Review: Haken – Affinity

Review: Haken – Affinity

Band: Haken
Album: Affinity
Available: April 29th via InsideOut Music
Reviewer: Nick from When Prog and Power Unite
Audio Review

Haken Website
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It doesn’t seem that long ago that a close friend from across the pond sent me the demo of his brother’s band, Haken. Pete Jones would leave the band before they released their debut album, but it was due to his brother that I became aware of an amazing young band. I continued to promote Haken through the release of Aquarius in 2010, and was thrilled when they won the album of the year poll amongst our listeners. In the six years since, the band has seen a meteoric rise in popularity amongst progressive metal listeners, going from obscurity to festival headliners in only a few albums.

The band’s greatest success came with the release of The Mountain in 2013, and given what it did for the band I would have found it difficult to blame them for sticking close to that style when working on their newest album, Affinity. It took only one listen to discover that the band had no interest in playing things safe. Although you might not find any songs as eccentric as “Cockroach King” on this album, as a whole it is brighter and more upbeat than its predecessor. Once the appropriately titled intro track, “Affinity.exe” wraps up, “Initiate” kicks into gear and immediately sets the tone for the album. It’s heavy, but also atmospheric, and serves as a statement that Haken won’t be repeating themselves, no matter the intensity level of the music. The current tone of the band is strongly set by the first song.

“1985” is, understandably, the biggest nod to the 80’s music that inspired parts of this record. Although Diego Tejeida’s keyboards certainly play close to that era throughout the record, it is definitely most notable during this track. In nine minutes you meander through a Yes opening, some rockier verses, some instrumental parts, and finally a more typical anthemic Haken chorus. And then there is what can only be called… that part. That glorious moment in the song that sounds like the mix of music from a 1980’s montage scene sprinkled with sounds from the 1990’s video game adaptation of that same movie. Make no mistake, you’ll know when you get to it. The next track, “Lapse” offers a strong vocal performance and guitar solo, but doesn’t rise to quite the same heights as the rest of the album.

On my first listen to Affinity, I had turned my attention away from my computer screens for a while, and heard an ominous intro, and thought, “this has to be the big one”. Sure enough, a quick check told me I had moved onto the 15+ minutes of “The Architect”. Haken have thrown a longer song onto every studio album, including the Restoration EP, and so this song will naturally draw comparisons to its contemporaries. It is probably both more reserved and yet more experimental than the other epics. Chorus aside, it does lack the bigger hooks of some of the other long songs, but it hits on genres and styles outside of what we’ve seen with Haken to date. This genre push, though usually minor in its use, includes post-rock, dubstep, electronica, and some corners of metal the band has never before explored. Einar Solberg from Leprous has a short guest appearance in the song, providing expertly performed harsh vocals, but much like the rougher vocals on Aquarius, I found them to be an unnecessary addition. The band’s full time vocalist, Ross Jennings gives one of his best performances on this track. Through this song, and on the album as a whole he sounds fantastic, but on some tracks he’s pushed to a style with such a high tone that enunciation can become an issue. When it’s all said and done “The Architect” promises to be just as rewarding as its peers, even if I think it’ll take people a few extra listens to come to that conclusion.

After the length and density of “The Architect” it seems we are treated to an intentionally placed, and short poppy track in “Earthrise”. Given its ease of listen, and the fact it’s one of the shorter tracks, I’d be shocked if it isn’t used to help promote the album. But do not fret when I use the words short and poppy, as this is a great track, showcasing a lot of what this latest offering is all about in a compact wrapper. The opening verse features guitar parts from Richard Henshall and Charlie Griffiths have a clean and joyful electric tone to them that were a treat to hear added to the Haken sound. Speaking of the axe wielding duo, their contributions to the album can best be described as well blended. The incredible leads are there, but often lowered in the mix by Jens Bogren, given the compositions a beautiful wholeness. While there are not too many solos or 6-to-7 string acrobatics screaming for attention, but thoughtfully crafted songs certainly do not fail to draw your attention.

“Red Giant” takes a break from the bulk of the albums 80’s look-back approach and infuses many of the genre-expanding influences I mentioned earlier. While it is six minutes of the most experimental music on the album, it can get lost amongst the catchiness of the previous track, and the stellar next track, “The Endless Knot”, which is one of the best songs on the album. ”The Endless Knot” begins with a guitar and keyboard led intro, and then drummer Ray Hearne takes things over, offering a tom and bass driven bounce that sets the tone for the rest of the track. About midway through the song we are treated to a dubstep-adjacent section that manages to keep the groove wonderfully, and then exits into a fantastic bit of guitar work. “The Endless Knot” clocks in at 6 minutes, and is one favorite Haken songs to date.

The final track, “Bound By Gravity”, is a touching outro to the album, and perhaps the track that most closely resembles the softer sections of Affinity’s full-length predecessor. The vocals are soft and soothing throughout, as is the music for the most part. Light chimes (or at least their keyboard counterpart) aid the calm early on, and when the music picks up in the latter portion of the track, they change to tubular bells, making an epic ending to the song and the album.

This album has songs that stand apart from one another, and from their past works, propelling the band into the next chapter of their career. While Affinity may have very slight lulls in “Lapse” and “Red Giant”, every other song is memorable and top of the line, forming a great album. The stylistic changes are refreshing and brilliantly executed.

Through all of this I’ve failed to mention the newcomer and sole American in the band, bassist Conner Green. Affinity was his first chance to appear on brand new Haken material, and the results were similar to the Restoration EP. A tone that is warm, clear, and mixed incredibly well, while his playing glues the songs together. While it may not pop out at you at instantly, anyone who pays attention to his playing will have plenty to be excited about for Haken’s low-end future. As good as he was, however, the standout star on this album is clearly Diego Tejeida, who took the demands of the 80’s style, as well as the more experimental new styles and brought amazing tones and play to each challenge. Whether the keyboards are aggressive or atmospheric, they are always impressive throughout this album, and help make it a fantastic part of Haken’s discography. I don’t know if it quite climbs to The Mountain top as my favorite album, but Affinity comes very close.

Nick’s Grade: A

Review: Steven Wilson – 4 1/2

Review: Steven Wilson – 4 1/2

Band: Steven Wilson
Album: 4 ½
Reviewer: Joe from When Prog and Power Unite
Audio Review

Steven Wilson Website
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Over the last several years, the world of progressive rock has been dominated by the sound and vision of Steven Wilson. Not only has he created some of the most compelling progressive music over the last decade, but he has also been one of the genre’s most prolific artists, churning out four studio albums, two live albums, and three EPs over the last seven years – and that’s not counting all the material Wilson has mixed, produced, or worked with outside the confines of his solo band. 4 1/2, the latest Steven Wilson release, is an album-length EP that is meant to be a bridge between the project’s fourth and fifth albums, while reaching for material from his third and fourth albums.

Unlike prior Steven Wilson EP’s, 4 1/2 is mostly comprised of music that has not been heard before. This is in contrast to the last EP, Drive Home, which felt more like a single enriched by a b-side and a generous supply of live recordings. 4 1/2 also features music recorded both before and after the Hand. Cannot. Erase. session, with one song being a “The Raven That Refused to Sing” leftover, and others being newer compositions that feature members of Wilson’s current touring band on record for the first time.

The EP will certainly be enjoyable for Wilson’s most ardent fans, as the majority of these compositions would have been nice contributions to their corresponding albums. The EP’s first song, “My Book of Regrets” is a poppy-yet-proggy near-epic detailing the lonely observations of someone living in the city, and harkens back to the thematic subject matter of Hand. Cannot. Erase. in more ways than one. The third song, “Happiness III”, is another song recorded during the Hand. Cannot. Erase. sessions, though it denied my early expectations that it would be a work similar to that album’s “Happy Returns”. Instead, “Happiness III” almost sounds like Porcupine Tree – it’s the type of simple and catchy alt-rock flavored short song that wouldn’t be out of place on Lightbulb Sun.

