Haken has become, in recent years, one of the most formidable progressive metal acts currently out there. While they made waves (pun intended) with their debut album, Aquarius, and saw a bump in profile with the follow up, Visions, it has been their last two albums (the more prog-oriented The Mountain and the djent and electronica influenced Affinity) that have made them one of the biggest bands in the prog metal genre. Personally, they are one of the modern progressive metal bands that I listen to the most.
The first Haken song I ever heard was “The Cockroach King” from The Mountain. The lo-fi video, featuring muppets of the band members, was both impressive musically and endearing. I went out and bought The Mountain and listened to it exclusively for several weeks. As they are based out of the UK, I wasn’t sure if I’d get a chance to see them in the states. When I heard they were playing in Columbus, I went and bought tickets right away. Why? Because as I indicated on my Instagram, when Haken plays anywhere close to you, you go and see Haken. No questions.
Sithu Aye was a great choice for an opener. If you haven’t heard of Sithu Aye, his artist description says “I record happy progressive metal tunes for the discerning listener.” I’d say that description is quite accurate. His music is technically impressive and fun to watch, and it seemed like his backup band was enjoying themselves too. He closed his set by saying that 5 1/2 years ago, he was practicing and recording guitar alone in his room in his underwear, and now he was opening for Haken. It’s a charming admission, considering that him and his band definitely possess the chops and the presence to warrant an opening slot for Haken.
Haken took the stage in their trademark fashion- beginning with the ambient album opener “Affinity.exe” and then seguing into “Initiate”. The first thing I noticed was the harmonies. Every musician on the stage had a mic, and at any given moment, someone was singing backup. Considering how many bands have fantastic instrumentalists that can’t sing, this was really impressive. The next highlight was “1985”, from their latest album Affinity. It has become Haken tradition for Ross to appear on the stage with green shutter shades that light up, and in this particular concert, he came onto the stage with a handful of glasses that he threw into the crowd. Midway through the song, Diego Tejeda escaped from behind his large keyboard rig and emerged to the front of the stage with a keytar. The song ends with some really technical musical interplay between guitars and keyboards.
The next song, “Pareidolia” from The Mountain, was mindblowingly good. I have always loved the instrumental passages from this song, and they were executed pretty flawlessly at this show. I was also super pleased to hear another one of my favorites from The Mountain, “Atlas Stone” (which is, for the record, hard to bang your head to, due to the very odd time signatures, but I managed…I think). As Haken is celebrating their 10th anniversary as a band, they decided to delve back into their discography and play a medley of songs from Aquarius, their first album. While I connect more with their 2 latest albums, I was really happy to see them play a little of each of the tracks on Aquarius in medley form, and I loved seeing the audience members that were freaking out and singing along passionately to the songs. It was hard not to get chills as they ended that medley with the soaring final chorus of “Celestial Elixir”.
Ross exited the stage, only to leap back on dramatically from stage right to start “The Cockroach King”, an impressive display of both their instrumental and vocal talents. I turned to my brother at one point and mimed a “mind explosion” as they danced around odd time signatures and quirky, dissonant harmonies. The set closed with the brutally technical “The Endless Knot”, and Affinity‘s epic track, “The Architect”. After that, the band left the stage to thunderous applause. To everyone’s pleasure, they returned, but rather than play one or two tracks for their encore, they instead played the 20 minute epic “Visions”, from the album that shared the same name. Very few bands would play a 20 minute encore, let alone one as tiring as “Visions”, but it made for a powerful closer to an already epic night.
In my show reviews, I often pick an MVP. This is really hard most of the time, because with progressive rock, you’re dealing with really talented musicians, and all of them shine at different moments. But in my many years of being a fan of progressive rock, I have grown to appreciate the power that a frontman can have. Haken is a band that instrumentally can be almost overwhelming, due to the high technical proficiency of every band member, but somehow frontman Ross Jennings is able to channel that energy and project it through his motions and inflections. His vocal lines are not easy, and I could tell at certain points that he may have been dealing with congestion, but he performed his parts with energy and strength and enthusiasm, all while connecting with the crowd. I could talk about incredible dual guitar passages, keyboard sounds that were crushingly heavy and awesome, drum passages that I can only dream of playing, and bass lines that scrambled my brain, but there would be too many to count.
I have listened to Haken a lot since I first discovered them a few years ago. I find them almost constantly in my playlists. But I can’t emphasize this enough: Haken is a band that needs to be experienced live. The heaviness of certain songs is much heavier. The dynamics are more dramatic. Ross’s awesome stage presence can be fully appreciated. And, I think, seeing them in action allows us to understand the band better. Haken is a band of 6 guys who love to play music, and you can see it on their faces as they blaze through inhumanly complex passages. Prog has a reputation for being brooding and pretentious, but this show was FUN.
I brought my brother David, who is not the biggest fan of progressive music in general. I had played him “Cockroach King” a few months prior, and he liked the first couple minutes of that track enough to feel warm to the idea of going. After the show, he told me he was super impressed with the band and would have to check them out further. As many of you reading this don’t know my brother, it’s hard to really gauge how high of a compliment this is, but I think it speaks to the ability of Haken to appeal to a more mainstream audience, while still writing songs with impossibly complex musicianship. As a brief aside: As a fan of progressive metal for most of my life, it is really a joy to see a terrific progressive band that is able to tour in places all across the United States, and manage to fill up a room with enthusiastic fans. If Haken are coming anywhere near you, and you consider yourself a fan of progressive metal in the least, I encourage you to check out this band if you haven’t already, and make the trip to see the show.
Setlist for Haken at Skully’s Music Diner
The Endless Knot