Haken – Visions – 4.5/5
This year truly does feel like the year of the prog, the number of good releases coming out as it starts to reach it's final moments reaching epic proportions and so many have been put on hold as I try to absorb as much as possible; Opeth going clean, Redemption releasing one of their best to date, the brothers responsible for Zero Hour coming out with a new side project, Von Hertzen Brothers making waves internationally and Stephan Forté (Adagio) preparing to release his debut solo album, not to mention a number of promising debut efforts that I haven't even begun to listen to yet. And to top it all off, the band I regarded as responsible for my album of the year last year have appeared on my radar once again, announcing that they've already slammed out a follow-up, a concept album set to rival the last.
In case you're a newcomer to this band, Haken are formed from the ashes of To-Mera (featuring two of its members), pooling new talent from every corner of UK to emerge with a Heavy Prog line-up that should have Dream Theatre shaking in their boots, as these newcomers have already made quite a splash in re-invigorating a genre just as it was starting to stagnate. Straddling the lines between Prog Rock, Prog Metal and Jazz Fusion the result is something broad in scope, technical in nature and yet atmospheric as part of the course. Duelling guitar solo's, dual keyboards and a vocalist displaying the best of British and you can see why they've garnered so much attention, and even more so than before, this epic clocking more than an hour in length should be considered a singular concept piece rather than a number of distinct tracks, each flowing casually into the next.
The benefits of having two keyboard players, one switching to another guitars as needed, and a strong bass player more used to shredding on his guitar than playing root notes means there's ample room for grandiose instrumental compositions, pandering to atmosphere and tone. They set out to create something more epic than their last and I'd dare say they succeeded in doing precisely that. There are solo's galore, a decided absence of the occasional growls (some tracks don't have vocals at all, and yet they don't feel like 'that instrumental track,' rather, the first time through you'll probably not notice at all, such is the strength of the instrumentation) and long atmospheric keyboard passages; there are so many different layers that has gone into it's fabrication it's a wonder it works at all, and yet through the understanding of how to come to the forefront of the music and fade into the back, every element manages to work in such perfect harmony with one another that it's awe-inspiring in how simple and atmospheric it can be, and how at a moments notice it can shift gear, letting the slow build-up explode into smooth grooves and head banging tunes.
Juxtaposing lighter tones with a crash of guitar driven chaos may be a frequent and critical component of their music, but it never feels done haphazardly. More than anything else, everything feels remarkably intelligent in it's design, a fact that only emerges after a few listens. Elements from earlier tracks return at a later time; one bass-heavy riff in the opening track – also one of the most addictive melodies they've ever written – forming one of the fundamental basis' for a later track, breathed new life by the shift in backing; slow dream-like passages are re-iterated with a biting tone and different tempo lending this rather strange feeling of deja vu; that you've been there before and yet initially, you can't quite put your finger on where. Unfortunately, having this cyclical style both comes its benefits and one obvious drawback; recycling the same riffs for too long can lead to the music becoming stagnant, a problem that this album just occasionally falls prey to.
It's definitely a notch up from their last in terms of ambition, and they still manage to do a marvellous job of piecing it all together, but there are just a few elements that bring it down; the occasional odd element that featured in their last (the accordion pieces, and 'circus' themed elements in particular) worked due to the sudden transition in style, intentionally jarring the listener alert. Here it feels they've tried to up themselves and the result just feels a little too avant-garde given the overall atmosphere of the music they've created (the 8-bit interlude in “Insomnia” for example), especially seeing as how for the most part they've played to their strengths that they've discovered from their last, though this is a pretty minor complaint. It's largely the sense of individuality the tracks held in their last effort that feels missing here, which is not to suggest it's a bad album. Completely the opposite in fact, their debut was simply so mind-blowing and so refreshing a breath of fresh air that matching it would be like winning the lottery twice in a row. One year and two-hundred and eight days. This is precisely how long it has taken for Haken to have proven they aren't going to be one hit wonders, but that Prog fans should herald some new champions to the scene.
Highlights: Deathless, Visions