If there’s a shortcoming, it’s that this EP is really more of a collection of leftovers than a cohesive work in its own right, and being such, some of the instrumental tracks lack the sort of context that may have made them more enjoyable. For example, “Year of the Plague” is a gorgeous throwback to the haunting, jazz-inspired themes of Raven, but standing on its own, between lighter H.C.E. tracks, I can’t help but feeling like it loses some impact. The same is true for the other instrumentals which, while nice, still feel like out-of-place atmosphere-setters that didn’t make the cut on their home albums.

That leaves us with “Don’t Hate Me”, a rerecording of a Porcupine Tree song based on a live version recently played by Wilson’s solo band. It’s a nice… interpretive cover… but again, the type of thing that is nice to have for documentation’s sake, while remaining somewhat inessential, since I do not think many listeners will prefer this new version of the song to the original.

After several EPs and iterative releases over the years, we’ve rarely seen Wilson make a focused effort at creating a cohesive and enjoyable short work, rather than just a collection of leftover songs and oddities. It’s a good release that many fans will be thrilled to hear, but a little bit more glue might have turned this EP of unrelated works into cohesive whole.

Review: Headspace – All That You Fear is Gone

Review: Headspace – All That You Fear is Gone

Band: Headspace
Album: All That You Fear is Gone
Reviewer: Nick/Mason from When Prog and Power Unite
Audio Review

Headspace Website
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Although we don’t always agree on the how or why, there is no doubt that progress is being made over the years. In the music industry one of the major steps forward I’ve noticed is the ability of bands to put out stellar debut albums. I’m not talking about in the songwriting department, as there are stellar first works from all decades of recorded music. What I’m referencing is the growing ability for anyone, or any band to produce sonically wonderful works thanks to advancements in technology. Because of that, whenHeadspace released I Am Anonymous in 2012, it was not only beautifully constructed, but sonically amazing. Gone are the days of needing to rent out studios full of equipment for weeks, with a large financial investment needed for a top quality product. Now, bands like Headspace can record piecemeal, in different locations, at different times, and make fantastic sounding albums without a monocle wearing executive backing them.

That brings us to the new release, All That You Fear is Gone, which shares in the debut’s excellent production values. This is likely in no small part due to the return of Jens Bogren for the mixing of the album. All that said, a clean recording does not make an album a masterpiece, and there are of course many other factors at play. The songwriting is very similar to the debut, yet still manages to find some new musical ground to explore, rather than staying within the confines of their debut album. Adam Wakeman’s amazing piano and keyboard work follows a similar pattern, as does Pete Rinaldi’s excellent guitar work and Damian Wilson’s highly emotive vocals, and yet they come together in a new fashion. The one change in the band is the drumming of Adam Falkner, replacing Richard Brook, but one might not even notice. The drumming, while not in any way poor, remains the least impactful on the music as a whole.  Lee Pomeroy, on bass, continues to use any downtime the other players give him to insert a great bass melody, while providing a strong backbone the rest of the time.

Headspace continue to explore a special ground, throwing in elements of progressive metal of course, but focusing on open and imaginative arrangements and instrumentation. Wakeman continues to excel in using a plethora of well-planned sounds within each song. Within the heavier section of the opening track, “Road to Supremacy” you can hear nearly half a dozen shifts in the keyboards, as the music around them remains more relatively constant. Rinaldi’s electric guitar only occasionally sees anything that approaches a traditional riff, most often staying as loose and moving as the rest of the music. Even a song like “Semaphore”, which tricks you into thinking it’s going to be a straight ahead rocker from start to finish, takes a sharp left turn back into traditional Headspace territory half way through.

All in all I can’t find many bad things to say about All That You Fear is Gone, other than it’s not I Am Anonymous. The band came out of the gates with such a strong punch that it would be hard to follow up, and indeed there is a certain “it” factor that seems to be missing this time around. “Your Life Will Change”, the lead single from the album, does a fantastic job at bridging the gap between the last album and what to expect on the new one. “Polluted Alcohol” and the title track continue to show what the band can do when stripped back. “The Science Within Us” shows the band can still do a fantastic 10+ minute piece. And yet, across the board, everything seems dialed one small step back.

