At the core of what motivations Richard Henshall to make his music lies something which he shares with his “main” project, Haken and, indeed, his “other” band Nova Collective. This is a fierce dedication to progressive music without apology and second-guessing, a deep-dive into what makes the sub-genre great. However, on his latest release The Cocoon, this driving force has a different manifestation; instead of staying firmly within the lane of modern progressive metal, The Cocoon brings in plenty of influences from prog-fusion, jazz, and progressive rock. The end result is an album that enjoys a fair bit of dynamics and variety, creating a more bewildering and agile listening experience.
Which fits right in with the list below, which explores progressive, avant-garde, and innovative approaches to music from several different fronts. From the rarified heights of Kid A, through the flowery progressive touches of both Devin Townsend and Tigran Hamasyan (who are obviously very different artists but share a certain brightness to their music) and finally at the opening salvos of Opeth‘s career, this list gives us a glimpse into the diverse background which Henshall brings to bear on his latest release. Read on down below for insight into this tapestry and don’t forget to check out The Cocoon itself!
Radiohead – Kid A
Radiohead was one of my first musical obsessions. My love affair with them started in high school when my Haken compadre, Ross Jennings, and I attempted to play a bunch of their tracks from Pablo Honey, The Bends and OK Computer in a covers band. I think we were around 14 at the time, so I’m sure our renditions of their music left a lot to be desired, but even so, learning those songs taught me a great deal about how to craft great music. As an aspiring guitarist, I was particularly drawn to Jonny Greenwoods atypical approach to guitar. To this day, I still reference his playing and tones when I’m looking for something a little outside of the box. Kid A was a pivotal moment in their career, which partly is why it stands out for me as such a special album for me.
They completely defied commercial expectations and released an intensely challenging, thought-provoking album, which set them on an entirely new musical path. It was a hugely daring move to release such wildly entirely different album at a point in their career when they could’ve quite easily ridden the wave of their previous successes. Ross and I managed to catch the Kid A tour in Victoria Park, which still remains one of my favourite ever shows. This is a testament to the special quality of this album. To me, Kid A really embodies the limitless and viciously experimental spirit of Radiohead’s music, which is what I essentially find so appealing about them. It’s a special album that came at just the right time for me.
Devin Townsend – Terria
Terria formed the soundtrack to many gatherings with my friends and I back in my youth, so I’m always struck by a strong sense of nostalgia when I hear it. It’s a beast of a record that is, in my eyes, Devin Townsend’s piece de resistance! His fearless and boundless approach to writing has been a constant source of inspiration for me over the years and, in my humble opinion, his compositional genius has never been stronger than it is on Terria. One thing I really love about this album is the multilayered approach to the arrangements; each time I revisit it I seem to uncover new layers to find previously unnoticed musical gems. I think he even sampled his dog howling at one point and buried it somewhere deep within the rich tapestry of sound.
The eclectic, dense and colourful soundscapes really help spark my imagination, which elevates the music to new levels. It’s one of those albums that can transport you to an entirely different world, which is the hallmark of great music in my eyes. I’ve seen Devin multiple times over the years and have been eagerly waiting to hear some of Terria and my patience finally paid off when he played “Earth Song” at his Albert Hall performance of Ziltoid. It was a glorious moment! Terria is a broad, multifaceted and deeply atmospheric record that always evokes a number of emotions in me, which is why it will always be one of my favourite albums of all time.
Tigran Hamasyan – Shadow Theater
Tigran Hamasyan is one of the most prolific and proficient musicians I’ve heard in recent years, and his compositional prowess is no less astounding. He’s an Armenian jazz pianist who fuses filthy, ear-splitting polyrhythms with dark, rich jazz harmony. He also weaves intricate Armenian folk music into the mix, which results in an entirely unique sound. He has an extremely impressive body of work, but Shadow Theater is the record that stands out for me. This is probably partly due to it being the first record I’d heard by him, but it’s largely down to the sheer jaw dropping musicality and composition displayed throughout. He approaches the piano in a guitar-like fashion and has written some of the most offensive riffs I’ve heard in a long time.
If Fredrik Thordendal decided to write music on the piano, I imagine it would end up sounding something like Shadow Theater or his other masterpiece Mockroot. He cites Meshuggah as an influence so I guess that make sense. I’ve been lucky enough to catch his genius at two live shows, and was awestruck by his natural ability to project pure, unadulterated emotion through his playing. Shadow Theater is a polyrhythmic jazz odyssey that continues to melt my brain time after time in the best possible way.
Opeth – Still Life
Still Life was the first Opeth record I bought and it still remains my favourite. I must’ve been around 17 at the time and had spent the last 3 years or so skating around in baggy jeans listening to the likes of Rage Against the Machine, Fear Factory and Hatebreed! Still Life was entirely different beast. It had all the raw grittiness and aggression that initially attracted me to metal, but it also offered an array of colourful, atmospheric soundscapes that set it apart from all the other albums in my record collection at that time. I was instantly drawn to the stark contrast between the clean, jazz-infused passages and the jagged, dense black metal sections. I just loved the fact that one minute you’d be listening to tranquil classical guitar, then the next you’d be getting obliterated by a juggernaut of filthy riffage.
It was like nothing I’d ever heard before. As well as being an exceptionally talented composer, Mikael Akerfeldt is without question one of the most dynamic and versatile vocalists in prog. He has an incredibly beautiful clean voice, but it was his growling that initially caught my attention. To me, they are such an integral part to Opeth’s sound and really help give the music its unique character. At times, it feels like Mikael treats his growls like an instrument and manages to seamlessly weave them into the arrangements in an extremely musical way. Still life is a masterclass in juxtaposition and balance that is realised in such a clean and precise way. It’s been 18 years since I first heard Still Life, and it continues to inspire me each time I hear it.