Tesseract on why they needed to “come back and make a big statement”
With the UK band finally revealing their first new album in half a decade, we caught up with guitarists Acle Kahney and James Monteith to talk about what to expect – complete with Always Sunny… memes – and their gradual ascent to prog-metal’s top tier.
Tesseract. Image: Andy Ford
The momentum in Tesseract went from 0 to 100mph on Wednesday 12 July. When the world woke up that morning, the last show the British prog metal heavies played was in April, and they didn’t have many announced for the future, either. Plus it had been five years since their last studio album, Sonder, which had only blasted fans with a svelte 37 minutes of metal. Everybody was impatient for more.
Then, at 4pm sharp… boom. The band returned in the most overblown fashion possible. They released their longest song in ten years, the 11-minute War of Being, as a single. Simultaneously, they announced not only an hour-long concept album of the same name for a September release, but also every single show they’d be playing until May 2024 in one fell swoop.
“It felt like we were very much at the end of the [Sonder] cycle and things had gone off the boil a bit,” admits guitarist James Monteith, talking to Guitar via video call just two days after Tesseract’s deluge of news. “We needed to come back in as big a way as possible and make a big statement. We tried to make this announcement as huge as we possibly could: long song, brilliant video, playing everywhere in the world. We had to kickstart the next stage of the journey!”
Already, the Tesseract journey is a rich underdog story. What started in 2003 as founding guitarist Alec “Acle” Kahney (also on today’s call) tracking Meshuggah-inspired riffs in his bedroom is now a gold standard for the British prog metal scene. Although the band’s 2011 debut album, One, echoed the syncopated rhythms and sing-scream vocals of Sikth and Periphery, the extended melodic breaks and post-rock spaciness pushed that sound to new levels of listenability.
Since then, Tesseract have headlined festivals and toured across the globe, while their music’s never stagnated. Second album Altered State was ‘the prog one’ with its multi-song 15-minute suites, Polaris was ‘the melodic rock one’ and the no-frills Sonder was ‘the big-riffs-straight-for-the-throat one’. As for the upcoming War of Being, that’s ‘the comprehensive one’. Look no further than the title track, which – with its enormous scope, those hefty riffs and Dan Tompkins’ evocative cries of “They shined a light in you!” – could easily be the quintessential Tesseract song.
Similarly, War of Being opener Natural Disaster flows from ambient segues to verses of chunky guitars and Amos Williams’ slap bass. Then it crescendos with one last, powerful vocal of “The serpent in my eyes!” Legion begins as a rocker that lets Jay Postones’ polyrhythmic drums lead the way, then Sirens sees Dan’s voice smoothly glide over proggy atmospherics and Sacrifice ends the album with a conclusion heavy enough to make most peers shit themselves.
“It wasn’t a conscious decision where we were like, ‘Oh, let’s merge One, Altered State, Polaris and Sonder,’” says Acle. “That came together more naturally, but there was definitely a decision for us to all be in the same room and record in the studio with live drums. The first album had real drums, but they were rushed in a day or two. With this, we had the best part of a month just to focus on jamming, recording and experimenting. Somehow, it ended up sounding like a bit of every album.”
Lyrically, War of Being is Tesseract’s first rock opera. Its narrative is about two explorers, Ex and El, who crash-land on an alien planet and end up on separate personal journeys. Judging by the scenes in the title track’s music video, said journeys end with the pair beating the shit out of each other. It’s all very prog rock, with the concept masterminded by Amos as a metaphor for the internal conflicts a person goes through during their life. The bassist also hopes to write a novella based on the album’s storyline.
“Have you seen that meme [from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia] with the guy trying to explain everything on a wall?” Acle laughs. “When Amos presented us with the concept for the album, it felt like that. We had pictures everywhere in the studio of different characters, names and arcs. It was Amos, on one drunken night, going, ‘This guy is going here and doing that!’ It’s quite a simple concept though – I think. I still don’t quite understand it.”
James grins. “The more complicated and crazy the lyrics are, the more Tesseract nerds are gonna love them,” he adds, “so I was just like, ‘Yep!’”
