Since Haken’s last album, 2020’s Virus, the band have parted company with long-standing keyboardist Diego Tejeida. The reason given was the standard ‘musical differences’ cliché, albeit worded as “very different musical visions”. As a result, Fauna, Haken’s seventh album, is the first to feature their original keyboard player Pete Jones, who returned from the wilderness in late 2021.
I find it hard to understand how someone can share a very different musical vision to Haken, because this is a band that is willing to bring in influences seemingly from anywhere! That isn’t just true of their work as a band either. The Haken-verse includes solo albums by singer Ross Jennings, and guitarists Rich Henshall and Charlie Griffiths that draw from a wide musical church. Jennings’s involvement with Novena and D’Virgilio, Morse and Jennings expands that even further, and collectively they pull from pop, country, power ballads, electronica, jazz, thrash, folk and Laurel Canyon! This isn’t because they are all frustrated by a narrow approach within Haken itself. On the contrary, Haken shift gears from album to album, song to song, and being part of the prog oeuvre, section to section on their longer compositions. Haken’s work reminds me of the pliability of sound that Faith No More had once Mike Patton was on board, but taken even further. On Fauna, ironically given Tejeida’s departure, Haken push their eclectic sound even further.
The first thing that struck me about this album was the sequencing. The metallic throb that opens Taurus is unmistakable and the following tracks, Nightingale and Alphabet of Me, are also singles that dropped prior to this full LP release. Haken are far too canny for this front-loading to be accidental, so I would imagine this is part of some clever strategy to use streaming platform algorithms to their advantage. This isn’t some plucky upstart band on the outskirts of a prog subgenre, Haken are true behemoths of modern prog, metal, rock and everything in between. Cockroach King, their big breakout track from The Mountain, has almost 9 million streams on Spotify alone.
The listening experience if you have already played the lead singles to death (guilty as charged) is a little bit off kilter as the new songs take a few plays to really take hold of you. When they do though, you’re in for a treat. If I could go back in time and unhear the singles I’d do that, so if you are coming to Fauna cold, I envy you.
Taurus is a powerful anthem, dripping with light and shade and the perfect way to open the record and say loud and proud that Haken are back.
Nightingale finds Haken at the top of their powers, bringing all the disparate elements of their sound together, showcasing exceptional songwriting, stellar playing and as ever Ross Jennings’s stunning voice. Nightingale was probably the single of 2022 for me, edging past big tracks by Porcupine Tree. Both bands make formidable use of sound design and production to take their music to even higher levels, and the new sounds that Jones adds on this record are a large part of that.
The third single and third track here, Alphabet of Me, caught me off guard when it came out, with its playful electronic opening harking back to Affinity’s ’80s inspirations. The song builds and builds into a real earworm, a groove-laden singalong triumph that you’ll have going round in your head for weeks. I really need to hear a live crowd chanting ‘Woah’ over layers of brass. In fact, I would absolutely love to hear this whole album played live from start to end.
The layers and textures throughout all the songs give them real depth and unlike on their last two albums, Vector and Virus guitar solos are noticeably back.
I’m not always sure I understand the meaning of the lyrics but there’s an emotional and narrative intent that comes through across every song, transcending the concept of each of them having an animal theme. On a track like Beneath the White Rainbow, I suddenly felt like I was back in school music lessons hearing Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf for the first time, as instruments took on roles and then combined to make something even more powerful. To me, it almost feels like the guitars are hunting you and your frantic escape plays out though the keyboards, with the bass and drums driving both forward until you find enough strength to be the guitars yourself. Maybe I have that completely wrong, but this song left quite a an impression on me. Whatever they meant to do here, it is extremely evocative and just as impressive as the songs around it.
Elephants Never Forget is the song I’ve become most obsessed with; it’s an 11-minute beast straddling various moods and movements. It starts like something straight off an early Queen record, morphing through Gentle Giant and Pretty Hate Machine era Nine Inch Nails and back again. I can’t do this track justice with words, the way the elephant of the title is brought to life sonically is something you just have to experience. All the instruments and Jennings’ voice combine to bring that mental picture to life in your ears. And I’m not sure if our point of view shifts from onlooker to the creature itself at this point, just before the Queen II vibe returns and then some epic ’80s movie soundtrack guitar takes it all home. It’s a song I’ve been happy to play on a loop, finding new things on each and every listen.
You can’t have this much fun with guitars and keys if it isn’t underpinned by a rhythm section that’s completely in step with where you are going. Conner Green’s bass and Ray Hearne’s drums take on just as much of the storytelling and tone setting. And keyboard player Pete Jones slots back in like he’s never been away, adding some of the most interesting parts of the record. Having now heard Jennings’ vocals in various other contexts, this might be their best use on a Haken record too.
In many ways this album is the culmination of all that came before, at times there’s the muscular solo free staccato punch of tracks from Vector or Virus and at others the sumptuous layers of vocals of The Mountain or ’80s electro vibes of Affinity. Haken is a modern day musical melting pot, and that’s just what I want from a record. This doesn’t just draw from prog, metal or prog metal, Haken’s virtuoso band members are happy to draw from all music and all genres, be that from the ’70s or the current charts, and that helps them be truly progressive.
With Fauna, Haken isn’t a band appealing to a fan base or resting on their laurels. This is a band making music on their own terms and their output is all the better for it. I’m not quite sure what their former keyboard player couldn’t get on board with about that.
“It’s time to wake up and die or regenerate” after all and this regeneration is a very, very strong early contender for album of the year.
01. Taurus (4:49)
02. Nightingale (7:25)
03. The Alphabet of Me (5:34)
04. Sempiternal Beings (8:24)
05. Beneath the White Rainbow (6:45)
06. Island in the Clouds (5:46)
07. Lovebite (3:49)
08. Elephants Never Forget (11:07)
09. Eyes of Ebony (8:32)
Total Time – 62:00
Ross Jennings – Vocals
Richard Henshall – Guitars
Charlie Griffiths – Guitars
Pete Jones – Keyboards
Conner Green – Bass
Ray Hearne – Drums
Record Label: InsideOut Music
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 3rd March 2023