Being a fan of Haken is like being on a genre journey. When they debuted years ago, they took on the prog world head first, creating albums of fantasy, psychedelia, and retro vibes. Somehow, though, these talented musicians keep pushing forward, always trying something new and “out there”, but always remaining true to their personality and core sound. It’s really something to behold. Their new album, “Affinity”, has been making the rounds on the Internet with a snazzy marketing campaign and tons of hype. I’m here to tell you that the hype is much deserved.
By now, you should know Haken. They ride the line between prog rock and progressive metal with deftness and purpose. They have signature sounds that I have affectionately dubbed the “Haken flutter and squiggle”, and you’d know exactly what I mean when you hear them. These guys make music that is mature, fun, lyrically deep, emotionally poignant, and technically difficult. It seems like they have it all figured out, and “Affinity” reinforces that opinion.
“Affinity”, as a whole, is a daring album with a digital and geometrical psyche. The band has chosen to write an album inspired by 80’s music, which, in the prog community, is usually a much derided decade. The plastic production, the arena ballads, the overproduced drums, and so on are all pointed to as reasons to skip much of the 80’s altogether. Haken, however, has chosen to embrace it, and you might say they “fixed” those issues. Yes, “Affinity” is an album that sounds synthy, upbeat at times, and certainly out in left field. Now, this doesn’t mean you’ll hear Twisted Sister in here somewhere. No, it’s more akin to 80’s soundtracks, actually. You’ll definitely hear plenty of Vangelis and Tangerine Dream influence in here, along with the more underrated 80’s offerings from King Crimson and Yes. I, for one, love the sounds of the 80’s, so this album has fed my appetite liberally.
The band consists of Charlie Griffiths (guitars), Ray Hearne (drums), Richard Henshall (guitars & keys), Ross Jennings (vocals), Diego Tejeida (keys), and newcomer Conner Green (bass). “Affinity” is Conner’s first chance to prove that he has what it takes to be with Haken. Hm, let’s talk about that for a moment. The musicians here are all at the top of their games right now. Charlie and Richard lay down some incredible riffs and licks throughout the album, leaning slightly towards a djent style, but not far enough to call it that. They are helped immensely, however, by Conner’s exquisite bass. I was a big fan of Thomas’ bass on previous albums because it was so quirky and strange at times, but Conner’s bass is more technical, laying a foundation for immense grooves and towering polyrhythmic explosions that lay you flat on the ground. He also manages some slower, more plodding bass lines in the more abstract portions of the album. Yes, I’d say he has what it takes.
The other players are just as good, too. Ross sounds awesome. When I saw him live for the first time last year, I was blown away by not just how good his voice really is, but also his ability to phrase and emote his lyrics. His work here is just as good, full of high notes and fabulous vocal lines loaded with hooks and digital personality. Ray is as consistent as ever on the drums, keeping up with Conner in a way that I didn’t expect. His ability to be technical without resorting to some of the tired sounds of progressive metal and metalcore is perhaps his biggest strength. Lastly, Diego shines on keys. I would daresay that his tone and compositions are the very foundation of the vibe they have achieved here. His digital and synthy tones are treasures to my ears, and I can’t imagine anyone topping his performance this year!
“Affinity” is noteworthy because it is not a concept album, per say. Instead, according to Ross, it has an overarching theme of the advent of the computer and how that relates to mankind’s evolution. This brings up all kinds of questions of our origins and our end, so the album definitely contains some rather heady lyrics. The idea of a coded creature creating a coded digital world is itself a fascinating concept to explore.
The album itself revolves around two songs in my mind: “1985” and “The Architect”. They are the best two tracks on the album, and they really set the tone. “1985”, as you can imagine, is a fabulous soundtrack to the 80’s, complete with loads of keys and intense instrumentals. It is, in a word, fun. The epic, “The Architect”, however, is much more serious. Not only does it provide much of the djent sound on the album, but it also contains loads of digital vibe, a great abstract section, brief harsh vox (courtesy of Einar of Leprous), and also what is perhaps the best chorus Haken has ever written. Seriously, the chorus explodes like a jackhammer, but is somehow still beautiful and gentle.
Other strong tracks include, well, all of them. “Initiate”, the single, is pure joy. “Lapse” is another heavily 80’s track with some very unique sounds. “Earthrise” is a quite orchestral ballad that is also somehow heavy. “Red Giant” is a track that is closely related to “The Architect” in abstraction and sheer texture. “The Endless Knot” is a winding, writhing track that is quite technical. And, finally, “Bound by Gravity” ends the album with a vocally-led song of elongated notes and honest beauty. All these tracks fall somewhere between the two tones set by “1985” and “The Architect”.
“Affinity”, then, is the album that I wanted so badly to hear from Haken. They are effectively my second favorite band, and I was somewhat frustrated with their previous EP, as I enjoyed the original demos more. However, “Affinity” is perhaps their best album yet. Full of nostalgia, digital wonder, deep inspiration, darkened mainframes, and technical wizardry, “Affinity” manages to impress and surprise on all fronts.