Working your way up from the bottom can sometimes be a thankless task. There’s the issue of money (or lack of it) that can often drive bands into a dead-end street of dilapidated equipment, mind-numbing day jobs and arduous self-promotion. And then there’s the challenge of convincing promoters and the man in the street that this band is the one you really need to listen to. It’s a rotten job, but there are rewards if you work at it.
But for some bands these days, ‘making it’ doesn’t necessarily give them the means to pay the bills. Take Haken for example, a glimmering beacon in the UK’s wavering modern prog scene, a group of guys so talented it makes you want to weep, and a band responsible for two of the best new British prog albums of the last few years – namely Aquarius and Visions. They should have a tour calendar that reads like The A-To-Z Of Britain and boasts a slew of gigs in support of their third album, The Mountain. But for reasons beyond our ken, their tour van will not be notching up as many miles as they’d hoped.
“It’s been, ironically, quite tough to get promoters on board,” explains singer Ross Jennings candidly. “Our manager’s been trying all over Europe and the response we’ve been getting is, ‘I’m not sure if they’ll sell enough tickets,’ or, ‘I’m not sure they’re big enough yet in this country,’ and there aren’t enough promoters willing to take a big enough risk to give us our own shows. The current September tour has turned out to be a lot smaller than we wanted it to be.”
Despite this, Britain’s most important rising prog stars have had a seemingly easy climb to the top. Their last album, Visions, was lauded by any prog fan who dared to look past Images And Words, and the prog festival scene (which is admittedly not huge) has been booking them at the drop of a wizard’s wand. They’ve played ProgPower USA, Germany’s Night Of The Prog, and have just been confirmed for Progressive Nation At Sea, a salubrious festival cruise in the Caribbean, with Spock’s Beard and Transatlantic for company.
“It’s a big deal for us,” says Jennings, audibly chuffed at the prospect. “Mike Portnoy got in touch with us personally and invited us along and we were like, ‘Yes, please!’ It’s an amazing line-up – it’s not often you get invited along with your heroes. I love Spock’s Beard; I’ve been a fan of them for years!”
Heck, they almost chowed down with John Petrucci! That’s how far these boys have come.
“I was in the lunch queue behind John Petrucci,” says Haken guitarist Charlie Griffiths, recalling their stint at Night Of The Prog. “I said, ‘I’ll have what he’s having.’” (It was poached salmon, if you’re interested.)
“It hasn’t felt easy for us at all,” contradicts Griffiths. “The general theme of the album is struggle and overcoming difficulty. A lot of it is from our personal experience of trying to be a band – although you wouldn’t know that from reading the lyrics. We’re not writing about being on the road or anything like that. It would be nice to have a nine-to-five job and know what you’re doing every day. No, it feels like a hard slog, but one we’re happy to do.”
Jennings concurs: “Making music a career, and I’m going to put a pun in here now, has been the toughest mountain to climb.”
With the current line-up completed by Richard Henshall (guitar, keyboard), Tom MacLean (bass), Ray Hearne (drums) and Diego Tejeida (keyboards), Haken have found a form they feel 100 per cent happy with. Nonetheless, living in abodes scattered across south-east England has impacted on their rehearsal time to the point where, as Griffiths explains, they are extremely limited in the time they spend together pre-gig, often rehearsing right to the wire to ensure any new pieces are performed without a hitch.
Inspired by the frustrations created by such obstacles, you might expect The Mountain to have a similar thrust to Visions, which, with a sound more guitar-driven than its predecessor, sounded like an album with some powerful feelings at its core. But The Mountain sees Haken at the next stage.
“What we didn’t want to do was make Visions 2,” Griffiths tells Prog. “We definitely wanted to put in some different influences and I guess the main thing we were thinking about was having the vocals more arranged. We have these multi-part vocal arrangements which took ages to do. That was something we found out when we played Visions live, the title track, as this multi-layered thing. It was only when we did it live that we thought, ‘Oh, let’s take out all the instruments and do it a cappella,’ and that was actually one of the most fun parts of the gig.
“People who know Gentle Giant’s music will recognise it… but we’re not as good as them! Everything has been turned over, ripped apart, looked at from every possible angle and put back together again in a completely over-the-top fashion. It’s nit-picking to a ridiculous degree! It was quite a relief to get this album finished because the whole process was so long, so that’s kind of why we called it The Mountain because, although it was enjoyable to do, we were happy when we reached the summit; it felt like a real achievement.”
The Mountain is premium Haken, ironing out the kinks in Jennings’ vocals, focusing on depth and variety without sacrificing catchiness or the metallic elements that earn them their ‘prog metal’ classification. But the major difference on this album, which has had a major effect on the band, is the lyricism. No longer solely penned by Jennings, the lyrics of The Mountain are a collaborative effort, with each member of the six-piece working on their own song.
“It feels like this is the first proper Haken album where everyone has been 100 per cent involved in every aspect of it,” says Griffiths. “So that’s a nice kind of feeling. I guess that’s why it feels like the most honest album.”
But how does Jennings feel about this new approach, having been the original sole composer of Haken’s lyrics?
“I had quite a few ideas that I had to scrap, so it was quite hard at first. But then some ideas started to come through from the other members and they were really quite powerful, so we ended up being a lot more collaborative this time. It was cool because it took a bit of pressure off me to actually come up with the goods on the final product. The other members were able to share their experiences, so it definitely felt more like a band product.”
Without making it sound too much like a self-help workshop, it seems as if this creative exploration has had a profound effect on the group. Jennings says: “We performed the song As Death Embraces at HRH Prog, and a couple of the guys were feeling quite emotional after that because the lyrics were being performed. Something about that song really gets the heartstrings pulled. There’s a lot of personal stuff on this album.”
Last year, Haken were lucky enough to go on a European mini-tour with prog supergroup Headspace.
“They had this window of time where they wanted to do some shows and that coincided with us wanting to do some shows,” says Griffiths, who is friends with Lee Pomeroy and Pete Rinaldi of Headspace. “We both had concept albums out, so we had this idea to do some shows together and play both albums in their entirety. It was a really good tour, the crowds were totally up for it, it was amazing. It was cool just to hang around with those guys too. They were all just really funny and pleasant to be around. We had a great laugh.”
He continues, chuckling: “One hotel we stayed in had a full-sized tennis court, so one morning after breakfast we had a Haken versus Headspace tennis game. Of course, it just turns into who can hit the ball as hard as possible at the other player… Tom’s actually pretty good – he’s got powerful forearm muscles.”
In truth, a game of tennis is about as rock’n’roll as Haken get. “Normally when we turn up to a show we get the pizza in and the metronomes on,” says Griffiths wryly.
On stage, however, it’s up to Jennings to be the livewire. Anyone who’s seen a Haken show will know his boundless energy and eccentricity, coupled with his wild mane and flamboyant choice of outfit.
“I might not be playing so many notes but I have to bring a certain amount of musicianship and entertainment to the crowd… the cowboy hat’s disappeared though, I should bring that back.”
At the time of writing, the release date of The Mountain is still a few weeks away. It’s the band’s first record on InsideOut Music, joining such luminaries as Spock’s Beard, Transatlantic and Devin Townsend. It’s a massive coup for Haken and, whether or not they have many gigs lined up, the first reactions to the snippets posted from The Mountain are positive (“goosebumps”, “awesome”).
“We never tried to make music we didn’t want to make,” Jennings concludes. “We’ve always made an honest representation of the music we like and that continues to be the same on The Mountain. A lot of emotion has gone into this so it’s definitely worthwhile.”
This article originally appeared in issue 39 of Prog Magazine.