Let me start this review by completely undermining my own opinion of this record: I am no expert on progressive metal. Only over the past couple of years have I begun to mine its incredible riches, but get past the most basic generalities in conversations with me about the music of, say, Dream Theater and I’m as good as lost to you. It’s not for a lack of enjoyment of the music, or even a lack of will to play catch-up with some fairly significant bands in metal’s storied and bloody history. It’s mainly just a blend of timing, circumstance, and lack of early exposure to some amazing music. But here I am, writing about one of the premiere acts in progressive metal over the past few decades. Does a lack of in-depth context regarding the genre’s complex history preclude me from positing a valid opinion on Haken’s sixth full-length record? Possibly. But given my lack of exposure to much that this genre has to offer I was itching to review this record from the perspective of a relative outsider to the genre. What is it about this band that has endeared them so deeply to the progressive metal community? I don’t know if I’ll have the answers, but why not get adventurous? So without further ado, let’s dive into a non-expert’s review of Virus.
For (hopefully helpful) context, Haken isn’t a complete unknown to me, so I’m not exactly flying blind here. A few years ago I spent time with their seminal release The Mountain, gave one listen to Affinity and found it more-or-less uninteresting, and didn’t revisit their music again until Vector dropped on our unprepared asses in 2018. I was thoroughly enchanted by that record, especially by its heaviest and most propulsive tracks like “Puzzle Box”. It was a record I’ve returned to more than perhaps any other record in the progressive metal category over the past few years, and I must say that my hopes were high that Virus would meet the lofty expectations I’d placed upon it. Thankfully, it does all that and then some. In keeping with its provocative title, Virus is extremely easy to get consumed by and very difficult to shake. As a sequel to Vector, it’s hard to imagine a more appropriately heavy and uniquely progressive record.
While I may not be able to immediately pick out a Leprous groove from a Soen one in a large crowd, I can most certainly point you in the right direction in regards to what makes a sequence of notes stick to your ribs. Opening track “Prosthetic” has the combination of elements that make a track memorable and infinitely repeatable. Melding an insanely catchy and aggressive riff with militant drum work and a groove that would make either of the above groups jealous, the track is a blistering shot across the bow that immediately catches the ear and holds it hostage for a solid six minutes. In short, it’s a straight up fucking banger. I was engaged from literally the first seconds of this track, and it most certainly set the tone for the rest of the album. Fans of the heavier aspects Vector in particular should find plenty to love in Virus as a whole, as the heaviness flows liberally throughout.
But for those who find themselves more allegiant to the band’s most progressive elements, Virus isn’t without its starkly beautiful moments. “Invasion” is a moody jam that highlights Ross Jennings’ consistently amazing vocals (rivaling Katatonia’s Jonas Renske for some of my favorite I’ve had the pleasure of hearing this year), while also showcasing Charles Griffiths’ and Richard Henshall’s innate ability to slide between bouncy progressive passages and a darker, more menacing heavy edge with seamless precision. It’s a fantastic blend of all that the band do well, never falling short of interesting and thoroughly engaging. “Carousel” feels more akin to the band’s previous work in albums like The Mountain, featuring soaring melodies and stretches of groove that reach an epic scale that other tracks on Virus just cannot match. There’s even a throwback to the now legendary “Cockroach King” in the five part masterpiece “Messiah Complex”, which represents some of the most ambitious songwriting I’ve heard from the band yet, adding blasts of manic musical energy that at times almost feel Igorrr-esque. It’s a spectacle that lives up to the band’s reputation, and is surely the highlight of the record.
While much of the progressive metal I’ve thus far listened to suffers from fairly significant bloat (at least in my estimation), Haken avoids the pitfalls of over-indulgence by keeping their last two records in particular on the manageable side in regards to runtime. Clocking in at 51 minutes to Vector’s 44 makes the record feel expansive and loose without ever dipping into overbearing territory. The record also sounds fantastic, with a mix that allows the bass and drums to breathe and flow in tandem with the overpowering guitar tone, letting each performer complement the others in a way that sounds big, full, and rich. It’s a fantastic listening experience top-to-bottom.
While I may be no expert in the field of progressive metal, I can most easily and assuredly recommend Virus. It’s a record that contains everything that fans of Haken’s latest releases have come to enjoy, while throwing enough sonic bones to their earlier work to keep things unpredictable and thoroughly engaging throughout. The instrumental performances are superb, the vocals are as always fantastic, and the songwriting is as focused and effective as it’s ever been. As I continue my journey into the wilds of progressive metal, I can only hope that I continue to find music that blends the heavy and the heady with such precision and skill as Haken have accomplished on Virus. It’s a record I’ll be spinning for many months and years to come, and one that belongs among the year’s best.
Virus drops June 5th via InsideOut Music, and is available for preorder here.