As you might have inferred from my previous review of Haken, for their excellent 2016 release Affinity, I’m not the biggest fan of their early works. Affinity, however, seemed to represent a band more secure in their own sound and willing to mess around with new influences, sounds, and ideas. The future, coming off the back of that fantastic album, seemed bright. But there was a shadow of fear gnawing at my heart; it’s not too uncommon for bands to step out of that safety zone for one album and then immediately snap back into their first few releases. Perhaps they don’t see the gratification they expected when they set out to experiment; perhaps things were still pretty much the same, so they prefer a return to what they know innately instead of staying the course and digging deeper into their sound.
But Haken seem only to have only been emboldened by Affinity‘s success; Vector is, once again, Haken but not as we knew them. Pleasingly enough, it’s not a rehash of their older materials but nor is it also just Affinity 2. Instead, it bears tried and true elements from the band’s progressive metal roots alongside a darker, more jagged take on them than Affinity‘s neon/retro heavy sounds. This kind of darker sound manifests itself with more ominous synths and electronic breaks than the ones on Affinity, which drew more from the 70’s and 80’s than the contemporary mode exhibited here.
While “The Good Doctor”, the second track on the album and perhaps the weakest, includes nods towards the previous album in the form of electronic drum fills and more colorful synths, these are quickly exchanged for more subtly disturbing tone on the following track, “Puzzle Box”. Alongside those more somber synths, the guitar and bass are also more sulking and mysterious, attributes which, when taking alongside the more staccato phrases of the opening verse (which returns throughout the track) show that Haken have perhaps been listening to plenty of Leprous lately.
This influence is also evident nearer the end of the track, where the electronics dominate the mix and composition, accompanied by an ethereal performance from Ross Jennigs. This kind of influence and style work really well with his signature vocals, a fact which Haken will revisit closer to the end of the album, and the more dastardly, progressive breaks replete throughout the rest of the track. The result is a powerful and varied track, drawing well on the darker tones of Vector and setting the stage for what’s to come. Thus, “Puzzle Box” does a great job of cleaning our palette from its somewhat generic predecessor and putting us in a good mood before the main event.
That main event is “Veil”, a classic Haken track spanning more than twelve minutes. It has everything Haken fans have come to expect from the band; sweeping choruses, drawn-out instrumentations, and progressive mainstays of the genre rampage across its first seven or so minutes. It opens with a classic piano/choir combo for its intro, feeding into an equally classic build up before the main line of the track introduces itself. It seems as if, for its first few parts at least, “Veil” is a nod to the old-school prog metal fans of the band and it works pretty well; Haken have always been able to pull off this style without sounding too cheesy or cliche.
But the true beauty of “Veil” starts when those first seven minutes are over; in a manner which cannot help but conjure Falling Into Infinity to our minds, the track suddenly transitions into a drawn out, moving, and melancholy meditation through guitars and faint vocals. After the whirlwind of solos and unisons of the first few parts of the track, this segment brings back the more somber influences that make Vector a beast of its own desires and set it apart from the band’s previous works. These passages, of course, build up towards a triumphant return of both heavier synths and guitars, which usher the track out. It is a highly effective matchup; both sides strike off of each other, gaining momentum the more you listen to the album. At some point, you know the darker parts are coming so you savor the over the top shredding and brighter progressive tendencies more. And after their exuberant excess, the more mellow parts of “Veil” are more than welcome, like a cold drink of water on a parched afternoon.
Vector, however, is not quite done. While the next two tracks are good if a bit less immediately exciting (though watch out for “Nil By Mouth”‘s djent-y chugs and the great wood instrument parts that open “Host”), “A Cell Divides” shows us that this album is way more than just its immediately recognizable centerpiece. Simply put, “A Cell Divides” embraces the Leprous influences fully, channeling a kind of Scandinavian prog that will be immediately familiar to anyone who has been paying attention to the scene for the last few years. Once again, what sells Haken doing this style is Ross Jennings; his voice works extremely well in this kind of setting, falling and dropping with heart-wrenching intimacy and breadth of expression. The rest of the track is, of course, excellent, and his delivery wouldn’t work in a void, but he’s still the clincher on this execution of the approach.
So, to sum it up, Vector is more than a worthy successor to Affinity. It sees Haken resist the temptation to retread ground by first shying away from the instinct to return to the band’s core sound and second, by refusing to simply recreate Affinity. Signs of the past can be seen all over the album but, by delving deep into a more charcoal, creepy, cold kind of sound Haken give those signs new meaning and content. Even when it doesn’t blow you away, like on the first track or those joining moments between “Veil” and “A Cell Divides”, it still has you thoroughly attentive by just knowing what it is and executing it well. With Vector, Haken further solidify themselves as one of the most dependable, interesting, and inherently original acts working in progressive metal.
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Haken’s Vector releases on InsideOut Music this Friday. You can pre-order it right here.