TesseracT: "Subconsciously, we might have been going for a darker tone"

(Image credit: Steve Brown)

Though it's a heavy burden to bear, Tesseract are probably the UK's brightest and best hope for a future metal festival headliner.  

For many today though, they'll still be best known for pioneering the late 2000s renaissance for technical progressive metal that broadly became known as djent.

While the building-blocks for the genre were laid in the trailblazing work of bands like Meshuggah, the djent moniker became primarily associated with a crop of young bands, with Periphery in the US and Tesseract in the UK leading the charge.

Even if Tesseract were always more cerebral than some of their peers, it's certainly the case now that they've long exceeded the narrow confines of not just the 'djent' tag, but also 'progressive metal' in general.

On their last album Polaris, the band found themselves balancing the progressive tack of tracks like opener Dystopia with more accessible anthemic cuts like Phoenix and Survival, discovering a new audience in the process.

Closer Seven Names gave an even clearer indication of where the band were headed. Cinematic and sprawling, it evoked to some degree their highly-conceptual 2013 album Altered State, while leaving itself open-ended and more evocative of a journey than of travelling with a destination in mind.

"Planets!" jokes guitarist and principal songwriter Alec 'Acle' Kahney when asked about the creative vision for their sprawling new LP Sonder, confirming our suspicions as to its grand inspiration. Although in running length it's the leanest of the Tesseract albums so far, in scope and sound, it's their biggest record yet.

With Polaris, lots of the songs are very separate songs, whereas this album has gone back to the idea of lots of songs linking from one to the next

James Monteith

We caught up with guitarists James Monteith and Acle, as well as vocalist Dan Tompkins to find out what went into the new album - besides blood, djent and tears of course.

How would you describe the difference between Polaris and Sonder?

Acle Kahney: "I think it'll definitely come across as a bit darker, especially some of the songs. I don't know if that was a conscious decision or not."

James Monteith: "With Polaris, lots of the songs are very separate songs, whereas this album has gone back to the idea of lots of songs linking from one to the next, and basically being some large chunks of music rather than simple song structures."

Were there different influences at play? For instance, you've had some high-profile touring partners on the last album cycle...

AK: "I do wonder, because we did a tour with Gojira recently, and it wasn't a conscious influence; they sound great live and we've changed amplifiers and things like that, and I think maybe subconsciously we might have been going for a darker tone, like a dirtier sort of sound, and I do wonder that if going on tour with Gojira and Meshuggah might have influenced that."

On the production side of things have you changed anything up?

AK: "Production-wise, I used my usual go-to tricks, if that's the word for it. The major thing that's different is that before we were using Axe-Fx and we've moved over to Kempers now, and it's a whole new sort of tone to work with. That's probably the major difference between albums."

JM: "There was a bit of experimentation with valve amps in the early stages as well - that could have influenced the approaches to how the guitars sound, maybe?"

AK: "That's true, yeah."

So what are the differences you're finding with the Kempers, as opposed to the Axe-Fx?

The Kempers feel more natural, more like a real amp, and they're less forgiving than an Axe-Fx

Acle Kahney

AK: "Well, it depends on the amps, you know? The Kempers feel more natural, more like a real amp, and they're less forgiving than an Axe-Fx... the Kempers just feel more natural, and they're easier, I find; it's quicker and easier to get a usable, good-sounding tone out of the Kemper, compared to the Axe-Fx where you're constantly tweaking buttons - endlessly, I find."

JM: "We were just discussing earlier with the Axe-Fx there's so many options, and so many pages of things you can do, and in a way the level of detail is incredible, being able to drill down to lots of different things; but it can be distracting, or it my case it can be really off-putting, because it's just so complicated... the Kemper, it's all laid out in front of you, like the chain is very clear and it's just slightly more manageable to my mind. It depends what you want, really."

In terms of patches and tones, are you using stock patches or your own custom ones?

AK: "For the rhythm tone, it's basically a friend of mine in Sweden - I think it is - he profiled his Diezel Herbert, and I just kind of used that. Out of the box it didn't sound that great, so I kind of tweaked it a lot and ended up with a tone I quite liked. It sounds similar to our old tone, but just a bit fresher I guess. So it's a random Diezel Herbert, mic'd up with an SM57."

JM: "I'm using the same patch that Acle's made. One thing I've noticed that is different is how much more dynamic [the Kemper] feels. You can play really lightly and it actually feels more amp-like. The gate isn't quite as aggressive as it is say, on the Axe-Fx. It definitely feels much more like you're playing through an amp."

What tones or patches were you using before then?

AK: "We were using the old Axe-Fx Ultras, which were the first models, and an amp block called the FAS Modern, just like an in-built amp, and a stock 4x12 V30 cab IR thing. Just all the default stuff that came with the Axe-Fx at the time, but with loads of, well, tons of EQ, basically."

So this was from the first album onward.

AK: "No, the first album we were using real amps live, but for the recording -"

JM: "It was the POD! I think..."

AK: "It was the POD, yeah -"

JM: "Line 6 POD."

AK: "Line 6 POD XT [laughs], yeah I think it was a mix of that and the Axe-Fx on that one. Mainly the POD, y'know."

You talked about valve amps earlier, James - did any make it on to the new record, or was this with live shows in mind?

