Album Review: Ruins // Daniel Tompkins

You might know Daniel Tompkins best as the frontman of TesseracT. If you’re a bit older, you might know him from his stint in First Signs Of Frost. You might even know him as a vocal coach, a tea entrepreneur – he has his own brand of tea designed specifically for vocalists – or as a Twitch streamer. He’s steadily built up a reputation as one of the best singers of his era and it was inevitable that a solo career would come out of that. His first solo effort Castles was a great pop album and could have been a fantastic foundation to build a solo sound. Tompkins wanted to do something a little bit different, though. He wanted his music to be darker, heavier and edgier. He also wanted to incorporate something he had never really done before; playing the guitar as well as singing. With this new direction in mind, Tompkins tapped producer and multi-instrumentalist Paul Ortiz to help him bring it to life. The result of this is Ruins.

While Ruins is a new album, only one of the 8 tracks (‘The Gift’) is a completely new song. The vast majority of the album is made up of heavy metal re-workings of songs from Castles. As the songs are so markedly different from their Castles counterparts, the songs all have different titles.

If you’re a fan of heavy music from the 90s and 00s, you’ll definitely love Ruins. Tompkins is a huge fan of heavy music from this era and it really shows. There’s more than a dollop of Linkin Park, Deftones, Tool and A Perfect Circle in these songs. ‘Wounded Wings’, ‘Stains of Betrayal’, ‘Sweet the Tongue’ and ‘A Dark Kind of Angel’ really sound like they could have come off A Perfect Circle’s debut album with their brooding ambience and massive guitars. The songs also have a huge amount of groove in them that’s very reminiscent of that era of progressive metal and alternative metal. ‘Empty Vows’ and ‘A Dark Kind of Angel’ are heavily driven by catchy bass and drum grooves in the verses before exploding into their massive multi-layered choruses.

Much like his output with TesseracT, there’s also a very clear influence from acts like Meshuggah and Karnivool in the music of Ruins. ‘Stains of Betrayal’ is probably the most obvious example of this with its off-kilter riffs and grooves that sometimes really throw you as to where the beat actually starts, as well as its very proggy and somewhat disorientating synth-led opening section. ‘Tyrant’s’ hypnotic, shape-shifting grooves also fit very well into that Meshuggah archetype, especially towards the song’s end where the music becomes a wash of almost tribal rhythms that carry a score of piercing multi-layered vocals.

With all of this in mind, ‘The Gift’ is somewhat of an oddity with its much more metalcore-influenced sound, that has much tighter riffing, a guest vocalist (we’ll talk about that later) and even drops into a proper breakdown! It does still fit in very well with the album’s sound though and it is a taste of things to come from Daniel Tompkins as a solo artist as he moves away from those reworked Castles songs. Perhaps future solo material from Tompkins will be in this tighter, more metalcore style? I certainly wouldn’t be against it.

Despite all of these more metal and prog influences that Ruins brings to the forefront, it’s still an album full of pop sensibilities. The hooks and melodies are front and centre all the way, the songs are in verse-chorus-verse pop structures. The lyrics are very literal and relatable, centred about the rise and fall of relationships. You will hear a lot of those odd Meshuggah-inspired rhythms I’ve mentioned earlier and occasional splashes of things that you’d expect to hear in one of Tool’s lengthy compositions, but on the whole Ruins is a very straightforward album both musically and lyrically. That’s something that’s actually a big strength of the album. By being unpretentious in its writing, it’s a much more enjoyable piece of art on first listen than, for example, a TesseracT album would be. I’d imagine that Ruins would be much more enjoyable for a more casual or more mainstream listener and that’s absolutely no bad thing, as it’s got the potential to bring in a whole new audience to Tompkins’ music.

Both Tompkins and Ortiz’s love of classic 80s and 90s synth textures also come into play on this album. Ruins wouldn’t sound as lush and beautiful as it does without its multi-layered synthesisers, electronic drums and drum loops. One of the best examples of this happens right at the start of the album on ‘Wounded Wings’, which begins with a delicate piano and swells into layers of synths and melody guitars before exploding into euphoric alt-metal splendour. ‘Stains of Betrayal’ and ‘Empty Vows’ have some seriously 80s pads that really help to make those songs the huge soundscapes that they are. ‘Sweet the Tongue’ dips fully into the industrial realm of bands like Nine Inch Nails and Marylin Manson with its ominous growly synth basses and electronic drum loops.

Whilst Ruins is very much a Daniel Tompkins solo album, he leaves space for a couple of guests. ‘The Gift’ features a guest vocal performance, specifically from Matthew K. Heafy of Trivium. Heafy provides a superb counterpoint to Tompkins on what is decidedly the album’s heaviest track, lending both his clean and harsh vocal abilities in a way that really fills out the song’s sound. The collaboration between the two of them really works well and I hope it’s not the only time that the two heavy metal frontmen work together. ‘Wounded Wings’ also features a brilliant guest guitar solo from Australian virtuoso, Plini.

Of course, you can’t talk about a Daniel Tompkins-related project without talking about his voice. Tompkins has gained universal acclaim for his unique tenor that’s as smooth and delicate as it is forceful and passionate. His influence from the late great Chester Bennington is very apparent on the screaming high notes of ‘Tyrant’, ‘Empty Vows’, the full-throated yells on ‘Sweet the Tongue’, the title track and ‘The Gift’. ‘Sweet the Tongue’ shows his influence from another one of his favourite singers, Maynard James Keenan, in his breathy, almost creepy delivery at the start of the song. That MJK influence is there in the vocal melodies of ‘A Dark Kind of Angel’ too, fitting in brilliantly with the groovy progressive metal vibe of the song. Maybe it’s because this is his own music, but his voice takes on an extra sparkle on Ruins compared to anything else he’s ever done. Not a single vocal is anything less than brilliant.

While Castles was a great debut for Daniel Tompkins, it’s on Ruins that we hear the real solidification of his sound as a solo artist. He really seems to have found his niche with this new alternative metal-inspired sound. It has just enough crossover with his material with TesseracT to bring his current fans in, while having enough of a straightforward sound to bring in a whole new audience to his music. Tompkins has pulled off this genre shift incredibly well and, considering how great ‘The Gift’ is as a harbinger of what’s to come after Ruins, I’m definitely very excited for what his solo career will give us next!

Words by Robert Percy

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