"We had a ‘no filter’ rule on this album: make it as crazy as you want." Haken and the story of Fauna

(Image credit: Max Taylor-Grant)

Haken's 2023 album Fauna was inspired by the natural world and found the progressive metal six-piece entering new musical territory. Multi-instrumentalist Richard Henshall and returning keyboard player Pete Jones told Prog the story behind its creation and the “anything goes” attitude that helped to shape it.

Richard Henshall’s been in his home studio, trying to get his impressive hands around the guitar parts for Messiah Complex so it’s gig-ready. 

That five-part, 17-minute suite from Haken’s presciently titled 2020 release Virus was the brainchild of their drummer, Ray Hearne, and, says Henshall, “It’s easily our hardest song to play. Each of us has probably spent about a year trying to get it up to scratch. When he wrote it Ray just programmed the riffs with his fingers on a keyboard, but it’s almost impossible to actually play. But we’ll try it, and we’ll see.”

By now, they will have. When this issue of Prog lands, the London prog metal sextet will be deep into their 37-date Island In Limbo tour, a co-headline jaunt across Europe with North Carolina’s finest, Between The Buried And Me. It’s Haken’s longest continuous run of shows, during which they’ll play some of their biggest venues. While the tour serves in part as a soft relaunch for Virus (which never got its proper shake because of, well, The Virus), it also marks the start of a big, year-long push for their new, seventh album.

What a many-headed beast Fauna is. Magnificently mixed and mastered by Jens Bogren (who did the same for their 2013 breakthrough album, The Mountain), it’s colossal, detailed and dizzyingly diverse. Just contrast the epic first single, Nightingale, and the current heavy-hooky one, Lovebite, the latter with lyrics inspired by the mating ritual of the black widow spider. There’s a lot to unpack here.

They’ll take the record to North America in May with The Fauna Expedition Tour, starting in Nashville on May 3 and closing in Chicago on June 3. A few weeks later, they’ll be at Midsummer Prog in the Netherlands and the following month there’s their high-bill slot at Manchester’s Radar Festival, which will be a 10th anniversary set for The Mountain. And more shows are in the works after that. 

“It’s crazy,” Henshall tells Prog, when we speak to him a fortnight before jetting off to Hamburg for the opening show. “It’s gonna be the busiest year in our career, and I’m very excited. We’ve been at home for the last two and a half years, practically stuck in the house, changing nappies and watching Netflix. So it’s gonna be a real contrast to be back on the road.”


(Image credit: InsideOut Music)

Henshall’s partner had their second child over lockdown, during which time singer Ross Jennings also became a father of two. The Haken boys are all grown up, with parental concerns. “Leaving your family behind is 100 per cent the trickiest part of being a musician,” Henshall says. “It’s amazing to go out and meet the fans and play the music that you’ve written, but the flip side is that you’re away from your family. On this tour I’m going to miss both of my children’s birthdays, and I feel really bad about that.”

Jennings’ first taste of touring as a dad came last May, when Haken joined prog metal titans Symphony X in the US. As well as being the first time they’d played since the lockdowns, the shows also marked the return of an old friend into Haken’s ranks.

Pete Jones was the band’s first keyboard player. He joined in 2007, and played at their first gig at Leonard’s, a small, now-closed venue in north-east London. He can also be heard on their early demos, including their 2008 calling card, Enter The 5th Dimension.

Jones has been playing piano since the age of six, and gravitated towards jazz and prog in his early teens. He was just 15 when he replied to Haken’s ‘keyboardist wanted’ ad, on a Dream Theater-related web forum. It’s actually through Jones that drummer Hearne joined – the pair have been best friends since primary school. 

“I met Ray when we were four,” Jones tells Prog. “We were always doing music together one way or another. As kids we got into power metal – Angra, Stratovarius – then death metal, and when we were about 12 I discovered Dream Theater through my brother, and showed them to Ray.”

He left the band after just a year to pursue his studies in theoretical physics to PhD level. In conversation, Jones is friendly, and he radiates intelligence. These days he’s high up in the field of data science. 

“It’s using mathematical models and computer algorithms to learn from data,” he explains, patiently. “It’s the thing everyone’s been talking about the last 10 years.”

Mexican keyboardist Diego Tejeida replaced him in the group, but Jones remained within Haken’s inner orbit. During his PhD he joined Henshall and BTBAM bassist Dan Briggs in prog/fusion trio Nova Collective, playing on their 2017 one-off LP, The Further Side. He began his own, rather excellent solo project, Nested Shapes, making “glitchy, ambient electronic stuff”, and for Haken contributed drum programming to Virus and previous album, Vector. By November 2021, when Tejeida departed the band citing “different musical visions”, Jones was firmly back in the fold.

“I couldn’t ask for better luck or timing,” says Jones. “I always knew what was happening in the Haken world, so I knew that they were likely to separate with Diego quite ahead of time. Ray spoke to me informally about joining at first, and it became a formal thing late in 2021. But the band were a bit stagnant, as many were during lockdown, and I hoped things would start happening at some point.”

In May last year, Jones found himself doing his comeback Haken show. In the Caribbean. On the Cruise To The Edge tour. They did two sets – one comprising covers (Yes, Gentle Giant, Queen et al) and the other using material from their own catalogue. 

“I’d never played a professional gig really, ever,” Jones says with a bemused laugh, “and to suddenly be playing prog classics aboard a cruise ship surrounded by some real prog legends was just surreal. Then we got back to land and toured with Symphony X, which was my first tour, and it went really well. There was great energy in the band. We were having fun and making the most of it.”


(Image credit: Max Taylor-Grant)

“It’s been so much fun having Pete back on board,” says Richard Henshall. “He’s injected so much energy and new life into the whole process.” 

By the time of the Cruise and Symphony X shows Fauna was already cooking, with Jones pitching in whole-heartedly. That February the band – Henshall, Jones, Hearne, Jennings, guitarist Charlie Griffiths and bassist Conner Green – had rented a house near Brighton, and lived together for a week. They turned the living area into a makeshift studio, and thrashed out the details for Fauna – mapping the arrangements, vocal lines and melodies, discussing the lyrical themes. They had imagined some band bonding – watching movies, yomps across the South Downs. Instead, they worked 15-hour days on the album.

That week was important to give cohesion to the material, because Haken write in an unusual way these days. For 2010 debut Aquarius and the next few albums that followed, Henshall penned the lion’s share, with the band then fleshing the tunes out in the rehearsal room. But around the time of 2016’s Affinity, the whole group began to pitch in. Members would team up in different combinations to write, then bring their songs to the table for the others to add their own parts. It’s this method that’s perhaps responsible for Fauna’s broad palette. One of the early tunes was Nightingale, the first single, released last April. The lyrics came from Jennings and Griffiths. It draws on Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of an emperor who tires of his pet nightingale and gets a mechanical replacement. When he falls ill the real bird returns, and its song helps bring him back to health. The music was written by Jones and Hearne. The song comes in on Jones’ mellifluous, complex, Radioheady electric piano part, and the band then push it firmly into their own terrain. 

“Pete’s got these very strong jazz influences,” says Henshall, “and he came in with this cool jazz progression, and the song stemmed from there. We took it and made it Haken – we made it dense, heavy and dark, and added polyrhythms to it.

“That was almost Pete’s introduction to the fans: ‘This is Pete, our ‘new’ keyboard player. What do you think?’ That was almost a year before the album came out, a lot of fans assumed it was the start of the process and we’d have an album out three months later, but there was a big gap until the next release.”

The next was The Alphabet Of Me, emerging nearly eight months later in December 2022. With an 80s Yes chorus, syncopated beat and synthy, poppy moments, the song draws on Henshall’s affection for eclectic UK indie/electro rap-rockers Everything Everything. Jennings’ abstract lyrics channelled Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, and its classic film adaptation Blade Runner (‘There’s
a tear in the rain, momentary pain’
). Vocally, Jennings’ flow is soulful, on the cusp of R&B here.

“We all love pop, jazz, electronic, metal,” says Henshall, “and that song really embodies the spirit of the album. There’s a lot going on: the Sting/Police ‘whoas’ at the end, the trumpet solo. A lot of music just washes over you and you forget it after you’ve heard it, but we want our stuff to be memorable and catchy – we want people to sing along. We spend a lot of time getting that hook in the chorus. Our music is pretty intense at times, and you need to have that kind of balance – if you bombard the listener with too much of the same mood or colour, they’re going to turn it off, and not come back.”

Fauna bristles with such hooks, memorable moments and ideas from the clanging harmonics, dizzying grooves and soaring chorus of opener Taurus. There are so many riffs and details in Charlie Griffiths’ relentless, Gentle Giant-y magnum opus, Elephants Never Forget, it’s hard to pinpoint the central motif, in a good way. With its sub-bass and fast-tremoloing guitar textures evoking Tool and Porcupine Tree, Island In The Clouds also features an extraordinary one-take instrumental from Henshall, retained from his original demo. 

Jones’ low, jazzy piano cascades on the cinematic Beneath The White Rainbow hint at the influence of another band favourite, Armenian jazz piano virtuoso Tigran Hamasyan. Jennings channels Mike Patton’s Mr Bungle in his entertainingly manic vocal excesses mid-song – apparently when he first did them, at the Brighton house, it put his bandmates on the floor with hysterics.

By turns soulful and metallic, that black widow tune Lovebite has some beautiful melodies delivering brutal lines: ‘We consummate, decapitate, I will leave your rotting corpse here to decompose.’ Henshall loves that juxtaposition: “The whole idea was basing the lyrics on a Cannibal Corpse/Corpsegrinder approach, but mixed with this very happy music. It’s almost like Toto meets Devin Townsend – it has that Toto-like syncopation, then that Devin heaviness in the chorus. That’s what we were going for!”

