Beware! This is the first time that I have been able to review a full Haken album without any word limits or other punitive restrictions placed upon me. You have been warned…
I’m going to lay my cards on the table right at the outset: Haken are one of my all-time favourite bands. Despite only being in existence for a relatively short period of time, right from their debut ‘Aquarius’ I have held them in high regard. It is a situation that has only strengthened over the years with each passing album and having had the chance to meet the band on several occasions, from interviewing the whole motley crew on their tour van at Progpower Europe in 2010 to friendly chats with various members at numerous gigs subsequently.
Regardless of this however, Haken are the real deal. Yes, they are a cracking bunch of guys but crucially, they back it up with a superlative end product. Each member of Haken is a supremely talented individual with their chosen instrument(s) but together there is a real magic; an unquantifiable ‘x’ factor that leads to the creation of music that is almost peerless and jaw-droppingly good.
And, on that note, let us delve into the world of ‘Affinity’.
It took me quite a while to get into and appreciate ‘The Mountain’. It sounded different from what went before it; more grown-up and, ‘Cockroach King’ aside, more serious and introspective. However, in stark contrast to ‘The Mountain’, ‘Affinity’ captured my imagination right off the bat and has not failed to let go in the month or so that I’ve been listening to it. If anything, the more I listen, the better it gets.
Weirdly enough, a small voice in my brain kept suggesting that it might be a good thing if ‘Affinity’ wasn’t as good an album. That way, I’d be able to tackle this review without the inevitable comments from readers about me being a fanboy and moaning that ‘you were always going to give it a high score’. But then I came to my senses.
‘Affinity’ won’t be for everyone, that’s for sure. If you’re a fan of the first two albums and wanted a return to more of that sound and approach, you might be left slightly disappointed. If however, you’re open to listening to a band that refuses to tread the same path twice, a band that champions the true meaning of ‘progressive’ by trying new things whilst remaining loyal to their core principles, then ‘Affinity’ will probably have the same impact upon you as it has had on me.
And what exactly is that impact? It is almost impossible to describe if I’m honest. ‘Affinity’ is an album that transcends the normal debates around whether it is good or not. Of course it is good, that almost goes without saying. I’m not a musician, so I am unable to dissect all of the technical intricacies that are present on this record. That’s not my style. Instead it’s the feelings that Haken evoke in their music that I feel the need to focus on as this is arguably the most powerful and intoxicating aspect of their incredible music.
Photo: Isabell Etz
We all have them – bands that, as you listen, make you feel happy to be alive. Well, for me, Haken are one of the four or five bands on Earth that do just that.
The album opens with the sampled sounds made by early computers atop a dark, cinematic soundscape that grows in intensity, building the sense of anticipation brilliantly and setting the foundations to the musical avenues to be explored within ‘Affinity’. Whilst ‘The Mountain’ was heavily influenced by the 1970s with the likes of Gentle Giant looming large within certain compositions, ‘Affinity’ takes its cue from the following decade. To be fair, this was fairly obvious after one look at the retro cover artwork and the most excellent teaser trailers released a few weeks ago. Again, the imagery might not appeal to everyone, but I really like the boldness and simplicity of the artwork that deliberately and unashamedly harks back to the analogue days of cassette tapes and vinyl.
The opening instrumental segues seamlessly into ‘Initiate’, the first ‘proper’ track on the album and a barnstormer at that, a deceptively complex piece of music that acts as a real showcase for everything great about Haken in 2016. And as I listen, almost immediately, several things become clear. Firstly, ‘Affinity’ is blessed by a production and a mix courtesy of Jens Bogren (Fascination Street Studios) that is right out of the top drawer. The music sounds powerful yet with a clarity that allows every instrument to shine. Nothing is lost or overlooked and the results are simply stunning.
Secondly, Ross Jennings’ vocals have taken another huge leap in the right direction. I was always one of those that took a lot of convincing over his delivery on the debut record particularly. However, he has pushed himself to the point that he is, without doubt a highly talented and accomplished vocalist with a unique, passionate delivery.
