Review Summary: Tesseract risk nothing with an effort that neither impresses nor disappoints.
At some point in time - and I guess that time may as well be now - someone
- and I guess that someone is me - had to ask whether or not post-2011 Tesseract is really just a front for Acle Kahney and Amos Williams to audition to write the backing track to hypnotherapy sessions. While I enjoyed the saxophone solos and lounge chair ambient groove on 2013 precursor to Polaris
, Altered State
, I had no clue that it truly signaled Tesseract's transformation into the Kenny G of groove metal, but here we are. Hindsight is 20/20, I suppose.
Simply put, Polaris
is both inoffensive and uninspiring. It's a product of crisp production and tight songwriting based on an approach that takes a minimum of risks. There are a few low grooves that stand out - primarily those in more aggressive tracks "Dystopia" and "Hexes" - but the majority of the album's rhythm bleeds together from cover to cover with little melody to deviate from the monotony. Speaking of which - the return of vocalist Dan Tompkins, to paraphrase Shakespeare, appears to have ultimately resulted in a lot of sound and fury that signified nothing. While Dan is a strong vocal talent who has shown his power and range as a singer, on Polaris
, his notes are mostly buried beneath a musical base not tailored to his vocal talents.
Allow me to explain. Ashe O'Hara, the band's vocalist on Altered State
, had a range roughly half an octave higher than Tompkins, which allowed his melodies to soar the extra mileage needed over the same sort of polyrhythmic riffing heard on Polaris
. It helped that there was more melody and vocal-instrumental interplay on Altered State
, too, but the fact of the matter here and now is that Polaris
does not feature Tompkins soaring over a sea of wavy low-end and time signatures - it features him slogging through it like a swamp. It's not without effort on his part (Dan is an exemplary vocalist and has talent to spare), but Polaris
is tonally and rhythmically set up to mire him.
So, without the draw of Tompkins' lauded return, what's left? Well, most songs on Polaris
are long or at least feel long. The majority clock in at over five minutes and fill the gap with atmospheric drawls that feel neither exciting nor boring. There are a few moments of "shout-y" vocals derived from nu metal (on "Hexes," for example), which grab you by the ear, but at the same time, the groove becomes so repetitive that the positive and negative offset. "Survival" has a cool sounding intro and verse, until it gets hit with the same "we get it, your guitar has eight strings" chorus groove that overwhelms the mix and fends off any interloping attempts at melody. "Tourniquet" features some lush harmonies, but the beat behind it is basic and Dan's leads take no chances.
Do you see the pattern yet? If not, let me introduce you to the song patterns employed on Polaris
: atmospheric introduction, slow build, crescendo, a few grooves, a chorus or two, a few grooves that may or may not be the same few grooves from before, decrescendo with a low-end fill, slow atmospheric outro. Generally the "few grooves" will see some brief rising and falling action - about one peak and slope per groove if we were analyzing this as a literary structure - and there are some deviations here and there ("Utopia" for example, features a false ending and some of Dan's Faith No More impersonation!), but for the most part, the standard rhythm of a band that centers itself on odd timing creates both a confusing juxtaposition and a bland base for this musical concoction.
If you're just in it for the low-end, though, Acle and Amos have you covered. There's little in the above paragraphs that should deter you in your pursuit of bass-y goodness and, if you haven't figured it out by now, you'll be getting plenty of it as your main course with heaps falling over into your side dishes. It's tight, well-executed, and raises a few eyebrows here and there, but to be entirely honest, it doesn't have the spice needed to satisfy my palate after the well-seasoned Altered State
For the fans, this will pass. Polaris
is well-produced (even if the bass is dialed in several clicks too high), decently written, and properly executed for what it is. Critically speaking, however, it takes few musical risks and fails to launch any sort of vocal or instrumental melody, relegating it to a position as the sort of album you could take or leave in an artist's discography - a veritable recommended reading
no student without the passion to pursue a PhD considers for more than a moment. Yet given the lack of any real flaw in its execution, it's easy to continue to expect great things of Tesseract. Hopefully their next album will deliver on those expectations instead of skirting by on the bare minimum requirements to be considered "good."