Roll up! Roll up! Welcome, one and all, to that hoary old rock ‘n’ roll cliché that is the “notoriously difficult second album”. Yes, indeed, ladies and gentlemen, we are at that very place for Tesseract and their second full length record, “Altered State”. Given that you have already probably scrolled down the page to have a look at the star rating I’ve given this, you will know already that I like this record; quite a lot in fact. It is, to coin a phrase, bloody marvellous. What makes it so special? In true Jackanory style, grab yourselves a warm blanket, a favourite drink, make yourselves comfortable and, well, read on.
You know what? I cannot think of many bands who have invoked as much venting of the internet spleen over the past couple of years than this British band. Part feted as the next best thing, part ridiculed for not following “da rulz” that are supposed to exit about heavy metal/djent (what an awful, ugly, pointless word that is)/progressive music (delete to your own preference), Tesseract have been through something of a mill over the past 24 months.
Did you know there were rules? No, neither did I but, it would appear that a) there are and b) Tesseract are going to be reminded of these almost repeatedly. This is a band that you have probably have read more about and been told what to think about (*waves at the internet trolls*) than many, many others. They have been built up, knocked down and built up again before you could say polyrhythmic guitar solo.
I digress. However, it’s fair to say that much of the criticism around Tesseract stems from what they DON’T do, rather than what they DO do. So let’s forget about the almost seasonal changes in vocalists, the supposed artistic departures and listen to what Tesseract have produced in terms of music; in terms of emotional charge; in terms of art.
“Altered State” is an album that will put Tesseract front and centre in terms of the progressive metal scene. Dammit, it might put them front of the modern progressive scene, full stop. There’s a level of familiarity on “Altered State” but not one that invites contempt; in fact, quite the opposite. The four part structure that underpins Altered State- Of Matter, Of Mind, Of Reality, Of Energy- designed to be listened to in one, entire sitting, recalls some of the 1970s prog behemoths. However, there is a considerable difference between wanting people to listen in one sitting and getting people to listen in one sitting. That they are able to do this with consummate ease gives you an indication of the quality on this record. “Altered State” is replete with textured soundscapes, immersive passages of music that are given space to grow and breathe and get under your skin. For a record that is to be considered as one piece, it sometimes seems churlish to pick out highlights (and therefore, imply lowlights when there aren’t really any) but you cannot help but be struck by the immediate brilliance of ‘Nocturne’ or the expansiveness of ‘Palingenesis’, where the band’s use of saxophone had the same effect on me (unequivocally positive, for the avoidance of doubt) as with Ihsahn‘s After record.
Vocalist Ashe O’ Hara has done nothing short of an exemplary job here. His voice more than complements the music, his vocal range adept and nuanced. He brings alive the songs, whether they are of an introspective, unassuming nature or those where his vocals chords are called to greater feats of prowess, Mr O’Hara has cemented his position not as the current vocalist but as THE vocalist. Those of you looking for a death grunt or a Hades howl should probably go and buy the new Autopsy record because you won’t find them here. Frankly, I think the record is all the better for it. This is a record about hope and ambition and change and if Mr O Hara‘s singing is emblematic of that change, then I’m all for it.
Let’s cut to the chase. “Altered State” is a brilliant record. Writing as a non musician, I cannot comment on anything technical like chord sequences or time changes so my Blue Peter progressive badge won’t be coming to me anytime soon, but know this: the sound this band make is absolutely extraordinary. In an age where the BBC turns Glastonbury into a festival of the none-more-beige, it is refreshing and invigorating to find a band that credit you with intelligence, stretch their own creativity to new and uncharted territory and leave you punching the air with delight at how simply magnificent all of it is. Joyous.