As mesmerizing and essential as the heaviest aspects of progressive metal quintet TesseracT are, many of the group’s greatest moments come from the serene and emotionally vulnerable passages in-between. In a way, lead vocalist Daniel Tompkins’ debut LP, Castles, is a complete examination of that persona. However, it would be reductive to stop there, as the album is a boldly adventurous and unpredictable collection that houses those softer trademarks within vividly experimental and idiosyncratic foundations. In other words, Castles appeals to fans of Tompkins’ home band while also establishing him as a distinctive and capable solo artist.
Written and engineered alongside U.S. producer Eddie Head, Castles finds Tompkins charting a more electronic pop/rock path. Thematically, he explains (in the press release) how the sequence digs into “the arc” of romance, adding:
We make huge investments of trust and care and commitment into one another, and sometimes [relationships] simply fail. In fact, most fail. That said, some survive, thrive, and create incredible lifelong partnerships, or at least important, long-lasting love. But sometimes, we make massive misjudgments of character, and the true nature of someone is always revealed over time…. A lot of this story is told from the perspective of someone seeking that perfect partnership and the ultimate fulfillment of finding it.
Although there are only seven original songs here—more on that in a moment—each is captivating in its own ways. Opener “Saved”, for instance, begins with a harrowing hypnotic loop that gives way to dejected piano chords, programmed beats, electronic effects, and Tompkins’ emblematic soaring sorrow. He sounds as powerfully exposed as ever, presenting gripping melodies that stay with you long after the piece ends. Later, “Black the Sun”—which Tompkins calls his “prog rock ballad”—juxtaposes atmospheric sparseness and intoxicating density to convey the cognitive dissonance inherent in ending a “delicate”, all-consuming relationship.
Fittingly, “Limitless” cascades hip-hop thumps and synthy bass notes over his quietly antagonistic tale of solitude and yearning. As for closer “Telegraph”, it’s simultaneously empty and luscious in its quest to provide closure and understanding through its emphasis on haunting percussion, noirish strings, and whispered sentiments. Cumulatively, the record is delightfully provocative and private yet universally resonant and accessible.
The remaining six selections are all alternate versions of a few previous ones (which, to be honest, is disappointing since there are only about 35 minutes of totally unheard compositions within Castles‘ hour-long duration). Thankfully, though, they’re interesting and unique enough to warrant inclusion. The best of these is surely arranger Randy Slaugh’s more direct and symphonic take on “Saved”, as well as producer Dmitry Stepanov’s more eclectic and exploratory spin on “Limitless”. Really, every reworked track offers something special, so they’re an acceptable way to extend the duration of the LP even if more fresh material would be preferred.
Despite padding its runtime a bit with too many repeats and not enough new content, Castles is an audacious statement of purpose and potential from Tompkins. In its own right, the album is brimming with heartfelt singing, novel instrumentation, and commendable cohesion. In comparison to his work with TesseracT— which is inevitable—it expertly balances being true to what fans love about that role while concurrently legitimizing his own distinctive creative force. Whether you’re a fan of his previous work or are just looking for some beautifully emotive electronic pop/rock, Castles is worth building upon.