I don’t think anyone who is just getting into Headspace will be disappointed with All That You Fear is Gone. Quite the opposite, in fact, as they still have such a unique identity and special delivery that any new fan should immediately take note. Returning fans will likely experience a slight disappointment, but only because they are coming off the heels of one of the truly special debut albums of this decade. It’s hard to describe what the debut had, that this album lacked, but it lies somewhere in the realm of the merging heavier elements with the unique aspects of the band. And while All That You Fear is Gone manages to have both those elements, they don’t meet and kick into that extra gear quite as often, or as well. It should come as no surprise what a man named Wakeman can do with a keyboard, but you can’t teach imagination and creativity as easily, and Adam brings both in spades. Add to that the fact that for his myriad of projects over the years, this is the one that best utilizes Damian Wilson’s voice, and you have a one-two punch that should make Headspace a band to watch for years to come.

Nick’s Grade: A-

Mason’s Addendum:

Nick took care of the music by in large, but I would like to comment that Damien and Adam have a real mojo together musically, as this is the second album released in 2016 that features them working together – and I believe Adam is also on Damien’s forthcoming solo album as well.  One of the great things about both Headspace albums is that both have overarching themes.  I loved the stories of personal strife that made up I Am Anonymous, and I like that the band decided to do another album with one overall theme.  I think part of the reason I am finding All That You Fear Is Gone just a slight step down is that its theme of trying to control an individual is less relatable in some ways.  I can put myself in the shoes of the characters from the debut and experience their reality, whereas it is not possible to do that when songs deal with more abstract ideas.

The other reason I find myself being less wowed by the new album is strictly a matter of my personal taste.All You Fear Is Gone has several softer ballads, varied in structure and sound, so it is not a matter of repetition; I just personally gravitate to heavier elements.  Because the sound on this album is more varied, I think it will be a grower for some people.  My opinion of it after 10 spins is certainly higher than it was after my first and second one, and even in listening it to it now to write this I am still finding new bits that catch my ear right.  My standout tracks are “Kill You With Kindness”, “The Science Within Us”, “The Day You Return”, the second half of “All You Fear Is Gone”, and “Secular Souls”.

Review: Turbulence – Disequilibrium

Review: Turbulence – Disequilibrium

Band: Turbulence
Album: Disequilibrium
Reviewer: Annie from When Prog and Power Unite

Find Turbulence on:
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Turbulence’s Disequilibrium is nothing short of great. The quintet from Lebanon has a phenomenal blend of melodic prog metal with atmospheric, symphonic melodies to their songs. What strikes me most about this release are how keyboardist Mood Yassin and guitarist Alain Ibrahim are outperforming each other most of the time, but still manage to work as a team that is determined to win a listener. No less great is singer Owmar El Hage, who uses uplifting singing, whereas most modern bands with Turbulence‘s musical style decide to go the growling route. This vocal choice definitely works to Turbulence’s advantage.
Both Ibrahim’s guitars and Yasmin’s keyboards are rough and fiery, yet smooth and cool when they layer clean melodies or intense solos over their riffs. Charles Bou Samra’s bass is extremely punchy and plays well off the guitars. The previously mentioned symphonic elements provide a proficient and vibrant atmosphere throughout the album. The band balances well between the prog metal rockers and more melodic, ballad-y material, which works well.

Disequilibrium is a treat to those who enjoy progressive metal from the 90’s, and early 00’s. The next step will be a huge challenge for the band, and if they successfully pass it, they are onto something really big.

