You probably wouldn’t have been expecting me to review Vector after my disparaging comments about 2016’s Affinity, and yet here I am. Just as I punish myself by watching the latest series of The Simpsons and The Walking Dead to try and figure out what the producers are doing with a once-great show, I can’t help wanting to observe bands like Dream Theater and Haken find their way forward, even when their music doesn’t speak to me the way it used to.
Don’t get me wrong, Vector is a lot more enjoyable than the appalling not-even-about-zombies-anymore drivel that AMC decides to dish out year after year. This album is basically Haken on steroids; you’ve never heard the band as tight and technical as they are on this album. The seven-minute gauntlet instrumental Nil by Mouth is a perfect showcase for how the band’s chops have developed and stands up as possibly the most complex and punishing composition they’ve ever put together. Punishing for them to play, that is.
The album opens with some Inception-esque blasts, which signal the beginning of the roller coaster ride that is Vector. The atmospheric Clear acts as the lift hill, readying the listener for the exciting journey ahead. The subsequent track, The Good Doctor, is only four minutes long and begins the album properly, thus making it a convenient track to feature in a music video. For some reason, prog needs music videos nowadays. There are verses and choruses here, but being Haken, the band are able to manipulate the arrangements to keep the track from sounding too samey. Case in point is the final chorus, which demonstrates a running theme throughout this album whereby Haken will somewhat arbitrarily add a dozen extra notes into a bar presumably just to test their own mettle.
While progressive metal and math rock fans will no doubt squeal with delight at such indulgence, I can’t help feeling it’s too over-the-top. Technical flourishes have always and will always be an essential part of progressive music, but they ought to serve the purpose of making the music sound better. On Vector, I find the polyrhythms and arbitrary quickfire blasts tend to land on just the wrong side of awkward and headache-y, especially when contrasted with the relatively simple singing. Rather than sounding clever, it sounds like Haken has tried too hard to be obtuse. More often than not, I find myself thinking “How on earth are they going to remember all that on stage?”
Vector is an amazing technical feat, of course, but aren’t Haken about more than just chops? There’s a reason this hardened Dream Theater fan turned away from his beloved band when he heard Aquarius seven years ago. Haken is at its best when the band are able to mix and blend with wilful abandon. In the same song, you’d find light and dark, positive and negative, jazz and metal, simple and complex. And it would sound brilliant. Moreover, the band had a cinematic touch that captivated the listener and got them involved with the story.
Now I can’t help but feel with each new album, the band are stepping away from what made them so great, lured by the desire to make music an exercise rather than an experience, catering to the fans who believe the more 32nd notes added, the better. They used to eclipse Dream Theater with their creativity, and now it feels more like a simple battle of how quickly they can play. Speaking of Dream Theater, there are some moments on the central epic Veil where you may really not be able to tell which of the two bands you were listening to. Haken is coming dangerously close to sounding like one of the myriad DT clones that are out there.
If this wasn’t Haken, I’d be praising the band on their phenomenal chops and precise attention to detail, but I remember the moments on Aquarius and The Mountain that could dazzle technically as well as musically. Everyone knows that bands change over time, but with Affinity and now Vector, the band are sadly narrowing their scope, sacrificing their universal appeal and timeless tunes for chugging mathematical riffs that you will not be able to hum along to, let alone recall after five minutes. Still, at least there’s a vinyl etching competition.
01. Clear (1:51)
02. The Good Doctor (3:56)
03. Puzzle Box (7:43)
04. Veil (12:36)
05. Nil by Mouth (6:52)
06. Host (6:46)
07. A Cell Divides (4:57)
Total Time – 44:38
Ross Jennings – Vocals
Charlie Griffiths – Guitars
Richard Henshall – Guitars
Diego Tejeida – Keyboards
Conner Green – Bass
Raymond Hearne – Drums
Miguel Gorodi – Flugelhorn (on The Good Doctor)
Peter Jones – Drum Programming (on Puzzle Box)
Record Label: InsideOut Music
Country of Origin: U.K.
Cover Artwork: Blacklake
Date of Release: 26th October 2018