Thirdly, the increase in atmospherics, of electronic sounds and textures courtesy of Diego Tejeida is also very pronounced from the outset. Not only does he create a very interesting sonic palette that weaves in and out of each composition, he injects a surprising amount of warmth to the music that could so easily have sounded cold and inaccessible.
This in turn links to my final observation, that ‘Affinity’ manages to deftly and expertly merge the sounds of the past with the sounds of the future. In spite of the 1980s sheen, all nine compositions on ‘Affinity’ come across to me as fresh and exciting, with accents of djent, post-rock, ambient and all manner of other sounds bursting forth at whim.
Having said all that, ‘1985’ is almost entirely immersed in the 80s. In the same way as ‘Cockroach King’ was Haken’s ‘all-out’ track on ‘The Mountain’, ‘1985’ is the song on ‘Affinity’ that throws a little caution to the wind and shows Haken at their most audacious in many respects. Synth drums, overt retro sounds and an occasional dive headlong into 80s movie soundtrack territory all take place within this ambitious composition. However, it works, retaining a homogenous feel throughout. It is made all the more special thanks to a really rousing, hooky chorus that is nothing short of addictive.
The elegant ‘Lapse’ features some of Jennings’ most accomplished vocal work on this record, and indeed throughout the entire back catalogue. The vocal chords are stretched in directions that must have been really challenging but the result is gripping, full of sincerity and emotion in places.
Photo: Sevcan Yuksel Henshall
‘The Architect’ is Haken’s monster epic. At 15 minutes long, it allows the band the time to explore a number of ideas without ever feeling cluttered or disjointed. The track starts off in grand, cinematic style before exploding in a barely-controlled prog metal assault. It is here that Haken most clearly reference their earlier output as the music flits between the over-the-top excesses of the debut and the grandiose tones of ‘Visions’.
I’m then reminded vaguely of Tool in the more refrained guitar work and rhythms that follow, before another memorable chorus of sorts grabs the attention. And then, the song plunges into a music abyss where everything falls away to eventually and gradually rebuild over time. The foreboding yet ambient synth sounds lay the early groundwork as the bass guitar of relative newbie Conner Green joins the fray with some exceptionally expressive, deft and highly musical work. Ray Hearne’s drumming is subtle but inspired, and the resulting guitar interplay between Richard Henshall and Charlie Griffiths is inventive, melodious and ear-catching.
If that wasn’t enough, as the song ascends from the depths, the band are joined by Leprous’ Einar Solberg who adds his unique gruff vocals atop some heavy djent-like riffing before a return to the chorus and an epic lead guitar solo that rivals that of ‘Aquarium’ for spine tingling majesty.
‘Earthrise’ is possibly my favourite track on the album right now. I adore the quiet and melodic opening because it fills me with a warm glow and the feeling that the world can’t be an entirely awful place if such beautiful music can be written. It develops into a composition that is bright and breezy, complimented by lyrics that have a distinctly positive vibe to them.
By contrast, ‘Red Giant’ explores entirely different terrain. It is the most modern and post-rock that Haken have ever sounded and is also one of their most brooding and quietly intense compositions. The keys and rhythm section take the lead on this track, which is arguably the biggest and most consistent grower on the entire record.
Photo: Isabell Etz
‘The Endless Knot’ features some delicious drum fills from Mr Hearne and more killer melodies. It also affords Diego the opportunity to go a little crazy with more zany and out-there sounds. It also allows some six-string indulgence in the shape of one of the most intricate and dextrous guitar leads at around the mid-point. The song constantly shifts direction throughout its relatively modest life, but is held together by those strong melodies which return time and again to my great delight.
