REVIEW: HAKEN – “Fauna”
So far 2023 has been an excellent year for metal, Prog metal especially, as we’ve already seen several albums by prominent artists who have released stellar work. Things are about to get even better with Haken set to release their latest opus ‘Fauna’ in the beginning of March. I must admit that I wasn’t overly excited by their last couple of releases, and was initially less than enthused about covering this one. Thankfully I was talked into it and quickly discovered their most exciting album in a long time.
The album begins with “Taurus,” which has already been released as a single. A Taurus is of course a bull, and like all the songs on the album, the lyrics deal with the symbolic relations between the human world and the animal kingdom. On the surface it deals with the African migration of wilder beasts; on the deeper level, it deals with the movement of people displaced by the ongoing war in Ukraine. The most thrilling thing though is the music, and this piece kicks off in a way more reminiscent of Meshuggah than typical Haken. That is up until the soaring clear vocals of Ross Jennings who sounds as good, or better than he ever has. Meanwhile, the ragged guitar riffs of Richard Henshall and Charlie Griffiths will make even the most jaded metal headbang their head in delight.
Fauna is a fairly beefy album, so choosing which songs to cover is a bit of a challenge. I will single out an early track with “The Alphabet In Me” early on though. The key work of Pete Jones really shines on this track. It’s his return to the band after 14 years, and he really makes his presence felt throughout the album. There’s also a catchy little drum pattern lightly tapped out that counterpoint the jaunty keylines, which while not the most flashy bit of drumming that Ray Hearne does on the album, is so perfectly timed and placed that it pulls the whole song together.
The musicianship of Haken has always been of the highest quality. A combination of the best of technical metal, the most melodic prog, and the quirkiness of Gentle Giant. This may be a bold statement, but I think this is their strongest material since ‘The Mountain’ back in 2013. The lengthy “Sempiternal Beings” is a prime example of the fire the band can bring when they play flat out. Blistering guitars are accompanied by precise frantic drumming, with blistering key runs soaring over the top of everything. It remains grounded throughout by Conner Green’s steady bass work. The band goes for variety as well, to counterbalance the more driving metal, we are also given the 80s electronic-driven side of the band with the incredibly catchy and fun “Lovebite” a playful play on a relationship gone wrong and the black widow spider’s habit of killing and eating the male as the culmination of the relationship. With infectious melodies, it is sure to be a live favorite.
This is followed by the mini-epic “Elephants Never Forget” which, running just over 11 minutes, is the longest track on the album. The Gentle Giant influence that was such a clear characteristic of their early albums is on full display at the beginning of the song. Musically it is perhaps the most varied of the album, with a range of being light and playful, to venturing into darker and heavier territories. Lyrically on one hand the band plays with the supposed long memories that elephants have, and their long past of being lords of their land, proud and dominating before being nearly hunted out to the brink of extinction. I read the other side as a reflection on humanity as a whole and remembering a better, perhaps more simple way of life, or at the very least remembering a time with less constant and pervasive contention and hatred for anyone who looks at the world differently than we do. I could be off base on this of course, but the lyrics are written in a way open to interpretation. What isn’t open is the great and far-ranging vocal work that Ross put into this song and the passion of his voice. On no track does the whole band shine so much as this.
The album closes with the more math rock stylings of “Eyes of Ebony” and a fitting conclusion it is. This emotional piece grieves in two ways. On the surface, it laments the passing of the last white rhino. On a deeper level, it grieves the loss of Richard’s father who passed away in 2021. While heavy in parts, the heaviness is not the driving force of the song, and much of it is fairly “light” in nature while still twisting in complexity. The real drive though is the lyrics and the vocals. Richard’s father was very supportive of the band and his son’s dreams from early on, so his loss was felt on a band level as well as a personal one. The song is both a moving tribute and a satisfying conclusion to the album.
Haken has upped the proverbial ante when it comes to upcoming prog-metal releases this year. ‘Fauna’ is a moving, complex, and multilayered tour de force of an album, and will be hard for anyone to top. It certainly gave me the biggest thrill upon my first listen since I found them years ago, and each new listen showed more than the last. It might be the best thing they’ve ever done, time alone will tell that. But it’s a must for their fans and prog fans in general.