Album Title: Virus
Label: InsideOut Music
Date of Release: 6 June 2020
I began my review of ‘Vector’, Haken’s fifth album, with a bit of a moan. I felt it was just a little too short, and being the selfish person that I am, I wanted another song, maybe two. Mind you, it’s only because I love Haken and want to have as much music of theirs as possible; I want to bleed them dry of their musical endeavours and soak up everything that they can possibly offer. I fully admit that this is extremely selfish of me, especially when I’m now sitting here, attempting to review the UK progressive metal band’s sixth full-length release in ten years. I mean, I’ve had less hot dinners than that over the past decade. They have a work ethic that’s incredible, especially when you consider that they have toured extensively, and various members have released albums under other guises too, be they solo efforts or as part of other bands.
But enough of the past, I want to focus on the here and now. And the here and now means that it is album number six from the sextet, ‘Virus’, that’s under the microscope at the Mansion of Much Metal. Adorned with a bright yellow cover, it is the mustard to ‘Vector’s tomato ketchup red if the band are to be believed via their fun social media teaser posts leading up to the release. But it is of course more than that, being as it is the second part in a double-album concept delving into the world of the Cockroach King, inspired by their ‘hit’ song from 2013’s ‘The Mountain’. These guys love a concept album and never seem to want to make life easy for themselves.
If I was critical about the length of ‘Vector’, an album that I loved in any case, the same criticism cannot be levelled at ‘Virus’. There may only be seven songs on this new album too, but crucially, we get our much-desired Haken ‘epic’ and a run time of somewhere in the region of 52 minutes. That may, in reality, be only seven minutes longer than it’s predecessor, but to me, it makes all the difference. In fact, I’d argue that it sits at around the perfect length for an album. We’re off to a great start then.
The other comment I made about ‘Vector’ at the time I reviewed it, was much more positive. I suggested that, despite being a heavy record, it was their most immediate, at least as far as I was concerned. If anything, ‘Virus’ is even better on that score, as well. I cannot tell you how quickly it made an impact because it was an almost instantaneous thing; I press play and I’m in love. It is by no means a ‘simple’ album, because Haken never write simple music. But there is something about ‘Virus’ that I like even more strongly than it’s partner-in-crime.
It took me a few spins to grasp it, but I now realise what it is. And that’s that ‘Virus’ is a much more nuanced and arguably more varied a listening experience to ‘Vector’. As I discussed with vocalist Ross Jennings during my recent interview, there are definitely more peaks and troughs to ‘Virus’ in contrast to ‘Vector’ which was more consistently heavy across the piece. On ‘Virus’, to take just two examples, you have ‘Prosthetic’ and then you have ‘Canary Yellow’. Both incredibly brilliant tracks in their own right, but also massively different.
Seeing as it is the opening track, let’s turn to ‘Prosthetic’ first. The opening few seconds had me wondering if I was listening to early Fear Factory initially, given the machine-gun style of riffing with matching drumming from Ray Hearne, as well as the overt heaviness of the music. In fact, I’d put forward a passionate argument to say that this might be one of, if not THE heaviest composition of the band’s career to date. The riffs from Richard Henshall and Charlie Griffiths are simply enormous, groovy in places, and meaty as hell, whilst Conner Green’s bass commands respect from the outset, sounding like an angry beast when the song deigns to quieten from its general mode of attack. Diego Tejeida is his usual flamboyant self, but constrained slightly by the sheer brute force of the music that surrounds him.
And yet, for all the aggression, Jennings’ unmistakeably clear and resonant voice helps to soften things nicely when he throws off the effect-laden shackles from early in the song. There’s plenty elsewhere to hook the listener in, too. Most evident of all is the disarmingly catchy chorus that emerges at several points throughout the song. Within a couple of spins, I was singing (badly) along with Jennings without even realising it to begin with.
At the other end of the spectrum, there’s ‘Canary Yellow’, currently occupying top spot as my favourite song on ‘Virus’. This four-minute song is more about subtlety, whilst creating atmosphere and strong emotion. It begins quietly with Jennings’ voice accompanying an understated beat, delicate guitar notes and soft synths but the minute the central melody emerges, I’m smitten. We get hints as the song develops, as we’re taken on a more ambient, post-rock-influenced ride, but at the 1:34 mark, we’re hit squarely by something utterly stunning. Jennings has, for my money, rarely sounded better and alongside him, we hear the full power of that melody. The guitars, bass and keys might not be in full attack mode but they come together in perfect unison. And I mean perfect. I’ve not been this beguiled by a Haken melody since ‘Deathless’ from ‘Visions’. It sends shivers down my spine every single time.
