overproduced, overly modern character to them that really makes me yearn for the One days. At least that drum sound was play by a human! I’m not opposed to programmed drums when they’re programmed with care and nuance (David Maxim Micic’s Bilo 3.0 is the gold standard for this as far as I’m concerned), but on both Altered State and Polaris, the dynamics suffer because the velocities for nearly every kick and snare seem to have been bumped up to the exact same level for every section, and that’s not how real drummers play. That lack of dynamics influences the rest of the album’s production too, to where every part with drums is at essentially the same volume. A direct effect of this is that moments that are supposed to be enormous, like the very end of “Seven Names”, just fall flat (not solely for that reason in the case of that song, but certainly not helped by it) because everything else has been so loud you have no headspace to get louder for big moments. I know Jay is a very capable drummer with a great ear for partwriting, so it’s disappointing to hear Tesseract continuously use an inferior source.

    As I said, this is Tesseract’s least technical album yet; most of the songs are (at worst) several ideas jammed right next to each other with little internal process. “Survival” is a good example of this; I can’t give you a mathematical proof why I feel that way but I’ll tell you that nobody is going to listen to that and praise the interconnectedness of the ideas or how each section flows into the next seamlessly. Additionally, there are a lot of issues with the internal logic of the songs and how the riffs imprint on each other. For example, “Hexes” is easily analyzed as a simple ABA’ form (with a prelude and postlude). That’s not inherently bad, but the execution of the A’ returning is off – it works best when the audience has heard the original idea and then is taken on a journey that circles back to the idea, but in “Hexes” the journey is just one pretty stock riff that immediately returns anticlimactically to the chorus. To contrast, an excellent example of the ABA’ form in metal is in the center of Between the Buried and Me’s “Obfuscation”. They introduce the main idea and make sure you get it, then take a somewhat similar idea and contort it in several interesting ways with lots of decoration, making sure to build the tension throughout the section and creating several different contrasting moods (i.e. the journey). Then they cap it off and return to the main idea which has developed noticeably since we left it. Now, Tesseract do evolve their A idea but the B section is obviously the same riff repeated four times with different drum patterns underneath – and sorely missing anywhere on Polaris are sections like 3:35 of “Obfuscation”, the “capping off” or short-range climax that makes the B section feel worthwhile. That’s what I mean by “a lack of micro-development”. What’s really disappointing is that Tesseract have used transitory material like this in the past, certainly in “Acceptance” and “Proxy”, and even in the macro sense – “Epiphany” serves exactly this role in “Concealing Fate” and works extremely well there.

    Also, this is a less nuanced critique, but I think “Phoenix” is, frankly, a terrible song. The especially-exaggerated pop vocals and guitar texture coupled with the too-simple major key instantly ruin the first two ideas for me. They’re so briefly presented as to seem unnecessary, and that’s not helped when they return with only a modicum of development to show for it. The ambient section in the middle seems like a pop band ripping off Tesseract, as does the line “Run with the pride of the lion” and that vocoder part saying “change”. All of the ideas feel really unconnected in tone and kinda thoughtless. I just deleted it from the album after a couple of listens and I don’t think about it anymore.

    So I think the album kind of falls apart under scrutiny, but honestly, I still really like it a lot. When the grooves are good, hachi machi, they are good. Dan is, again, incredible and sells the hell out of “Tourniquet” and “Messenger” especially.  Many sections are extremely catchy and enjoyable – two standouts for me are the beautiful postlude of “Dystopia” and the amazing climax of “Messenger” (which uses! A dominant chord function!! Major V to I!!! It’s so effective and it seems like Acle might have accidentally stumbled into it but oh my god more of that PLEASE) – but if I had to sum up my impressions of the album’s faults, I’d say it feels rushed. Many of the songs just don’t have the kind of care and thought put into their construction that ambient-mood-based, groove-reliant music like this simply demands. Take as long as you need, guys. Your ideas deserve it.