Walking through the ins and outs of one of last year's best streaming events.
Words by Luis (@luis.hoa):
In a time where bands took to the web to perform on livestreams or present previously recorded shows, audiences had plenty to dive through while we remained at home throughout the quarantine period. For as accessible and enjoyable as some of these virtual shows proved to be, very few had the ability to hook audiences in a unique way that didn't feel as if you were watching another mere YouTube video of a past performance. TesseracT knew this very well and instead of following suit with the horde of other livestreams, they sought out to amaze and immerse through grandiose means. Enter P O R T A L S,
In December 2020, P O R T A L S arrived as an all-encompassing experience that bridged TesseracT's acclaimed discography with state of the art light and laser effects through a conceptual narrative that follows the band's growth throughout the years. Audiences were treated to over two hours of fan favorites and deep cuts, some of which have never been performed live, all while a central monolith remained at the core of the event. This monolith came courtesy of Portuguese designer Tiago Marinho, who depicted the symbol amidst different environments that changed as the band progressed through each chapter. It's simple yet effective at conveying the world of possibilities that lies through TesseracT's craft. On August 27th, the P O R T A L S experience will arrive in a variety of formats that allow for a full in-depth escapade of the progressive metal kind.
We sat down with TesseracT bassist and creative mastermind Amos Williams to break down the stimulating intricacies of the ambitious endeavor that is P O R T A L S:
Amos, ‘P O R T A L S’ is TesseracT’s most grandiose project yet and it all kicks off with Tiago Marinho’s cover artwork, which depicts a central monolith amidst a desert. You mention you met Tiago at a festival and some ideas started flowing. How did this collaboration come about?
Williams: It was one of those weird things where we were just on the same paths. We were in line. I’m really interested in not just art, but art that uses modern technology. Previously, in some of our artwork, I was trying to use 3-D technology that didn’t look 3-D. With ‘Altered States’ (2013), we found an artist called Ion Lucin who was doing some really cool stuff with this program called Maxon Cinema 4D. It was almost like he was creating art from natural paper. It looked very flat, but it had something lively about it, as if moving. I’ve always had that in my mind, that I enjoy working with artists that use 3-D graphics and things like that.
Tiago’s work seemed to always pop up here and there on my feed and on my investigations. It turned out that he was also in a progressive band (Allamedah), so it just seemed really cool that there was an affinity between us. He seemed to get what we wanted straight away. We were quite precise with him, but at the same time, he really found the tone that we were after, which was something almost ancient, if that makes sense. It really worked out. We’re really happy that what he did also connected so well with the fanbase. For us, that’s really cool.
Absolutely, and it’s interesting to see how Tiago breathes life into inanimate objects. This central monolith on the cover is seen beyond the cover, in a variety of concept images as a symbol of the different phases of ‘P O R T A L S’ and TesseracT’s discography. Touching further on this monolith, it’s open to interpretation, but would you say it’s something that embodies what ‘P O R T A L S’ is as an experience?
Williams: Yes, it’s central to the whole premise of the show. It’s fantastic. It basically unlocked the whole theme. The inspiration for it is quite interesting. A couple of artists in China do data driven video that basically combines AI filtering. It’s really difficult to get my head wrapped around it, but it creates a huge movement that is generated by hundreds of thousands of images. They have an AI net that just runs through this and generates all of this wonderful art from it. There was something about what they were doing that led me down this idea of having a video screen that wasn’t just a TV behind us, but replicates sort of what these Chinese artists were doing. It’s flipped on its side almost because it looks like a doorway to another world.
We were thinking about a cool way to connect all of our different time periods as a band. We thought, “How do we connect ten years ago when we released ‘One’ (2011) to four or three years ago when we were working on ‘Sonder’ (2018)?” It wasn’t just a powerful image for the staging, but a powerful way for us to run between the albums in such a way that felt easy. It felt relaxed and comfortable and not forced in any way, which is very difficult when you’re trying to have your concepts be in sync with the artwork. Sometimes, it sounds like you’re making up the idea to make the artwork fit, but this seemed to blossom from just this shape, just this doorway almost. It was really easy for us to translate that to the monolith concept. We then gave Tiago the instructions to create a monolith in different environments that had a connection to the different albums.
