The British progressive rock/metal band HAKEN is releasing its fourth full length album Affinity on April 29 on InsideOut Music. I was introduced to them in the fallout of their sophomore album Visions, which cast them as a traditional progressive metal band with long, complex songs and eclectic diversions. With 2013’s The Mountain and the following EP Restoration, HAKEN’S core sound diversified and progressive rock became a closer label, even if the music was still as heavy.
Affinity continues to develop the band’s sound, by crafting heavier passages out of eclectic progressive influences and rhythmic acrobatics, along with atmospheric passages highlighting the band’s attention to detail. Throughout the album there’s an 80’s aesthetic similar to the GENTLE GIANT worship on The Mountain. The obvious example is “1985,” which is early DREAM THEATER scoring a John Hughes movie on a thrift-store Casio, alongside more familiar heavy progressive sounds. While “1985” certainly sounds the part at times, comparing HAKEN to DREAM THEATER is unfair and undersells the former’s creativity, and ability to excel at often cited weaknesses of the latter.
To its credit, HAKEN does stop the retro nonsense short of ‘gimmick’ territory. In particular, there is “The Architect.” Think “Darkest Light” riffing under the vocal section of the chorus of “Visions” or “Celestial Elixir” featuring a “typical” performance from vocalist Ross Jennings, (and by typical I mean amazing) over a djentier guitar and drum rhythm. There’s also a cameo from Einar Solberg of LEPROUS fame, which will strike you as either the most terrifying or hysterical use of his shrieking growls to date.
The middle of “The Architect” is a slow climb from a slow bass and keys passage, to some of the most overstated takes on the rhythmically dynamic heaviness invoked on “Pareidolia” or “Falling Back To Earth”. It’s 5-6 minutes long, and the growth pattern is exponential. The song escalates to the promised Einar Solberg cameo. Solberg delivers unrestrained, full bodied shrieking similar to his harsh vocals on “Rewind” from The Congregation. It’s a single verse before an even heavier instrumental section crescendo, and a final set of chorus repetitions, now in a more ‘epic’-sound arrangement with strings and layered backing vocals.
Where the album isn’t indulging ambitious prog fantasies, it’s delivering punchy, compacted material like “Initiate,” “Lapse,” and “Earthrise,” a trio of excellent songs all clocking in under five minutes. Concision is an oft-neglected, and underrated friend of prog bands. “Initiate” leans towards the recent TESSERACT ideas on songwriting with huge vocal swells over monotone guitars following a driving rhythm.. “Lapse” owes more to the 80’s throwback party for overall tone, with Ross Jennings taking center stage ala “Because It’s There,” but it’s more active and also features a tremendous jazzy 80s-shred bonanza. “Earthrise” will be divisive, as it almost ends up in the territory of alt-rock. It’s synth driven, with heavier passages distributed sparsely throughout. This gives drum wizard Ray Hearne room to be heard, and the song has a chorus with an addictive hook.
The second half is further away from the metal sounds, “The Endless Knot” notwithstanding. “Earthrise” is a new sort of creative diversion, but is still upbeat and catchy, something previous diversions like “Sun” and “As Death Embraces” weren’t always plentiful with. Those kinds of songs are taken up with a different lens on “Red Giant” and “Bound By Gravity.” Both of these tracks contain a lot of internal momentum, and build to satisfying crescendos. They’re not my favorite songs by any means, but certainly worthwhile.
Affinity is a balance of creative ambition and commitment to enjoyment for the listener. It delivers on the implied promise of the marketing campaign; evoking a powerfully nostalgic look at 1980’s sounds in the midst of the progressive brand listeners have already fallen in love with. Affinity is also a remarkably consistent listening experience, given how thick the playbook gets at times. There’s probably nothing on this album that eclipses the band’s absolute classics, but it also might be the best-on-average album to-date.
STANDOUT TRACKS: ALL OF THEM