November 16, 2023

Terra Nova is the sound of a band hitting a clear and obvious creative watershed, against which all of their previous work will be judged, and their subsequent work scrutinised to assess whether it matches up. It’s their Physical Graffiti, their Scenes From A Memory, their A Night At The Opera and their Operation: Mindcrime.

HeKz are a band who have gone through quite a developmental trajectory to bring themselves to this point, that much must be noted for those unfamiliar with their catalogue. Emerging in their first embryonic form some 20 years ago, the band were, and have always been, the brainchild of Matt Young – bassist, vocalist, main songwriter and occasional keyboard player for the band. The first HeKz line-up was a very much rawer proposition, the result of four schoolboys from the not-very-mean streets of Barton-le-Clay, Bedfordshire coming together in a triumph of enthusiasm over actual musical ability, but the ideas were there. Quickly polishing their abilities, and gaining and losing members like a snake shedding its skin, HeKz progressed through a few EPs which happily dwelt in the shadow of Iron Maiden, before producing their debut album release, the more sophisticated and progressive-leaning Tabula Rasa. The follow-up, Caerus, upped the prog-metal ante and leavened the still-present Maiden influence with a large infusion of Essence Of Dream Theater. While that ambition certainly produced a more impressive album, it also fell prone at times to Dream Theater’s own tendency to throw 20 tunes into a piece because, well, they could – and as a result it did take some effort to fully appreciate. More songwriting focus was needed, and it arrived in the shape of third album Invictus in 2018 – the ambition was still there, but the songwriting and arrangements had been tightened up considerably, yielding a result that many believed was the band’s best work up to that point.

It is true that HeKz had never done exactly what people would have expected throughout their career, from the wilful contrariness of the name (which ensures you have to spell it out for someone when telling them of the band, otherwise they will fail to find it on an internet search for ‘Hex’), through to their refusal to ever have an album title in English, but even by the restless yet driven standards of Matt Young, few could have predicted the action he took as the Pandemic decided to Rock All Over The World and completely move the goalposts for the recording and, even more so, the performing of music. What he did was to jettison the whole of the band and replace those still mainly Bedfordshire-based troops with a crack line-up recruited from various different countries and, indeed, continents. Mark Bogert came on on guitar, Irina Markevitch on violin and the magnificently-named Moyano el Buffalo on drums. There was a wide world of possibilities out there for HeKz to exploit, and things were getting serious. This was clearly HeKz 2.0, and the world (or at least that small percentage of it which listens to this often frustratingly niche music) was eager for the results. The world would have to wait for another three years or so, mind you, but finally the result of that Grand Experiment is here, in the shape of Terra Nova (fittingly, ‘New World’). It’s still not a title with English words in it, but HeKz, as we have seen, have never been as other bands…

The album is an ambitious and weighty one. Coming in at around 85 minutes, spread over two CDs, it’s the band’s first double album and, based as it all is around a convoluted and sometimes impenetrable tale of self-discovery and existential growth, it’s quite a long way from Rock And Roll All Nite And Party Every Day, to say the least. The story, if we can call it that, is a labyrinthine one full of metaphor, allusion and good old vague obfuscation of obvious meaning, resulting in an album concept which can be interpreted in different ways according to the mind of the individual listener, but also crucially can be parked to one side without the music losing any of its power and effect. For the same reason that Quadrophenia remains (to me, anyway) more successful and timeless than Tommy by virtue of not being tied to quite such a literal and episodic tale of blind messiahs and pinball machines, Terra Nova manages to keep a foot in both the ‘gain more depth from the concept’ and the ‘just enjoy the music’ camps, which really is the sweet spot when it comes to grand conceptual affairs such as this. It also doesn’t do it any harm at all that it happens to be an absolutely first class piece of progressive metal from start to finish. Let’s have a look at what’s inside…

HeKz 2023: Mark Bogert, Irina Markevitch, Matt Young, Moyano El Buffalo

There are eleven tracks here, spread across the two discs, but it’s fair to say that, while weak moments are few and far between, there are a set of twin peaks which dominate the set: the ten-minute The Tower and the 25-minute behemoth which is The Silent Man. That’s 35 minutes between the two, which to put it into perspective is longer than entire albums such as Rainbow Rising, Master Of Reality or Who Do We Think We Are. This is proper epic territory, and the place where the old HeKz tendency to lose focus would be in most danger of rearing its head. Thankfully, not a bit of it. The Tower in particular is an almost perfect amalgamation of prog and metal – yes, that might make it ‘prog metal’ in literal terms, but there’s a lot more to this than playing some riffs with tricky time signatures and a couple of quiet bits thrown in. This is a piece which contains sections which are pure, metal-free traditional prog rock rubbing shoulders with bursts of riffing of Metallica-esque intensity, and yet it somehow hangs together as a perfectly cohesive whole. Hell, there’s even a bit of death metal growling chucked in there at one point, while the more reflective, thoughtful sections bring to mind Van Der Graaf Generator, with Matt Young managing to evoke Peter Hammill’s world-weary existential ennui to perfection. Note that it isn’t very often in this crazy old world of ours that ‘Peter Hammill’ and ‘Death Metal Growling’ get referenced together within the same album, let alone the same song, and even less often that it actually works. But here we are – and it’s an absolutely remarkable piece. Quite frankly, if Opeth had pulled this trick somewhere around 2005-2010 the metal media would have been practically hurling rose petals at Mikael Åkerfeldt’s feet and proclaiming him the messiah. But that’s still not the main attraction here, as we haven’t got to The Silent Man yet. That’s a song title which I noted immediately, as it happened to be the ID I went by for over a decade on the redoubtable Progressive Ears website – and while I took the exceptional Dream Theater song of that name as inspiration, it must be said that this is in the same quality ballpark, if very very different in style and execution.

