Album Review: Haken, ‘Fauna’

More than a decade ago, a guy told me to check out a band that reminded him a lot of Dream Theater. At the time I gave them a quick listen, but didn’t form much of an opinion of the music. About a year later, the bassist of the band I was playing in recommended that same group to me, following the release of their third album. Upon my initial listen to what would become the biggest song on that album, I actually winced, once again not very impressed at the time. But then I gave the whole album a shot, and everything changed.

That band was Haken; the album was The Mountain.

Most music fans have that one band or artist they discover or are turned on to that impacts them more than any other. Metallica was an early inspiration to me when I was 10 or 11, with Rush and Dream Theater following shortly after. But Haken? After getting used to “Cockroach King” and falling in love with The Mountain, there wasn’t a single thing I didn’t like about the band. The music from Aquarius, Visions, and The Mountain was heavy, melodic, rhythmically complex–truly progressive, in every sense of the word, filling their songs with twists and turns that took from the books of not just modern prog, but even some of the wackier, atonal stuff you hear in Gentle Giant, King Crimson, and early Genesis compositions. Every member offered something unique to the listening experience, and pretty soon they became my favorite band.

Haken, from left to right: Pete Jones (keyboards), Conner Green (bass), Ross Jennings (vocals), Richard Henshall (guitars, keyboards), Charlie Griffiths (guitars), Ray Hearne (drums)

And as my tastes changed, their music changed as well.  Affinity saw a lot more synthesizer melodies at the forefront, with really rich soundscapes; Vector and Virus added more of the djent aspect to their music; and now we have their seventh album, Fauna, set to be released early next month.  To me, Fauna is a culmination of almost everything Haken is all about.  Each album that has preceded this one gets a nod somewhere in the hour-long journey.  Also, Jens Borgen, who mixed and mastered the band’s releases from 2013-2016, makes a return to the board, which you may hear in the form of a reversion back to a more “organic” sound compared to the past two releases, which were mixed by Periphery bassist Adam “Nolly” Getgood.  That being said, it did take a few listens for Fauna to grow on me; this album is significantly different to their previous releases structurally, and getting used to this meld of music they’ve put before us admittedly took some time.

Before diving into a track-by-track breakdown, I quickly want to talk about the lyrics of the album.  I’ve learned that dissecting Haken’s lyrics can be quite the endeavor; Affinity was a fun one, as was Vector for me.  But this new album combines a couple different concepts that I do not feel I have a great grasp on for now–perhaps because this album separates itself from past Haken albums in that each songs’ lyrics do not necessarily contribute to an album narrative.  Guitarist Richard Henshall even said that this could be looked at as an album that is similar to The Mountain, conceptually.  Fauna follows a common theme of connecting humans to animals, hence the album’s title.  Anyway, let’s get to it.

Kicking off with the third single the band released in anticipation for this album, “Taurus,” we’re immediately brought into the realm of “modern” Haken; that is, the more djent-influenced, metal side that the sextet has been incorporating into their music the past several years.  Filled with syncopated verses and a gnarly breakdown for a bridge, the song seems inspired by Gojira in a sense.  Ray Hearne’s drumming–which once again surpasses the band’s previous release (a trend both he and his bandmates should be very happy about)–reminds me of what Jay Postones plays when performing TesseracT’s music, which really spices up the sound.  Inspired by the devastating events in Ukraine, using the annual migration of wildebeests as a lyrical vehicle, the song tackles the idea of banding together for a common goal.

The album’s first single, “Nightingale,” was released nearly a year ago, and although I personally wish this one was not a single, it does showcase some of the newly reinducted keyboardist Pete Jones’ excellent contributions to Haken’s latest compositions.  Erratic, almost disjointed at times, the second track is something I’d imagine if Haken had incorporated some more djent to their music around the time Visions came out.  Lyrically, the song pays homage to the 1843 Danish fairytale, “The Nightingale,” by Hans Christian Andersen, adding in a component of spirit animals in the chorus (“I feel like I’m guided by the totem”)–the main theme of the album’s lyrics.  A modern dilemma, rejecting the original and falling in love with an imitation, this is something we can probably all relate to in the digital age.

