Tesseract brings shape-shifting prog-metal from England
Afew of the guys from the English band Tesseract were on hand for the premiere of the movie “Jaco” recently in southern California. The film, a documentary about legendary bass virtuoso Jaco Pastorius, might seem like an unlikely bit of downtime activity for a group of frequently black-clad dudes whose music often incites headbanging and moshing. But Tesseract are a prog-metal band, and their heavy prog-ishness helps explain their eagerness to groove on the elaborate fretless bass sounds of “Jaco.” (The film was produced by Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo, which could be another point of interest.)
Tesseract will play at Ziggy’s in Winston-Salem on Dec. 5. I spoke by phone with guitarist James Monteith while the band was making a tour stop in San Diego in support of their most recent record, “Polaris,” released in September of this year. Tesseract have been through numerous singers over their career, often working with band members contributing parts and musical ideas from other continents. (The band’s bass player lives in China at the moment.) Singer Dan Tompkins rejoined the band last year after leaving to focus on raising a family and other duties. And so the band’s sound has returned to some of its origins, but Tesseract has also continued to focus on morphing, which is one of the band’s recurring themes. (The band’s name comes from a complicated, shifting geometrical cubelike figure.)
In metal, heaviness, force and speed are often prized qualities. Tight and compressed guitar tones with jagged edges, buzz-saw effects, and machine-gun fire precision with double-kick bass-drum patterns all come to mind. And Tesseract deploys all of these at times, but a more central part of their aesthetic seems to be structural complexity, with parts fitting together and overlapping like a metric puzzle. It’s rigorous, technically demanding music. Some Tesseract tracks sound like a musical ken-ken, where all the lines ultimately add up the same way, but first they’re chopped and reconfigured into odd bits and lopsided chunks.
As a point of entry, musical complexity can be problematic, since songs that are too elaborately structured or trickily configured are just as likely to repel certain listeners as they are to draw others in. Not being able to begin to wrap one’s mind around a piece of music — how it repeats, where it starts, what the structure is, its tonal center, the contours of the melody — can be off-putting. But with Tesseract, the complexity is so thorough, so difficult to penetrate, that it creates its own kind of mesmerising pull. One finds oneself trying to find the seams of the music, to count out its parts, or deduce its overarching structure, and just as one section starts to make sense, another pops up to destabilize a listener’s orientation. Tesseract songs don’t plod along in a predictable fashion.
It’s not like the band is actively working to craft inscrutable brainiac prog-metal that thwarts our ability to easily comprehend its structure, but they don’t really want to sound like other stuff. On that score, they’re pretty much succeeded, though bits of King Crimson, Meshuggah, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Voivod, John Zorn’s Naked City, Slayer and other jagged-edge music come to mind.
“We don’t want it to sound tired,” says Monteith about the band’s guiding principle. Tesseract often get named as a foundational “djent” band, which is a subgenre of technical metal that has as much to do with the clipped palm-muted guitar tone as with other musical elements. But Monteith says on their recent record the group worked to distance themselves from the association.
“There are so many bands that are doing that ‘djenty’ sound, it was important to move on and not get lost in the sea of bands,” says Monteith.
The band was already at a place that probably confounded a lot of doctrinaire metal heads. (There are a few very unmetal-like sax solos on the Tesseract’s 2011 record “One.”) But the new record is little less complex than previous efforts, at least by Monteith’s estimation.
“It’s become a lot more restrained,” he says. “It’s more complicated on a subtle level.”
Monteith says the band was working more toward solid songs than toward head-scratching suites of progressive music this time around. That may be true, but I think there are still plenty of ornate structural levels to ponder. It’s not like they’ve veered toward three-chord strumalongs or extended blues-boogie jams.
The complexity of Tesseract’s music could be seen as evolving out of a deep and varied sense of contrasts. Vocal lines often unfold in slow graceful phrases, but they get paired against rapid-fire bass-and-drum figures with disjointed accents or odd-length meters, which then get repeated, creating on-again off-again syncopations depending on the duration of the opposing patterns and how they overlap. Likewise, flowing, almost atmospheric instrumental sections can float out of dense, gnarly rhythmic passages. Even the sonic hierarchy of the instruments seems to invert convention, with the drums and bass in Tesseract serving to punch out the core foundational elements of a song, as opposed to playing background parts.
“The bass plays an important role,” says Monteith. “With this, the bass is its own instrument.”
Despite the band’s fondness for structural complexity and metrical puzzles, the members of Tesseract don’t spend a lot of time analyzing and counting the irregular parts of the songs, says Monteith. Instead, they internalize the jutting, odd-time segments by “learning the long phrases,” mastering the music by feel rather than turning it into a metric exercise.
“It’s a writing style that’s just evolved over time,” says Monteith.
The big fundamental contrast in the music of Tesseract might be in the interplay between different essential pulsations, ways of keeping time or counting out the patterns. Steady triplet figures get superimposed over larger four-beat phrases and the resulting polyrhythmic mesh creates periodic moments of symmetry. And then, like on the track ‘Hexes,” off the new record, five-beat sections disrupt other odd-beat or shifting meter segments. Polyrhythms are often associated with funk, or with groove-based music that turns the tension between two ways of feeling or counting into a kind of coiled body-energy that can play out in limb movement — dancing. With Tesseract, the polyrhythms are rarely prolonged for extended periods, undermining one’s sense of being able to move confidently through the music. But that too is perhaps part of the point.
As singer Tompkins has mentioned in interviews, the title of the new record, “Polaris,” can be seen as having counterintuitive meanings about the difficulty of orienting one’s self with certainty using outside markers over long durations. The name refers to the star commonly called the North Star, which is used as a beacon or guide star, because of its proximity in the night sky to the north celestial pole. But, over astronomical time, the location of the star will move and shift away from true north. So, like the cascading and collapsing rhythmic patterns of a Tesseract song, with their sometimes elusive downbeats, the apparent constancy of something seemingly fixed like the North Star has to be understood in terms of its changing relationship to its surroundings.
“Everyone’s a bit of a science nerd,” says Monteith of himself and his bandmates. !
JOHN ADAMIAN lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
Tesseract play Ziggy’s, Sat., Dec. 5, 7 p.m. with the Contortionist, Erra, Skyharbor, 170 W. 9th St., Winston-Salem, (336) 722-5000, ziggyrock.net