Artist: Charlie Griffiths
Album Title: Tiktaalika
Label: InsideOut Music
Date of Release: 17 June 2022
My love and admiration for the progressive metal band Haken is something with which regular readers of manofmuchmetal.com will be all too familiar. Hell, I even wrote a piece suggesting that Haken might be the best band from the UK currently plying their trade. That thought may resonate, or it might seem like misguided hyperbole but either way, it demonstrates the strength of feeling I have for a band that I have steadfastly followed since the beginning. It was something of a no-brainer then, when I was presented with the opportunity to check out the debut solo album, ‘Tiktaalika’ by Haken guitarist Charlie Griffiths.
Handling the guitars, bass, keyboards, as well as writing the material and even singing lead vocals on a song, Griffiths demonstrates just how annoyingly talented he is as a musician on ‘Tiktaalika’. He is then joined throughout the album by drummer Darby Todd (Frost*, Devin Townsend), as well as a number of guest musicians including Dream Theater keyboardist Jordan Rudess, and saxophonist Rob Townsend (Steve Hackett). The list of guest vocalists is also eye-watering, as it includes Tommy Rogers (Between The Buried And Me), Danïel De Jongh (Textures), Vladimir Lalić (Organized Chaos), and Neil Purdy (Luna’s Call).
In anyone’s language, this is a hefty cast of musicians, so undoubtedly, expectations in various quarters were very high. But all of the star names in the world cannot save an album that suffers from poor songwriting, so it is imperative that this is not a stumbling block right at the outset. Thank goodness that Charlie Griffiths is a talented guy and a consummate professional, because almost immediately, I was able to relax and absorb the music on ‘Tiktaalika’ with a smile on my face.
As a side note, whilst there might be some slight play on words with a certain Bay Area thrash band, the bulk of the title of this album is inspired by the ‘Tiktaalik’, an extinct species that was present on Earth some 375 million years ago, a special creature that helped us to better understand the evolution of dinosaurs, fish, and land mammals. I’d never heard of it, so props to Mr Griffiths for making another day a school day. Love that!
My oblique reference to Metallica makes sense from the very get go of ‘Tiktaalika’, because the opening track, ‘Prehistoric Prelude’ begins in a manner that immediately reminds me of the wonderful opening of the classic track, ‘Battery’. When you hear the tone of the acoustic guitar and the chosen melody, you’ll understand. From there, the heaviness cranks up, eventually opening up into a full-on, speedy thrash metal work out complete with energetic riffs, thunderous drumming, and exuberant lead guitar soloing.
One of the big selling points with ‘Tiktaalika’ is Griffith’s return to a six-string guitar with the man himself remarking just how easily the riffs started to come to him. And this album is a proper riff heavy affair that leaves the listener in no doubt about the truth of this statement. ‘Arctic Cemetery’, featuring Tommy Rogers is a microcosm of everything that Charlie Griffiths is clearly striving for with this record; it is subtle, nuanced, heavy, and memorable. But most of all, it is varied, keeping the listener on their toes. It helps that Rogers delivers both his quiet, clean tones as well as his more aggressive style, because it creates another layer of variation. But between the chunky, groovy riffs, delicate melodies, and whimsical, atmospheric chorus, not to mention the numerous peaks and troughs, the song never sits still, with creativity seemingly oozing from every pore.
From there, we’re confronted with further experimentation, seemingly at every turn. ‘Luminous Beings’ is far more progressive in tone, with a stronger jazzy, fusion feel to large portions of it. The vocals of Danïel De Jongh are really excellent, completely in keeping with the soundtrack upon which he sings. The quieter moments allow Griffiths’ not inconsiderable bass talents to come more to the fore too, as he delves deeper into out-and-out prog before pulling us back from the brink with a satisfyingly bruising riff alongside a typically non-standard time signature.
As my favourite track of them all begins, you’re left in no doubt about the quality of the production, handled by Nolly Getgood. It is superb, bringing all of the songs to life. However, ‘In Alluvium’, one of three songs that extends beyond eight minutes, is a stand-out affair. The synth-heavy opening is melodious and enticing with the ensuing mid-paced groove utterly compelling, enhanced by Vladimir Lalić’s singing. The drumming from Darby Todd is marvellous too as the song slowly increases the intensity, dishing out killer riff after killer riff. The one-take keyboard solo courtesy of Jordan Rudess is impressive, but so is the whole song which again acts as a smorgasbord of different styles and inspirations, all wrapped up in some catchy as hell melodies.
I wasn’t originally as much of a fan of ‘Dead In The Water’ given my general dislike of the saxophone but I have been won over for the most part thanks to Griffiths’ songwriting prowess. Once again, the disparate has been forged into something surprisingly cohesive, dominated again by some instantly memorable and muscular progressive metal riffing and a hint of ‘The Mountain’ era Haken. Then there’s the epic-sounding segment that emerges after a brief foray into more extreme metal territory. Neil Purdy’s clean vocals join what feels like an outpouring of melodic emotion, before there’s a clever return to the motif from ‘In Alluvium’ at the death.
On ‘Digging Deeper’, an overall more delicate song, Charlie sings. It’s more of a hushed, delicate and tentative delivery, often strongly effect-laden, but it is a great vehicle to explore another different soundscape. With an echo of ‘Affinity’-era Haken thanks to the chosen samples and electronic effects, it further demonstrates Charlie Griffiths’ desire to keep experimenting.
The title track is an instrumental piece that is positively brimming with exuberance, instant feel-good melody and yes, you’ve guessed it, a ton of riffs. It feels very much as if this was the chance for Griffiths to go all-out and tell the world what an incredible guitarist he is – and he succeeds in the strongest of ways. Blazing solos, clever time signatures, light and shade, and groove by the truck full, it has everything you could want if you’re a lover of the six-string.
And finally, ‘Crawl Walk Run’ rounds things out in tandem with ‘Under Polaris’. The former reminds me a little of bands like latter-day Symphony X thanks to the high tempo and intricate riffs, despite some savage growls from Danïel De Jongh. The latter sees the album come full circle with a return of some impossibly fast guitar work that’s part prog, part thrash akin to the opener. But led by the vocals of Tommy Rogers, it also sees a reprise of several of the melodies seen throughout the album. I love this sort of thing, and it means that, as far as I’m concerned, ‘Tiktaalika’ ends in the strongest and most captivating way possible. The return of the acoustic guitar at the death in particular sends a shiver down my spine.
I had a feeling that ‘Tiktaalika’ would be good, but I wasn’t banking on it being quite this good if I’m being brutally honest. There is much to enjoy about Charlie Griffith’s debut solo effort, and I keep discovering new things with each passing listen too. No doubt it’ll appeal first and foremost to lovers of the guitar and the almighty riff, but given the diversity of the material and the quality of the songs themselves, I’m certain that the appeal of ‘Tiktaalika’ will be much wider, and rightly so. The only problem for Charlie Griffiths now, is how does he go about topping this on his sophomore release? Tune in 375 million years from now to find out!
The Score of Much Metal: 93%
Check out my other 2022 reviews here:
You can also check out my other reviews from previous years right here: