Charlie Griffiths – Tiktaalika Review

The Side Project Era is a common part of the evolution of many successful bands. They’ve been around for a while, they’re doing pretty well, and they know what they sound like. But naturally different members have different musical preferences and want to try different things. They could leave the band, but that’s pretty drastic. Enter the Side Project. Today’s example stars Charlie Griffiths, one of Haken‘s guitarists, taking an opportunity to write for six-string guitar after years of playing eight-string with his main band. Tiktaalika finds him exploring some classic metal influences and muscling in on The Ocean‘s thematic territory. Like many of their records, this is a concept album using geologic time as a metaphor for more human concerns, albeit taking it a bit less seriously.1

Unlike, say, Mitochondrial Sun, this isn’t one of those personal projects that’s dramatically divorced from the sound of the original band. The target audience here is very much not “people who hate Haken.” Of course, it’s not a straight clone. Mix in harsh vocals (“Arctic Cemetery,” “Dead in the Water,” etc), spice up the riffs with some tech death (“Crawl Walk Run”) or thrash (“Prehistoric Prelude,” with a section straight out of Megadeth). But this very much lands in a Haken-adjacent world of melodic prog metal, weird time signatures and sycopated rhythms. Multiple tracks (“Luminous Beings,” “Dead in the Water,” etc) feature jazzed up riffs straight out of their playbook. “Digging Deeper” even features a layered vocal passage which would fit The Mountain perfectly, though there’s nothing as out-and-out weird as, say, “Cockroach King.”

The Mountain taken in some different directions is no bad thing, though, and Griffiths is a talented writer. Clearly from his work with Haken he’s a good guitarist, and his parts are consistently good. But this isn’t just a guitar showcase, and I’m particularly impressed by his vocal writing. There’s a style of odd-mode minor key melody line that shows up regularly (“Arctic Cemetery,” “Luminous Beings,” etc) with infectiously catchy results. This becomes a defining part of the record’s sound. Other than being a terrible pun, Tiktaalika‘s biggest flaw is that it’s a little front-loaded. Outro track “Under Polaris” neatly references back earlier themes and ties the album up. But otherwise, starting from the ironically named “Dead in the Water,” the second half just lands a tiny bit worse than the first. Eight-minute behemoths “Dead in the Water” and guitarist-solo-project showcase “Tiktaalika” are a little too long. Shaving back some of the djenty chugging here would have helped keep things moving a little better. Not that either is bad—quite the opposite—they’re just a little much. “Digging Deeper” meanwhile is a really interesting slow build, but the transitions between it and the surrounding songs are awkward and leave it feeling a bit out of place.

Tiktaalika comes with a roster of guest musicians, and uses them well. Highlight “In Alluvium” uses its 8-minute runtime better than the other two long tracks. It sounds like Ayreon, both in its grandiose writing and its successful synthesis of guest musicians. Also like that project, multiple vocalists across the record are unified by consistent writing. All of the guest vocalists are great and their vocals are well matched to the tracks they appear on. I’m particularly a fan of Vladimir Lalić’s work on “In Alluvium.” Meanwhile, Darby Todd adds some great jazzy drum lines (“Luminous Beings,” “In Alluvium”), and Dream Theater keyboard player Jordan Rudess doesn’t overstay his welcome. Of course, this is still a solo album. Griffiths’ guitars are definitely the star of the show, but he displays his talent and versatility without hogging the spotlight off the guest musicians.

A little B-side stumble isn’t enough to scupper Tiktaalika. Sure, it’s no revelation for the world of prog metal, and no dramatic distancing from Haken. But it is a catchy and refreshingly unpretentious listen. Griffiths walks a neat line where he keeps the feeling of just having a bit of fun outside his main project but produces a polished and balanced result. There’s some killer writing on here, and particularly great vocals, without ever feeling like it’s trying too hard, making Tiktaalika an easy recommendation.

Rating: 3.5/5.0
DR: 6 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Inside Out Music
Releases Worldwide: June 17th, 2022

Show 1 footnote

  1. Arguably too much less seriously, in the case of the “Tiktaalika” music video, which starts with an awkward minute of silliness before the actual music starts, but never mind.
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