(2013) Tesseract – Altered State

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British juggernaut of atmospheric prog metal TESSERACT released their sophomore studio album, “Altered State,” on May 27th, 2013, via Century Media and the endeavor not only cemented the band in the pantheon of elder gods of progressive metal but still remains nothing short of a haunting and unique mixture of djent-inspired polyrhythms and stratospheric ambiance. The outing is one of a kind in the band’s back catalog for a number of reasons; it is the only album to feature Ashe O’Hara of VOICES FROM THE FUSELAGE on vocals and, due to financial and time restraints, the drum parts were half programmed by guitarist Acle Kahney and half played by drummer Jay Postones on a digital percussion pad. The album also features smoky jazz-saxophone ornaments on a couple of tracks, elevating the ethereal and other-worldly atmospheres to a league of their own. The tracklisting, in turn, echoes the gargantuan concept albums from the golden era of prog, what with the album being comprised of just four suites split into ten individual tracks – or movements, as these things are referred to in the prog parlance. The band’s signature percussive guitar fractals are still being chugged out in off-kilter rhythms, resonating with the subtle air of djent that permeated the debut, but these somewhat Cubist riffathons are soon washed over by oceans of atmospheric ambiance. In retrospect, considering where the band took off from here, “Altered State” was a career-defining album for these crazy Brits.

What instantly makes any self-proclaimed science fiction buffs prick their ears is the way these four suites are named: “Of Matter,” “Of Mind,” “Of Reality,” and “Of Energy” respectively. If these titles aren’t yet enough to make your imagination take off on a wild, interdimensional tangent, the individual track titles sure will. For instance, the album opens with “Proxy,” the lyrics of which take a profound nod toward Philip K. Dick and Oriental mysticism, as they both imply that there is no objective reality but rather we live in a dreamlike simulation of sorts, where our own thoughts create the physical world around us. A brief ambient intro leads into an intricate tapestry of riffs that alternate between an atmospheric, off-kilter counterpoint and more straightforward, banging riffs on top of which O’Hara delivers his soaring, angelic, and almost choir-boy-like vocals. It has been an ongoing online debate ever since, whether the band’s original vocalist, Daniel Tompkins, who rejoined the band in 2014, would have fit this album better. In terms of vocal range and whatnot, I don’t think O’Hara‘s contribution to this effort does shy away that much in comparison. He shines in a particularly breathtaking fashion on “Exile” – the vocals in that mind-boggling rhythm sudoku give me goosebumps on every listen, still after 10 years! (Well, each track on the outing does, actually…)

The notion of a continual re-creation of reality through our own thoughts is hinted again at in the track title, “Palingenesis.” Despite its relatively short length, the song is a haunting riff origami leading into “Calabi-Yau,” which first introduces Chris Barretto‘s spirited saxophone licks into the mix; his name probably rings a bell for a true prog-metal connoisseur as he is better known as the former vocalist of MONUMENTS, currently taking care of the vocal duties in FRIEND FOR A FOE and EVER FORTHRIGHT. This track, too, is a relatively short interlude that leaves you wanting more – and, fortunately, we will be hearing his magnificent sax contributions again in the coda of the album closer, “Embers.” As bands such as RIVERS OF NIHIL have later come to assist in asserting, the saxophone is an instrument that can really elevate progressively tinged metal to a whole another level. There is only one thing to complain about, here: “Embers” is way too short, clocking in around the 3½-minute mark! By way of bringing things to closure on an album like this, it should have been a 10-plus-minute endeavor, at the very least!

Two singles were released ahead of the album release – “Nocturne” in October 2012 and “Singularity” in April 2013. The first rather nicely echoed the atmosphere of the debut’s closer “Eden,” almost as though reassuring fans at the time that, despite Tompkins having left the band, the forthcoming album would not be too much of a stylistic departure from the debut. “Singularity,” in turn, seems to have become THE song in the band’s haunting catalog. It was also my point of entry into the band’s music and, needless to say, it won me over instantly. The song kicks off with a nicely offbeat riff maelstrom, which alone would have sufficed, but then, it plunges into an ambient, free-floating section for almost 2 minutes before relapsing into mind-bending riffing again. They say that music triggers the same reward center in the brain as cocaine. I guess that holds true with almost any type of music, whereas this particular track must trigger the same neurotransmitters as ecstasy or DMT. It is not titled “Singularity” for nothing.

All things considered, these British knights of prog-metal badassery did the unspeakable with their sophomore album – they ripped a hole in the very fabric of spacetime, allowing for the listener’s mind to travel from one plane of reality to another at a quantum level. Aptly named at that, “Altered State” still feels like a peek ”outside the simulacrum.” I could think of a myriad worse ways to stay in the wonderland and, 10 years later, I still haven’t fully figured out just how deep the rabbit hole goes.

Written by Jani Lehtinen

Tracklist

  1. Proxy
  2. Retrospect
  3. Resist
  4. Nocturne
  5. Exiled
  6. Eclipse
  7. Palingenesis
  8. Calabi-Yau
  9. Singularity
  10. Embers

Lineup

Ashe O’Hara – vocals

Acle Kahney – guitars, drum programming

James Monteith – guitars

Amos Williams – bass

Jay Postones – drums

Label

Century Media