Review: Daniel Tompkins' "Ruins"

Tesseract front man releases a re-imagining of his debut solo album, "Castles."

Image courtesy of Kscope.

Daniel Tompkins (Tesseract/White Moth Black Butterfly/Zeta) released his debut solo album Castles on the Kscope label just a year ago. Seemingly always ready for a new challenge, Tompkins has completely re-imagined the album as a new release, Ruins.

As the name change suggests, the new release is darker and heavier than the original, electronic-based effort. Many of the songs from Castles have been reworked into something new, and in some cases, nearly unrecognizable. Meanwhile, Tompkins retained the ideas of the original album in his new creation.

While Castles was largely dependent upon Tompkins’ pristine voice and electronic-slanted instrumentation, Ruins is guitar-heavy and contains meaty, succulent chunks of the likes of Porcupine Tree/Steven Wilson, Anathema, Imminent Sonic Destruction, Devin Townsend, and Tesseract, of course. Tompkins also utilizes his more aggressive metal vocal style on the re-imagined work, whereas he went with clean vocals throughout Castles.

For those who are averse to today’s metal screaming style, I get it. I’m not a fan of that style myself, but I found Tompkins’ use of it on Ruins to be reserved for certain moments of tension and drama, and not overdone. For me, a little of that style goes a long, long way and only on the final track, “The Gift,” was it too much for me.

With eight songs in the four- to six-minute range, Ruins doesn’t overstay its welcome. It makes for just a little less than a 40-minute listen from start to finish. Here’s a track-by-track overview:

Ruins opens in style, with “Wounded Wings,” an update of “Black the Sun” from the Castles album. The new arrangement, featuring excellent work from Australian guitarist Plini Roessler-Holgate (colloquially known simply as Plini), breathes fresh, new life into the song. The guitar solo alone makes this track worthwhile, but this is a song Anathema fans would likely enjoy. Tompkins uses his more aggressive vocal approach sparingly here, just at the apex of the final crescendo to punctuate the final lyric.

Tompkins reworked his title track from Castles into his title track on Ruins. The shift from using the word “castles” to “ruins” turns the emphasis in a darker direction and the new song is more shadowy, but it’s also more vibrant and textured than the original. As with “Wounded Wings,” Tompkins doesn’t use his aggressive screaming style until the pulsing conclusion, which is musically reminiscent of some of Porcupine Tree’s heavier songs.

“Tyrant” is a lush, mid-tempo offering that starts quietly and then builds on a foundation of guitars and percussion to a satisfying and dramatic conclusion. Tompkins increases his use of aggressive vocals toward the end but at this point he’s still not overdoing it. So, most of the clean-vocals-only crowd should find it within their tolerance range.

Formerly “Cinders” on the Castles album, “Stains of Betrayal” transforms the original from a quieter, slower showcase of Tompkins’ voice, into a livelier, more layered piece. “Cinders” alternated sparsely instrumented sections with louder chorus segments with delicate piano playing amid heavy guitars. However, the instrumentation of “Stains of Betrayal” is heavier (yet still quite melodic) and never goes as sparse in its arrangement. It’s one of the stronger songs on the album.

“Empty Vows” reworks Castles opener, “Saved.” The original is a heavily electronic-based song, whereas the new track on Ruins drives forward with chugging guitars and an infectious drum groove. Some of the electronic feel of the original survives through synthesizers but, rather than being foundational, here it’s mostly ornamental.

Fans of Porcupine Tree’s The Incident will feel a familiar vibe in “Sweet the Tongue.” It’s similar enough to PT stylistically that one could almost think of this song as a more polished offering from Abigail’s Ghost. This song marries select short bursts of aggressive vocals well with Tompkins’ clean voice in a way that reminds me of a few of the older Riverside tracks. But again, he doesn’t overdo the screaming. It’s used as punctuation at the height of the song’s climax.

“A Dark Kind of Angel” is a bit haunting and is more atmospheric than the other songs. It’s one of my favorites from the album. It’s got one of the most sing-along-able choruses on Ruins and maintains the dark overall vibe of the album as a whole.

 “The Gift,” a completely new song without any roots on the Castles album, closes the proceedings. With contributions from Trivium guitarist/vocalist Matt Heafy, this track is by far the heaviest on the album and its use of aggressive vocals starts earlier and is more prevalent throughout than anywhere else on the album. As mentioned above, this song has too much of that form of metal screaming for my taste and this song is not for me, but fans of this kind of metal will likely enjoy it.

With the reimagining of Castles in its new form on Ruins, Tompkins has improved upon an impressive work and produced something for an entirely different audience at the same time. Those who prefer one style over the other can listen to the one they prefer. But some will enjoy both, as there is plenty of contrast between the two releases.

It was an ambitious undertaking to give a one-year-old album a complete makeover. By not resting on his laurels or turning the page and working on entirely new music, Tompkins has achieved something with Ruins that most artists wouldn’t have considered. And it works. I find it to be a highly enjoyable release that I confidently recommend.

Just released via Kscope, Ruins is available on CD or vinyl from Amazon or the Kscope online store or via download at the iTunes store. It can also be streamed on Spotify, deezer, Tidal, or YouTube.