Issue 2013-055: Haken - The Mountain - Round Table Review
Round Table Review
Tracklist: The Path (2:46), Atlas Stone (7:32), Cockroach King (8:14), In Memoriam (4:17), Because It's There (4:23), Falling Back To Earth (11:50), As Death Embraces (3:13), Pareidolia (10:50), Somebody (9:00)
Alison Henderson's Review
Haken are still very much the new boys on the prog block, having only formed six years ago in 2007, a relatively short time compared to some of their contemporaries with whom they have been performing at various festivals in the U.K., Europe and the U.S.A.
Their first two albums, the debut Aquarius quickly followed by Visions were both concepts, and were widely acclaimed in prog circles, their unique selling point being that here was a band who was not afraid to be different both in content and style.
So there was a weight of expectation resting on them to deliver something even more "out there" for album number three, therefore, they turned to Jens Bogren, producer of choice to both Opeth and Devin Townsend, to do the mixing and mastering.
Having heard tracks from albums one and two, then having seen them at both HRH Prog and Celebr8.2 this year, their stock in my mind was definitely rising but music of such complexity does sometimes need to be turned down to eight or nine, rather than up to 11, to appreciate all the painstaking work which has gone into it.
So to The Mountain now, which to my mind has reached the summit in a busy and otherwise crowded year of stunning prog. Some albums have made me cry with their intrinsic beauty, some have brought a smile to my face with their inventiveness but The Mountain is without doubt the most exhilarating album of the year so far.
It simply sweeps you up and carries you along on a musical adventure which has more twists and turns than an ascent of Everest, leaving you gasping for breath afterwards.
Haken really know how to mix a cocktail of intoxicating prog, with all nine tracks here bringing something different to the table (mountain), each one of them a cleverly crafted widescreen excursion embracing a range of styles from metal to theatre, jazz, balladry, world music and film scores.
It is that cinematic quality to their music which defines the sheer scale of this album. Get your crampons and ice picks ready because it is going to be a heady climb to the top. Starting gently, The Path sounds like a sung prayer, Ross Jennings, a vocalist continuing to grow in stature as one of the most expressive in the business, with the gentle piano of Diego Tejeida gently easing you through the early foothills.
Then comes the first mighty blast upon the ascent, the kaleidoscopic Atlas Stone, which has almost a sensurround quality to it as its almost innocuous opening piano suddenly goes spiralling off into this maelstrom of panoramic prog. It's metal, it's jazzy, it's full of lush melody, it has angelic choirs in the mix and above all, it is one of 2013's true anthems with its drama and built-in Feelgood Factor.
Now, be careful not to be wrong-footed by the next track The Cockroach King, which, despite the majesty of Atlas Stone, is the album's defining track. Imagine if you will what would happen if you crossed Gentle Giant's Octopus with the theatrical aspects of Queen. Well, this is how it might sound with some vocal jiggery pokery underscored with some fine instrumental lines, especially some stunning jazzy interplay between Tejeida's piano and Thomas MacLean's killer bass. They should give this song its own dressing room with a star on the door as it oozes class and eccentricity. In fact, Jennings does sound remarkably like Freddie Mercury at certain junctures of the song.
In Memoriam is a straight all barrels blazing prog metaller, pushing guitarists Richard Henshall and Charlie Griffiths right up in the mix, with heavy echoes of Dream Theater, one of their biggest influences. Taking the foot off the gas again, unaccompanied choir-like vocals begin Because It's There before it settles into a laid-back groove. It almost has a hymn-like quality to it through the use of the voices, but it is the elaborate scoring of each of the six band members which really impresses here.
Back Down To Earth explodes into life with a full-on metal introduction but then alternates between light and darkness, shooting off in several different melodic directions across the prog spectrum before ending with an extended haunting, atmospheric coda sequence.
In complete contrast, As Death Embraces, a song they performed at this year's HRH Prog and Celebr8.2 festivals, is a gorgeous two hander with Jennings's emotive voice and Tejeida's gentle piano again showing how they can do simple as well as the musical fireworks.
