Think of those records inspired by plants…Stevie’s sprawling ‘Journey Through The Secret Life of’, Edgar Froese’s pondering on ‘Epsilon in Malaysian Pale’, Genesis hailing a ‘Return of the Giant Hogweed’ or maybe the Cocteau’s glistening ‘Pearly-Dewdrops’ Drops’. Judged sublime or ridiculous depends on your starting point but one thing is clear, the mix of botany and beat music is not an entirely natural field to cultivate. Then along comes Henki, the new album on Weird World/Domino from our treasured troubadour Richard Dawson and revered Finnish heavies Circle, a release that arrives with the strapline ‘the greatest flora themed hypno- folk- metal record you’ll hear this year’.
Side-stepping the wry humour, what we have here is an album that may on the surface sound bizarrely bonkers but dig a little deeper and something wonderful soon peeps through. Much of this is due to the authenticity of the collaboration between Circle and their long time super fan Dawson. There is nothing obligatory or competitive about Henki, a Lou meets Metallica stand-off it is not. You get the feeling that Richard Dawson really has lived with Circle’s 32 album musical journey to the far corners of psychedelia, rock, jazz and drone. Equally the band has happily responded, adding another dimension to his extraordinary storytelling and unique approach to song-craft. The music they make together is spirited, inventive and oozes warmth in a very loud manner.
Escaping the dreaded shackles of the concept album, Henki, as the team point out, didn’t really set out to focus on botanical matters. In the early sessions guitarist Janne Westerlund proposed they aimed for a plant-like approach to the music, encouraging the pursuit of shapes with form but also unpredictability. The idea also gave Dawson a lyrical framework to work within, a new way in to explore the usual everyday tangles from as he puts it ‘the point-of-view of a plant or a botanist from the early nineteen-hundreds’.
Opener ‘Cooksonia’ shows exactly how and why these ideas, perverse as they sound, come together so readily in the care of these musical outliers. This autobiographical song about the life of pioneering scientist Isabel Clifton Cookson is brought closer by Dawson’s customary lyrical detail and a perfectly poised soundtrack. As the vocals rise from a stoic monotone to an aching chorus falsetto, the band lift their stark early music strum to a place of thrumming melody and intrepid imagination, catching the ebbs and flows of Cookson’s pioneering journey. ‘Ya-ho, Ya-ho, Ya-ho’ as Richard says.
‘Silene’, narrated unphased from the permafrost seed’s personna, shows a similar scale of ambition and dedication. Propelled by a nimble Krautrock rhythm, the fluttering synths, unsettling counter-time vocals and off-centre harmonies take dark-folk electronica to new territories. Dawson’s cautionary tale, so profound in these precarious times, is told as he says ‘without a load of guff’ and hits harder for it. Who would have predicted that the line ‘unearthed by a research team from Moscow’ could carry so much emotional baggage.
But what about those riffs, the prospect of Maidenesque abandon? Well the vibrant pump of locked-in guitaring is a constant source of Henki’s energy which gets turned to overdrive in all the right places. Take ‘Silphium’, an epic on every level, powered by buzzing chord chops that you know just have to return after a tense free-form psyche interlude…and they do… more sumptuous, more heart-racing, whipping the song to its anthemic twelfth minute close. Or ‘Methusulah’, the hapless tale of Donald Currey, tree lover, who accidently felled the world’s oldest specimen. Eerily paced with a blues-rock throb setting up the tragedy, the frantic reveal comes with a twisting double time thrash, twin guitars entwined and prime falsetto circling. Then there’s ‘Ivy’, all ‘tendrills flowing up’ to reach an extended chugging rock out nirvana and one of those many riff infused ‘yes’ moments rising up from Henki’s grooves.
Such a refreshing adventurous reconnection with the soul of heavy metal, the power, the dynamics and yes, the theatre, can only come from real shared understanding. It’s that bond between Dawson and Circle which elevates the potential schlock-horror of ‘Lily’, based on Richard’s mother’s haunting experiences as a nurse, to something both devilishly melodramatic and strangely unnerving. Put together inspiration with intuition and unexplainable magic can happen.
As the final track ‘Pitcher’ shifts from the relentless chord pounding intro, through a prog-fused jig and onto its forest of sound finale, the true scale of Henki becomes clear. Sure there’s a lot to take in on this album but like a set of encyclopedias that means there’s always something to discover- the expanse of it is there to be relished. Sounds like the feel-good hit of the winter to me…
Henki is available from your local independent record shop and from: