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