Released: 2015, eOne Music/Kscope Music
Reviewer: Peter Atkinson
At this point, England's TesseracT have had more vocalists (five, or indeed six, given that this is Daniel Tompkins second stint with the band) than studio albums (three, with the release of their latest, Polaris). But while that would likely be a huge problem for many other bands, the more instrumentally inclined TesseracT have taken it all in stride – and indeed seem to play to the strength of whomever is singing at the time.
For 2013’s more polished and progressive minded Altered State, the band took full advantage of Ashe O’Hara’s soaring clean vocals – following up on an acoustic EP they did with his equally “clean” predecessor Elliot Coleman. Yet with Tompkins and his multi-hued sing-to-scream style, which figured prominently on their djenty 2011 debut One, now back in the fold, TesseracT have gone rather sideways with Polaris.
Instead of muscling up and giving Tompkins an opportunity to let loose along with them, the band, if anything, have dialed things back. Polaris doesn't offer a whole lot in the way of djenty jaunts – aside from the standard stutter-step guitar salvos and bass lines that come and go as they please – progressive adventurousness or metallic thunder. Rather, it offers a subdued, ethereal sonic palette that more often echoes Porcupine Tree or Radiohead than Meshuggah, with songs that cry out for a little something extra but don't often deliver.
Tompkins' voice remains clear and clean throughout – save for a curious bit of rapping in “Hexes” and “Utopia” and an oh-so-brief bark at the end of “Cages.” Indeed, he spends a lot of time almost whispering over the ample – and somewhat maddening - quieter parts of tracks like “Tourniquet” or “Phoenix” and is either quiet or croony when the band actually do let it go – and when they do, don't expect much in the way of fireworks.
It's puzzling why TesseracT would welcome Tompkins back, then not use his talents – nor their own, for that matter - to its full advantage, allowing Polaris to fall flat as a result. The songs have all the personality and variety of a suburban cul-de-sac. They may be grand and immaculate, but they all kinda seem the same. And there is a palpable lack of energy in the album’s near constant stiff, shuffling pace. There's a lot of tension in many of the songs, and they feel eager to be unleashed, yet never get set free.
So Polaris ultimately comes off as a rather dull wasted opportunity. It could have been so much more had the band opted to be more explosive, daring or aggressive. Instead, TesseracT either felt compelled to rein Tompkins in for whatever reason – or just plain played it safe here. And neither is a particularly laudable move.