Album Title: Fauna
Label: InsideOut Music
Date of Release: 3 March 2023
The reason I got into progressive music around a quarter of a century ago, was because I wanted to be challenged. Up until then, I had got into heavier and heavier music, and enjoyed the discoveries that I’d made. But when I heard some Dream Theater and the odd song by Pain of Salvation, I wasn’t instantly enamoured. However, there was something about these songs that drew me back time and time again. And the more I returned, the more the music started to make sense. The odd time signatures, the unexpected instrumental meanderings, the strange sounds that would occasionally emerge, the musicality and technique of the musicians; it was a combination that, over time, I grew to admire, then like, then love. I actually enjoyed the fact that I often had to work hard for the eventual enjoyment that I got from the music.
Enter Haken and their debut, ‘Aquarius’. I did not like it to begin with. It was too ‘all over the place’, too bonkers, too long, and just too much. But over the course of a summer, it became one of my most cherished albums. Those aspects that initially put me off became integral to the experience and I now love the music, not in spite of it, but precisely because of all the quirkiness. The same for ‘Visions’ too. In fact, aside from ‘Vector’, which is possibly my least favourite album to date but still packed full of excellence, I have grown to love their entire discography.
Initially, I really wasn’t sure about their third album, ‘The Mountain’, and the way that this young band were starting to grow and develop. At the time, I wanted ‘Visions Part 2’ if truth be told. But that wasn’t what was on the agenda at Haken HQ, and, with time, I came around to the music. In fact, it has become another firm favourite around these parts.
As time has gone on, and the albums have kept on coming, so Haken have continued to experiment and gradually change their sound. And yes, that has meant an increase in the influence of djent on their music. If I am 100% honest, I sometimes wish that this element of their music was a little less pronounced, in favour of a different guitar tone. However, the fact that this is a prominent feature of their music hasn’t put me off. Like everything the band has done to date, I have grown to embrace it. And why? Because I have blinkers on? Because I have known the guys in the band for such a long time and I don’t want to upset them? Because their band name rhymes with my favourite meat product?
No. It’s because, when all is said and done, these guys have talent. Musically and conceptually, they are adventurous, and they are not afraid to push their ideas just that little bit further than many others might. They have a sense of humour, they are humble, but above all else, they let their music do the talking. ‘Aquarius Part 2’ was never on the agenda, and credit to them for remaining on their chosen path of exploration and growth. It was always going to lead to the alienation of some early fans, but equally, it has seen them keep many whilst introducing many more along the way. Selfishly, I miss the days of watching them play to crowds of a hundred or so, but when you’re this good, was that ever going to last?
Having got all that off my chest, it is to album number seven that I must now turn. Entitled ‘Fauna’, it has been no different to any other Haken listening experience. Spin one: hmmm. Spin two: OK, I think I start to understand. Spin 5: Ah, yes, that’s interesting. Spin 10: Oooh, I like that bit very much. Spin 15: Urgh, the bastards have done it again, I’m sold.
I could leave it there, but I’m as stubborn as the gents in Haken, so I won’t. I’m only just getting started, so stick with me, please.
Conceptually, as evidenced by the most intricate and arresting cover artwork of their entire back catalogue (courtesy of Dan Goldsworthy), and album title, ‘Fauna’ takes us on a journey through the animal kingdom. Each song has at its heart a particular animal but to a certain extent, the chosen beast also acts as a metaphor for something much more human, be it war, personal loss, or love and relationships. Indeed, as the band themselves freely admit, ‘all of ‘Fauna’s animals relate to us personally’.
I’ve sat back many a time, often late at night, wondering what it is that has made ‘Fauna’ resonate strongly with me and actually, the answer is surprisingly simple. It’s because each of the nine compositions offer a key piece of magic, almost always manifesting itself as a delicious melodic flourish, hook, or captivating vocal line. Of course, the technical prowess, song structures, and myriad of clever ideas all play a part. But, for me, if I’m offered a melody that sticks, I’m likely to come back time and again. The rest comes after, and generally clicks later. I’m all about the melody, so it is fundamentally this ingredient that ensures I come back for repeated spins gleefully.
Given the unique way in which my computer downloaded the promo, I began my journey of discovery in an odd order, although it took me a while to realise it. It meant that my first taste of ‘Fauna’ was via ‘Elephants Never Forget’, an eleven-minute epic which has become a firm favourite. More on that later because, having realised the mix up, I re-ordered the tracks and began again.
The first track therefore becomes ‘Taurus’ and, in keeping with its name, it’s a beast of a song. Using the migration of wildebeest as a striking image and a metaphor for the displacement of millions following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is perhaps fitting that it opens the album in bruising metallic fashion. Heavy guitars from Richard Henshall and Charlie Griffiths with a strong djent feel underpinned by expansive drumming from Ray Hearne deliver complex polyrhythms to create a challenging start to the record. But within moments, the band reverts to calmer climes accented by subtle synth sounds from returning keyboardist Pete Jones, the commanding rumble of Conner Green’s bass, and then a striking, melodic chorus that is utterly delightful, showcasing Ross Jennings’ talents behind the mic. Around it, all of the technicality and complexity, not to mention the effortless ebb and flow of lighter and darker textures makes much more sense and starts to become as enjoyable and important as the chorus that just gets stronger with repeated listens.
