It was only a matter of time before Haken guitarist Charlie Griffiths put out his debut solo LP. After all, bandmates such as Ross Jennings and Richard Henshall have done the same in recent years (2021's A Shadow of My Future Self and 2019's The Cocoon, respectively). Plus, he's clearly got the talent and connections to spearhead a worthwhile collection with help from several other notable genre musicians.
Even so, Tiktaalika greatly exceeds expectations. Packed with mesmeric melodies, exquisitely intense arrangements, and brilliant conceptual continuity (i.e., thematic reprisals), it's easily one of the best records anyone from Haken has ever been involved in. Of course, that also means that it's among the top progressive metal releases of 2022 and a must-hear for all stylistic fans.
The album is aptly characterized as a work that "bridges the gap between King Crimson and King Diamond," with a fusion of "old-school 80s thrash, 90s tech-metal and alternative rock." Conceptually, Griffiths writes about "geological time, fossilisation, transformation and humanity's connections with each other and the planet we inhabit." Naturally, that focus relates to the LP's title, as it's named after "a prehistoric creative called a Tiktaalik. You could describe it as a missing link species between fish and tetrapods, and one of the first creatures to crawl out of the water."
Aiding Griffiths along the way is a who's who of impeccable talent, including Tommy Rogers (BTBAM), Danïel de Jongh (Textures), Jordan Rudess (Dream Theater), Darby Todd (Devin Townsend), and Rob Townsend (Steve Hackett). In terms of incorporating these artists' ideas and talents into his own templates, Griffiths reflects: "I had everything written and demoed, so the guys could quickly learn the parts, but I gave free rein for them to bring their personality to the party."
Oh, do they ever. Following the highly unpredictable "Prehistoric Prelude" (which evolves masterfully from calm acoustic passage to combustible prog metal frenzy), Tommy Rogers totally makes "Arctic Cemetery" his own. In fact—and at the risk of diminishing Griffiths' creative individuality—the track could very well be a lost BTBAM gem. Obviously, that's predominantly true because Rogers' typical vocal duality is in full force, with the album's recurring hook—"Aimless anatomy / Karma coding a form mutated"—ranking amongst the catchiest things he's ever sung. In addition, the arrangement fluctuates between transcendental and turbulent with comparable percussive irregularity and bold guitarwork. It's a self-contained masterpiece that—SPOILERS—returns (alongside "Prehistoric Prelude") to ingeniously close the collection (as "Under Portals").
In-between, Griffiths' other guests shine just as much. For instance, de Jongh's gentler and slower singing is perfectly suited for the urgent yet leisurely and atmospheric jazz fusion of "Luminous Beings." (In contrast, his growls tower over the guttural hyperactivity of the penultimate "Crawl Walk Run.") There's also the one-two punch of Vladimir Lalić (Organised Chaos), whose commanding versatility ensures that the Tool-esque "In Alluvium" and "Dead in the Water" standout as well. The latter tune features Luna's Call's Neil Purdy, too, so it's even more vocally diverse. Oh, and it should go without saying that Rudess, Townsend, and Todd excel from start to finish.
Griffiths also makes an impressive lead singing debut on the mellow and measured "Digging Deeper," which is ripe with lovely harmonies and intersecting rhythms. As for the instrumental title track, it's easily the most impressive from a technical perspective. Basically, it combines Haken's vibrant intensity with the riffs of King Crimson's "Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Part Two" and the multifaceted approaches of, well, a host of other modern genre titans. There's even a bit of Frank Zappa's trademark twisty flamboyance.
It’s hard to adequately express why Tiktaalika is so outstanding. Sure, each track is striving and fascinating in its own ways, and there’s enough variety between them to demonstrate Griffiths’ compositional breadth. What’s truly special, though, is how comfortable he is leading the way without demanding the spotlight. He truly lets each person do their own thing while supporting them as much as they support him. There’s never any sense of limitation or domination, resulting in heightened levels of fluidity, refinement, and daringness. Those qualities, coupled with how cleverly and frequently Griffiths and company bring back certain motifs, allow Tiktaalika to flow like a single progressive metal odyssey that never stops blowing you away.