Sound — 9
Haken are a progressive rock/metal band from the UK that released its first album in 2010. The band's albums have received widespread acclaim in the prog world and their last album, 2013's "The Mountain," was called a personal favorite by both Mike Portnoy and Jordan Rudess. Haken also recently made it into UG's news section when it was revealed that the band members hold full time jobs outside of the band, mostly as school teachers, explaining why the band's tours are usually limited to the summer months. Something else worth noting is that this is Haken's first album with bassist Conner Green, who replaced original bassist Thomas MacLean in 2013.
For someone new to Haken, the best way to describe their sound is that it is very much like Rush (clean, tight, and uplifting) but moves a little bit closer to Dream Theater in its complexity and how certain musical tropes are implemented. Whereas Rush, or at least early Rush, could easily be classified as rock, Haken seems to trend more in the metal direction of Dream Theater and more recent bands, such as Devin Townsend and The Contortionist, though Rush is still the most direct comparison one can make.
What differentiates this Haken album from previous releases is the degree of unity between the instruments. Even though there are sections of shredding that would usually count as guitar solos, I hesitate to call them that because of how precisely the other instruments move in line with the guitar. To put it another way, there is no lead instrument at any point on this album; everything moves as one body. A benefit to this arrangement is that the music attains a sort of precise beauty that would be hard to replicate live. On the other hand, sometimes the playing is so precise that it feels mechanical; every so often I question whether the drums are computerized.
Given all this precision with the songwriting and execution, I am pleasantly surprised by some of the choices Haken made. Specifically, the value of their decision to use repetition across almost the entire album cannot be overstated. In keeping with the jam-feel of many jazz songs, progressive artists often do not afford listeners the mental reprieve that the repetition of a section can provide. Yet it would seem like repetition would be far more important to progressive artists than, say, punk artists because of the complexity of progressive music. Haken displays how repetition can be used in progressive rock/metal to achieve the best of both worlds between catchiness, which attracts listeners but fades quickly, and complexity, which can appear as a barrier to entry for many, yet provides lasting replay value. For example, I can easily remember the main chord progressions to most of the songs, but at the same time I am not tired of the album after a half dozen run-throughs because there are always new things popping up that are worth noticing.
Lyrics — 7
The vocals of Ross Jennings are the album's metaphorical icing on the cake. However, given his vocal style, it actually feels like they are the icing on the cake as well. Jennings' predominant use of his head voice gives the vocals an airy feeling that are an imbalanced contrast to the harder hitting parts of the album. But in the softer sections, like on the song "Bound by Gravity," the effect makes the song sound immaculate, on a level it could not reach otherwise. In an album full of variety, Jennings' vocal delivery comes across as especially restricted.
Lyrically, Jennings stretches to write about topics that straddle the line between fact and fantasy, ultimately dealing with far more than most rock albums do. The modern, tech-based ideas of the album force one to wonder why other bands have not dealt with these themes more frequently.
Overall Impression — 9
Fans are sure to debate which Haken album is their favorite, but I would argue that this album is the band's best release yet. The small margin of separation between the band's albums is a testament to their skill and songwriting consistency. Nevertheless, I would still say that the growth exhibited by the band on this album is enough to make it the band's best by a clear margin. For me, the biggest draws on this album were the guitar riffs and keyboard interludes, though I could easily imagine someone pointing to the drums, bass, and/or vocals as the best part(s).
"The Architect" is the song with the most to puzzle over. "1985," with its keyboard and drum patches that truly harken back to the '80s, might be my favorite song overall. One of the main guitar riffs on that song is also very similar to the riff from "BU2B," a song off of Rush's most recent album, "Clockwork Angels." Come to think of it, considering that Rush seems to be winding down as a band, it would not be a surprise to see Haken be the new torch-bearer for progressive rock. Though almost all of the album is great, two other songs stand out in particular: "The Endless Knot" and "Earthrise." Overall, this album has a decent shot at being recognized as the best prog album of the year come December. It is certainly the best one to have been released so far.