I’ll admit that reviewing a new Haken album always makes me sad nowadays. They aren’t the same band they used to be; they used to be one of my favorites. Now, I’m usually someone who encourages fans to accept changes and evolution within a band, but I realized recently that anything I like about them now isn’t because of how much I loved Haken a decade ago. No, anything I like here is more akin to liking a brand new band I’m hearing for the first time. And so, I’ve become disconnected from them. But, yeah, I like the new Haken album Fauna, though that comes with a long list of caveats. The album releases on March 3rd through Inside Out Music.
It still feels like Haken are the new kids on the block, but they’ve been around since 2007. Time flies. The band has changed yet again with this new album. Out is Diego Tejeida, and in is new keyboardist Pete Jones, who was actually with the band in their first year of existence, as well. The rest of the lineup includes Ross Jennings on vocals, Richard Henshall on guitars and keys, Charlie Griffiths on guitars, Conner Green on bass, and Ray Hearne on drums.
Where do I even start with Fauna? The band has changed from one of most unique groups in the prog community into just another rank and file modern djent metal band. I literally get hundreds of promos a year for stuff like that. When they lost Tom MacLean on bass, they lost their Haken “squiggle”, as I loved calling it, which means a third of their personality went out the window. Over the last couple albums, it’s been clear that Diego was uninvolved with the music and band in general, and it doesn’t seem like an amicable separation, either. When he stopped being involved, another third of their personality disappeared, namely their cinematic side. With both their quirk and their cinema gone, at least the authentic versions of them, I’m terrified of the band losing Ross at some point—if that happens, the band will be unrecognizable as anything different from a thousand other bands out there.
Ross really does keep this band afloat, in my view. What I like here, I like because of Ross. I still love his vocals and his lyrics are always thoughtful. I even like the overall concept and production angle for Fauna, including the various art pieces. I think naming songs after various animals is sort of clever. Ross also brings his Gentle Giant/Derek Shulman A-game, as he lays down some vocals in that style, and he does it really, really well. Now, obviously, the rest of the band plays very well, too, but they honestly sound like so many other guitarists, bassists, and drummers nowadays. They’ve simply lost their distinctive touch.
But, like I said, I can try to step back and forget the past. I like the album. It’s solid. I wouldn’t say there is a bad song on it, though I would say there are a few bland tunes that leave me quite indifferent. Overall, though, I think I like this better than Vector and Virus, so that’s a step in the right direction for me.
I’ll make it simple for myself and just list my thoughts on each song. The album, to my mind, has three parts, each with three songs. The first third has “Taurus”, “Nightingale”, and “The Alphabet of Me”. “Taurus”, as expected, is one of the heavier songs on the album, and it revels in the djent side of the band, a side which I frankly find annoying. I get the desire to have polyrhythms and odd time signatures in progressive music, but the band often seems to throw them in for no reason, and so they lose authenticity to my ears. That said, “Taurus” has been growing on me slightly. “Nightingale” actually sounds like it could have been on The Mountain, maybe, but it does also sound like it would have been the worst song on that album, right? I do really like the chorus, though, so Ross saves the day again. Finally, “The Alphabet of Me” is a pop-laden, almost bluesy track, and I absolutely love it. Again, I don’t love it for being Haken, but I like the sound of it in general. I didn’t know what to think of it at first, but after a few plays, I really caught the groove and the lighter elements, and I really like it.
The second set of tunes is “Sempiternal Beings”, “Beneath the White Rainbow”, and “Island in the Clouds”. This section of the album is possibly the weakest. I feel like the album dips more than slightly here, though it does recover later. “Sempiternal Beings” has a decent chorus, but most of the song feels sluggish, as if it just can’t get moving. “Beneath the White Rainbow” is another heavier one, and it just sort of chugs through its play time. The chorus hasn’t caught me yet, and the weird interlude doesn’t feel sincere to me. “Island in the Clouds” is probably the strongest of these three, but mainly because of the smooth and addictive groove that is set up in the final couple minutes. I like that part. Sometimes, it feels like the band has forgotten how to write pure riffs, and when they write one nowadays, they usually screw it up by working in pointless stuttering. They don’t do that here, thankfully.
The final part of the album is absolutely the strongest. “Lovebite” is a grower for me, but I’ve really come to like its darker side and The Police vibes. I even like the “wo-a-wos” that the band sings in unison. You’ll probably hear this a bunch, but “Elephants Never Forget” is definitely the best song on the album, and is the only song here that can stand with the band’s older stuff. It is a rich, colorful tribute to Gentle Giant, essentially, with Ross really delivering on the chaotic, kinetic, and crazy vocal styles of albums like The Power and the Glory and Octopus. The song also includes elements of Far Eastern music, so the combination of the two makes for the most personality on the album. I love the chorus, I love the music, and I love the sprawling atmosphere. Finally, “Eyes of Ebony” closes the record, and it is split between ambient and somewhat heavy. I like most of all how subtle touches from Ross elevate it, like the delicate little vocal twist in the second half. It’s a good song.
See my difficulty? I like Fauna to an extent, but I don’t think it is anywhere as strong as the band’s first couple albums. The cinema and personality are missing, mostly. However, I can’t fault the band for their evolution or their recent success, and I’ve come to grips with the fact that I’m not their typical fan anymore. That’s fine with me, and their new music is just that: fine. There are moments of brilliance, though, like “Elephants Never Forget”, and fun songs that I just like, such as “The Alphabet of Me”. And so I can appreciate the album for what it is, and try to separate the old Haken from the new. In fact, I think that I’ll promise myself that: this is the last time I’ll ever compare the two.
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I think Nightingale is outstanding and would definitely not be the weakest on the Mountain (although that’s my favorite album of theirs, so don’t ask me to disparage any of its songs!).
I listen to the first two albums less than any others, so I guess this means we like very different elements of their music. I don’t like the cheesy carnival sounding stuff and Visions just never did much for me, outside of a couple songs. Therefore I’m pretty excited about this album since you always seem to have opposite Haken opinions compared to me, haha.
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