London-based sextet Haken haven’t stopped gaining momentum since they began recording in 2008, and they really broke through into the prog mainstream with the avalanche that was 2013’s The Mountain. That album won over many detractors who had previously viewed them as a Dream Theater clone (when 2011’s Visions came out, fantastic though it was, many described it as “the best DT album in years”) by carving out a unique style of their own. Following a change of personnel on bass and an excellent EP of reworked songs from their original demo, Haken are back with their first entirely-new material since the addition of Conner Green.
With Affinity, Haken move further away from their most obvious early influences and solidify their status as one of the most fresh and dynamic bands around. With each album the band have been more collaborative in their approach, and this time ideas have been brought by every member and worked on together. Far from being confusing or incoherent, this approach has retained the core Haken sound while continuing to develop an exciting diversity of sounds and styles.
There are a couple of particularly evident shifts on this album. A greater proportion than ever before is atmospheric in style, with a notable post-rock influence that manifests explicitly in one or two songs and more subtly in other places. The album is also tonally a lot brighter than all their previous releases. That doesn’t mean it’s all chilled out and upbeat, but the shift is noticeable. There is also a greater infusion of digital and electronic sounds, and an enjoyable infusion of 80s sounds and styles. Again, these stylistic elements do not take over and the core Haken style remains, with heavy riffs and planet-sized choruses, but the changes help distinguish Affinity from everything else.
Lyrically, this is the most intriguing and esoteric Haken have been. Their early releases were concept albums with reasonably clear narrative, while The Mountain was mostly similarly direct, if more relatable, in its exploration of the ups and downs of life as an artist. On Affinity, though, the band’s lyrics are more subtle, less overt, and weave together different topics and ideas into a surprising coherence. There is a common theme running throughout about the connections between us all, which give rise to the album’s title. But this is explored through an array of different subjects, and touching on a number of other themes, that to a far greater extent than ever, there is space for the listener to make their own interpretation, regardless of what each song is really about.
As with all Haken albums, Affinity is best listened to as whole. Some of the songs work excellently on their own, particularly in the second half of the album, but the band always take the time to craft a flow and coherence that benefits the total experience greatly. The album’s pacing is something they really got right this time, with almost all songs tightly written and the flow from one to the next expertly managed. There’s so much to pick out with the album that I have decided to write a rare (for me) in-depth track by track description at the end of this review. Those who want no musical spoilers whatsoever might not want to read that section, which is clearly marked.
Performances are absolutely top-notch all over the album, as fans will have come to expect. Every member has his moment to shine – some specifics are mentioned in the track by track review below, but there are also some album-wide highlights. Firstly there is the fact that, while there are individual moments of brilliance from each member, it never feels detached from the song, something Haken have occasionally been guilty of in the past. The other particular point of note is the choice of sounds used throughout the album. The band have created wonderful soundscapes, a key part of which is Diego Tejeida’s sound design, that blend all these different styles into something cohesive from start to finish. Master of production, Jens Bogren, is also an important cog in this machine, creating a clear, crisp sound as he always does and matching it to the brightness of the album.
Away from the album itself, Affinity has also been subject of an innovative and entertaining marketing approach by the band. This ranges from a funky splash page and press release on their website in the style of an 80s computer, through to outright trolling on Facebook with fake album and track names (which even the otherwise admirable Prog Magazine fell prey to). It’s all part of the fun, and has done a great job of creating a buzz for the album. The hype is, indeed, real.
All in all, it’s hard to find fault with Affinity. No album is without its minor weaknesses, of course, but here they seem irrelevant. The album is chock full of wonderful moments and held with an overall tightness that makes it a hugely rewarding experience. It takes a couple of listens to settle in, as despite some accessible infusions, there is also experimentation that makes it that bit harder to digest at first. And with an increasingly large and varied fan-base, inevitably not everyone will love everything. But I expect that, like me, most fans will warmly accept and immerse themselves in how fresh, exciting and downright brilliant the album is.
Track by track
The album’s intro track, inventively titled affinity.exe, consists of atmospheric computer sound effects that should be familiar to fans who visited the album splash page online. It also introduces a key rhythmic motif from the album that leads into the first proper song.
