Haken, ‘Affinity’

From the moment Haken (Richard Henshall (Guitar/Keys), Charles Griffiths (Guitar), Raymond Hearne (Drums), Diego Tejeida, (Keys), Connor Green (Bass) and Ross Jennings, (vocals) previewed their album with a mid-’80s DOS-style website, I’ve been intrigued to hear what they were cooking up for their fourth studio release, Affinity.  I purchased my first Haken album, Visions, in 2012 based upon that most reliable of criterion: it had a 22+ minute song.  I was immediately impressed by what I heard.  Haken was a band that was clearly within the progressive metal genre but was doing much more than releasing the equivalent of Dream Theater outtakes.  (Here it should be noted that I like Dream Theater, but the endless number of clone bands has made me somewhat wary of progressive metal in general).

Haken’s next album, The Mountain, was even better.  Combining high-caliber musicianship with strong melodic sensibility and even a sense of humor, The Mountain pulled influences from a wide array of ’70s progressive rock masters (King Crimson, Gentle Giant) while maintaining their decidedly progressive metal instrumentation and strong sense of melody.

So by the time their fourth album, Affinity, was released, Haken was not a new-comer to the scene, and expectations were high.  From the packaging and in interviews, the band described the new album as paying homage to the ’80s, not exactly a high water mark for progressive rock music.  Additionally, the band has presented the album as a true group effort, describing it as, “the most collaborative we have ever been on an album.  With this focus and more shared song-writing focus in mind, I approached the album.

There are two types of tracks on the album (not counting track one, which consists of electronic sound effects and acts as a prelude to the first proper song on the album): ‘long songs’, and what I will call ‘singles’ because I think it’s funny to call a Tesseract meets Tangerine Dream song composed primarily in a fast 7/4 time signature a ‘single’.  Track two, is exactly that just-referenced single, alternating between a complex djent-esque staccato rhythmic figure and an slower, synth-laden refrain.  It’s a good song, but a lot closer to Tesseract’s last two albums than it is to anything in the 80s that I can identify, and it doesn’t stretch Haken beyond anything I’ve heard before.

“1985” follows and is the first long song (9:09) on the album.  It opens with a fun, poppy and relatively hooky lick before adding a fast keyboard hook that builds into what I can only describe as something from the LadyHawk soundrack: complete with synth horn blasts, and echo-y drums.  From this the song turns to the first verse, which is sung over an arpeggiated guitar figure right out of King Crimson’s Disciplineera workbook.  The refrain is something else again, as it’s quite catchy and almost anthemic.  Then the song takes a another brief sharp turn, bridging the refrain and the next verse with another nod in the Tesseract direction with bass and guitar hitting chords in unison while bending the low notes to the point where it sounds only vaguely in tune.  The next verse is similar to the first but with more distortion on the guitar, sounding more Dream Theater than overtly Crimson.  Refrain is rinse and repeat from the first one, which leads to yet another shift for the second refrain which… you get the idea, the song in itself is rather all over the place and I am not always sure that the musical ideas segue effectively from one section to another.  That said, it really is a fun song to ride along with as it pulls the listener hither and yon.

The next song is “Lapse,” a single in length (coming in at a positively pedestrian 4:44) that again shifts about musically, but with a better overall flow than 1985 does.  The instrumental section, while not overly long manages to show the soloing chops of a couple members of the band, and if the keyboard solo at approximately 2:30 wasn’t played on a keytar, I’ll be greatly saddened.  Overall, perhaps the least ‘challenging’ track on the album, but this type of track is needed with a band that otherwise presents a tremendous number of musical ideas in their songs.

The second long song is “The Architect” (15:40), and I almost love it.  I must first admit that the reason I do not absolutely adore the song might have more to do with me than it does with the song.  “The Architect” starts out with a slow, march-like pre-intro (you can have pre-intros in songs this long), before going full-on prog metal with crazy tempos, and keyboards tangling up with guitars creating a fun and energetic first section (there are also about 5 seconds worth of harp that are totally out of the blue, and awesome).  Vocals come in at about the 3-minute mark and the vocal line is both interesting and melodic in both the verse and chorus.  At about 6 minutes in, the listener is given a well-deserved respite with ambient synths and a nice bass solo, which moves into another King Crimson-esque arpeggiation with the guitar over a tastefully played drum line.  At about nine minutes in, as I listen to the layered vocals that have been added over the top of the instruments, I begin to wonder if I’m not listening to Haken’s best ever song.  The instrumental solos that follow do not disappoint, and I’m eagerly anticipating the song developing to its apex.  And then… 10:45 to 11:15 happens.  Einar Solberg of the band Leprous adds some guest vocals.  I don’t know Leprous, but if that’s what their vocals sound like, I’m not likely to get into them anytime soon.  I fully admit to my bias against “extreme” vocals, but even for that style, these sound terrible to my ears.  Yes, it’s 30 seconds in a song that is 15 minutes and 40 seconds long, but dammit, if I could get a version of it with those 30 seconds removed, I’d do it in a heartbeat.  (It is worth noting that a number of other reviewers think the Solberg contribution provides a wonderful climax to the song, if not the whole album (occurring as it does, about half way through.  It really could be an issue of liking or not liking that vocal style).

“Earthrise,” which follows the monster that is “The Architect,” is distinctly 1980s in feel, particularly with the retro keyboard sounds and the pop melody.  It is exactly what the listener needs in the context of the album.  From there, the album moves to “Red Giant,” (6:06 minutes long), which is the least dynamic song on the album in terms of both songwriting style and, well, dynamics.  It’s a fine track, but coming where it does on this album, makes is so that I would not be surprised if it gets lost amidst the other numbers.

Standing in contrast to “Red Giant”’s even and atmospheric approach is “The Endless Knot,” a title that suits the tangled instrumental musical lines quite aptly.  It’s the type of track where the instruments are so busy and the rhythms so complex that it takes a minor miracle for a vocalist to present anything that approaches accessible melody.  This is where Jennings deserves a real tip of the hat, as despite the wonderful and complex instrumental noodling that occurs throughout the song, his vocals completely tie the number together in a lovely ‘knot’ of music.  I won’t be surprised if this song ends up my favorite on the album.

As an album, Affinity is complicated, challenging and kinetic.  Thus it shows considerable wisdom that Haken end the album on a song as calm, even subdued, as is “Bound by Gravity.”  The song, while long (9:29) is the friendliest piece on the album.  It’s all about the Jennings’ vocals, supported by the rest of the band, as opposed to engaging in the sort of mutual battle that fills much of the album.

Haken is a band that I appreciate and for which I hold high expectations when I listen to them.  They rarely disappoint, and while I may prefer The Mountain as a total work, Affinity is a worthy part of the Haken oeuvre and an argument that Haken stands among the best progressive metal bands going.

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