Calling the past back into the present is a tricky endeavor. In music, it can often lead to the opposite of what a band intended, leaving their music derivative rather than innovative. However, for those bands who manage to skillfully reach back to bring some part of what made past greats so great, inspiration, power and success await. This balancing is very hard to achieve: one must needs delicately inject influences from favorite acts into one’s own style, being careful not to tip the scale in the past’s favor. Haken are, for this reviewer at least, a prime example of how long this balance takes to achieve. Their previous releases, namely the wildly celebrated The Mountain, always flew just short of being true classics, worthy of the mainstream, classical progressive metal banner which had been thrust upon them or which was taken up gladly by the band. The scales tipped ever so slightly in imitation’s direction, with the overbearing presence of one great band which need not be named here.
But slowly, ever since that release, a sea-change has been overtaking Haken. Restoration, that intriguing retrospective, already held tell-tale signs of growth and maturation, of a more sober look towards past influences. And now, these initial buds have flowered into Affinity, the culmination of what Haken has been building towards in the nearly ten years of their existence. Affinity is not necessarily “better” than previous releases but it’s certainly more complete, more fully realized and executed. It is steeped deep in clearly stated influences but manages to be its own creation. It is fun and energetic without being simplistic. And its progressive without sliding into the mindless drivel that is often born from the blind and unchecked desire to innovate at any cost. It is, simply put, a well made album which straddles the boundaries between progressive rock, metal and Haken. It channels Rush, Genesis, Camel and more modern bands with equal ease, creating a truly wide canvas of progressive influences.
Let us begin our more detailed investigation with “1985”. Skipping the somewhat anthem-like first track (and the first single released), a closer look at “1985” affords us more insight into the album. It’s where Haken begin to truly dig in to what this album is for them. This statement of purpose begins with a guitar, bass and drum combination that almost, but not quite, quotes Yes‘s “Owner Of A Lonely Heart”, introducing a wild, child-like verve to the track’s progression. The synths that are then introduced, coupled with the drum sound, are a heady combination between mid-career Dream Theater (there, I said it) sensibilities and ideas that belong on video clips from the early MTV years. One receives the imagery of hair bands, pop ensembles and outrageous outfits, imagery which works very, very well with the cheer of the opening passages.
To these are introduced the modern day, Haken-bred touches in the form of chugged riffs, tricky leads and guitar/keys unisons. But, in the presence of the earlier influences, these are uplifted far past any strength they might have had on their own. What would have been simple and commonplace is made unique and exciting when coupled with the other, more unique directions otherwise present in the track. This blend is the adhesive which keeps Affinity together, which constructs something far more stable than any mountain. Look at “Bound By Gravity” for example, the wonderfully epic closing track. One of the best tracks on Affinity, it isn’t marked by the expertise or the innovation of any of its specific parts but rather by the whole that is brought together between them and their brightly tinted outlook and the darker themes of the previous track, “The Endless Knot”.
For those who have no interest in these plays on theme, lighting and genre (I suppose they do exist), this album has plenty of Haken “just doing their thing”. “The Architect” for example, a fifteen minute track located in the middle of the album in classic progressive metal fashion. So too are the opening drum poly-rhythms, runaway scales and other progressive metal trappings. The track is basically a study in the trope of the That One Heavy Track we know and love from progressive metal. It is this album’s “Fatal Tragedy”, a prolonged and aggressive sojourn in the darker side of the album. It even includes some growls after its trippy, ambient middle passage.
But, unlike their previous works, this isn’t the point of the album. Sure, you can lose yourself in these rituals of worship if you’d like. But the strength of the album lies in the places where Haken depart from these familiar trappings of self-subjugation and turn towards creating something new from the pieces of the ideas that have gone before them. Affinity is patchwork; it is quilt; it is weaving. It is multiple threads coming together from out of the past and, unlike their previous works, no single weave being given utmost weight. In that one-trick stead there is collaboration, exultation and celebration of the fantastic genre that is progressive rock/metal and the numerous joy-filled moments it has given us. This album then, and not their previous, is the one which bestows upon Haken the role of standard bearer, of the knight-warrior, of the Atlas carrying the weight of the world-genre. This album, with its cheery hints towards the greats (listen to “Earthrise” and tell me you can’t hear Phil Collins) is the one which makes us proud to say that Haken are fast becoming (or have already become) the face of classic progressive metal today.