Novena are one of those bands that you might have heard of in passing, especially if you’re a resident of their native Britain. They seem to be popping up on progressive metal shows line ups across the country… which of course is rather fitting considering they’re a traveling band of heavy metal wizards themselves. Though, to many, they remain that band who they see on gig posters, or on a Facebook group, or maybe even forums (if any of those still exist) but have never actually listened to. This, dear reader, needs to change.
Now, it won’t take much for me to convince you to listen to Novena, assuming you yourself are a fan of progressive music. In fact, I think I can do it in just four words. And they are “Ross”, “Jennings”, “HAKEN” and “vocalist”. Yes, the hooking point for this band and their debut 2016 EP Secondary Genesis, is that they share the brilliantly talented Ross Jennings of fellow British progstronauts, HAKEN. Though this is not the only reason you need to get on board with Novena. Now that I’ve got you well and truly interested (hopefully) we can begin… assuming you’ve not become so interested that you’ve closed this window to go listen to the EP. I wouldn’t blame you, honestly.
If I were the hack that I pretend not to be, I would start by comparing Novena to a more extreme version of Dream Theater. A lofty comparison it is indeed, but the quality of Novena’s music, especially when confined to the punchiness of a three track EP, is certainly not a million miles away. While it is certainly a positive comparison, the similarity of Novena’s music to Dream Theater and similar bands is perhaps too great. They are certainly not shy of showing off their influences and this may put some people off since prog fans have likely already heard Pain of Salvation and Porcupine Tree.
Novena’s music flows and undulates. From the slightly cheesy riffs that opens Lost Within a Memory, to the dramatic and heavy Gareth Mason (of Slice The Cake infamy) feature spot that closes the final track. Novena refuse to sit still. Going from dark to light, light to dark, cheese to aggressive, aggressive to darkly soulful. While at times it feels as if Novena are trying to cram an album's worth of ideas into just half an hour, they don’t to subject the listener to the auditory whiplash that less skilled songwriters in the genre seem to mistake for progression. Novena are old school in their writing and sensibilities. They crib more from Fates Warning and HAKEN than Tesseract. Though that is not to say that elements of modernity are absent on Secondary Genesis, you’ll certainly find some strange time signature chugging riffs here and there.
Another mistake that Novena avoids that many other bands do not, is not over playing. I am of the opinion that a progressive band lives and dies on the notes it doesn’t play. As in, they need to actually not play some of them. Too much noodling becomes noise, uninteresting and, worst of all, obnoxious. Novena knows when to slow down, when something less aggressive is required, making those parts that do shred, shred all that harder. Guitarists Harrison White and Dan Thornton know how to get those fingers flying, and in White’s case, also how to make some wild faces while doing it (the guitar play-through for the instrumental section of Secondary Genesis is well worth a watch for them alone.)
White is also Novena’s keyboard player and his playing is featured throughout the EP. Returning to my Dream Theater comparison, whereas keyboard playing in Dream Theater can reach painful levels of cheese, White’s playing here is far more subtle. Underlying large parts of the album with mainly atmospheric or tone setting elements, letting the guitars and vocals take centre stage. That is of course until to the soulful jazz piano solo on the title track comes along.
I may have made a big deal over HAKEN’s Ross Jennings, and his paradoxically fragile, yet confident, vocals do indeed deserve all the praise in the world, but his are not the only talented vocal performances to feature on Secondary Genesis. Guttural vocal performances from their own William Young (sadly no longer with the band) and Ex-Slice the Cake’s Gareth Mason offer an incredible counterpoint to Jennings. Remember what I said about contrast earlier? The pair are the contrast to Jennings. They make his melodies that much sweeter and, in turn, he makes their throat wrenching fury all that more aggressive.
If you’ve slept on Novena until now and you like your metal progressive, then you definitely need to jump on the three track, 32-minute, debut EP Secondary Genesis now. It’s rare in these days of djent and faux-progressive music to find a new band in the genre that not only has the chops, but also the restraint and songwriting talent that Novena display here. It’s incredible to think that this is just the start of their output. It’s hard not to be excited for what comes next as they push forward and find their own space in the genre.