Review: Queensryche – Condition Human

Review: Queensryche – Condition Human

Band: Queensryche
Album: Condition Human
Reviewer: Nick from When Prog and Power Unite
Audio Review

Queensryche Website

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Queensrÿche is one of the few bands around in which I cannot find myself easily separating the intra-band politics and history from the music. In 2012 the band had a very ugly and public split with long time vocalist Geoff Tate. The resulting legal battles led to multiple years of two competing entities using the name “Queensrÿche” while releasing new music and touring. Those issues are settled now, with Geoff Tate changing his band’s name to Operation: Mindcrime, and the remaining members retaining the name Queensrÿche, who have just released their 2nd album without Tate, Condition Human.

Many fans had put a lot of stock in the previous self-titled album. The band had been making statements of all the creative energy that had been put on the shelf for many years, and how excited they were to go out and prove themselves. What they delivered was an EP length collection of sonically horrible songs that were a return to the metal genre, but not necessarily a return to great metal music. Many fans pointed to the fact that the album was certainly better than the bands previous effort, Dedicated to Chaos, and this I certainly will not argue, however the lackluster album combined with the bands unwillingness to stand behind the material on tour had me writing them off as a modern and relative act.

With the release of Condition Human, my opinion on that is beginning to change. For starters, listening to the album doesn’t make my ears bleed. In fact, it sounds rather good. Scott Rockenfield’s drums and Michael Wilton and Parker Lundgren’s guitars in particular cut through very clearly in the mix. While the bass is certainly more subdued, every other instrument stands out very well. Then of course, is the music itself. It no longer feels like metal for the sake of metal, and I dare say it actually stands out at times as Queensrÿche having a distinct sound again.

This is seen most notably on the album’s closing and title track, “Condition Human”. Not only does the song show what the band can do moving forward, but it also nods at the early days in a more tactful manner than anything on the prior album. On the flip side the band still finds itself making not so tasteful references to days gone by. The second track, “Guardian”, may as well be called “Revolution Calling II”. Not that the musical structures are similar, but when you match the primary chorus line of a  song from 25+ years earlier, it makes one ask, “Why?” The bigger issue at times is Todd la Torre’s vocals. Now I understand that he naturally sounds a bit like that man he’s replacing, but he sounds so much like a youthful Geoff Tate at times that I can’t help but feel it’s being done intentionally, either by his delivery technique or studio wizardry. While this certainly allows for familiarity for old listeners, it also limits their ability to carve out an identity moving forward. For a band that fought for years in court to move away from their former singer, it’s as if they retain his shadow in the band now. That issue aside, Todd’s vocals are powerful and consistent, and for that reason are a very nice addition to the modern Queensrÿche lineup.

As nice as the vocals may be, they are not the biggest part of Queensrÿche‘s resurgence with this record, not by a long shot. The biggest improvements have been driven by more interesting guitar parts and the songwriting. The previous album often sounded like a bunch of underdeveloped riffs made into short three or four minute songs.  On this record, the emphasis on simply being metal was put in the back seat, and the songs were given a chance to breathe as a result. Even a shorter track like “Eye9” seems to be far more developed than most of its contemporaries on the previous effort. As for guitarists Michael Wilton and Parker Lundgren, there isn’t much to say other than they’ve upped their game on Condition Human. The Queensrÿche album saw a return to solos, unisons, trade-offs, and stand out lead work, but there has been improvement across the board on this album. There isn’t a track that goes by without some sort of guitar work standing out and adding to the song.

One man that’s gone without mention so far is bassist Eddie Jackson, and that’s not without reason. As he has done for much of the band’s history “Edbass” manages to provide a great backbone, with a nice tone and nothing too flashy. He doesn’t standout much on the album, but with all the amazing guitar work going on he does a great job of complementing what Wilton and Lundgren provide, and not creating a “too many cooks in the kitchen” scenario.

One man that’s gone without mention so far is bassist Eddie Jackson, and that’s not without reason. As he has done for much of the band’s history “Edbass” manages to provide a great backbone, with a nice tone and nothing too flashy. He doesn’t standout much on the album, but with all the amazing guitar work going on he does a great job of complementing what Wilton and Lundgren provide, and not creating a “too many cooks in the kitchen” scenario.