Despite the new ideas and emphasis on collaboration, the way guitars were handled on War of Being was tried and true. Acle was still the musical visionary during the writing process and once more recorded all the riffs on the album himself. James, as is now usual for Tesseract, learned the parts later on.
“The old-fashioned way was doing it all by ear,” the guitarist says. “But now Acle very kindly sends me videos, which speeds the process up a lot. The hardest riff [on the new album] to learn was, funnily enough, the very beginning of War of Being. It’s really difficult to make those bends not sound out of tune!”
Acle used his trusty Mayones Setius AK1 seven-string signature on War of Being: a model that he’s long recorded with and always takes on the road. “Sometimes certain guitars have a magic to them,” he explains, “which sounds like bullshit, but maybe it’s just a feel thing. For me, it just has that.” When the band embark on their world tour to promote War of Being in October, James will once again be using his custom-made seven-string Ibanez RGD.
Acle also says that, although his band have always dealt in wild polyrhythms, the mathematical element of music is rarely something he thinks about. “I’ll just go with the groove and the flow and see how it sounds. The only time mathy things will come up is if something isn’t working in Jay’s brain and he has to change something by a 16th.” He laughs: “Then I just get confused. So, yeah, I do it all by ear.”
In terms of songwriting, it’s not a massive leap away from the bedroom days where Tesseract started. Acle began the band as a one-teenager project, simply recording off-kilter metal riffs that were too technical for his then-band, Fellsilent, and uploading them to Myspace. As the guitarist’s ideas got noticed in the fledgling realm of social media, he poached Jay, impressed by his playing in a support band at an Enter Shikari show. He then added James and Amos to Tesseract’s ranks after they shared a stage with Fellsilent in an old rap metal outfit.
“It was 2004!” James quickly and defensively explains. “I remember watching Fellsilent soundcheck and going, ‘Oh my god! This sounds like Meshuggah! These guys are great!’ We clearly had a mutual enjoyment of that kind of music.”
Dan, the last current member to join, was added to the band in 2009, having been introduced to Acle by a promoter in the guitarist’s hometown of Milton Keynes. By that point, Tesseract had already become something of an underground hit with prior vocalist Abisola Obasanya. Their 2007 demo contained early versions of One tracks Concealing Fate, Part I: Acceptance, April and Sunrise, and accrued word-of-mouth buzz online. The attention led to the band being dubbed one of the best unsigned acts in British metal: they were featured in The Washington Post and in 2008 headlined the second stage of the 20,000-capacity Bloodstock Open Air.
By 2010, the internet hype around Tesseract became too great to ignore and the band were picked up by major label Century Media. They released the Concealing Fate EP on the imprint, then One and (while briefly fronted by singer Ashe O ’Hara) Altered State. Today, despite the half-decade gap between Sonder and War of Being, the five-piece are still reaching new heights of popularity. They headlined the ArcTanGent festival in 2022 to 10,000 people and, within 24 hours of its release, the War of Being video was watched upward of 100,000 times and reached the trending tab on YouTube.
“All I wanted to do [when I started the band] was play festivals,” Acle reflects. “It’s been such a gradual growth for Tesseract since then, in a good way. It’s all been positive: we’ve never suddenly been put in front of 40,000 people at Download or Hellfest.”
“When you’re a teenager, your ambition is very different to a few decades later,” James adds. “Everyone wants to be great and in a successful band, but you don’t really know what that means. We were just playing gigs and enjoying it, without the experience to understand what success really is.”
Acle and James share that all they want from War of Being is for it to continue Tesseract’s ongoing growth. With a tour through four continents within nine months starting in autumn, it seems to already be happening. The irony, though, is that that forward momentum will carry on with an album Acle says he’d have hated when he first started the band.
“18-year-old me would be like, ‘What the fuck are you doing?!’,” the guitarist laughs. “‘That’s not what I was trying to do!’ I just wanted to rip off Meshuggah at the time.”
War of Being is out on 15th September via Kscope. Tesseract will tour the UK with Unprocessed and The Callous Daoboys in February.