‘Bound By Gravity’ then closes out the album in an impossibly perfect manner. It is arguably one of the softest songs that Haken have ever penned but it is also one of the most beautiful. Acoustic guitars and more warm and inviting keys, vaguely reminiscent of Sigur Ros envelop the listener in a soothing, comforting embrace. Jennings’ soft and gentle delivery adds an almost ethereal quality to the track as it floats along on a warm current of magical melody that is both uplifting and almost heart breaking. Such is its understated and subtle beauty, I find myself smiling broadly and wiping tears from my eyes almost simultaneously.
How do I sum up an album like this? I could have mentioned a million bands throughout this review, from Textures to King Crimson and beyond as indeed there are reference points all over the place if you’re of a mind to count them. However, Haken are Haken and the bottom line is that they have developed into a modern prog band that is truly unique. ‘Affinity’ is one of the best progressive albums I have ever had the pleasure to listen to but more than that, it truly moves me and I connect to it on an emotional level; it makes me smile, it makes me cry and it makes me feel alive.
The Score Of Much Metal: 10
If you’ve enjoyed this review, check out my others right here:
So, here we are. I’ve made it. One month and over 30,000 words later, my ‘Album Of The Year 2015’ Top 30 countdown comes to an end. It has been challenging, tiring and occasionally frustrating but well worth the effort. I have enjoyed the banter, the more serious conversations, the arguments and the positive comments that this series has created. But best of all are the comments from people who say that they have discovered or re-discovered a particular band thanks to one of my posts. This is exactly why I do this.
People ask me why I don’t just write a simple list and put it out there on the Internet. It would be simpler I admit but then, those that know me know that this isn’t the Man Of Much Metal’s way. And it certainly isn’t the Blog Of Much Metal way either. Each and every band that features in this list has spent months creating great music for us all to enjoy. Therefore, the least I can do is spend a decent amount of time giving credit where it’s due and explaining why I feel so passionately about these albums. Giving something back to the music that has given me so much is what I and this blog is all about.
If you’ve stuck with me throughout this series, I offer one last heartfelt thanks to each and every one of you. If you’re new and like what you read here, be sure to spread the word and check out the other 29 albums in my list via the links at the end of this post.
But enough of all that. Let’s get down to business. Ladies, gentlemen and children of all ages and of discerning taste, I give you my gold medal choice for 2015, the best album of a strong year for the music I love…
‘A Dream In Static
I thought long and hard before awarding this album the title of ‘best album of 2015’. I mean, could I really award the title to a debut album from an unsigned band? But then I came to my senses, severely chastised myself and here we are.
Earthside, from New Haven, Connecticut, are comprised of drummer Ben Shanbrom, keyboardist Frank Sacramone, guitarist Jamie van Dyck and bassist Ryan Griffin. And together, they have put together a stunning album that is an utter delight and one that arguably breathes new life into the genre of heavy metal. Not content to plough one narrow musical furrow, instead the quartet have made it their mission to explore numerous different styles across the rock/metal spectrum and beyond all the while managing to keep the end product cohesive and, above all, enjoyable. You could call Earthside’s music progressive metal, djent, cinematic and symphonic or experimental…personally, I just call it damn good music.
Earthside have proved with this release that you can be ambitious, challenging to yourself, challenging to the listener and yet manage to emerge from the other side triumphant. There isn’t a moment on ‘A Dream In Static’ that is messy or clunky or even ill-advised. It all fits perfectly in spite of the myriad of influences at play and what’s more, the end product is absorbing, memorable and extremely addictive.
One of the elements of Earthside’s success is undoubtedly the unwillingness to rush the end product and to compromise in any real way. As I discovered when I interviewed Ben Shanbrom prior to the album’s release, Earthside have been around for a number of years, working away in the background to hone their craft and perfect their music away from prying ears and the lure of the limelight. In this day and age, it is all too easy to produce music, put it out on the internet and wait for the world to love you or loathe you. Very little thought often goes into the detail; the detail of learning to play your chosen instrument properly for example. And, even for those who are wizards at playing, the detail of honing song writing skills and having a clear vision for the band can be overlooked. This isn’t the case with Earthside – they’ve seemingly thought of everything. The result is ‘A Dream In Static’.
