Modern progressive metal is far from music's most lucrative sector, but it does reward perseverance, innovation and passionate artistry.
A decade since its first EP, treasured U.K. prog metal band TesseracT has improbably weathered the comings and goings of three different lead singers and the rigors of world touring to remain one of its generation's most potent collectives.
The band's second album, 2013's Altered State, has grown into a modern progressive touchstone, despite being TesseracT's only LP to feature the glistening choir boy-vocals of singer Ashe O'Hara, whose departure a year later left the band's career in flux.
Even after singer Daniel Tompkins (who appeared on the band's 2010 EP and 2011 debut album) returned in 2014, Altered State continued to draw new fans. Miraculously, it continued to sell, and its exceedingly rare vinyl format began commanding hefty sums on the secondary market.
Today, Tesseract and its label, Century Media, have reissued Altered State in CD/vinyl box sets, celebrating a defining moment for the band by making it more accessible to all.
For Tompkins, Altered State, is the one that got away. It is TesseracT's only studio album without his voice and yet it also includes the band's most successful single, "Nocturne." For years, he waffled between a latent sourness of missing out with a genuine admiration for the music.
"The album is without a doubt a gem," Tompkins tells Q104.3 New York's QN'A. "It just works — all of it. Musically, from the songwriting to the vocal import to the mix, it’s a gem. Personally, I really wish I was a part of that album. I did actually have a lot of ideas for that record [before leaving the band]."
Read the conversation below!
Dan, you were out of the band when Altered State came out, when did you first hear the album? How have your feelings on it evolved since you've been back in the band, singing these songs?
Daniel Tompkins: It’s grown on me, I have to say. I actually heard it before it was released because I was still speaking to the guys anyway. There was never any bad blood.
I think there was a part of me that for a long time didn’t listen to it because it was kind of tainted for me, the fact that I wasn’t in the band. Nothing against these guys — just that inner turmoil, the fact that I was a part of something and not a part of it anymore.
There were a lot of comparisons, as well. There was a lot of 'Ashe vs Dan' going on, and I just wanted to stay away from it, to be honest. But when I came back to the band, I obviously had to learn the material.
It’s taken me a long time to get the songs under my skin. Recently, I’ve recorded all new BVs [background vocals] for the live sets that we’re gonna take forward in the future.
As part of that process, I recorded vocals for the whole album, and included my Twitch followers in that as well — I did it as content for Twitch and also to improve the live set for Tesseract.
The album is without a doubt a gem. It just works — all of it. Musically, from the songwriting to the vocal import to the mix, it’s a gem. Personally, I really wish I was a part of that album. I did actually have a lot of ideas for that record. In fact, we should dig out those demos; there were loads of them.
Jay Postones: I’ve still got them!
Maybe for the 10th anniversary reissue.
Dan: It’s a treasured album for a lot of TesseracT fans. I’ve always been quite careful to give it a safe distance in everything that I’ve done. Seven years on I feel that I’ve matured enough as a vocalist — and I’ve been back in TesseracT for five years now... I feel like it’s time for me to fully-embrace that record.
Not that we would ever do a re-release [with Ashe's vocals replaced], but in terms of the live shows. I always sang with Ashe’s BVs. I did that because I thought it was a nice thing to do, to kind of include him in some way. But sonically, it never really made sense because I was harmonizing over another singer’s voice, a different timbre, it didn’t really work.
I’ve also altered the performances as well. Having gone back into it and really focused on the finer details of it, it’s given me a greater appreciation for it, definitely.
The first two albums have these multi-song arcs on them, like orchestral movements. Do those tend to be created in order or are they devised later on?
Amos: ...If you imagine the presentation of Altered State almost as a Rosetta Stone for understanding the weird language of the music we try to create…before we got to the final state, it was in a completely different order and it f---ing sucked for some reason.
There was something about the order that made no sense. I couldn’t tell you what the original order was, but by putting things together in such a way, we started to understand that album ourselves. This can only work in this fashion. And as a result it split into four different sections ["Of Matter," "Of Mind," "Of Reality" and "Of Energy"].