Initiate is, really, the first song. It takes the rhythms introduced in the first track and runs with them to create a concise, dynamic and highly rhythmic tune that sounds like the lovechild of recent Leprous and Haken’s own Atlas Stone. It’s a strong start to the album that should please most Haken fans. But so far so ordinary, by their standards.
Moving on to 1985, and things become considerably more surprising. Right from the off, there is a clear 80s influence in the sounds used, through the guitar tone, keyboard patches and synth drums. But in true Haken fashion they have fused this brilliantly with proggy djent riffs and the kind of huge chorus Haken fans have come to expect. There is also a wonderfully grand bridge section – again par for the course – that leads directly into what can only be described as a Final Countdown section. If this sounds bonkers, it absolutely is. But don’t be fooled into thinking this is just silliness. There is a terrific sense of fun throughout the song, but it is done lovingly and surprising coherently. It’s a weird first listen, but the song soon sinks in and is a hugely entertaining experience. The chorus, in particular, is one of their strongest to date.
Lapse is a nice little song with the potential to be overlooked. It is relatively straightforward, and its unfortunate positioning between the album’s two epics makes it easy to miss on early listens. It’s arguably the least interesting song on the album, but there’s plenty to enjoy, including a terrific instrumental section featuring a particularly groovy guitar solo from Rich Henshall, and a grand final chorus. And though its placement does it no favours, it is nonetheless perfect for the pacing of the album.
Most of Affinity is rather light, tonally, particularly compared with their previous efforts, but this all changes for the centrepiece, The Architect. This 15-minute beast is intense. The opening riffs are probably the only part of the album that Haken’s detractors could still suggest sounds like Dream Theater. This moves into a moody and dark prog metal tune with another classic Haken chorus and some equally infectious verses. The band gets into a great groove here, and there’s some great drumming from Ray Hearne, even delving into well-placed blast beats. The middle of the song features some terrific bass work from Conner Green leading into an atmospheric section that risks some fans losing interest – it’s not as melodic or epic as its equivalent in Falling Back to Earth from 2013’s The Mountain. But it furthers the song’s mood, and builds up to something Haken hasn’t done for a number of years: harsh vocals, kindly donated by Einar Solberg from Leprous. It’s a short section, but impactful. It has a very nordic-metal feel to it, which works extremely well in context, providing a fierce climax for the song. The intensity continues pretty much through to an absolutely glorious reprise of the chorus from Initiate to close the song.
After that monster, the album calms down substantially. Earthrise is surprising evidence that Haken can write an incredible pop song. It’s a simple, upbeat and anthemic tune abundant with beautiful vocal harmonies and a truly great chorus. Some prog purists might be put off by its relative simplicity, but this would do it such a disservice. It is warm, engaging and absolutely brilliant, with rich vocals reminiscent of former touring partners Von Hertzen Brothers.
Occasional 80s influences aside, much of the album has edged into new territory for Haken primarily by extending, refining or even just perfecting things they’ve tried before. Not so with Red Giant. This is ambient and delicate, with a clear electronic post-rock influence, more reminiscent of Radiohead or Anathema than the band’s most obvious influences. The song’s luscious soundscapes and unexpected rhythms take a listen or two to immerse in, but are hugely rewarding when you get there. And it features some of Ross Jennings’ best vocal work, particularly in the song’s climax.
The Endless Knot is the album’s last burst of energy, and is another top Haken tune. Digital synth sounds are very up front here, fused into a short intense metal track. In structure, length and vibe, it’s not dissimilar to The Mountain’s In Memoriam. In other ways, though, it’s new and fresh, not least of which is the dubstep-metal breakdown that one cannot help headbanging and grooving along to with a stupid grin on one’s face. The song is energetic, catchy and really damn good.
The album ends on a much quieter note. Bound by Gravity is probably the gentlest full song Haken have ever produced. Again the post-rock influences come out strong here, with hints of Sigur Ros throughout and a splash more Anathema. It is calm and reflective, and builds to a grand, uplifting finale that ends the album where it began, reprising the rhythms and sounds that opened the album.