A while back now, I posted a blog whereby I listed my favourite 5 albums of all time. If you are interested, it can be found here. In that post, I found it impossible to keep my list to 5 and therefore rather autonomously added a sixth. The sixth album was the newest of the list having only been released in 2011. However, such is the impact that it has made on me and the wider progressive music community, it had to make my list.
Enough of being cryptic, I am of course referring to ‘Visions’, the sophomore album by UK-based progressive rock/metal band Haken.
In the last few days, Haken have announced full details of their impending third album, entitled ‘The Mountain’, due out on one of my favourite record labels, Inside Out. In light of this and the fact that my excitement and anticipation has reached fever pitch already, I thought it would be the perfect time to explore the music of this extremely talented six-piece a little more.
Comprised of guitarist/keyboardist Richard Henshall (To-Mera), vocalist Ross Jennings, bassist Tom MacLean (To-Mera), guitarist Charlie Griffiths, keyboardist Diego Tejeida and drummer Raymond Hearne, Haken formed in 2007 and burst onto the scene in 2010 with their debut album ‘Aquarius’. I heard mumblings about it on-line and decided to give it a go. Initial spins were not the most favourable it must be said as I found the collection of apparently disparate and unusual influences challenging and a little jarring.
Long compositions that offered everything from death metal growls and heavy down-tuned riffing right through to jazz, circus music and melodies reminiscent of sea shanties addled my brain at the outset and had me muttering phrases under my breath such as ‘what the hell…’ and ‘oh dear God…’ Nevertheless, I stuck with it through sheer bloody mindedness.
I’m glad I did because with time and effort, the mists began to clear and I started to understand and appreciate the music a whole lot more. The atmospheres, complex layers of music, constant shifts in tempo and direction and some genuinely anthemic melodies began to seep into my psyche. I no longer thought the music to be odd; instead, I realised that here was a band with massive talent and an even bigger imagination. The fact that the album is wrapped up in the most progressive of packaging in the form of a concept story that features, of all things, a mermaid, just underlines the point about the band’s imagination.
The clinchers for me were to be found in the form of ‘Aquarium’ and the epic closer ‘Celestial Elixir’ The former, with its heart-breaking closing guitar solo is one of the album’s best, although the quirkiness and beauty of the multi-faceted and ambitious closer follows hard on it’s heels. Some have been critical and suggest that the album lacks sufficient flow and cohesiveness. I understand what they are trying to say, but would personally firmly disagree. For a debut record, it is nothing short of spectacular.
Fast forward to ProgPower Europe 2010 and I fairly and squarely loved this band. Interviewing the guys on their ‘tour bus’ at this same festival and in so doing finding out that the sextet were genuinely lovely people cemented my admiration for the band.
It was fitting then that I got to hear their highly anticipated follow-up, ‘Visions’ back in Holland, in the Kasteel de Berckt at Progpower 2011. Sitting in the café, the music bellowed out, reaching the ears of an eager handful of festival-goers, many of whom were a little worse for wear I suspect after a night of partying. First impressions were very positive but I knew it needed more time before it would hit the heady heights reached by the debut.
Sitting here now, a couple of years later, all I can say about the album is ‘wow’. I was lucky enough to review both albums for Powerplay Magazine and was delighted to bestow a rare full house, ten-out-of-ten upon ‘Visions’. I’m not always comfortable awarding full marks but on this occasion, the score was fully justified in my opinion. Damnit, the music is that good, the band left me with no other choice!
Everything that was present and good on the debut is in evidence on ‘Visions’. The complex compositions remain, as does the stellar musicianship all round and the trade-mark quirkiness; I mean, who can really sample a Nintendo Game Boy sound effect and get away with it? Haken, that’s who. That said, the quirkiness has been reduced ever so slightly or, to be more accurate, has been blended into each composition more skilfully, so that it doesn’t assault the ears quite so readily. The oddball moments are there, but in order to enjoy them, you need to really be listening.
This result is an album that maintains an impressive amount of complexity but also benefits from a smoother, more cohesive flow from start to finish. Part of this is a natural by product of a stronger production. When Haken let go, your ears are assaulted by walls of sound and of tangible atmosphere but when things are taken down a notch, the intricacies are not lost. Some of the bass guitar work for example is sensational and can be heard with clarity throughout.
Speaking of atmosphere, this is where I think that ‘Visions’ excels. Some of the music on this record is genuinely moving, meaning that you drawn into the music and don’t just listen to it, you end up living and breathing it as well. A personal favourite is the moody and emotional ‘Deathless’, a track that deals with the powerful subject of an individual who feels suicidal but who cannot bring himself to actually end his life. By the time the track has built upon a gorgeous melody to an all-too-brief heavy crescendo of sorts, I personally feel drained and on more than one occasion have had a few tears in my eyes. But the emotion that I feel is not just because of the subject matter, it is because I realise just how beautiful this music is. I feel honoured to be able to listen to it, so heaven only knows how the band themselves feel having created masterpieces like this.
The tour-de-force of ‘Visions’ however, is the 22-minute closing title track. The scope of this composition beggars belief and will stand for many years to come as one of the very best pieces of progressive music ever made. Combining strong melodies, intricate and challenging instrumental passages, dramatic twists and turns, this behemoth has it all and has to really be heard to be believed.
And so, as I write this, I find myself excited and a little nervous. It is strange to think that I can love a band this much when they’ve only been around for a total of three years in the public eye, particularly when they have only released 15 tracks across two albums to date. But love the music I do and I simply cannot wait to hear the next instalment, entitled ‘The Mountain’ when it is released in a couple of short, yet massively long months. When it arrives, buy it. Much to my chagrin, I can’t tell you what it sounds like yet but suffice to say if it is even half as good as the two that have gone before it, it will be magnificent.
Haken – English Music’s Finest Hour? They are in my humble opinion.