But the more I listen, the more evident it is that the greater variation is not just between different individual songs; the variety also occurs within the tracks themselves. And the perfect place to begin to describe this, would be with ‘Invasion’, easily one of the highlights of this album. It begins with an irrefutable Leprous feel, thanks to the pulsating synth sound that starts it off in ominous fashion. In comes Jennings, who is slowly joined by the rest of the band, beginning with Ray’s drums and even bolder synth sounds. The guitars when they appear deliver some delicious stop-start riffs, but the subtle melodies are wonderful, as are the parts where the band break free a little from the jerky, off-kilter structure, complete with some gorgeous lead guitar work that’s technical but also full of feeling. The final minute is also stunning. It momentarily leaves behind the increasing heaviness in favour of something much quieter and more introspective, ultimately ending in a gratifying and rousing reprise of the chorus which again, is full of memorable melody.
Up next is ‘Carousel’, possibly the most varied composition on ‘Virus’. It literally never sits still, twisting and turning across its substantial ten-minute length. It is held together by yet more strong melodies, including a chorus that I initially disliked due to the final notes used. However, with time, I can’t imagine it doing anything else now. There are thunderous riffs to rival those of the opener, complex passages of typical Haken exploration, punctuated by more mellow expression, where atmosphere looms large. Conner Green comes to the fore too, when the song ventures into a more jazzy and funky territory; overall, it is just a top drawer composition that demonstrates that Haken have lost none of their magic, especially in the final dramatic throes that leave a lasting impression.
Sandwiched between ‘Carousel’ and ‘Canary Yellow’ is ‘The Strain’ and it could easily have been eclipsed by its neighbours. However, at risk of sounding like a broken record, it is another cracking composition with a gorgeous melody at its heart. Lush keys sweep over a quickly undulating soundscape where minimalism meets a sophisticated, multi-layered and textured approach with some of the most alluring lead guitar work on ‘Virus’
I mentioned earlier that ‘Virus’ features a typical ‘epic’ track and it arrives in the form of a suite entitled ‘Messiah Complex’. It is split into five parts but it is very much a homogenous piece that flows seamlessly for over sixteen minutes in total. Ross has described it in interview as possibly the most linear song in terms of structure and that is borne out in the listening, meaning that it is another composition that is ceaseless in its desire to take the listener on another unique journey, plundering as many different ideas as possible whilst laudably maintaining a flow that makes it an impressive and rewarding listening experience. It never feels forced, contrived or drawn out, with each section bringing something interesting and thoroughly enjoyable to the table.
Part one is entitled ‘Ivory Tower’ and it explodes to life within a few seconds, sounding fittingly grandiose as if to signal the beginning of a similarly grandiose opus. It doesn’t feel overly complex or challenging; rather it seeks to ease us into the suite and in so doing, introduces a really engaging melody that is then reprised later within the suite. Part 2, ‘A Glutton For Punishment’ is where the full-on complexities are unleashed. Choral-style vocal effects merge with jagged riffing, dextrous and convoluted instrumentalism from all corners, and a breathless intent. It seems destined in the stars that ‘Marigold’, the third part of the suite dials things down significantly, at least initially. The sedate passage is replaced by some of the most quirky and ‘progressive’ ideas within the song. I’m not a musician so I can’t tell you the beat or the more technical stuff, but it is eclectic, bold, heavy and adventurous. Part four takes over and almost immediately reprises ideas within ‘Cockroach King’ that all fans will recognise instantly. Not content to leave it there, the playful, cheeky side of Haken comes right to fore via discordant synth sounds, akin to an errant saxophone, computer game sound effects and a moment that comes dangerously, but fabulously, close to black metal blast beat ferocity. Part five, the final part, is entitled ‘Ectobius Rex’ and it once again reprises melodies from ‘Cockroach King’ as well as a triumphant return to the melodies introduced a quarter of an hour ago within the opening part. The ‘Messiah Complex’ suite then draws to a close via a powerful and rather bombastic, riff-driven outro that’s a gigantic statement of intent from the sextet.