And fireworks are what you get in Pareidolia, one of the album's longest songs, which has a full-on cinemascope dynamic to it as it winds itself up and delivers knock-out punch after punch. And did I mention it also has a balalaika passage? A mighty driving beat from drummer Raymond Hearne keeps it all secured while the musical rockets shoot skywards overhead.
And now to the final ascent to the summit with Somebody, a hauntingly lovely piece with some great interplay between keyboards and guitar punctuating the softer sections before it reaches its heady climax. It is an ideal way to end as it allows you to catch your breath but, at the same time, there is so much to admire yet again with the interplay of both the musical and vocal arrangements.
In a remarkable year for prog, The Mountain reaches another zenith. The jaw-dropping complexity and attention to detail throughout is second to none. Not being the greatest fan of the heavier end of prog, this album is outside my usual comfort zone but, even in their more visceral moments, Haken have a special quality to their style which never ceases to astound.
Having played The Mountain at least 20 times so far, I feel I have not even begun to reach the upper slopes of this landmark album and, for that reason alone, I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Brendan Bowen's Review
Haken is a rare thing indeed. You can take all the derivatives, references, and similarities and try to make a case for this band being a mishmash of Dream Theater, Spock's Beard, Pain of Salvation, etc., but when listened to intently, none of that matters. This is pure prog finesse with a solid hard edge built as impressively as anything I have ever heard. As far as any sophomore doubts (not mine) that needed to be shaken for this third act, forget about it. The Mountain is a statement of power, prowess and confidence that took the best parts of the previous two albums, Aquarius and Visions and spring-loaded this third release for a stellar return.
A great deal of prog music is written by piecing cool riffs together and putting them to some existential lyrics. Haken follows this template somewhat but they take the time to develop each of the segments until they take on a musical entity of their own. The songs are long and presented in movements created from these connective bits of prog genetic material.
Their ability to weave a cacophonic musical line over some amorphous rhythm pattern and develop the idea into a musically coherent segment is genius. And then to finish it with a straightforward double-kick, drop D thrash riff rounds out the experience...kind of like frosting on an otherwise great cake.
Every song is a journey. At first it seemed they were just showing off their musical chops by including every conceivable sound, rhythm, and harmonic structure possible into every tune. Soon it became evident that the journey was actually completely structured, intelligent, and joyful. The purpose and direction is the real genius of this unique work. Also, Ross Jennings' vocals are dominant and frame the experience extremely well with stunning clarity.
The musicianship and production (Jens Bogren) are immaculate, but even that was just a fragment for this being one of the best prog albums ever recorded. The tonal palette of Thomas MacLean's bass and Raymond Hearne's cymbals is a masterful balance creating a lush and sublime listening experience. Combine that with their competent ability to build interplay between the bass guitar and the kick to retain the obvious metal roots and therefore maintain credibility, which is necessary considering the odd vocal risks (Cockroach King, etc.) that are a welcome holdover from Visions.
The Mountain finishes with an extremely powerful low brass finale in Somebody that sounds like it was inspired by Hans Zimmer's ground breaking Inception soundtrack. These guest musicians were a great addition. Extremely satisfying and full of depth, this finish is a fitting emotional end to a sincerely significant piece of work. This band is truly the heir apparent of the imaginary prog crown!
Gert Hulshof's Review
I must admit I was curious to find out what the boys had come up with this time around. The predecesors to The Mountain had been received very well and Haken's star in the prog universe has been rising ever since.
Have the band been able to uphold the high level of craftsmanship that spread across the world with their first two albums with the same eclectism and proggy sounds?
The opening track, The Path, instantly reminds me of an old Queen song, the piano work and singing - regardless of the reminiscences - making for a wonderfully crafted and equally well played song and a well thought out opener for the album. The second song carries us up the mountain in Atlas Stone, the story of Atlas carrying the weight of all the world on his shoulders so marveloussly depicted in various history books, building on the piano tune started in The Path and turning it into a full blown song, a lovely funky break at about 2:30 minutes into the song reminding of Motown's biggest years. The whole of the song is so marvelously crafted and well thought of with all the changes and swings in the music bringing back memories of years gone by.