The third track (and second single), “The Alphabet of Me,” is one of my favorite Haken tracks in a long time.  The keyboard intro of the track will probably go down as an iconic opening sequence for the band’s live performances, with the groovy, EDM-meets-reggae verses and post-chorus really freshening things up.  Sandwiched in all of that is a great prog-metal chorus, with the guitars and synths having that killer tone some of us loved so much from Vector and Virus, making the song a compact, eclectic listen.  And boy, that guest trumpet solo Miguel Gorodi delivers at the end absolutely cracks!  And hey if you’re reading along with the words, try to see how many Blade Runner references you find!  I’ll refrain from making this into a philosophical deep-dive of Philip K. Dick’s contributions to science-fiction…

Beginning with a drum beat that meshes well with the style of the previous track, “Sempiternal Beings” is another eclectic track from Fauna, bouncing from its indie-pop intro into a dense array of progressive metal.  Fueled with three choruses, each one slightly different than the other (much like the band’s approach on their songs from Virus), and a spooky, atonal guitar solo from what I presume to be Charlie Griffiths, this track could be thought of as a sibling track to “Nightingale.”  Lyrically, I am interpreting the song as acknowledging the link between oneself and their ancestors, with snakes and/or aquatic reptiles being the metaphorical subject, and wanting to find out more about oneself through this link.

For the vinyl lovers out there, it’s time to switch to the second LP of this package, and when the needle lowers, we are battered with some meaty chords, reminiscent of some traditional, gut-punching progressive metal.  “Beneath the White Rainbow” is probably the closest thing on here to something you would hear from Dream Theater; the only thing out of pocket being a quirky fuzz-vocal section in the bridge that fans of Mr. Bungle might enjoy for a brief moment.  Following this proto-typical prog-metal track is “Island in the Clouds,” which has a great, warbly bassline delivered by Conner Green to start on top of a Leprous-esque rhythm from Ray underneath (and eventually he even throws a cowbell in there too).  Pete also plays a huge role in this song, with the keyboards adding a ton of texture throughout–a track that could possibly fit nicely into Affinity.  As for the lyrics to these two tracks, I won’t try to take a stab and interpret them, as admittedly I am a bit lost myself.  Maybe these were meant to be a tad more ambiguous than the rest, or perhaps I just haven’t done enough animal research!

The fourth and final single the band released for the album is “Lovebite,” a personal favorite of mine.  Clocking in at under four minutes, Fauna’s shortest offering may have some fans drawing connections to Affinity’s “Earthrise,” instrumentally and structurally.  Ironically happy-sounding, with Richard and Charlie trading spanky guitar lines in the verses and Ross delivering a timeless vocal melody in the chorus, the song is actually about love gone bad… with Ross singing a story of a female black widow devouring her mate.  Yikes!  A tongue-in-cheek song from the guys- who stated in their promotional verbiage that they were trying to sound like a Phil Collins track with eight-string guitars and Cannibal Corpse lyrics. I think “Lovebite” is a fine way to segue into the epic of the album.

Haken are not ones to shy away from trying something new and throwing in something frantic and utterly zany.  Though it has been a while since they have made their fans giggle with their little antics, they still have it in them and are quite capable of turning heads.  I suppose this song fits most well in their Aquarius days, with Ross fully committing to some indefatigable vocal lines reminiscent of Gentle Giant’s Derek Shulman, and the band going the route of a more theatrical production mixed with their brand of progressive metal, almost like The Dear Hunter or even Queen.  Lovers of “Cockroach King” and “oldschool Haken” will be happy with this one!

With what will be seven studio LPs (and an EP), Haken has always provided listeners with incredible closing tracks throughout their 15+ year career.  “Eyes of Ebony” may go down as a fan-favorite closing track in my eyes (no pun intended).  Dedicated to Richard’s late father, Peter Henshall, who passed away on March 28, 2021, the song links his passing to that of the last male northern white rhinoceros.  I actually had the pleasure of meeting Peter before I had met any of the members of Haken while waiting on the VIP line for the Affinitour in New York City, on September 6, 2016.  From the few minutes we shared, you could see his energy was truly contagious.  He was super dedicated to the band, traveling to countless shows of theirs and would even send their demos everywhere you can think of early on.  Musically, the band dabbles in some math-rock here, mixing it with a soundscape build that fans of The Mountain and Affinity will embrace.  I can’t lie, this was a very emotional first listen, even before I read into the content of the lyrics.  A fantastic closer, period.

Before some closing remarks, it should also be noted that the artwork for this package is among Haken’s most illustrious.  Dan Goldsworthy, who provided the stellar artwork for Charlie Griffiths’ debut solo album last year, Tiktaalika, worked endlessly on making the artwork reflect the lyrical themes of the album; and the end result is ocular bliss.

Although this album does not follow a narrative or general track flow like prior Haken albums, I believe this offering is still a strong one from the band.  If I could pick out something that some fans may not be fond of, it would be the lack of hooks and general musical cohesion at times.  Nevertheless, I believe this was all purposeful from the self-produced, self-directed band, and the music very much is a good representation of the many styles they have dove into throughout their career.  Although it may take you some getting used to, this is a fruitful listen guaranteed to inspire those who love modern progressive music.

Haken’s latest album, Fauna, will be released on March 3, 2023. Preorder it here.

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