The first three albums of a band’s career all have their own thematic tropes. The debut is often seen as the most primal, the fuel that often catapults sensational bands into fame. The sophomore release is the one where the true wheat is separated from the chaff; bands choose to either do what the debut has done but better or take a completely different direction. Many bands fail this test in their hardcore fans eyes. It then remains to be seen whether new blood can keep them afloat or, like many bands at this stage, will they be doomed to one hit wonder status. The third album, for those bands who get that far, is the most likely one to disappoint. If you stick with the direction of the two first albums, you run the risk of sounding repetitive. If you experiment too wildly, you again flirt with alienating the people who got you this far, by changing your sound so much that the reason they fell in love with you disappears.
But what of the fourth and fifth releases? For the few bands that got beyond the initial threshold (and, no matter how many bands you know that have, they are still the minority when you consider just how much music is released every year), a new challenge appears. They have crossed the lagoon of their infancy and are now in the deep waters of their careers, with potentially decades of musical work stretching out before them. This is where TesseracT now find themselves; buoyed by the birth of the djent movement in the past decade, they were able to wade through line up changes, stylistic shifts and then returns, to arrive at Sonder, their fourth album. As they look out across the waters of what comes next, what answer do TesseracT give for those wondering at where the band is going?
In Sonder, the answer seems to be more definite than the previous Polaris but also strangely under-pronounced and hesitant in parts. As someone who found Polaris to be way too focused on the past, Sonder gave me plenty to like. “King” for example, perhaps the strongest track on the album other than “Smile”, sees Tompkins return to his screams, reminding us all why One hit so hard. The riffs are also reminiscent of the debut but do enough to be fresh and exciting; the ambiance has been dialed back a bit and the riffs hit harder than ever. Even the pop influenced breakaway in the middle has punch and serves to dissect the track nicely, creating variety and expectation where they were most needed. Not to be outdone, “Smile” features one of TesseracT’s heaviest moments; the main riff is monstrously big and right after the middle of the track, it’s accompanied by incredibly convincing screams. The whole ends up being heavy and groovy, beautifully backed by some more electronic synths.
Between my words, you might begin to glimpse another key element of Sonder. Much like the rest of the progressive metal/djent scene, TesseracT have turned their eyes towards indie rock/pop influences. This kind of influence has had less than optimal results in the past, in my eyes; releases like The Contortionist‘s and Leprous‘s latest, found their punch robbed by those “sweeter” influences. Luckily, Sonder mostly pulls this off much better. When it doesn’t, the results are opening track “Luminary”, also the first single released, a meandering and directionless ditty that ends up not leaving too much of a mark on the listener. When it does work, because it is contrasted with the heavier passages mentioned above, it works beautifully; this is what gives “The Arrow” the power to close off the album properly.
As we near the end of the review, and if you have the track list for the album open, you might already begin to realize what the big issue with the album is. “Luminary” has just been cast out and I haven’t mentioned the middle of the album at all. And, indeed, this is the main problem for Sonder: it has too much filler for its run-time. Will I personally detest transitional songs and intros, you can expect to have them on longer albums and get away with it. But in an album that’s 8 tracks long and thirty six minutes in length, you just can’t afford to use them. Thus, “Orbital” and the numerous intros to the rest of the tracks on the album do much to rob it of momentum. Nearly every track there begins with an ambient buildup and one which doesn’t really get translated to anything too interesting as the album progresses. The tracks themselves, when they get going, also don’t do much to dispel the feeling of complacency which the intros planted in our minds; they’re standard TesseracT stock and, while not bad, don’t grab you in any powerful way.
Overall, we’ve approached the album differently than we did Polaris but ended up with the same result. If you’re fan of TesseracT, Sonder has much for you. Tompkins is still one of the best vocalists in the genre and his range is utilized beautifully on this release. The production is still top notch, spearheaded as it is by Acle Kahney, one of the people who made this sound exist in the first place. When it kicks, it kicks hard and it’s hard not to be moved by it. But mostly, it spends its time building up towards nothing much. If you’re looking for that TesseracT riff, you’ll find it here and even some interesting iterations on it. But if you’re looking for another mind-blowing progressive release in a year that already has plenty of them, you need to look elsewhere; Sonder will please you for a while but, at the end of the day, doesn’t have too much to dig into. TesseracT’s career sets sail but can they dig deep and recreate the fury and conviction that created their first two releases? That remains to be seen.