Album Review: Haken, “Virus”

Most of us have become accustomed lately to bad news, but seeing that Haken had been working on a new album was definitely a glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak media landscape. Early press revealed that it would be a step forward in every way: with some of Haken’s most challenging passages to date. And, luckily, that hope was not ill-placed with Virus, which is a complex, diverse, and powerful musical statement that hasn’t stopped revealing its brilliance, even after numerous listens, and will likely please fans old and new.

Captured at SECC on 09 December,2019 by Max Taylor Grant

Though the band has stated that it wasn’t their intention to timestamp their latest album with a name like Virus during a global pandemic, it definitely has generated some discussion. Released as a companion piece to 2018’s Vector, Virus seeks to pick up where the previous story left off, but it doesn’t just stop there. The album includes references to songs dating even further back (yes, all the way back to 2013’s The Mountain), and attempts to unify several different storylines.

Since The Mountain, Haken has opened albums with more subdued statements like “The Path”, “affinity.exe”, or “Clear”. Often times, these songs prepare you for what’s in store by playing ambient sounds or introducing a musical theme. Virus, however, doesn’t give you a second to breathe, as it launches into “Prosthetic”- one of the heaviest tracks Haken on the album, and easily one of the heaviest songs Haken has released. Whereas “The Path” from The Mountain is like a breath before you begin your ascent, the choice to begin with “Prosthetic” is a statement in itself, as it’s the chunky, downtuned riff provides the aural equivalent of a wallop from a baseball bat to the head. Well, maybe a vibrating baseball bat. I hear echoes of Cynic, Meshuggah, and Dream Theater in this track.

Second track “Invasion” is easily my favorite song on the album. It’s a powerful and dramatic piece, with contemplative verses and big, epic choruses. Ross’s voice shines on this track, as he switches from a contemplative tone during the verses to a passionate and forceful performance during the choruses. Rhythm takes front and center in this track, and it’s hard not to be dazzled by Ray Hearne’s intricate and tasteful drumming.

“Carousel” is bound to be a fan favorite. Clocking at around 10 1/2 minutes, this song almost sounds like a career retrospective, as it combines the whimsy of Aquarius, the introspective, moving power of Visions, the jazzy forays of The Mountain, the electronic influence of Affinity, and the chunky, dark heaviness of Vector. I get chills every time I hear the arpeggios at the 8:30 minute mark, and the last 2 minutes of this song should convert the most skeptical of fan. “The Strain” continues with mind bending polyrhythms, with a discordant and aggressive, even (dare I say?) Car Bomb-sque midsection.

Captured at SECC on 09 December,2019 by Max Taylor Grant

The second single from the album, “Canary Yellow”, took me a few listens to fully comprehend. Sure, I liked it at first, but it didn’t grab me the way that other songs did on the first listen. When the video was released, I think something clicked in my mind, and it became one of my favorite songs from the album. The music is really evocative by itself, but something about the 50s imagery, paired with the images of destruction, made them a perfect pairing. What almost felt like a breather on the album is now shrouded with a feeling of melancholy reflection, infused with the Cold War-era paranoia of imminent destruction.

A lot of the discussion I’m seeing regarding Virus is centered around “Messiah Complex”, a 5 part epic that clocks at around 17 minutes total. I’ve seen Dream Theater’s “Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence” suite as a comparison, and I can definitely see the similarities. It’s a cinematic piece of music as a whole, with each song acting as a specific scene or set of scenes that propel the narrative forward. Though they can be listened to separately, they bleed together almost seamlessly, making them more like an epic than a suite of songs. Part of me is wondering if we’ll see a concert event at some point (a la Mike Portnoy’s Shattered Fortress) that includes all of the songs that are alluded to in this epic story arc, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

“i: Ivory Tower” is an overture of sorts, and as such, it sets the tone for the rest of the epic, with introductions and reintroductions of themes and tones that will appear throughout the course of listening. “ii: Glutton for Punishment” is beautiful and terrifying, and the band fires on all cylinders on this track, which I can only imagine will be a hell of a workout to play live. “iii: Marigold” starts off with a subdued and sinister melodic line, only to blast into what almost sounds like a groove-metal inspired end section. Fans are bound to smile at “iv: The Sect”, which features several throwbacks to previous albums: from Gentle Giant-like harmonies, to chiptune melodies, to blast beats. As Bill Hader’s Stefan from SNL would say:

In the press for the album, Haken states that with Virus, they set out to answer “Who is the Cockroach King?”. The last movement in “The Messiah Complex” shines some light on this answer. The title of the track, “v: Ectobius Rex” makes a lot more sense after a refresher on the characters from Vector, a Wikipedia article or two, as well as an elementary background in Latin. If you’ve been following Haken for the last few albums, this song is full of “full circle” moments, as it is overflowing with allusions to previous songs. Anway, at the risk of going too tin foil hat on you all, I’ll stop now.

“Heavy” is a word that keeps on popping up as I think of words to describe this album. It’s not that every song is overflowing with brutal, crushing riffs- “Canary Yellow” and “Only Stars” are on the lighter side. But the heavier moments are crushingly heavy, which I think might be partly due to Adam “Nolly” Getgood’s production. Even on more melodic songs like “Carousel”, a few bars of riffage feel heavy as a neutron star. There was a noticeable evolution of sound from The Mountain to Affinity, with the increased incorporation of electronic sounds and djent-y passages. I felt like Vector was an exploration of a darker, heavier sound in parts, but I definitely feel like Virus is the culmination of this sonic development. I love Getgood’s production, and I feel like his involvement has likely widened the sonic palette of the band.

Captured at SECC on 09 December,2019 by Max Taylor Grant

While I really enjoyed Vector, there was a contingency of Haken fans that, for a host of reasons (feel free to groan), didn’t find it resonated with them at the level of previous albums. I think Virus will appeal to old and new fans, as it takes everything that one might love about Haken and puts it on full blast. From mind-bendingly technical passages, to gorgeous vocal melodies, to crushingly heavy sections, I’m predicting that Haken fans love this record, and with a varied and brilliant set of singles, a developed and modern sound, and a number of highly memorable epics, it will hopefully win over some new fans as well.

Haken’s Virus will be released on July 24th, 2020. Preorder it here (or click on the graphic above).

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