JM: "We talked about eventually the dream of being able to play with amps again, because it's very nice to have stage sound and feel the 'air' of a cabinet, so we borrowed a few amp heads, including an EVH 5150 and yeah, nothing really came of it, I don't think."

AK: "Yeah, it would have been nice to use it, but I think they're best suited for a cab... and the thought of having to lug amps and cabs around again at this stage..."

Had you considered the sort of hybrid rig that Gojira use, where it's a tube amp into a Two Notes Torpedo Live?

AK: "Yeah, so I got the setup just to experiment with - the 5150 and the Torpedo - it sounds cool, but it started to turn into an Axe-Fx world of having to download a load of IRs to find one that works, but I already had this Kemper patch set up, so I thought 'well, this kind of works' so I just stuck with that, really."

Will you still be using the Axe-Fx for guitar effects?

Acle with his Mayones signature model

Acle with his Mayones signature model (Image credit: Olly Curtis/Future)

AK: "You can still do that [add effects blocks] with the Kemper. For recording, on the album, if there's a particular really reverb-y delay part I might use that, or some outboard gear, or a plugin called Valhalla Shimmer, which just gives a really epic sort of infinite reverb sound - that's my go-to for that kind of stuff. [Also] the Sound Toys Echo Boy, it's a delay plugin, I use that for all the Axe-Fx-type stuff, for delays, for ethereal stuff."

What about studio gear? Any essential or go-to stuff that you couldn't have done without?

AK: "The Axe-Fx was quite a bright sound, so we had to cut a lot of the harshness out of what was already a bright sound, but I approached it differently with the Kemper. It's a darker sound, still a little bit harsh, but I had to use a hardware piece of gear I've got called Clariphonic [a rack unit made by Kush Audio]. It's an equalizer basically, but it just makes things sound really nice and bright. I used that quite a lot on the guitars - I've never done that before, but it's given this brightness without making the sound harsh.

"There's another new thing, which is a plugin called Soothe by Oeksound, and it's just like a really easy plugin for getting rid of harshness and making things sound nice and smooth. [There were] a few other things like UAD compressors."

It sounds like you were preferring plugins over hardware or outboard, then.

AK: "All plugins, and I used the Clariphonic I was talking about on the guitars. For the mastering I used my outboard gear, so I've got an API 500 compressor, a Neve mastering processor, and the SPL Vitalizer. When I'm mixing it there are so many plugins and so many tracks; I have got some more outboard gear, but I just have it all in plugins because it means I can load a session up and it's there."

So, Dan, how do you go about recording your vocal takes? As you live in a different part of the country, is it done remotely?

Dan Tompkins: "Yeah, it's all self-tracked in my home studio."

That makes sense. So what's your typical vocal chain when recording?

Personally, I find that you will get the best out of your voice by having very minimal things going on

Dan Tompkins

DT: "Personally, I find that you will get the best out of your voice by having very minimal things going on. So... at the minute I'm using an AKG C12VR, which is my main microphone, which is a condenser, and then I'm running that through a Neve 1073. That's going into an Apollo Duo interface, and then straight into Logic.

"I might track with a little bit of compression and some de-essing, but in terms of the process itself, it's very straightforward; I'll have to manually adjust the preamp settings according to the section of song I'm working on, whether it's a verse or a chorus."

As in, you'll run a chorus hotter than the verse using the outboard preamp?

DT: "Maybe. It all depends on the colour I want, and how tainted I want that sound. Generally speaking, I try and have a very clean sound and then I will allow Acle to produce that in the way that he wants in his mixing. I try and get as much clarity as possible in my vocals because I hate it when I listen to stuff and you can't understand what's going on."

James, we saw on the band's Instagram that you've commissioned a new Ibanez custom shop guitar.

JM: "They're building me a new one, which is quite nice; it's going to be a traditional Ibanez RG shape. I've been playing the RGD for eight years or something, so I'm going a bit old school with the shape. It's going to be a swamp ash body, five-piece maple and bubinga neck with a rosewood fingerboard. It's going to have Bare Knuckle Aftermath pickups, coil-tapped with a switch, and then a Tight Edge bridge. It's just a nice, simple, solid bridge, which is what you want."

So moving away from the string-through tailpiece you had before?

JM: "I've got a stock RGD that's got one, and I've got really used to it and really like it. I feel like it's a bit more comfortable, a bit more solid and slightly easier to play, actually, so I thought I've gotta give it a go. It's also closer to the body, which I like as well."

Acle, you're still with Mayones, is that right? No surprise Fender Strats on the album?

AK: "Yep, that's right. I've got my signature model, got a couple of those. Got two Regius as well... although Aiden [O'Brien] who helped in the writing process a lot lent me his Telecaster, and I do love Tele and Strats, sort of twangy blues sounds, but didn't get around to using it on the album [laughs]."

Sonder is out on 20 April via Kscope.

Alex Lynham

Alex Lynham is a gear obsessive who's been collecting and building modern and vintage equipment since he got his first Saturday job. Besides reviewing countless pedals for Total Guitar, he's written guides on how to build your first pedal, how to build a tube amp from a kit, and briefly went viral when he released a glitch delay pedal, the Atom Smasher.