The music itself tends to, if not write itself, it certainly tells us where it should go. We hear certain things in the music that seem almost out of our control at times.
Jay: Yeah, we get what most people would consider to be a finished sounding song. But where I generally put my nose in is around the arrangement of things. ...Whether or not that makes the cut is a question.
You just never know when these things are going to happen. Nothing is ever forced, it only feels right or wrong. And the stuff that feels right makes the album.
Jay, I imagine it might be quite a task for you as a human drummer to interpret drum patterns Acle programs on his demos. Are you constantly fighting Superior Drummer or working with it?
Jay: I see myself as the human filter for these very well-written, computerized drum beats. I try to humanize everything. I try to keep the parts consistent to the original ideas. The vast majority of the parts are given to me and I learn them, and I learn them in a very natural way; I just listen and after a while they click and I can play them.
Everything I do is just humanizing, making possible these beats that Acle has created, and if anything I learn a lot from the stuff that he writes. His and my styles of writing are very different. The stuff that I come out with in a jam situation has definitely been inspired by the material that I receive in this band.
It’s enabling me to learn all the time, and if you’re not learning all the time, what are you doing?
What are some moments for this album where you learned a part or way of doing something that maybe you didn’t previously think you could or should do?
Amos: This [“Of Matter – Proxy”] demo came through quite soon after [our tour with Protest the Hero], which was quite a long tour across North America.
Every time we come off a long tour, the influences of the band we’re out with seep into the demos that come immediately after that. There’s a section at the start of “Proxy” that I would have never imagined TesseracT doing, but it sounds precisely like Protest the Hero — maybe two minutes into the track.
It’s a lot of semi-quavers going up and down the next. It was something that we’d never done before and it was surprising to hear, and I honestly wondered if we’d ever be able to do it any justice live because it was so unlike the rest of what we did. Although it’s not hard, for everybody to play it in unison is fairly unique for TesseracT, so that was interesting to see that happen.
Jay: Every song is my answer. There’s something new and challenging in absolutely every single song. The honest one for me is still “Nocturne.” That was the biggest challenge for me for the longest time. There’s a fill fairly early on in the song that is kind of a linear tom-based fill that for a while I didn’t even attempt to get it right because it was so difficult.
It took me, I want to say a year or two — you guys can say, ‘No, you still can’t play it’ — to be able to play that live. That pushed me as a player to place I didn’t think I would ever go. And it’s over in a second, it’s one of those things that’s one or two seconds long, and if I think about it too much nowadays, I still stumble.
Dan: As an observation, I think Ashe did on Altered State what I did on One, and that is [he] pushed way too hard in the studio without any real nod to how it was going to be performed live.
I learned my mistake with One, because as soon as I went on the road and toured in a van for six weeks doing shows every night, I learned very quickly that I didn’t have the vocal stamina or ability to do it consistently every night.
I don’t feel I did the vocals justice. Like Jay, it’s taken me years to learn this stuff inside and out. As the singer doing this stuff, it’s not designed for me. I’m a completely different singer. We’ve got similarities in our voices, but the timbre is different.
Ashe had a bit more freedom [in his voice] within a group of three or four notes around high-C. So for him to record that and sound completely free, it works. For me it sounds quite strange. I’ve had to extend my range in order to be able to sing a lot of this stuff live because I would not normally stay that relentlessly high.
The other thing is the amount of harmonies on the record. It’s why Polaris is stripped back of harmonies, in comparison to Altered State. And I did that, again, to try and prove something. I just felt that I had to prove that I was a good singer and could pull off a strong lead line without the necessity for 16 backing vocals.
The vocals on the next record that we do, I feel like I’ll be pushing boundaries again because I feel confident enough and strong enough.
I’m thankful for Altered State. I’m very thankful for what Ashe did on there because it’s helped me to come at vocals from a very different angle. I’m happy that it made me strip away the backing vocals, but I’m also happy that it has pushed me to want to deliver emotionally high-charged vocal lines. It’s made me learn that you have to do it with a lot of balance, and that takes a lot of training to do. I’m grateful and I’m excited.