2013-10-17

Album Review: Haken - The Mountain

I'll be totally honest: I had never heard of the band Haken until earlier this year. I was looking for some new progressive metal bands to explore. Longtime readers know that I am a big fan of the genre. But once you've heard Dream Theater, Fates Warning, Redemption, and Symphony X, where do you go?

You could seek out the lighter material, and I did. I'm also a big fan of bands like Porcupine Tree, Marillion, and Spock's Beard. I even like a little Umphrey's McGee. But these bands have been around for quite some time. It's unlikely that progressive music aficionados would not have already devoured everything those bands have to offer.

You could go heavy. So-called "djent" bands like Periphery and Animals As Leaders have made extremely important contributions to the world of progressive music over the past few years. They're great bands, but if you're like me, there's only so much djent you can handle. The vocals - when present - leave a lot to be desired in terms of melody. Come to think of it, the instrumentation also leaves a lot to be desired in terms of melody. Owing to its heavy metal influences, this kind of music tends to be more about rhythm than about melody.

Enter: Haken. According to their Wikipedia page, Haken formed in 2007 and released their first album in 2010. If I remember correctly, I discovered them through a recommended video on YouTube. The album art seemed deliciously prog in all its nerdy glory.

*click*

By the end of the day I had devoured both of Haken's two available albums and was ready for more. I was in luck, because Haken released their third album, The Mountain, in July. Thus, this album review comes a little late, but it's been a busy year for progressive music, so it took me a little while to get to it.

The great thing about Haken in general is that they seem to write music that has just the right combination of 7- and 8-stringed heaviness, ambient modern-prog moodiness, and vintage 70s-prog whimsy. To put it succinctly, when you listen to a Haken album, you are keenly aware of the fact that this band is comprised of genuine fans of the genre. What do you love best about progressive music? Haken has you covered.

If you're the kind of fan who came to the genre through metal and djent, Haken delivers all the brutal riffing you're looking for. One thing that stood out for me immediately here on the new album is the use of either 8-string guitars or detuned 7-strings. The deep, heavy riffing goes all the way down. I mean you can feel it your chest when the band gets going. The syncopated rhythms could easily be found on a Meshuggah album, but for the fact that they are juxtaposed against a backdrop of pop music approachability. That is to say, just when you think it's so heavy your face will fall off, in comes lead singer Ross Jennings' soft baritone vocals setting you at ease again.

Thus, if you're the kind of fan who prefers the softer side of prog, you can rest assured that The Mountain never gets so heavy that it becomes off-putting. The vocals, the synth patches, the sudden breaks into jazz jams, they all hearken back to the golden age of 1970s progressive rock. In particular, the band's two keyboardists seem to have a knack for dialing in synth sounds that evoke mellotrons and Hammond organs, while still somehow sounding fresh. Jennings' vocals sound like a fresher, updated version of vintage Gentle Giant. It's great.

And just when you're getting settled into the crafty, even-handed blend of the heavy and the light, The Mountain takes you into purely whimsical territory. By "whimsical," I mean that Haken seems remarkably fond of taking sudden left-turns. A song's heaviest moment will often suddenly swerve into carnival-like keyboard sounds and jazz guitar shredding, all over an odd meter. Just when you've locked into the groove, the instruments disappear, and the music becomes full-on a capella (with rather stunning harmonies, I might add).

In a word, The Mountain is an album that manages to deliver the bread-and-butter of prog. The album's production is outstanding. The instrumental virtuosity is unreal. The songs are soaring, beautiful, brutal when they have to be, and manage to evoke an emotional undercurrent of inspiration.

All this adds up to an excellent album. It really has been a great year for prog.