Somewhere around the end of the noughties and the beginning of whatever the hell we’re going to call this decade retrospectively, something remarkable happened in the UK metal scene. Inspired by the likes of Meshuggah and Sikth, a whole army of fresh and exciting progressive metal bands were practically falling out of the sky and on to the toilet circuit stages. Words like ‘djent’ were simultaneously embraced and repelled, and new festivals (such as Tech Fest and Euroblast further afield) sprang up to cater for this newly coaleasced fanbase. Alongside Monuments and American brothers in arms Periphery, TesseracT were arguably in the vanguard forging this underground movement. Fast forward to the present day, and it is equally arguable that TesseracT have transcended the underground and become a bona fide mainstream prog-metal act, commanding a fiercely passionate worldwide audience.
As Tesseract’s frontman, Daniel Tompkins has acted as something of a lightning conductor for much of this attention. Even during what transpired to be his temporary hiatus from the band, for the duration of the record, release and tour cycle of second album Altered State, he both kept himself busy and in the public eye through a slew of guest appearances and one-off collaborations, as well as his membership of Skyharbor and ongoing side project White Moth Black Butterfly. Additionally, there was another, now defunct project, which surprisingly saw Dan join forces Sikth guitarist Dan Weller, among others, to produce mature, contemporary pop under the name of In Colour. It is this last project, together with the Errai re-workings of selected tracks from TesseracT’s third album Polaris, that has most in common with the Castles material.
Castles is a surprisingly brief collection of delicate and downtempo electronica. With barely a guitar in sight, and nothing close to a riff, the only nods in the direction of Dan’s day job are in his collaborator choices. In the main, the vibe of these tracks is downcast, even maudlin, with a slightly unsettled undercurrent. Castles may be gentle, and deeply infused with pop sensibilities, but it is certainly not a summery, bubblegum strain of pop. Instead, the influences appear to be primarily drawn from the darker end of eighties electro-pop, like Depeche Mode, as well as Nine Inch Nails‘ quieter material, and certain elements of the Bristol trip-hop scene of the nineties. “Kiss”, for example, features a thick and ominous synth line reminiscent of Massive Attack, and Portishead-style strings weave themselves through “Telegraph”.
Given Dan’s reputation as a vocalist of some considerable talent, Castles is a notably humble affair. Rather than indulging himself with all manner of showy vocal acrobatics, Dan tends to stick to the lower registers, and applies more effects and layers to manipulate the tone. He instead focusses more on melodies that are subtle and memorable, surreptitiously sinking into the listeners subconscious and bubbling up as remarkably persistent earworms.
Castles features seven original songs, but then bolsters it’s tracklisting with six reinterpretations of them, largely remixed or reworked by third parties. So it’s possibly a misnomer to refer to Castles as a full album, and it’s probably closer to a mini-album and remix EP in one package. The most perplexing decision here is the inclusion of three additional versions of opening track “Saved”. This means that treating the Castles disc as a regular album and listening from end to end becomes an extended exercise in deja vu. It’s most likely the case that the precise tracklisting has been compiled with the view that the probable audience for these songs outside of those explicitly brought to them by Dan’s other work aren’t all that interested in the long-form album listening experience.
Whilst still a confusing decision, those three extra interpretations of “Saved” do neatly tie Castles to the various other strands of Dan’s current creative output. There is a version featuring Tesseract mainman Acle Kahney, one with Paul Ortiz – more commonly known as Chimp Spanner, and also part of the Zeta synthwave project with Dan, and one with Randy Slaugh, who was involved with the second White Moth Black Butterfly album, Atone. As neat and tidy as this is, and as distinct as the three interpretations are, they all still remain within the realm of melancholic electronica, and it might have been interesting to see what would have happened to these songs had they been pushed a little further afield. Even taking the original tracks in isloation from the re-interpretations they somewhat blur together, to the point where the vocal lines feel a little interchangeable at times. With little variation in tempo or dynamic across the songs, Castles feels more like a collection of tracks to pick and choose from than a cohesive album of material to be heard in a single sitting. Of course, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but for an artist carrying as many excellent examples of the album experience in his back catalogue, it is a little jarring.
Ultimately, Castles presents as a conundrum. There is an unmistakably quality evident, especially in those devilishly hooky vocal melodies, but the songs as a whole unfortunately aren’t especially memorable. Even with the diversity evident in Dan’s previous work, the decision to create music as far removed from Tesseract as Castles is was a bold one. Yet, after the boldness of that initial choice, the songs themselves seem to take few risks within their new paradigm. It would be fair to point out that these particular ears have been fully conditioned to hear Dan’s voice in a certain context, and it’s entirely plausible that Castles will find a whole new audience beyond those who will find their way to it via his day job. As a first step on a new path, Castles is a credible beginning, but it might not be a journey that all Tesseract fans will necessarily want to take.
Castles drops May 31st, and is available for pre-order here.