Release date: Sept. 18, 2015
If there’s one thing Tesseract proved with their new album Polaris, it’s that the lineup that gave us Altered State was something special.
It’s inevitable that Polaris would be compared to Altered State, the band’s breakthrough album that was nominated for Prog magazine’s 2013 Album of the Year. That album made the UK-based progressive metal band a group to watch in the genre, with vocalist Ashe O’Hara giving us addictive soaring melodies and poetic lyrics that had me analyzing the liner notes.
But a lot can change in a two-year span. O’Hara is no longer with the band due to apparent creative differences, which he revealed in a Facebook post announcement on June 27, 2014. He's been replaced by the band’s original singer Daniel Tompkins, a very talented musician in his own right. Tompkins had appeared on Tesseract’s debut album One in 2011 and has been involved in several other projects – including Skyharbor’s 2014 album, Guiding Lights.
With Polaris, Tesseract’s chance to cement a spot among progressive metal’s heavyweights is there for the taking. Great bands can follow up their breakthrough album with an album of equal or greater quality. For example, Queensrÿche released the impressive Empire in 1990 following Operation: Mindcrime, and Dream Theater released the breathtaking Awake in 1994 following Images and Words. Tesseract absolutely had its work cut out for itself to duplicate the brilliance of Altered State, but if any band has the talent to tackle the challenge, they do.
Unfortunately, Polaris misses the mark. That’s not to say it isn’t a good album (it is), or that new/old vocalist Tompkins can’t sing his ass off (he can). “Survival” is pretty much a flawless song certainly worthy of radio play, and “Seven Names” climaxes with such intensity that it's hard to resist pumping a fist in the air and singing along as loud as possible with Tompkins. The music itself also sounds like classic Tesseract and the production is as crisp as it gets. Still, there’s a certain magic missing. And since Tompkins is the sole change from Altered State, it’s natural to single out him and wonder how O’Hara would’ve approached the songs.
The fan reaction to Tompkins is mixed – with some revering his technical chops and others, like me, preferring the vocal choices of O’Hara. For example, one fellow fan from the Dream Theater Forums said he thinks Tompkins is a terrific singer, but the vocals on Altered State are just “so good” that he will always have a “what if” feeling with the band in regards to the singing. Another fan said Tompkins’ voice just doesn’t have the kind of texture that O’Hara has. “He’s a decent singer, but there’s not a lot of character there,” she said. For me, the biggest difference between the two is that Tompkins sometimes sings in spots where I feel like O’Hara might’ve stayed silent over Tesseract’s sound, and sometimes is silent in parts where I feel like O’Hara might’ve sang – and it’s hard to outdo O’Hara in that department.
If you’re a fan of Tesseract and progressive metal in general, I definitely recommend Polaris – but, even moreso, I recommend Odyssey: The Destroyer of Worlds, the recent debut album by O’Hara’s new band Voices from The Fuselage. That album is likely my top release so far of 2015 and easily outshines Polaris. Despite that, Tesseract is one of the best and freshest bands in the prog genre today. They just don’t further distinguish themselves with Polaris.
- Michael R. Ebert (progzombie.blogspot.com)