Hearne’s dry, jazzy drums introduce Sempiternal Beings with its plaintive 7/8 verse giving way to a head-nodding chorus (in 15/16, apparently) and a raw, emotive guitar solo from Charlie Griffiths that really suits the song; Henshall reckons he was channelling Pain Of Salvation here. All this and striking lyrics too. The animal in question here is Turritopsis dohrnii, or the immortal jellyfish (‘Medusa, a haunting allure/Elusive ectoplasmic residue/Spineless stinger servant healer’). The words and the very sounds Jennings makes work so well for his voice as an instrument, while delivering on the lyrical concept that weaves the record together.

The album’s animal theme stemmed from lyrics Henshall wrote for what became the record’s moving closer. Eyes Of Ebony is ostensibly about the fate of the endangered white rhinoceros, but it’s actually about the guitarist’s father. 

A big influence on his son, Peter Henshall was a serious prog fan. He loved Yes, King Crimson and Pink Floyd. In the family home years ago, Richard recalls that the wall above the stairs was dominated by a poster of Floyd’s striking artwork for The Division Bell. As he developed into a musician and Haken began to play shows, his dad was there: “He wouldn’t even tell me he was coming sometimes. We’d seen him in the queue – he’d never want to be on the guest list, always wanted to buy a ticket. He was all about supporting the band, he wanted us to be successful.”

He was a passionate gig-goer. Father and son would go together to see David Gilmour, the Australian Pink Floyd, Zappa Plays Zappa, and the heavier stuff too – Meshuggah, Periphery, Leprous. But over the lockdown Peter Henshall was diagnosed with an auto-immune disease. It wasn’t immediately life-threatening, but with his system compromised he absolutely needed to shield, and did so, in his flat where he lived alone. Even when normality returned to the world, the illness meant his life would be very different.

There’s a striking line in the song: ‘Freed from limbo you were fighting for your life/In the heat of the flames of dying embers, burnt to ash.’ 

“My dad was in this limbo period,” Richard explains. “The disease didn’t cripple him, but it happened in lockdown, so he couldn’t leave the house because he was suddenly vulnerable. I could sense in him that he felt, ‘I won’t be able to go to gigs after the pandemic – I’m just kind of waiting now, waiting for the end.’”


(Image credit: Max Taylor-Grant)

In March 2021, Richard and his brother became extremely concerned when their father was not answering his phone. They found him in his flat, where he had suffered a fatal heart attack. He was 75. 

“There’s a reference to the moment of finding my dad,” Richard says, “which was horrific, but if I’m honest writing the lyrics was therapeutic, it was a good way for me to get it out there. I don’t know how I’ll feel if we play it live, but it’ll definitely be a special song for me.”

The song alludes to he who ‘sang his last lullaby at the great gig in the sky’, and to the man who ‘gave me the power to believe as we climbed to the mountaintop’. It’s a moving tribute indeed. As with the rest of the album, musically Eyes Of Ebony was a joint effort. Pete Jones added some sound design touches. He’s into “binaural processing”, or, he explains (sounding like the cool physics teacher), “the sounds that pop out at you from strange bits of the stereo field, rather than just being in front of you.” He’s also done a remix of the song, and this Nested Shapes-style reimagining is earmarked as a bonus track for the Japanese edition of Fauna.

Jones and Diego Tejeida are both sophisticated, yet disparate soundsmiths. “Diego writes parts differently to me,” Jones says. “On the last run we did some pretty keyboard-heavy things like 1985 and Nil By Mouth – there’s a lot to learn, and lots of sounds to program. But on this album, my role is less about what I’m playing, and more about what the overall band’s sounding like, and how can I enhance that ambience, that feeling. More often that’s a production or sound design thing rather than a line I could write out on a stave. Haken’s music is a very rich tapestry – it can bear these more glitchy things. There’s no synth leads on the album at all.”

He’s learned Virus in its entirety, including Messiah Complex which, when we speak, is in his RAM and good to go for the European tour. Having been involved at both ends of the band’s career, he’s in a unique position to comment on how things have changed: “It’s actually come full circle. When I joined Rich was the predominant writer; he was prolific and fast, and had six years on me and Ray – but we were writing together in a jam room, as a group. After I left, on those first few albums, Rich would write everything, basically, and the band would help build the arrangements. But right now feels like those early days. There’s this raw feeling of experimentation – the restraints are off, let’s just see what we can create. It’s a similar mindset to what we had in 2007, and I know Ray, Ross and Rich have felt that too.”

Henshall agrees. “We had a ‘no filter’ rule on this album: make it as crazy as you want. A reggae riff, a bassoon solo – anything goes! Everyone brought in their own influences and it’s resulted in our most exhilarating album, and definitely our most diverse. We’ve fully realised that spirit of collaboration. We’re starting a new chapter with Pete, with Covid behind us. We can move upwards again.”

And with Fauna, Haken have the right animal for the job. 

Grant Moon

A music journalist for over 20 years, Grant writes regularly for titles including Prog, Classic Rock and Total Guitar, and his CV also includes stints as a radio producer/presenter and podcast host. His first book, 'Big Big Train - Between The Lines', is out now through Kingmaker Publishing.