BEST OF 2020 #8: Haken
It's not too often that I pause midway through writing a review to frantically buy an album on vinyl; yet that's precisely the rampant reaction that Brit progsters Haken instilled in me back in July as I sat listening to their upcoming album Virus ahead of its release. It would take until late October for me to actually receive the vinyl in person (thanks, Covid), and when it arrived on my doorstep I was actually skeptical at that moment about my initial enthusiasm. Was this album that good that for the first time in four years I paused writing to spend some hard earned monies on a physical copy of an album I already was in possession of digitally? Well, within seconds of that vinyl spinning in my living room, I very promptly shut my mouth and basked in the beautiful madness that is Haken and their sixth studio album. Granted, it's very up my offbeat alley, and not for those who prefer their musical fare in the more traditional realms. But damn, Haken can take my money anytime because to me, they're the perfect amalgamation of innovation, respect both for themselves and their fans and in possession of an unholy amount of brawling talent (plus they're still one of my most favourite interviews of all time). Read on below for my review of Virus back in July, and try to pick the point where I stopped writing to order the vinyl before resuming?
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: July 14 2020
Unintentionally bearing a remarkably timely title while traversing staggering musical horizons, Haken's upcoming album Virus is a feast for diehard fans and new ears alike as it plunges into a world of lurid execution and salient concepts that perches the group as one of the most rightful heirs to the modern prog throne.
For anyone who has poured through a book or TV show looking to find and decipher every last hidden clue or Easter egg, the upcoming sixth full-length album Virus from English prog metal overlords Haken is certainly one for the ages. Most recently hinted at on the group's 2018 album Vector, Virus follows on from establishing moments and mentions on Vector , while evolving some underlying inspiration from the track Cockroach King from the band's 2013 breakthrough opus The Mountain, ultimately delivering an opalescent triumph of prog wizardry and astonishing prowess.
Releasing amidst an unforeseen pandemic, the album's title perhaps seems like a ploy to muster attention and hustle shock; but as mentioned above, we need only glance back throughout Haken's journey to see the foundations for Virus firmly set in motion years ago, and this 11-track masterpiece continues the habit of staggering 2020 releases in the global prog world, with Haken ultimately stepping up and rightfully claiming the crown and throne of the modern prog metal kingdom. Startling, elegant and downright electrifying, Virus gets under your skin while raising the bar for prog to near-unattainable heights - and in true affable and offbeat Haken fashion, we're in for a breathtaking ride.
Scurrying out with scratchy, blistering guitarwork, Prosthetic kicks off Virus, almost mimicking the movements of an actual cockroach, before unfolding into a bold anthem. Sprinkling spluttering riffs, cascading drums and beastly basslines, Prosthetic is by far one of the weightiest compositions the band have dabbled with in years, with the occasional electronic dissonant flair intertwining seamlessly with the shifting prowls and belts from frontman Ross Jennings. With the group's signature pristine production, Prosthetic will undoubtedly delight heavier fans, while also gradually setting the scene for the conceptual fun to follow, aka heavy sonic exploration and inspiration into 2013's Cockroach King kicking off full-blown a little later in the album.
Diving into a melancholic sonic dystopia, Invasion follows next dripping in staccato vocals, razored breakdowns and stanky grooves that will draw a drool from fans of the band's earlier works while also flexing Haken's inbuilt knack for crafting dynamic shifts while never loitering too long on one sonic idea. Monotony isn't in the Haken lexicon, and Invasion builds from a quiet chant into a full-blown jaunt full of anguished beauty, electronic tinges and some brooding djent that'll grind your teeth to dust (plus, for any Leprous fans out there, this will surely tickle your fancy in the best possible way).
Next up, Carousel sways in with oscillating light and shade as the group smudge electronic tinges with a dynamic outing from Jennings, sparkling bass from Conner Green and ghostly choirs accompanying some of Jennings' more poignant vocal moments. And while the track certainly will take diehard fans back to earlier Haken days, there's something for everyone on Carousel, including a sublime guitar solo (that would readily sit in the hands of Caligula's Horse axe man Sam Vallen), and a chafing breakdown that flings the Haken technicality into another stratosphere.
From the swirling hooks and graceful blastbeats of The Strain to the dissonant (and much softer) majesty of Canary Yellow, the cacophonous calm ultimately builds into the Messiah Complex series, aka 5 tracks that dive into the aforementioned Cockroach King, offering an intensive exploration into both the lyrical and musical ideas introduced in the track way back in 2013. Already whipping up a frenzy of guesswork and examination online with fans poised ready to pull apart hidden meanings and sonic throwbacks to the beloved breakout track, the anticipation has been palpable in the prog community for quite some time. But for those not familiar with the source material, fear not - there is plenty to love in the Messiah Complex series. Buckle up.
CANARY YELLOW (HAKEN)
Opening the Messiah Complex run is Ivory Tower, holding strong with the trademark Haken maddcappery, while also acting as what can perhaps be best described as Haken's version of a rock anthem. Chromatic crunches and tantalising swells ignite, before we're plunged headfirst into A Glutton for Punishment brandishing Devin Townsend-esque electronic theatrics, dizzying arrangements and yet another stellar outing from guitarists Richard Henshall and Charlie Griffiths. Messiah Complex midpoint Marigold kicks off as a ghostly canon before busting out sweltering riffs, bass and drumwork that build into a delightfully deranged breakdown, as well as some vivid vocal trickery from Jennings on this short but sweet track.
Up next for the Messiah Complex series is the solid electronic stomper The Sect, full of jaunty alien melodics, staccato Baroque vocal runs and bellowing guitarwork. While delightfully kooky and perilously tight, The Sect is ultimately an alien abduction dressed up as a prog interlude, and drummer Raymond Hearne puts on a particluarly scalding display beneath the madness above.
Reaching the final Messiah Complex track, as well as the album's penultimate track, Ectobius Rex delivers a triumphant and orchestral intro before lurching into a djenty monument. Oozing with thunderous grooves, Ectobius Rex finds every member of Haken stepping it up to insane heights; from a jaw-dropping guitar solo to flawless vocals and rhythmics, the edges of this stunning track are calm and in control while its soul is truly gnashing and leering with menacing beauty. And on the topic of beauty, the closing track for Virus delivers it in spades, with Only Stars conjuring a glitching soundscape beneath Jennings in a fragile and almost hymn-like outing. As heady crunches flicker to the foreground, Only Stars sheds any shreds of heavy notions, offering an intensely profound ending to this truly wild sonic ride, and a moment of reflection for the mastery you've just inhaled.
Whether you consume Virus as a vigilant Haken afficianado, embroiled in the conceptual narratives and ongoing thematics the band have bread-crumbed along the way, or you're arriving to this album with completely fresh eyes and ears, there's an undeniable truth that remains steadfast as Virus sits primed to unleash to the world: Haken are diabolically talented, and are truly one of the most (if not THE most) influential forces in the modern prog dominion. Not only can this bunch write ballistically experimental yet approachable music, they are also dangerously well-equipped in complexity, proficiency and dynamic innovation (and aren't afraid to pay a bit of fan service without sacrificing their own creative visions). Regardless of your status as a worshipper of all things heavy, a melodic enthusiast, or as one just dipping your toes into the prog metal world for the first time, Virus is not just a game-changer for 2020; it's an album already embossed in future history as one of the greats to ever grace the prog genre.
BY TIANA SPETER