As previously noted, The Silent Man runs to a massive 25 minutes in duration. That’s longer than Close To The Edge, Supper’s Ready or 2112, to put it into some perspective, and putting the HeKz of a decade ago into that sort of sandbox might have ended up like putting Dracula in charge of the metaphorical bloodbank, as the urge to run amok with the myriad unconnected song fragments could end up being overwhelming. Not so this time out, as the skyscraper-leaping progression in songwriting and arrangement maturity of the 2023 HeKz is laid bare in spectacular style. There are influences taken magpie-like from all corners of your record collection, it is true – but they are woven together so adeptly that you’ll only notice it in passing. The old Bruce Dickinson vocal style hasn’t left Matt, as we are treated to some epic choruses here which Steve Harris and the lads would be proud of, while elsewhere there is more evidence of Peter Hammill keeping things profound and serious, while the keyboards evoke images of Rick Wakeman sitting in with early Marillion. It’s a heady mix, and even more so when one realises that the keyboards on this particular track are provided not by guest musician Adam Holzman, but remarkably by Matt Young himself, who is clearly evolving far beyond his original bass remit. The track is bookended by a theme of great dignity and alternate reflection and triumph, while the lengthy middle ground provides a remarkable open field for the virtuosic musical fireworks. There’s even one point in proceedings where a trumpet enters the fray, and if I’d suggested to you around the time of Tabula Rasa that a trumpet would make its way onto a HeKz album, I would have been given some crayons and round-ended plastic scissors to avoid me being a danger to myself or others, and deservedly so. This is the piece where HeKz 2.0 fully and completely comes of age. Gloriously.

‘Hey, what’s he saying about the album…?’ – a page from the booklet

Hang on just a moment, however – before we get too carried away with the sheer scope, sweep and undeniable quality of those two epics, there’s the small matter of nine other tracks on offer here, generally in slightly more bite-size chunks, and they should not be diminished simply by their more modest duration by comparison to the epic stylings of their longer brethren. Because there’s very little here not to like. The opening title track is a blinding opening salvo, wearing its Iron Maiden influences proudly on its fist-pumping sleeve, and is perfectly complemented by its closing counterpart Terra Nova II, which is a beautifully constructed nine minute wind down, easing through its duration with an easily serpentine quality, bringing things to a close not with a grand gesture as a reflective and mature consideration. If The Silent Man provides the big curtain-falling crescendo of the album, Terra Nova II ushers the crowd home with a feeling of quietly edifying closure. Once again, the HeKz of a decade ago simply would not have done this.

Other highlights abound – Mayday is as close to a perfectly judged example of contemporary prog metal in a succinct six minutes as you’re likely to find anywhere, while the ebb and flow of the ballad So Far Gone is an exemplary demonstration of controlled dynamics, the big swells of the song just enough to cast the soul-searching sections into their own impressive relief. Once again the aura of Peter Hammill hangs over this one, with just the odd suggestion in the bigger passages that he might just have considered joining Kansas. It’s a mix of soaring pomp and aching self-reflection which requires a tightrope walk to actually work as a piece, but manages it with ease. Lifeline is an utterly uplifting and unashamedly scenery-chewing closer to the first disc, once again showcasing some Bruce Dickinson echoes on the big, lighter-waving choruses. I Am The Thrall, meanwhile, is a dense and at times pulverising piece of industrial prog-metal, which while it may not possess the greatest melodic quality on the album, certainly packs in an impressive mix of pummelling instrumental heft with satisfyingly intricate musical interplay.

Now, I did say that there was very little here not to like, but there is one, albeit minor, baby elephant in the room to address. Namely, the ill-judged ‘whoah-oah’ cries which pepper the otherwise splendid Too Far Gone. HeKz have been many things over the years, but they have never been in any shape or form ‘halfway there’ or indeed, ‘living on a prayer’. There is a time and a place for those air-punching backing vocals to reside, and that time is the 1980s and the place is on Slippery When Wet…!

That slight blip aside (and even that isn’t bad per se, so much as just… not… right), this is an album which sees HeKz finally realise the potential which has been there ever since they started climbing gingerly out of their early slavish Maiden trappings. The previous albums have all had much to recommend them, but Terra Nova is the sound of a band hitting a clear and obvious creative watershed, against which all of their previous work will be judged, and their subsequent work scrutinised to assess whether it matches up. It’s their Physical Graffiti, their Scenes From A Memory, their A Night At The Opera and their Operation: Mindcrime. And as the end of the year approaches it’s going to be very close to the top of a great many ‘best of the year’ lists. Many fans wondered about the wisdom of Matt Young taking the bold step of entirely remodelling HeKz, and losing its previous engaging character, in order to bring his overarching vision of the band closer to fruition. This album is the sound of his total and utter vindication. (Well, apart from that Bon Jovi bit perhaps). To paraphrase another great songwriter: Meet the new Hekz, certainly not the same as the old HeKz.

Exciting times ahead without doubt. Just remember to spell the name right when you tell people about them!