The front cover has a very strong connection to the first EP, ‘Concealing Fate’ (2010). There was an art piece called ‘The Long Journey’ that was inside the EP, which is just a small boy walking along a sand dune. That’s where our journey started, so that ended up being our lead image. We just gave different environmental ideas that were inspired by each album to Tiago and he just ran with it. He came back with the five different pieces that we have now, which connect so well not just in shape but in tone to the music and to the different acts that you have in the show.
What a perfect way to consolidate the band’s trajectory into one central image. ‘P O R T A L S’ is essentially a decade in the making. The chaptered element of the show really highlights the noticeable growth in terms of musicianship, song structure, and really just overall composition. When looking back at the tracklist, which is of course sectioned in album based chapters, was there an element you were looking for from tracks in each phase that you can say helps display the evolution that TesseracT has undergone over the past decade?
Williams: I know what my feelings are after the fact I put the tracklist together, but I’m trying to go back to the beginning. First and foremost, the idea of the show was to celebrate how much we enjoy performing. To do that in a period of time when we’re unable to, in the same way that it’s impossible to go back to the time when you’re in the studio creating the album, felt like a really cool way to try to find that joy and that passion. The simplest way to do that would be to ask each other, “What are our favorite songs from each album?” Through the accord of realizing there were similarities, we built the set based on what the band really enjoyed. We had a look at it and where there were like three votes on one track, well we had to do it. We argued a few here and there. Once we had that set up, we chopped it down into about 20 minutes per each act.
It’s very weird, but we didn’t intend to cut this into different albums. The very nature of TesseracT is that the songs do work quite well when they’re aligned with their contemporaries. Stuff from ‘One’ works very well with other stuff from one just because of the attitude. Stuff from ‘Polaris’ (2015) for example definitely sits on its own quite well. We realized that we could create a story from this. If you look at the way a lot of novels are created, you have say ⅘ of a paragraph is about a particular topic with the last line leading you to the next quested. We threaded in contrasting songs to balance and move things along. Parts 1, 2, and 3 of ‘Concealing Fate’ are blocked together and then ‘Tourniquet’ follows, which is just completely out of the window compared to ‘Concealing Fate’ not only sonically but visually as well. Conceptually, it’s about moving this on and taking it to the next level.
When we were building the setlist, we were also thinking how we could develop the color scheme throughout the show as well as trying to match that with the audio. It’s quite interesting because I think we got to the end of Act 4 and felt that we did everything we needed to do. When we went to Act 5, that’s when we decided to add what we knew would be “fan favorites”, like real deep cuts that we’ve never played live or haven’t played live for a long time. We threw everything visually and sonically into this and then got to a point where we had told our story. It was nice to then go off the rails for the last 20 minutes and give people something they’ve never seen before.
The conclusion was fan service in a way.
Williams: I feel that we owed it. The first four acts were for us, so we really had to give the fans something as well.
Well, the whole show was for them, but yes, truly a remarkable way to cap everything off. You touched a bit on the colors used throughout the stages. Though some may deem it insignificant, color choice is very intentional, as is the case with ‘P O R T A L S’. Tiago truly excelled on that end when depicting the monolith within different environments, speaking to great investment you placed onto the show's visual identity. Why take such a careful approach to this element of the release at a time where streaming is the dominant form of media consumption? There’s sometimes a large disconnect between music and the arts when the fast paced lifestyles we’re used to living consume us whole.
Williams: I worry when I say things like this, but I find myself being quite critical of other streams that people have done. There were a few that came along that were hinting at what you could do with this format. It’s a fairly new medium. It is essentially like creating the ultimate show. It can go one or two ways. It can be very down to earth and in your face, bare bones band playing in a room, or it can be completely the opposite, like us where we not only pushed our physical limitations but also utilized the limitations of the medium to work with laser effects and other elements that could only be appreciated once you were watching the stream. I felt strongly that the approach that many bands had taken completely ignored the final format, which is a television screen, a laptop, or a phone. Quite often when there’s a live gig, people try to capture the essence of the gig by it being frenetic and quite crazy. I’m sure you’ve seen a video of a show that someone took on their phone. It’s just chaos. Why have they wasted that energy to do that? I realized that we needed to make a film. That has a completely different approach. By looking at the limitations at how to make something live when you can’t be live, it really helps to focus and to make us all realize that we need to essentially create a musical or theater piece. How do we do that and stay true to the energetic stage show? We just kept chiseling away until we found our truth, through this medium, to the point that we may explore this further in the future and develop a film side of TesseracT. We’re obviously a band and we don’t make films, so we have to again get lost in the question, “What are we doing here?” That’s very much how ‘P O R T A L S’ developed.
There’s no wrong in wanting to challenge yourselves and your peers. To achieve something so substantive and ambitious, you need the right team. Creatively speaking, you had to layer the conceptual storytelling element with the technical one, including camera crews, lighting effects, and more. Live shows are obviously much more impactful, but you crafted an experience that was accessible to viewers across the world really, of which there have been a substantial amount. How much did camaraderie between the band and the production crew play a role in the successful development of the film?
Williams: We always try to explain to people that every single thing that we do passes through the hands of a massive team, especially on ‘P O R T A L S’. There were over 50 people, which is a lot for a stream in my mind, working on this. The fortunate thing is that we worked with some friends that we’ve worked with before. When you get on with people and admire them as friends as well as for their work, there becomes an intellectual and emotional investment in the project. It was really cool to see how people’s lights started to switch on the more and more they got into the project. It also helped to try and explain the project to everybody. As the old saying goes, there’s no better way to learn than to teach. That was very true for project managing this show, trying to get so many people on the same page and walking in the same direction, especially since we were all unable to be in the same room until production time. It was really about focusing and it gave us an insight on how to develop something that is of large scale. This is a 6 to 12 week project rather than a few days. It’s very much about just knowing that these people are going to do the best they can do. You need to trust in them as much as they trust that you’re going to do what you’re doing to the best of your abilities. It was pretty cool to have a few days of all of us working together like that. It was good fun and it’s something that I’ll always have fond memories about.
It’s evident that all of your work is really rooted in the strength of your partnerships. In a sense, the ‘P O R T A L S’ title is quite literal to me. It’s literally that, a portal to the different eras of TesseracT through an immersive experience each step of the way. Tiago’s cover is simple as a monolith among a desert, but there’s depth to it, and it’s open to interpretation as are all the other TesseracT covers. That said, was the intention always to invite listeners into something that is both visually stimulating and conceptually inviting?
Williams: Our music is always an open door to ask questions, which is something that I find quite hard to give to other people. There are times where with things like this, it works because you find a universal concept that people straight away understand. You do something to it that makes people say, “I get that, but there’s something I need to ask about this.” That’s a really wonderful way to bring people in. Their interpretation could be wildly different to your concept, but that is part of the artwork. Without meaning to sound too snobby or full of myself, that’s what I enjoy about walking around, say an exhibition or a gallery. The artist isn’t there to tell you or to hold your hand. They’ve done a job. They’ve put down their concept. It’s you as the viewer’s job to travel to the time that they did that whilst looking at a static image. I find that fascinating. There are some artists that do this quite well. They somehow manage to create movement within a static piece, which is beautiful to see. These are the artists that don’t tell you everything. They give you something that’s incomplete. That’s always been the goal for us, to draw people in because it’s not perfect, because it’s not a true to life real image. It’s an interpretation that makes yours as valid as ours. We’re just a catalyst. I always find it wonderful when people are inspired by what we do, be it through fan art, covers on YouTube, and more. It’s almost like getting validation because you’ve given someone the energy, enthusiasm, and inspiration to create, which is a wonderful thing for us to see.
It speaks to the power of you all as a band and really the accessibility of it all. Personally, had I not already known of TesseracT and your music, it would be hard to gauge what kind of music to expect from seeing Tiago’s cover on a record store shelf. It’s distinct.
Williams: Definitely, and you can’t judge a book by its cover. You just cannot.
Agreed. You’re going to be touring with Trivium in the UK and Europe, and will be returning to North American shores in 2022. Seeing as ‘P O R T A L S' was so greatly received, will you be retaining any elements from it on tour?
