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Vinyl, August 14, 2020
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Since releasing ‘Vector’ in October 2018, Haken have completed headline tours the world over, played sold-out shows across Europe and North America as support for Devin Townsend and picked up a Prog award for their efforts too! All the while, they have been quietly, secretly working on the follow-up album, entitled ‘Virus’. Drummer Ray Hearne reveals, “since releasing ‘The Mountain’ in 2013, one question has been asked of us time and time again, ‘who is the Cockroach King?’. This is something we were interested in exploring more deeply too, so we essentially did that through our music; elaborating and expanding upon the intervallic, harmonic, rhythmic and lyrical themes of that song. The end result is in an arc which spans across two albums: ‘Vector’ and ‘Virus’”. Once again, Adam ‘Nolly’ Getgood has mixed what is perhaps the most eclectic Haken album to date, with the 7 tracks revealing hints of influences from multiple genres, all intertwined with Haken’s own recognisable sound.
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Not many bands can pull off self-referential composition. When I read that this was a companion album, I thought they meant in tone and theme. No, Haken reprise motifs and passages and tunes from Vector and twist them into new and powerful moods, particularly on the relentless Messiah Complex. While referencing previous albums is a very prog thing to do, I have never heard it done this well. It's not all reprise, of course. There are new melodies and harmonies, new moods, and a lot of variety on display, and the record stands on its own very well.
Many albums, like Vector, take time to grow on you. Virus grabbed me by the brain immediately and didn't let go for a full and satisfying 52 minutes. This is a band at the height of its craft.
I am thankful I didn’t listen to any of the pre-release tracks or hype. While I realize that I am in the minority in this regard, for me the best way to experience new music (especially conceptual works) is a virgin listening experience. This way I can hear/listen to the album the way the artist intended – in its entirety. I knew it would be good, just didn’t realize HOW good … or how different from Vector. The two albums complement each other, which would be expected, right? But there is a deeper level here and so this album will take more time to dissect and appreciate. Vector left an immediate impression on listeners and as a result was very polarizing – most fans either loved it or felt it was their weakest effort.
I listened to the vinyl version first, which is my preference, because you then don’t have to deal with the whole “loudness/over-compressed” issue. In that regard, like the Vector vinyl, Virus is a robust modern recording with plenty of guitar crunch and bass power. Even more so than with Vector, Haken sound like an extremely potent progressive metal band on this recording. Yeah, the nods to the 90’s prog giants are evident, but if you just enjoy that heavy aspect of complex music/rock, then what is the problem? But fans of The Mountain always complain that its too much. Well, with Virus, Ross Jennings shines – there is a ton of melody here, and its all clean vocals. In fact, the use of dynamic contrast is present in almost every song – sometimes the transitions so abrupt that it takes you by surprise, but Haken make it work … and that is their trademark – technical heaviness co-existing with melodic warmth. And few singers can do it as well as Jennings – his vocal phrasings so unique and creative.
In that regard, this might best be described as a mix of Vector and Affinity with loops back to The Mountain interspersed, and there seems to be a maturity to the songwriting that perfectly reflects where the band is at this point in their career – connected to prog metal roots, but never at the expense of ingenuity. Lyrically, Virus is more personal/introspective and less factual/narrative than Vector. Where Vector explained the how “King” came to be, Virus deals more with the personal consequences and the outcome of Rex’s behavioral choices. Honestly, the lyrics are more universal this time around and could apply to each of us in some capacity. That, to me, is one reason why I think most fans will appreciate and connect better with Virus. The instrumental impact is immersive, but it’s the lyrical impact that makes this music feel less mechanical and more human, and by the end, you can almost sympathize with the King’s misery.
The opening barrage of “Prosthetic” with Hearne’s machine-gun snare establishes the tone for what is to follow as the guitars and synths synchronize in a crushing fusillade of metal. But as Jennings enters the fray the music opens up just enough to make room for his synth vocals. The paradox of the song is that while it is impossible to ignore the industrial heaviness and almost robotic voice in the verses, it is the highly infectious melodic chorus that steals the thunder of the song. “Invasion” settles into a more typical Haken mood with plenty of synths, sound samples, melody, djenty riffs and the very profound words. “What if where we’re lost is where we are meant to be? Why is it we never learn from all the mistakes we ever made? Losing our sense of direction has led us to where we all need to be.”
“Carousel” combines so many great elements into one song yet remains incredibly cohesive. Unlike the equally brilliant “Messiah Complex” this song features tons of contrast. Amidst the tight riffs there are some more traditional guitar melodies and even solos, and the soft sections are elegant thanks to Jennings’ captivating clarity. That sick infusion of dark guitar crunch during the soft middle section is killer – an example of how Haken keep the listener engaged despite the longer duration songs. I hear elements of greats like Dream Theater, Porcupine Tree/Steven Wilson and Opeth throughout, yet this remains distinctively Haken. Brilliant!
“The Strain” is a deep track which offers up some brilliant lyrical insight. “Temptation reminds me my weakness is defining me.” This song might be somewhat of a sleeper amidst the brilliance of the two epic tracks and the powerful and catchy “Prosthetic,” but fans of Affinity may discover it to be the best song here. The melodic/softer approach continues with the slightly more subdued “Canary Yellow,” the gentle guitar pickings, flowing keys and soft vocals serve as a calm in the eye of the hurricane which is Virus.
“Messiah Complex” closes out the saga in grand 5-part fashion, and in doing so incorporates all of the elements presented in preceding tracks, as well as some of the vocal gyrations and musical indulgences which characterized the original “Cockroach King” song. The short and morose epilogue “Only Stars” serves to remind us that we are all flawed and mortal in this flesh.
The mix and production are consistent with Getgood’s work to date, but I prefer the vinyl, which is excellent, over the digital version. By spacing this out over 4 album sides the wider grooves really let the music reach its potential. However, Inside Out has not always produced the cleanest, best sounding vinyl, the surface noise sometimes a factor despite best cleanings. Thankfully, Virus (and Vector for that matter) sound terrific in this format and lack the loudness/compression issues of the digital version. Additionally, I love the layout and presentation of the lyrics, art and credits which follows form from Vector. It is these detailed touches, in addition to the excellent music of course, that really make Haken stand out from the crowd of technically proficient bands out there today. Despite its 52- minute duration this album is over way too fast. Holding me captive through many listens now, Virus will no doubt be at the top of a lot of favorite lists the end of this tumultuous year.
I'm hoping to see the songs performed live, sooner rather than later. Rich, Charlie, Ray, Conner, Diego, Ross -- well done, guys, tasty mustard! See you in the US soon!
Whether it is an original sound you seek or a desire to hear many of the musical and lyrical elements from Haken's earlier efforts performed in an entirely new context, Virus should more than satisfy. For instance, it somehow manages to meld some of the playfully eclectic diversity and passionate execution of The Mountain with the technically precise, heavy complexity of Vector into an entity that is as simultaneously memorable and fun as it is challenging and seriously unorthodox.
In addition to all of this, Virus is a sequel of sorts to Vector. As such, when these two albums are taken as a single, unified work, they serve to complete each other, and in the process become an artistic achievement that stands shoulder to shoulder with any and all of Haken's incredible discography.
Accessible to both longtime fans and newcomers alike, Virus is another huge leap forward for Haken, another phenomenal addition to their ever increasing catalogue of quality releases, and another reason to be ecstatic for the band's future prospects. Congratulations Haken!