Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock this decade, you’ll have no doubt heard of Haken, the latest truly progressive band to take the world by storm. Despite being able to be broadly categorised with the humdrum tag of ‘prog-metal’, the English sixsome have a commendable arsenal of tricks up their respective sleeves. Ray Hearne’s drumkit, for example, may look rather meek compared to Portnoy’s or Peart’s, but he can certainly make quite a racket with it if you’ve ever seen him live. More broadly, the band’s last three albums have seen them swing from influence to influence, from style to style and from atmosphere to atmosphere with the most incredible ease. And not once has it sounded contrived or forced; on the contrary, it has felt natural and even whimsical.
The band’s debut, Aquarius (2010), was perhaps the most whimsical of them all, blending theatrical atmospheres with a huge range of styles into a perfectly balanced concept album. Visions (2011) came next, seeing the band repeat the concept album formula, but this time sadly losing some of the whimsy. The Mountain (2013), on the other hand, has been the band’s most successful album to date, both critically and commercially, pulling strong driving melodies and incredible showmanship to create an album that was masterful only up to its final hour; I must admit, I never quite ‘got’ Pareidolia or Somebody. By the way, does anyone notice a pattern forming? One year between the band’s first and second album, two years between the second and third, and now three years between the third and fourth. At this rate, Haken 5 should be set to release in 2020. I digress.
Affinity, the band’s fourth album, is now here. And it’s not quite what you expect it to be. This is pretty evident straight from the rather retro artwork. For one thing, this is the band’s first non-concept album. Looking at the band’s bio on InsideOut:
…to some extent Haken have delved into their love of ’80s music for the new album.
“Everybody knows the 1970s was a golden age for prog music” explains guitarist Charles Griffiths. “In the past we’ve taken a lot from bands of that era whom we enjoyed, especially Gentle Giant, but this time, we have gone more towards the next decade for our inspiration. For me, it means albums like ‘90125‘ from Yes, ‘Toto IV’ and Crimson’s ‘Three of a Perfect Pair’ and even Vince DiCola’s score from ‘Transformers The Movie’. We all love the sounds they used; the keyboard and drum sounds gave the music a cool flavour and we’ve incorporated some of that approach throughout ‘Affinity’, but especially on the track ‘1985’. Of course there’s still a modern edge to the drums and heavy guitar tones on what you’ll hear.”
When I first read this, my eyebrow was well and truly raised. I have to admit, the prospect of the band doing their own versions of Leave It or Africa had me salivating profusely, but I thought it was best not to keep my hopes too high. For me, that paragraph was a double edged sword: this was the first time I’d ever seen Haken become so blatant about their influences; of course they loved Gentle Giant! On the other hand, they were just going to give that influence up? Moving from the ’70s to the ’80s seemed like a risky manoeuvre, not least because most of the original prog bands never made it!
In fact, the ’80s feel only really permeates the album on the rather appropriately named 1985. The band momentarily manage to capture the feel of those gated electric drums, those compressed synthesisers and even that ’80s Crimsoid sound they were looking for. Bizarrely however, the track ends up sounding most like the mid-’90s Dream Theater track New Millenium! Now put that in your pipe and smoke it.
The rest of the album remains largely untouched by nostalgia. Once again, the band’s bio reveals that this is the first album where the band built the album from scratch together, as opposed to just working off Richard Henshall’s demos. While this makes the album more democratic, one might note that this also makes it something of a committee’s camel as opposed to Henshall’s normally spectacular stallion.
The album is extremely well played, of course. I’d go as far as saying that the band have outdone themselves in terms of complexity and skill. For example, it’s impossible not to be mesmerised by the hypnotic drum patterns on Lapse. The quarter-hour epic The Architect is also suitably grand, with Steven Wilson-inspired metal sections leading to a breather in the centre and finally a big close over an anthemic outro. The relatively ambient closing track Bound by Gravity is also quite beautiful in its own way, while still using spellbinding time signature changes to keep the listener on their toes.
However, I simply cannot seem to enjoy it. For all of the astonishing musicianship and original compositions, this album for me sinks like a lead balloon. The musical ingredient that created a spark of excitement in me when I first listened to The Path/Atlas Stone simply doesn’t exist on Affinity. From the opening minute of The Mountain, I knew I wanted nothing more than to play this album over and over until I was sick of it (I’m still waiting for that to happen). Affinity on the other hand has become a chore to listen to for reviewing purposes; it simply does not turn me on.
The only way I can think to explain it is that the band have lost their charm. On The Mountain, Aquarius and even Visions, the band always had a catchy upbeat melody to draw you in, or a musical theme that would bury itself deep in your skull, impossible to remove. The equivalent on this album is a (not-so-)simple drum beat: six notes followed by two notes followed by three notes to create 14/8 time, which crops up throughout the album. Though recognisable, it’s hardly hummable, catchy or even intuitive!
Painfully missing is the presence of a positive, ‘major’ song; does anyone else miss Streams? While Haken have always incorporated metal styles into their music, this has never prevented them from staying cheerful whilst they do so. Affinity seems to linger on the emotional boundary between sad and painful for its entire course, creating little contrast.
One also recalls a day when Haken were very singable; I was surprised to find I knew nearly every word to The Point of No Return. On Affinity however, the melodies of the multi-tracked vocals are difficult to follow, and the lyrics even harder. Ironically, the band are, for the first time, releasing a double-disc version of this album twinned with an instrumental ‘karaoke’ version. Good luck with that!
Charles Griffiths states “I’m sure we have found the right way to move forward, while keeping enough of the Haken style to satisfy our fans.” Unfortunately, I’ll have to disagree with you, Charlie. Perhaps moving away from the ’70s influences has been the very reason for their downfall on this album. It’s a very sad year indeed when the latest Dream Theater album impresses me more than the latest Haken, but it turns out 2016 is such a year. While prog fans will surely be impressed by the band’s technical flare, they might find it much more difficult to engage emotionally with this album, something that always seemed so easy to do before.
01. affinity.exe (1:26)
02. Initiate (4:16)
03. 1985 (9:08)
04. Lapse (4:44)
05. The Architect (15:40)
06. Earthrise (4:48)
07. Red Giant (6:06)
08. The Endless Knot (5:50)
09. Bound by Gravity (9:29)
Total Time – 61:25
Ross Jennings – Vocals
Charlie Griffiths – Guitar
Rich Henshall – Guitar & Keys
Diego Tejeida – Keys
Conner Green – Bass
Raymond Hearne – Drums
Record Label – InsideOut Music
Cover Artwork – Blacklake
Release Date – 29th April 2016