"We have some crazy interludes and instrumental passages.” How Haken made second album Visions

(Image credit: Sam Scott-Hunter)

Conceptual grandiosity? Check. Technical excellence? Check. Poll-topping popularity? Check and underline. But when Prog spoke to London proggers Haken back in 2011 for second album Visions, they still couldn’t quit their day jobs. How times have changed...

"I don’t tell my students what I get up to, I don’t like the attention,” admits Richard Henshall. “I’ve got a couple of students that I play the records to but, to be honest, they wouldn’t really like it – it’s not their style.”

Henshall teaches guitar and piano in schools local to his base of Merton, south-west London, but he also plays both instruments for one of the UK’s fastest-rising young prog bands – Haken. Despite his students’ apparent distaste for Haken, their new album Visions is currently topping the ratings chart in dedicated prog web hub Prog Archives – and this is before its official release. So how does a band, that on one hand, relies on day jobs and support slots, come to beat Mastodon, Opeth and Dream Theater in an opinion poll? Henshall is remarkably understated about the whole affair:

“It’s really heartwarming that people are receiving it well already.”

The time that Henshall has snatched to have a chat with Prog is sandwiched between an appearance at Prog Power USA and Generation Prog festival in Nürnberg, Germany. He’s weary but in good spirits; the pre-release copies of Visions have gone down a treat with prog fans in the US.

“We maybe sold about 200 in the USA. We had a few people who bought it on the Friday and spoke to us on the Saturday and said that they have listened to it already and were blown away by it. They were all at the festival so I don’t know how they had a chance to listen to it, maybe they didn’t sleep!” 


(Image credit: Sensory Records)

If you’ve heard even a snippet of Haken’s debut, 2010’s Aquarius, you’ll know what to expect with Visions. Still eclectic, eccentric, melodic and robust, Visions blends a plethora of genres and injects them with grandeur, theatricality and plenty of rocking riffs. 

“We’ve tried to take all the elements of Aquarius and push all the boundaries individually and as a band,” says Henshall, the main songwriter and joint-founder of Haken. “I think it’s got a heavier edge to it; it’s a got a catchier sound, it’s more of a riff-based album.”

Like a lot of bands that find their footing with the second album, the production is more polished and, although experimental, there’s a greater sense of direction.

“I’d say it’s more of a focused album. We don’t really go off the track as much as we did with Aquarius, however we do have some crazy interludes and instrumental passages.”

A lot of that focus comes down to the simple art of songwriting. Henshall’s well-versed in the practice, being both the chief songwriter for Haken and keyboardist for Oxfordshire prog metal band To-Mera, which he was invited to join shortly after forming Haken. 

“The songwriting process for Visions was the same as Aquarius: I write the songs and provide the framework, send it round the guys, everyone learns their parts, then we bring it to the rehearsal room and flesh out the framework. Everyone brings their own spice to the table.”

The excitement then comes in meshing different sounds to forge a melting pot of genres; a challenging prospect but not without its rewards:

“Some songs come naturally to me, where as other songs don’t. You might have a Dixieland jazz idea but then you’ve got a metal riff crunching around and you want to somehow fuse them together. So sometimes it can be quite a challenge,” Henshall reflects. “But I think that’s part of the fun.”

Indeed, eclecticism and frolics is part of the Haken brand; something which they established in the opening bars of their first album (anyone familiar with Aquarius will recall that segue from pompous theatrics to a lively circus ditty). 

“I like the way the genres are juxtaposed, it creates more impact. I’d say it’s more of a celebration of different genres than anything else.”  


(Image credit: Sam Scott Hunter)

It’s been an amazing year for Haken. At  the very least they have been able to ride on the back of last year’s tremendous debut, but a host of live appearances and fan and media attention has thrust the band into a limelight they didn’t necessarily expect.

“We couldn’t have hoped for anything more,” Henshall enthuses, through the jet
lag. “We were just happy to record an album and have a physical disc [referring to Aquarius], which is an achievement in itself, but then to be received so well by the fans was mindblowing. It was number one in Prog Archives for pretty much the whole year, which blew us away.”

On the back of such a successful release, the band have enjoyed a number of festival appearances including ProgPower Europe and last year’s Summer’s End festival. But if that wasn’t enough, they also secured a support slot on Big Elf’s mini UK tour and a stint at Night Of The Prog festival in Germany, where they played alongside Dream Theater, Riverside and Anathema, humbly considering it an “honour” to be considered for the line-up. And then there was the more recent ProgPower USA. While traversing the Atlantic for a meagre four days in Atlanta – "quite a crazy city", says Henshall of Georgia’s rebellious capital town – might sound like a draining prospect, Haken made the most of their sojourn, packing in a baseball game from the world famous Braves alongside a heap of sightseeing. Touring has also given Haken the chance to mingle with other bands – and a deeper insight into the competition. But far from breeding rivalry, a bit of backstage socialising has earned them some new friends:

“We played Night Of The Prog festival earlier this year and met a band called Vanden Plas," Henshall tells us."We then saw them again at ProgPower USA so we’ve struck up a relationship. And just generally at most festivals we get chatting with other bands. At ProgPower USA it was so well organised; every band got their own room and the backstage area was almost bigger than front stage.”

In fact it was in the USA where Haken’s trajectory started, with a little help from Prog. Henshall tells the story:

“We had a demo out and Prog put  the track Black Seed on a covermount CD [Prognosis 2, June 2009]. Ken Golden from Sensory Records in the US heard this, decided to take us on and give us an advance to record Aquarius. So we’re in your debt!”

The truth of the matter is that Haken were already in contact with Golden, but their inclusion by our humble but attention-grabbing prog-dedicated publication [excuse us while we blow our trumpet] played a part. And Golden obviously liked the band enough to keep them on for a second album, which is another conceptual piece.

Visions deals with the theme of dreams but is also the story of a boy who witnesses his own death within a dream. In his waking life he becomes so obsessed with this idea that he actually believes it’s going to come true, so he spends his whole life waiting for the day it will happen.”

It’s a strong storyline, and a lot darker than the fantasy tale of a mermaid featured on their debut. Prog suggests that further artistic exploitation of the plot might intrigue current and new listeners. It’s an idea that Henshall likes, admitting that, if time and finance permitted, he’d love to make a series of short films based on the concept. Equally, if money was no object, he’d love to take Haken on the road to other continents - one quick peek at their Facebook page shows their international appeal . Comments like ’come to Brazil’, ’cheers from Mexico’ or ’Canada loves you’ pop up between notes of adoration from the native fans. But being in a band with big ideas at a small level is never easy, unless you happen to have very rich parents, and so there’s the ever-present frustration of knowing you have a fanbase that you can’t physically reach. And then there are just the general day-to-day affairs of a part-time band with full-time jobs that need care and attention:

“It can be tough,” sighs Henshall. “Because we have to find time to practice, write the music and record it. And then there’s the admin. Sometimes you lose track but you have to stay focused. But it’s hard to juggle all these aspects of the industry.” 

Despite the challenges facing them, they’ve had some fortuitous moments, one of which being the discovery of their new keyboardist Diego Tejeida – the classroom geek of the band, who’s a dab hand on the ivories.

“Diego’s a bit of a wizard when it comes to sound... We basically found him on MySpace and funnily enough he wasn’t playing prog – it was more like ambient dance stuff, but we looked at his influences and loves and invited him to try out. After that we just clicked.” 

Visually Tejeida brings an interesting aspect to the band, embodying the keyboard geek with his thick-rimmed glasses, but so does singer Ross Jennings, who bounds about on stage like Leo Sayer’s energetic lovechild. It’s probably just as well that Jennings is a born entertainer, because the rest of the band are focused on their playing (and understandably so – this music is far from basic) to the point that there’s little in the way of actual performance. It’s something Henshall’s aware of.

“I look back at some of our past gigs and we’re so focused and intense, we forget sometimes to perform!” he laughs. “But there are certain sections, like softer choruses or verses, where the music isn’t so tough and complex and we’ve got a bit of space to go crazy and entertain the crowd.”

Addressing the pressure to perform, he states: “ I think it’s crucial to find a balance. Prog fans demand a good show so you have to play all the right notes, but at the same time you have to entertain.”

Good performance comes with practice, but part of a Haken show is the musicianship – often a stunning display that has left many a newbie picking their jaw up from the floor – frothing with a talent that comes from passion, hard work and commitment. 

Fans of Haken will be pleased to know that there are already plans for a follow-up to Visions. And a gig with Arena in November will, once again, see Haken doing what they do best – playing live. No further plans to tour have been released as Prog goes to press but going by the reactions to Visions so far, the only way for Haken to look is up…  

Holly Wright

With over 10 years’ experience writing for Metal Hammer and Prog, Holly has reviewed and interviewed a wealth of progressively-inclined noise mongers from around the world. A fearless voyager to the far sides of metal Holly loves nothing more than to check out London’s gig scene, from power to folk and a lot in between. When she’s not rocking out Holly enjoys being a mum to her daughter Violet and working as a high-flying marketer in the Big Smoke.