I’ve been living with this new Haken album for a couple of weeks now, attempting to wrap my head around it. Each time I think I’ve got it figured out some new detail jumps out at me that requires me to reevaluate. Like the band themselves, ‘Affinity’ remains wonderfully elusive and that just makes me appreciate it more.
Haken have been an enjoyable enigma from the very beginning. Over the course of four impressive full-length studio albums they have remained defiantly hard to categorize. The proverbial square peg. You can sit down and catalog all the elements, you can ascertain their stylistic influences, you can dissect and study their compositions but any attempt to accurately file them away into pre-existing little boxes? Futile. The only box they fit into is the one labeled, Haken.
Opening single Initiate sways back and forth from driving and propulsive to ethereal and contemplative with the always-impressive voice of Ross Jennings guiding the way. The arrangement seems deceptively simple on the surface, but there is a wealth of detail here that becomes more apparent on repeated listens (this holds true for the entire album). The heavier guitars don’t make an appearance until over 2 minutes into the track and provide a visceral edge to what is otherwise a primarily keyboard-driven, clean-toned arrangement. This concise 4-minute track serves as the appetizer for the full-course buffet that follows.
At the center of ‘Affinity’ are two equally impressive if stylistically diverse epics.
The first of these is the appropriately named 1985. On their prior album ‘The Mountain’ from 2013 a lot of discussion was spurred by their incorporation of “retro” instrumental sounds from the 70s, particularly in the infectious single Cockroach King, which wore the influence of Gentle Giant proudly upon its sleeve. This time out we move forward a decade to the digital 1980s. 1985 conjures up memories of the birth of personal computers, 8-bit video games, boom boxes, MTV and just about every keyboard sound and 80s production element introduced during the first half of the decade. In the press release the band mentions their love of albums like ‘90125’, ‘Toto IV’ and ‘Three Of A Perfect Pair’ (and even though Rush isn’t specifically mentioned their early 80s albums are an obvious inspiration as well).
To their credit, Haken takes these elements and instead of creating a pastiche, they expertly incorporate them into their signature sound. They are just additional colors in an ever-expanding palette. Their ability to liberally borrow sounds from different eras and styles has been apparent since their debut album ‘Aquarius’, but with each successive release it has become more organic in structure and more assured in execution. This maturity has also carried over into the recording studio, ‘Affinity’ is a quantum leap forward in production and sound design, showing that Haken is just as adept at “playing the studio” as they are at their individual instruments. On most albums a track as impressive as 1985 would be the clear highlight…but ‘Affinity’ has more riches to offer……
The second epic is the main course of our buffet and would also serve as an impressive introduction for the uninitiated. By far the heaviest track on the album The Architect is an absolute stunner, a 15-minute tour de force of the power and diversity this band can conjure.
Roughly split into separate movements it begins in muscular technical prog-metal territory, but this isn’t your typical paint-by-numbers variety, this is exciting, driving, heavy music played with passion. The mid-section is absolutely gorgeous, an ambient pad of voices and sound effects provide the backdrop for new bassist Connor Green to take a lyrical, fusion-inspired solo and then the guitars enter playing a gorgeous contrapuntal figure that harkens back to the sound of ‘Discipline’-era King Crimson. The following section increases the intensity with a side-trip into Opeth/Enslaved territory (the melody in this section is reminiscent of The Drapery Falls) and a guest appearance from Einar Solberg from Leprous providing a brief harsh-vocal contribution. It’s an immense arrangement and an impressive achievement.
While these tracks demonstrate the further refinement of the Haken elements we’ve come to know, I think the most exciting aspects of ‘Affinity’ show the band moving forward and expanding their sound into uncharted territory. Tracks like the lovely Lapse and the outward-leaning experimentation of Red Giant are thrilling, thoroughly modern compositions that point the way toward exciting chapters yet to come. They show an increased interest in electronic sounds and atmospherics, yet never venture into cold/clinical territory, remaining warm and inviting throughout.
I have to throw out a special mention to the wonderful mix by Jens Bogren who first came to my attention because of his excellent work with Opeth. His mixes sound HUGE, incredibly powerful without sacrificing any of the intricate detail and that made him the perfect choice for ‘Affinity’.
Easily their most impressive album, ‘Affinity’ solidifies Haken as one of the best bands that modern Prog has to offer and their potential for the future appears limitless.
Released 29th April 2016