Two thousand twenty has been a year of chaos, and the musical community has seen their fair share of impact. Even though it can be a disappointment, many albums have changed release dates, meaning that I’ve gotten extended time with the promos. This is the case with Haken’s new album “Virus”. The album releases on June 19th through Inside Out Music.
Most everyone is aware of Haken. They took the progressive community by storm around 10 years ago with their quirky, fascinating style of music. The current lineup for this UK band is: Ross Jennings on vocals, Charlie Griffiths on guitar, Rich Henshall on guitar and keys, Diego Tejeida on keys, Conner Green on bass, and Raymond Hearne on drums.
Haken are the epitome of modern progressive rock and metal. While they began as more of a rock band, I would say that, with “Affinity” in 2016, they truly became a progressive metal band. They love to use eccentric melodies, long portions of spacey musings, and mysterious lyrics and stories in their music. Nowadays, much of their sound involves a powerful twin guitar attack with impressive finger work and quite a bit of drive and even aggression. Ross’ vocals keep the band grounded and diverse in sound, though possibly not as much as in the past.
I have to take a moment here to say some things that have been on my mind about this band. Haken is one of my favorite bands, and Ross is one of my favorite vocalists. On top of that, Diego is one of the most inventive, interesting keyboardists in progressive music today. When the band signed Connor Green before the release of “Affinity”, I realized that the band was about to shift gears. Original bassist Thomas MacLean had a huge influence on the music with lots of funky, odd bass lines that helped define the band’s playful sound. With Connor’s entrance, even though he is an amazing player, his style is much more technical. This level of technicality has come to define the band in the last 4-5 years, and I find my love for the band fading a little bit.
Let me expand on that. I will never fall out of love with Ross’ vocals or with the interesting lyrics he brings to the table. In some ways, I feel like he is no longer the lead man, though, finding himself dropping some his own ideas for the sake of compromise and unity (at least in my mind). I completely understand that. I’ve also noticed that Diego isn’t all that present in the sound anymore, as his giant waves of melody are all but gone. In fact, you’ll hear him more in the electronic trappings, it seems.
The new sound has brought them a legion of fans, and I love that. I love to see them succeed. But I’ve noticed that the new fans aren’t all that keen on the first couple albums, and that breaks my heart. It makes me realize that I’m not a typical Haken fan anymore. Two thousand eighteen’s “Vector” is a perfect illustration of this. I gave it a 9.5/10 at the time, and I honestly can’t believe that. I would probably give it an 8 today. It’s an album with some amazing high points (like “Host”), but some songs that leave me entirely cold nowadays. It’s funny to see how my tastes have changed in just the last two years.
Why did I mention all of that? Well, “Virus” is meant to be a sister album to “Vector”, maybe even a sequel. I’m not entirely sure of the story here, though I can tell you that the virus on the cover is a bacteriophage, which is a virus that kills others viruses. I suppose that’s a clue. Anyways, with this album being billed as a sister album to “Vector”, my expectations went south a bit. I don’t know why, but I had hoped for a return of the Haken I knew. As it turns out, that is partially what happened.
“Virus” is an album that really plays to all Haken fans. I feel a little love coming from the band myself. This album has plenty of the roaring, driving guitars and the overly technical passages, but it also has plenty of musing Ross moments, callbacks to “The Mountain” (specifically “Cockroach King”), and quirky sections. Considering “Vector” and “Virus” as a sort of double album, then, it is more than solid. It has so much going for it, even.
We’ve all heard the three singles, “Prosthetic”, “Canary Yellow”, and “Invasion”. The former took a long time for me to like, though the chorus eventually wormed its way into my brain, and I appreciate the powerful riffs. “Invasion” is a good song, too, though I don’t feel it is all that memorable. “Canary Yellow”, though, is a great track, one that explodes with light near the end. I really like it, and I relate it to “Red Giant” from “Affinity”, which is one of my favorite Haken songs.
The rest of the album has some very interesting stuff happening. “Carousel” is a ten-minute track with some of that carnival vibe from “Visions”. I honestly disliked it at first, but I’ve come to appreciate it, especially the abnormal yet somehow symmetrical structure. “The Strain” is a cool song, one with lots of atmospheric Ross moments and electronic accents to give it some texture. In fact, I think this song might be my overall favorite on the album. The album ends with “Only Stars”, a dark and cinematic track that I think will sound great live.
I would say the most curious part of the album is the five-part “Messiah Complex” suite. It runs around 15 minutes in total, and it offers bits of nostalgia mixed with the newer Haken sound. This is the song that features the direct callback to the “Cockroach King”, bringing that concept/character into this story. I do really like this, and I like how the reuse of those familiar melodies is not exact, but ever so slightly different, just to keep us on our toes. There are plenty of head-banging sections here, too. This suite will also sound wonderful live, I am sure.
In the end, I find myself a little less excited about Haken’s music, but that’s probably not their fault. Their albums are always professional, adventurous affairs, and they deserve every bit of success they can muster. “Virus” is a wonderful companion to “Vector”, besting it in both diversity of sound and in honest composition. I really do like this album, though I don’t think of it as being on the same level as some of the band’s earlier work. I know that many of their fans disagree with me, though. Overall, I think on 8/10 for “Vector” and “Virus” together is a good and honest score from me, and one that won’t change with time.
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