Williams: We’re not so sure. A lot of the laser work, we just cannot do. There are some technologies that will return, though. The people that helped produce the laser shows for ‘P O R T A L S' have been developing different ways of creating and using lasers within a confined space. It’s quite experimental at the moment. What you can do in using the partnership of lasers and camera work is great, so we’ve been discussing the possibility of using AR and XR, so extended reality and augmented reality. People use their phones all the time at gigs, so maybe we can do something with it. It’s all stuff that we’re throwing at the wall, but that could be a concept that we might be able to take from ‘P O R T A L S’ moving forward so that we create something that is more than what you see with your eyes.
We’ve got a feeling that it’s going to be difficult for us to shake off the monolith imagery. It seems that it really struck a chord with people. It would be fantastic if we could take that on the road. Certainly if we do some video production whilst on tour, it will be unlikely that we’ll do it in the same big television style behind the band that a lot of people do. We’ll probably create staging like the monolith screen. It really depends on the nature of the tour because it’s not so easy to get something like that produced each day. If we’re headlining, fantastic. We’ll do that for sure. We’ve actually explored the idea of splitting the show into a similar block where we have an element of a video break, some narrative perhaps. I’ve discussed this in length with our management because they’re quite keen on the idea of creating stories like that. That may come to fruition. Who knows if ‘P O R T A L S' sells as well in physical format as it did in streaming format. It may be something that we’re actually going to bring on tour because it would be stupid not to. That is reliant upon production schedules for the next album and how far things work with that in terms of touring opening up again. We’re leaving it quite open ended, but I imagine there will be a couple of one off shows at festivals and things like that where we’ll do the whole ‘P O R T A LS’ show in its entirety. It would be fun for fans to experience that outside in a live environment. We can add lots of other elements to that show that we couldn’t otherwise do thanks to the limitations of streaming. They would hopefully replace the elements that we can’t take because of the limitations of real life. I’m excited to see how it would develop into a life show.
Sounds like a logistical nightmare, but one that would be worth it.
Williams: We’ve got a team that could do it. It would be interesting, but the lasers are too dangerous to use in the venue configuration. They’d be firing right at the audience. There are certainly ways around it, so we’ll see how to take it to the next level. We can’t give you half the show, it has to be 200%.
We’ll keep a close eye on the fall tour and hope to catch you here in the states. In closing, Amos, ‘P O R T A L S’ is a living timeline of TesseracT’s existence. I’m sure there’s some nostalgia involved with looking back at these eras for you and how far you’ve come. Where do you see TesseracT now as a band and moving forward?
Williams: The way TesseracT came together was that we all came from completely different walks of life. There’s an analogy there with ‘P O R T A L S’. It brings everybody together into one point, into a nexus where we all connect. The music is the reason why we initially entered this same space together. What we created together has created an expectation from our fans and we always felt that we could do whatever we wanted. Now, there’s a desire to do things that perhaps you might not expect. There’s the pressure from fans, so we are expected to not only be progressive with our music but be progressive with our theatre, our art, and our stage show. That’s exciting because it allows you to look at different creative aspects of yourself. That’s predominantly what TesseracT has meant to me personally over this past decade. It has been a very personal journey for me. TesseracT has enabled me to meet so many different people. I’m talking to you now for example. You’re on the other side of the Earth and I wouldn’t be in this situation if it wasn’t for the gift that TesseracT has given me. It’s awesome to have taken this journey and to learn what this means to me when it’s not there as well, as the pandemic has shown. The next album is going to be a celebration of all things connected to TesseracT as well as being an album people will hopefully love. There’s going to be a lot more to it. We’re not going to try and do things that will distract you from the music, but we’re basically going to take everything that the music inspires and crank it up a little. The beauty of not limiting yourself is that there will be things that happen that none of us expected. Hopefully, this will inspire and be enjoyed by the fans as well. It’s not going to be a vanity project by any means, but it’ll be interesting to see if all the things we’re trying to do will be accepted. ‘P O R T A L S’ was accepted to a massive degree, but we were quite scared about doing it. Things are much more rewarding when you’re out of your comfort zone, so it was a wonderful gift from the fans.
P O R T A L S arrives physically on August 27th via Kscope Music. Order your copy HERE.