There have been a lot of albums since 1994’s , and I’ve enjoyed most of them to some extent or another, but as a creative force I’ve never seen them as anything other than a shadow of themselves since that album. 21 years later, may be the album that re-establishes this band. It was especially refreshing to see the band correct the blatant audio issues with the last album, and put so much time into the writing. A major test going forward for the band will be to see if they go out and play these songs, and stand behind them. They replaced an iconic vocalist, and the fan base has been very accepting of Todd la Torre, which is quite a feat. They’ve been given the chance to resurrect their career and their image, and I hope that this particular phoenix doesn’t find the chains of nostalgia clasping around its neck, because I want more albums like from .

There have been a lot of Queensrÿche albums since 1994’s Promised Land, and I’ve enjoyed most of them to some extent or another, but as a creative force I’ve never seen them as anything other than a shadow of themselves since that album. 21 years later, Condition Human may be the album that re-establishes this band. It was especially refreshing to see the band correct the blatant audio issues with the last album, and put so much time into the writing. A major test going forward for the band will be to see if they go out and play these songs, and stand behind them. They replaced an iconic vocalist, and the fan base has been very accepting of Todd la Torre, which is quite a feat. They’ve been given the chance to resurrect their career and their image, and I hope that this particular phoenix doesn’t find the chains of nostalgia clasping around its neck, because I want more albums like Condition Human from Queensrÿche.

Review: Nordic Giants – A Seance of Dark Delusions

Review: Nordic Giants – A Seance of Dark Delusions

Band: Nordic Giants
Album: A Seance of Dark Delusions
Reviewer: Joe from When Prog and Power Unite
Audio Review

Nordic Giants Website
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A Séance of Dark Delusions is the long-awaited debut album from Nordic Giants, a post-rock/prog band from Brighton, England.  Though the duo previously released several EPs on their own record label, A Séance of Dark Delusions is the band’s first full length effort, as well as their first new recording under progressive rock label KScope.

At its core, Séance is an album that relies heavily on sampling and ambient synth patches to create a dreamy sense of atmosphere and haunting empty space. Some obvious comparisons to make might be modern Mogwai or Explosions in the Sky, though Nordic Giants fit nicely besides act such as Anathema and Lunatic Soul, as well as other bands on KScope who are representative of the recent “post-prog” scene. The band also put a premium on their experimental live performances, which include short films, animations, and a digital mapping experience. The elaborate setup is something you might expect from an artist such as Bjork, but not your typical post-rock or prog rock band.

Musically, Séance is not all that different from the band’s earlier EPs such as Build Seas and A Tree As Old As Me, though the full length does feature some of the band’s busiest and most cinematic arrangements to date. Several songs are airy and minimalistic, such as “Give Flight to the Imagination” which features longtime collaborator Freyja. Others, such as “Rapture”, contain flurries of percussive arpeggios and driving rhythms that are reminiscent of the cathartic buildups to be found in modern Anathema.

As I was listening to the album, I found myself wanting more songs featuring guest vocalists, and fewer songs where heavy speech samples are used. While I have enjoyed albums that feature heavy sampling in the past, I found those used on A Séance of Dark Delusion to be a little bit too heavy-handed and literal. Also, I thought the guest vocalists really helped to add extra variety to the album, which sometimes starts to sound too much like itself.

Having done a bit of research on the band, it would be disingenuous of me to fail mentioning that I have not experienced the visual components the band consider to be so important, nor have I attended one of their elaborate live performances.  Taken in a vacuum, Séance can sound over-homogenized and too wrapped up in its own beauty, but part of the challenge for those of us across the Atlantic and elsewhere in the world is that we are missing out on the ever-important visual presentation the band give on stage. It’s increasingly rare to find a band that put so much work and effort into their live show that their studio album becomes secondary, but I have every impression that the eyes are just as important as the ears when it comes to enjoying Nordic Giants. One can only hope that, with this new album and new record deal, Nordic Giants the momentum they need to take their show across the globe.  Until then, consider me a believer.

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