*** Go to our YouTube channel in the link below to see the video review of this record in episode #25 of the SBR Album of the Week.
The winners of the Scream Blast Repeat Album of the Year for 2020 are back, and we have every reason to be excited and nervous. The two lead singles preceding Fauna showcase a band enjoying their music, exploring more colourful textures, and scaling back the heavier elements of their last two records. Have the darlings of contemporary prog metal abandoned their Meshuggah and Dream Theater leanings and replaced them with Radiohead and, er… Phil Collins?
Those of you impressed by Haken’s evolution from the 1980s-themed prog metal of Affinity (2016) through to the bruising drop-tuned technicality of Vector (2018) and Virus (2020) will wonder what happened to the band that produced three bona fide classics in the last seven years. Fauna is not a continuation of the last LP, but you’ll hear similarities with their 2013 opus, The Mountain. Of course, all the hallmarks of a Haken album are here – exquisite guitar riffs, cerebral math-rock rhythms, virtuoso keyboards, extended instrumental breaks, rousing choruses and suave bass grooves. But the absence of aggression and the turn towards the signature melancholia of Radiohead will leave you bewildered after one listen. Only after two more sittings will its brilliance emerge.
Clearly, the London sextet do not want to isolate the new fans at the heavier end of the spectrum who discovered them over the last decade. This might explain why they start Fauna with the meanest chug riff on the album on opening song, ‘Taurus’, and stick to a Meshuggah-meets-Pain of Salvation template to lay the foundations for Ross Jennings to showcase the sharpest tenor notes in his register. At less than five minutes, it’s one of the shortest compositions but the easiest to digest. Pinch harmonics compete with natural distortion harmonics amid a storm of brooding fifth chords pitched at the lower end of the tuning range. You’ll hear the solitude of Tesseract in the extended middle eight, but Jennings pulls the song towards a solemn eclipse when your ears expect a burst of aggression.
Whether Haken’s pivot towards the coffee table elite of the 1980s is deliberate or ironic is worth pondering on ‘Nightingale’ and ‘Lovebite’. The former mixes the elegance of Sade with the pizzazz of Genesis, yet it references ‘Puzzle Box’ from the band’s 2018 album and uses Meshuggah’s syncopated rhythms to beef up the sound. What can you say about the latter? It goes even further into Phil Collins territory circa No Jacket Required (1985); it references Fatal Attraction and A View to a Kill in the lyrics; and it includes an “Oh-eh-oh” backing harmony as if auditioning for a Stock, Aitken and Waterman demo. How they make this sound so enthralling and coherent is an achievement that makes you question your own judgement.
Does this shift away from the dark metallic crunch of Vector and Virus signal a retrograde step for the band? Not quite. Fauna is a technical album. It has moments of virtuoso musicianship that few prog bands could ever hope to surpass. ‘Beneath the White Rainbow’ is a maze of offbeat groove metal rhythms and arms-to-the sky chorus refrains before it turns into a tech-metal odyssey. Pianos continue the riffs and lay bare the mathematical foundations of the song; chunky guitar hooks get under your skin; the keyboardist intervenes amidst this extravagance as if scoring the scene for a Bond villain to enter the stage. The eleven-minute splendour of ‘Elephants Never Forget’ can take its place next to any of the fan favourites from The Mountain. Here, they treat us to Supertramp and Queen uniting in a theatrical piano-led rock opera before the ghost of Thom Yorke appears in the chorus to darken the mood. The guitar duo of Richard Henshall and Charlie Griffiths make sure to insert an extended two-minute run of mind-blowing fretwork with Van Halen soloing, Pantera riffing and Gojira grooves. It makes the return to the rock cabaret of the intro even more gratifying at the climax.
We may look back on Fauna in five years’ time as a strange album, but not a strange aberration. Fans of the trilogy of records that preceded this LP will lament the absence of the Fear Factory brutality that crept into their sound. Likewise, the pervading Radiohead influence adds an element of predictability to the music, not least in the way Jennings directs his voice towards the tuneful groan technique to maximise the emotions in ‘Sempiternal Beings’. His approach on closing track, ‘Eyes of Ebony’, is more successful in aiming for the classic Manic Street Preachers chorus uplift for maximum effect. As isolated tracks, some of the cuts here leave more questions than answers, but they take their place in the flow of the album like the low steps of a fish ladder. Nothing feels bloated or short of imagination throughout the one hour and two minutes of the listening experience.
It might fall short of their 2020 masterpiece, but Fauna is an admirable follow up record with its own personality and vision.
Release Date: 03/03/2023
Record Label: Inside Out Music
Standout tracks: Taurus, Beneath the White Rainbow, Elephants Never Forget
Suggested Further Listening: Caligula’s Horse – Rise Radiant (2020), Radiohead – In Rainbows (2007), Hypno5e – Sheol (2023)