It could be argued that the album could have ended at this point, with the strains of ‘Ectobius Rex’ left hanging tantalising in the silence. However, it is left instead to ‘Only Stars’ to bring ‘Virus’ to a conclusion in sombre and deeply introspective fashion. Just vocals and synths, it allows the magnitude of what’s just been heard to sink in, and for a contemplative breath to be taken.
I could go on, but I’ll conclude this review by saying the following: modern progressive music rarely sounds this good; ‘Virus’ is quite simply a stunning body of work, maybe their best yet.
The Score of Much Metal: 98%
Check out my reviews from 2020 right here:
Pile Of Priests – Pile Of Priests
Sorcerer – Lamenting Of The Innocent
Lesoir – Mosaic
Temnein – Tales: Of Humanity And Greed
Caligula’s Horse – Rise Radiant
…And Oceans – Cosmic World Mother
Vader – Solitude In Madness
Shrapnel – Palace For The Insane
Sinisthra – The Broad And Beaten Way
Paradise Lost – Obsidian
Naglfar – Cerecloth
Forgotten Tomb – Nihilistic Estrangement
Winterfylleth – The Reckoning Dawn
Firewind – Firewind
An Autumn For Crippled Children – All Fell Silent, Everything Went Quiet
Havok – V
Helfró – Helfró
Victoria K – Essentia
Cryptex – Once Upon A Time
Thy Despair – The Song Of Desolation
Cirith Ungol – Forever Black
Igorrr – Spirituality and Distortion
Nightwish – Human. II: Nature.
Katatonia – City Burials
Wolfheart – Wolves Of Karelia
Asenblut – Die Wilde Jagd
Nicumo – Inertia
The Black Dahlia Murder – Verminous
Omega Infinity – Solar Spectre
Symbolik – Emergence
Pure Reason Revolution – Eupnea
Irist – Order Of The Mind
Testament – Titans Of Creation
Ilium – Carcinogeist
Dawn Of Ouroboros – The Art Of Morphology
Torchia – The Coven
Novena – Eleventh Hour
Ashes Of Life – Seasons Within
Dynazty – The Dark Delight
Sutrah – Aletheia EP
Welicoruss – Siberian Heathen Horde
Myth Of I – Myth Of I
My Dying Bride – The Ghost Of Orion
Infirmum – Walls Of Sorrow
Inno – The Rain Under
Kvaen – The Funeral Pyre
Mindtech – Omnipresence
Dark Fortress – Spectres From The Old World
The Oneira – Injection
Night Crowned – Impius Viam
Dead Serenity – Beginnings EP
The Night Flight Orchestra – Aeromantic
Deadrisen – Deadrisen
Blaze Of Perdition – The Harrowing Of Hearts
Godsticks – Inescapable
Isle Of The Cross – Excelsis
Demons & Wizards – III
Vredehammer – Viperous
H.E.A.T – H.E.A.T II
Psychotic Waltz – The God-Shaped Void
Into The Open – Destination Eternity
Lunarsea – Earthling/Terrestre
Pure Wrath – The Forlorn Soldier EP
Sylosis – Cycle of Suffering
Sepultura – Quadra
Dyscordia – Delete / Rewrite
Godthrymm – Reflections
On Thorns I Lay – Threnos
God Dethroned – Illuminati
Fragment Soul – A Soul Inhabiting Two Bodies
Mariana Semkina – Sleepwalking
Mini Album Reviews: Moloken, The Driftwood Sign & Midnight
Serenity – The Last Knight
Ihsahn – Telemark EP
Temperance – Viridian
Blasphemer – The Sixth Hour
Deathwhite – Grave Image
Marko Hietala – Pyre Of The Black Heart
SWMM – Trail Of The Fallen
Into Pandemonium – Darkest Rise EP
Bonded – Rest In Violence
Serious Black – Suite 226
Darktribe – Voici L’Homme
Brothers Of Metal – Emblas Saga
A Life Divided – Echoes
Thoughts Factory – Elements
You can also check out my other reviews from previous years right here: