Haken – Affinity (2016)

I felt that London’s Haken might have been wearing out their welcome a little after 2014’s The Mountain and the Restoration EP that came after it. I know that some of you liked these discs because of the 89% and 90% I see from reviewers on Metal Archives, but for me these guys have been a hard sell after what I’d consider a landmark in Visions. There’s no doubt about it that these guys play a very modern style of progressive metal for a new generation and I think that they’re trying to go for Dream Theater’s torch, (but why not? Someone’s got to try for it eventually) yet there are some truly intriguing pieces on this record that I feel are more than worth their weight in gold. One of these in particular, might be one of the single best progressive metal tracks that I’ve heard in recent memory. But let’s start off at the beginning.

“Initiate” didn’t really hit me as anything really special and other than a bloated sort of Karnivool feeling, I didn’t really catch it. However, that’s where the silly “buy me” stuff ends and the real meat of this monster begins. Now I know that someone might use the hipster tag when I talk about how much I love this throwback to the glory days of progressive rock music, but surely “1985” is something of a masterpiece to me. When I listen to this track, I can’t even believe that it’s fucking Haken. These guys could literally do an entire record like this if they wanted to, and prove that they have the classic formula down. Not only does frontman Ross Jennings have an incredibly crystalline vocal falsetto, but Richard Henshall’s keyboard work really helps to make this track the kind of time-traveling experience that it needs to be. For an act like this to even attempt to delve into this kind of territory might at first seem like they’re biting off a bit more than they can chew, especially with the thumping modern grooves that separate the track from a completely eighties feeling – but when you look at it through my eyes, I see this is a re-imagination of that classic age through the minds of a much different generation. If you want, you can even throw Haken the “hipster” tag, but there’s no doubt that the feel of this piece brings me back to the days of Hulk Hogan, The A-Team and Miami Vice. Also Rush, because, of course! During the instrumental freakout section, there are also a lot of parts that remind me of Dream Theater’s legendary instrumental experiences (yes, they really are experiences) that definitely perk my ears up a bit. Saying little more about this one, “1985” definitely put them back on the map for me. That being said, this isn’t even the song I’m talking about. Yes, for there is even a much grander track on the record right after “Lapse” that literally blew my fucking mind to the point where I couldn’t discern fantasy from reality. Fitting of it’s over fifteen-minute mark, I’m still a bit shocked as to why “The Architect” is not the disc’s closer and merely it’s fifth track. I feel that such an invigorating moment placed at the end of the disc would be a perfect finale, leaving it’s awesomeness sketched firmly upon the minds of all who’ve experienced it in it’s entirety. The band instead opt for a relatively decent piece called “Bound By Gravity” that comes off as something altogether different, and certainly not as pulse-pounding. Between these moments, we do have other tracks which deliver in a more commercial prog standpoint, something that the radio would play (and why doesn’t it?) due to their short track lengths, but feature a bit more exploration than much of the catchy bubble-gum rock acts that you hear churned out by multi-million dollar labels on a day to day basis. Even if the same very well may be true of giants Century Media who released the album, I can say that they seem to give a little bit more a damn and would rather give us quality material like this, rather than signing a band like Nickelback (looking at you, Roadrunner.)

Now that my yammering has ended, let’s get right down to it. “The Architect” begins by allowing the band to immediately show off what they can do on an instrumental front. We already know that this is going to be a colossal masterpiece of musical might from the very start of the piece. The song quickly throws Jennings headfirst into a quick set of lyrics and a familiar chorus, much like some of the shorter numbers. Yet that’s not the part I’m getting off about. While it’s definitely a noteworthy chorus line that you’ll end up mouthing along to after awhile, it just adds commercial viability to a piece that soon goes outward into infinity, and this my friends, this is what we want. After the Maynard worship has ended, the piece goes into a brilliant atmosphere of sorts, where Chris Griffith and Richard Henshall can truly show their skills on the guitars and keyboards. We enter into a sort of technological cyberpunk world that these guys might have seen while either being absurdly high or playing an installment of Shadowrun Returns, but in any case, this is where Jennings performs a level of almost unintelligible vocalizing that brings an almost ethereal quality to the performance as a whole. I don’t care what he’s singing about, just the feeling behind it. Then without warning, an Opeth inspired guitar solo just appears out of nowhere (reminding me much of personal favorite, “The Drapery Falls”) along with some harsh vocals that I don’t recall ever having heard from this act. That doesn’t mean that you can just throw the progressive death tag on them now, because they’re still just what they always were – a couple of growls don’t change anything. The odd mixture of djent and keyboard sections actually make me take notice of a style of riff I had come to hate due to it’s overuse. Then I’m then thrown into familiar Dream Theater instrumentation, which features one more utterance of the chorus before the track slows to offer some shredding. These guys are really piling it on thick with this one, and Jennings is doing his best to really top such a piece (which is by now in realms of complete grandiosity) with a memorable refrain that should easily cement the final thoughts of such a piece right into your cranium.

After that one, they sort of take the gears down a little and go back into something a little more down to earth, fittingly called “Earthrise” (I’m not going to lie to you, it starts out just like a alternative rock song) and then a little meditative piece called “Red Giant.” It might sound like they’ve run out of awesomeness by this point, and as the rest of the disc goes on, that seems to be the case. But what can you really do after putting everything you have into “The Architect?” Not that the other songs are completely forgettable as they do feature some memorable atmospheres (more than the others though, oddly enough – these could almost be seen as a type of filler for songs that in essence might only be about three or four minutes without this type of excursion) as well as some really nice keyboard solo efforts, particularly on “The Endless Knot.” They’re definitely listenable pieces, but they don’t carry as much weight as some of the earlier numbers. As I said, the disc’s closer “Bound By Gravity” goes for something much different than you’ll hear on the rest of the album, which is an extravagantly extended ballad of sorts. It culminates into a jauntier piece where Jennings is now in full-focus, ending the record right there. Admittedly there are some beeps and bloops at the end of the record, but that’s all unnecessary filler for what could have been a far grander moment.

At the end of the day, modern prog fans will enjoy Affinity, but I don’t think that there’s enough here for fans of the genre’s heyday. I guess if you’re glued to the early days of the genre, you’ll find something pretty special in “1985” but despite the grandeur of “The Architect” it still contains an awful lot of commonalities in heavy metal music and may turn some listeners off. Oddly enough, the band nearly kick out the metal elements entirely for the rest of the record, opting for a more modern progressive rock feel that isn’t really here nor there. Affinity sees Haken trying to appeal to both fans of progressive metal and rock equally, while also introducing some of the more commercial and accessible elements they’ve been toying with as of late. Even though “1985” and “The Architect” are some rather bold moments, I can’t give the record a perfect score or even a great score based on two extremely interesting pieces. This being said, I still feel that Affinity is a relatively good record and Haken fans should be pretty pleased with it.

(9 Tracks, 61:00)

8/10

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