Although it’s existed for less than a decade, British quintet TesseracT is surely one of the most distinguishing and celebrated bands in modern progressive metal. Interspersing a strong djent foundation with decorations of emotive, spacy ambience and soft-spoken, luscious choruses, the group never fails to offer a rewarding experience; in fact, both of TesseracT’s prior LPs—2011’s <b>One</b> and 2013’s <b>Altered State</b>—felt more like masterfully clever and cohesive journeys than mere collections of tracks. Fortunately, the newest studio entry in the sequence, <b>Polaris</b>, manages to maintain the excellence and exceed expectations. Blending the best components of its predecessors into a rich new statement, <b>Polaris</b> triumphs over both of them. Not only is it TesseracT’s best work to date, but it’s easily one of the best progressive metal albums of 2015.
As many fans know, <b>Polaris</b> represents the return of original vocalist Daniel Tompkins (who left in 2011 to front Skyharbor and was replaced by Ashe O’Hara on <b>Altered State</b>). Naturally, this means that the vocals on <b>Polaris</b> are sometimes harsher than they were on <b>Altered State</b>, and even when Tompkins ventures into his silky falsetto range, he still doesn’t match the incredibly angelic cascades that O’Hara reached. Whether this is a benefit or detriment is in the eye of the beholder, but it’s definitely worth pointing out, as the vocals on <b>Polaris</b> make it feel like a spiritual successor to <b>One</b>, while its music provides the logical next step after <b>Altered State</b>.
“Dystopia” starts things off with a few moments of atmosphere before the trademark TesseracT ferocity kicks in. Intricate rhythms collide with thick riffs as Tompkins' antagonistic verses give way to his rising choruses. As usual, the track alternates between aggressive and chillingly cathartic, proving that TesseracT is still a master of dynamic, affective temperamental shifts. Likewise, the lyrics are expectedly prophetic, with lines like “I choose to live free / It took a second warning then I said goodbye / With tainted eyes I need to believe / It took a little longer to sympathise” enhancing the powerful call-to-action vibe.
Unsurprisingly, it flows into “Hexes” with delicate grace, as soft piano and guitar notes move around an ethereal soundscape. Tompkins sounds wonderfully fragile and desperate at the start, pleading, “Is there something I should know / Of the colours that you show / I remember those words In the back of my mind” like a lost soul hoping to find redemption. Afterward, his multilayered chorus—“It isn't a secret that mind's shrouded in history / It isn't a secret this mind spirals in disarray / It isn't a secret this mind shudders in mystery / It isn't a secret I find terror in memory”—is incredibly dense and hypnotic. Eventually, the arrangement becomes more complex, yet it’s still impeccably encompassing, with spastic percussion keeping the momentum high.
Without a doubt, the third track, “Survival,” is the highlight of the disc. It creeps in from silence with shimmering guitar notes as Tompkins whispers (and then cries out) <i>the</i> catchiest melody on <b>Polaris</b>: “Disturbed / Will I disappear with a vision of tomorrow / Until I can't feel the light / Disturbed / When I get the feeling I've been here before / I'm the abandoner.” Behind him, bassist Amos Williams leads the way with bouncy, inventive precision as a collage of mesmerizing sounds add a futuristic urgency. It’s simply remarkable, and a standout piece in the band’s entire catalog.
Showcasing a softer side overall, “Tourniquet” is heartbreaking and gorgeous, with stunning harmonies and vocal counterpoints conveying devastating sentiments such as “Your love is my tourniquet / Learn to rise, contain the pressure / This was supposed to be no miracle.” It’s undoubtedly one of Tompkins’ greatest performances; likewise, the rest of the group soars with a collective mind, fluctuating the instrumentation with subtle brilliance to achieve the perfect balance of weakness and passion. The fact that TesseracT can strike this compromise is what makes them such a special act.
For the most part, <b>Polaris</b> sustains this magic during the rest of its duration. For instance, “Utopia” is forceful and memorable without being overbearing or repetitive, while “Phoenix” comes close to matching the piercing elegance of “Tourniquet”; in fact, Tompkins hits a high note at one point that’s nothing short of astonishing. Later on, the timbres and rhythms on “Cages” are amongst the record’s most colorful and inviting, while “Seven Names” closes the full-length with a confident amalgam of everything that made the previous forty minutes so spectacular. Its final moments fade away with a combination of sorrowful piano notes and distressed atmosphere, leaving listeners in awe and aching for another trip.
In an age of countless copycats and fleeting originality, <b>Polaris</b> stands as a beacon of courage, desire, and wisdom. Sure, there are other bands who approach a similar trajectory, but none own it like TesseracT. The quintet has pushed itself further than ever to create an unforgettable journey into grief, anger, and purification, oscillating melodies, dispositions, and arrangements with dazzling finesse. Ever second is simultaneously familiar and invigorating, transforming itself seamlessly with breathtaking innovation. Like its predecessors, <b>Polaris</b> is more than just an album; it’s a work of art.