Next up is ‘Nightingale’ which couldn’t start any more differently if it tried, with a delicate keyboard melody accented by the sounds of gentle birdsong. Mind you, it doesn’t take long before things get heavier briefly. Despite being released several months ago, I never succumbed and so this is my first taste of it, within the context of the album. I don’t think I’m dreaming if I suggest that I can hear something of a ‘The Mountain’ or even ‘Visions’ vibe within some of the ideas, thanks, in part, to a greater contribution from Pete Jones, as well as the vocal delivery from Ross Jennings. Mind you, it’s a song that fittingly seems to flit dextrously from idea to idea, often juxtaposing or at tangents, never sitting still. Is that a thrash-inspired riff at the 4:04 mark? Nice. Importantly though, the elegant melodies within the chorus pull it all together and provide the necessary cohesiveness within a bold and ambitious composition.
Sounding at the beginning like it could be a pop song to be heard on commercial radio, ‘Alphabet Of Me’ is strangely one of the most immediate and alluring tracks on the album in my opinion. The synths are simple but bold, duetting brilliantly with Jennings’ vocals as they introduce the central melody of the song, one of their catchiest yet. Indeed, my young girls who don’t normally like my music were singing ‘It’s time to wake up and die or regenerate’ with gusto after just a single listen. That’s an extra percentage point right there, guys. Mind you, it is quickly removed due to the brass embellishments that appear later in the song courtesy of guest trumpet player Miguel Gorodi – you know the rules lads, sorry. Nevertheless, there’s no denying the quality of this song that challenges plenty of my musical prejudices by offering vastly different ideas, whilst wrapping it up in a progressive track that just works in so many ways.
One of the album’s dark horses is ‘Sempiternal Beings’, a song that took longer than some to click, but has now become a firm favourite. The opening drumbeat, and gentle melody is delicious, with Ross Jennings’ vocals and Pete Jones’ subtle synths adding more of an ethereal atmosphere. The fact that the song then builds to offer some real muscle only serves to make the quieter passages that much more impactful for their restraint. Thunderous drumming and bruising riffs, not to mention a rare lead guitar solo, bring a smile to my face every time I now listen, as do the insidious melodies that have finally wormed their way into my brain and refuse to let go. It was 3:15am that I was playing the song over in my mind this morning, for example.
Arguably my least favourite composition on the album, were I to be forced to pick one, ‘Beneath The White Rainbow’, is nevertheless another great song on a remarkably varied, yet incredibly consistent album. Having said that, I find myself reconsidering that bold statement, especially when the multi-layered and dense chorus is unfurled. There are some great stop-start riffs, rich piano keys, and moments that threaten to spiral out of control, only to be pulled back from the brink expertly. I’m not much of a fan of the heavily effect-laden fuzzy vocals that are shouted in the mid-to-latter stages, so maybe that’s the only reason why I could possibly like this song less than others. Because otherwise, it’s superb.
‘Island In The Clouds’ is another song that took a little longer than some to resonate with me, but time and attention, not to mention more spins than I could hope to count, has allowed me to reach a point where I lap it up. The early synthetic bass sounds took some getting used to, along with the myriad of other strange, sci-fi sounds that assault the ears in the first minute or two. However, once again, the melodies are strong, the ideas are fascinating, whilst the muscular djent-like riffing works a treat here.
Speaking of working like a treat, in comes ‘Lovebite’, my undisputed favourite song on the album. Indeed it is possibly one of my all-time favourite Haken songs ever, too. It begins with a flurry of heaviness which is clever in that it throws us initially off the scent of what’s to follow. In the blink of an eye, everything falls away except a groovy bass line and Ross’ voice. As the rest of the instruments come in, I find my shoulders moving to the funky sounds that remind me of Sting & The Police. But the chorus, that’s a meaty metal-infused quasi-ballad, AOR treat, addictive and satisfying as hell. I love everything about this cheeky song, even the vocal embellishments that I have seen get panned elsewhere. Not here, I love it all, especially the soaring lead guitar solo that sends shivers up and down my spine at will.
Reminiscent of ‘Cockroach King’ from ‘The Mountain’, ‘Elephants Never Forget’ is the quirkiest song on ‘Fauna’. Once again, Haken wear their Gentle Giant inspiration unapologetically on their collective sleeves, as they spend eleven minutes playing to their hearts content in the progressive rock sandpit and bouncy castle, having a thoroughly wonderful time in the process. To try to describe this song in detail is an exercise in futility, but suffice to say that it is varied, bonkers, intelligent, and challenging in equal measure. But, for my tastes, what makes this song even better than ‘Cockroach King’ are the melodies. Whilst I admire ‘Cockroach King’, I adore ‘Elephants Never Forget’ and it is almost entirely because the melodies are stunning and beautiful at the same time, providing aural joy in an otherwise turbulent and exhausting, but ultimately rewarding progressive metal soundscape.
The last song on the album is entitled ‘Eyes Of Ebony’, a song about the plight of the northern white rhinoceros. But, in the same breath, it is also a beautiful and fitting tribute by Richard Henshall to his late father, Haken’s biggest and most enthusiastic supporter. Having met Richard’s dad, an infectiously positive person driven by immense pride in his son and Haken in general, this resonates very strongly indeed. For large parts, the music is suitably quiet and introspective, almost ambient, coming alive at key points, with heavy guitars and powerful rhythms to underline the power of the animal, and the strength of the human that together, share this song.
And there you have it. ‘Fauna’ will no doubt divide opinion just as previous albums have throughout their career. For me, though, I love it, and I know for certain that the vast majority will love it also. Haken are a bona fide rarity, a band that are unafraid to try new things, and go in different directions, wherever the inspiration takes them. ‘Fauna’ is yet another example of the magic that these six highly talented gentlemen can create when they come together and write music under the peerless banner of ‘Haken’.
The Score of Much Metal: 98%