I knew from the moment that I heard ‘The Closest I’ve Come’ that something special was brewing. I had to wait what seemed an inordinately long time before I was finally able to hear the album in it’s entirety but believe me, it was worth the wait. In fact, for those of you familiar with my presence on social media, this choice won’t be the biggest surprise of your lives. I have waxed lyrical about the record over the past few months and I don’t see any reason for that stance to change any time soon.
If you’re after a really detailed look into the individual songs on ‘A Dream In Static’, please check out the review that I wrote for it around the time of it’s release. In addition, for more background about the band, check out my 2-part interview. Links to all three are as follows:
For now, for this post, I’ll try to keep things brief. Note the word ‘try’ in that last sentence.
The album kicks off in stunning fashion with ‘The Closest I’ve Come’. In keeping with much of the album, it is an instrumental track but it oozes class and keeps things interesting by frequently altering the tempo, toying with differing levels of complexity and adding an urgent sense of drama via an inspired use of light and shade. One minute it’s heavy, the next it’s quiet and gentle. And, at the 1:30 mark, it explodes with the most gloriously epic melody you’re likely to hear for a while. Spine-tingling stuff indeed.
The title track follows and, featuring TesseracT’s Daniel Tomkins on vocals, it is equally as good as the opener. It is a groovy, djent-heavy beast that features more sumptuous melodies that are impossible to resist. ‘Mob Mentality’ which features Sevendust’s Lajon Witherspoon behind the microphone also boasts the talents of the Moscow Studio Symphony Orchestra and if you’re looking for a complex and moody film score-like feel to it, this is the song you’ve been dreaming of. Gargantuan and bruising, yet precise and subtle, it is a composition that has to be heard to be believed.
‘Entering The Light’ is the shortest track on the album but is also one of the most striking given its demonstrable urgency and the inspired inclusion of a hammered dulcimer courtesy of Max ZT to provide the song’s central melody. Then there are other compositions like ‘Crater’ featuring Soilwork’s Bjorn ‘Speed’ Strid, one of my all-time favourite metal vocalists, ‘The Undergrounding’ with its Meshuggah-like chugging riffs and ‘Contemplation Of The Beautiful’ which is an epic track full of highs and lows that ends with the mother of all crescendos, enhanced by an emotional and committed performance from the final guest vocalist, Eric Zirlinger (Face The King, ex-Seer). Hell, who am I trying to kid, every single track on ‘A Dream In Static’ is a killer and deserving of all the praise that is bestowed upon them.
Going back to my opening paragraph, it belatedly occurs to me that one of the reasons why this record is so exciting is absolutely because this is Earthside’s debut album. Prior to this album, the name ‘Earthside’ was known only to a select few but, given the staggering quality of ‘A Dream In Static’, it is a name that is being talked about more and more with each passing day. Enlisting the services of a full orchestra, convincing the likes of Daniel Tomkins and Bjorn ‘Speed’ Strid to participate and then to be able to have the whole thing mixed by David Castillo (Katatonia, Opeth) means that Earthside must be doing something right.
The mind boggles at what on Earth the band will deliver next time out. However, that’s for another day. For now, let us revel in the sounds, the textures, the emotions and the atmospheres of ‘A Dream In Static’.
In closing, I’d like to quote my original review, as the sentiment remains as true now as it did then: ‘‘A Dream In Static’ is not perfect but it is very close. It is one of the most intense, challenging and ambitious recordings I have heard in a very long time. I’m not a gifted musician, so I prefer to reflect on how albums make me feel; Earthside’s music elates me, excites me and delivers something new on each and every listen. On that basis alone, mark my words, Earthside are going to be huge. A band of this talent, dedication and focus that has produced something as jaw-dropping as ‘A Dream In Static’ as a mere introduction to the metal world cannot possibly be anything else. And you know what? They thoroughly and unequivocally deserve everything coming their way. Bravo gents, bravo.