Positioning Haken as Heavy prog is not right in my eyes; listen to Cockroach King which has nothing to do with Heavy prog anymore, it's so off line with a quirky introduction and bluesy singing, musicals springing to mind including those of Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice for the lyrics. It gets jazzy and bluesy at the same instant with a nice intermezzo just before the climax of the song kicks in. Quirky keyboards, insane guitar play, RIO fashion experimental music of insane and extraordinary beauty, then the a capella ending of the song is awesome.
That The Mountain is crafted around very beautiful melodies becomes apparent at the start of In Memoriam, beautiful piano starting the song followed by great guitar play. The conceptual nature becomes clear a few moments into the song. All the melody lines that started the album are continued, vocal lines as well, especially noticeable in the choruses. In Memoriam is by far the heaviest song of the album to this point.
And then Because It's There starts almost classically with only Ross singing, and then after 1 minute comes a chorus akin to The Enid followed by classical guitar play. Throughout the melody is great but the singing in canon, multiple voices singing together and then again not at all ending abruptly as if the song had finished prematurely.
Falling Back to Earth reads as if we are on the way back down from the mountain top, Heavy progressive with lots of influences on the side. I hear pieces of Gazpacho but also Dream Theater, all proof of the craftesmanship of Haken.
As Death Embraces could just as well have been done by The Enid or Queen for that matter, beautiful piano play with voice as a rest, the calm before the storm is over.
Without doing any injustice to the last two tracks of the album as these are two well crafted songs, Pareidolia and Somebody needed to finish up a marvelous concept album of great musicianship and extraordinary songs.
Another plus from my side is the absence of growling, a sheer joy for all who love true musicality and singing.
What can I say, I am truly overwhelmed by this album. I have been climbing The Mountain but refuse to leave it. So I’ll stay.
Basil Francis's Review
Only Haken could make a 9 out of 10 album seem like a disappointment! I'll explain what I mean by that in a bit. Suffice to say however, the band's creative and technical ability has never been stronger than on The Mountain, their third album, which is perhaps their best to date.
In my review of 2011's Visions I was disheartened to hear Haken playing what I considered to be more 'straight' prog-metal songs. Indeed, the quirky eclectic feel that permeated Aquarius was noticeably absent on that album. I am pleased to announce then that they have restored this thrilling aspect of their music throughout The Mountain, and especially on the track Cockroach King. Already, I've seen many other reviewers compare this track in particular to Gentle Giant, and they are not wrong. Acapella parts appear throughout the album; while the band were going to record these parts with various members of the band singing, they collectively decided that Ross Jennings' guiding vocals were 'pretty much perfect' and left it at that.
In my interview with Haken's keyboardist/guitarist Richard Henshall, he mentioned many influences from Bill Evans to Dream Theater to Zappa, although I was pleased to see the little-known band England of Garden Shed fame pop up in other interviews. Needless to say, Haken's take on progressive metal is anything but samey.
Perhaps the first thing I noticed about this album was that the band has changed their logo on the album cover. Perhaps this signals the arrival of a new Haken? At any rate, the opening track The Path shows a sense of maturity from the band's side. Rather than rushing into things like before, The Path is simply a beautiful poem set to gentle chords, with the hope of a reprise later. With its perfectly executed segue into the album's lead single, Atlas Stone, this is the kind of opening that makes the listener want to sit down and just enjoy the album in full.
And talking of Atlas Stone, what a track it is too! A very busy piece, Haken seem to throw every idea they can into one song, and yet it somehow works brilliantly. I still can't quite believe it's only 7½ minutes long. From power chords to jazz-metal to a soaring guitar solo to acapella and even including a section that reminds me of the legendary Swiss band Island, this track has it all, right down to the catchy chorus.
For me, the other standout track on this album is Falling Back to Earth. I couldn't work out quite why I enjoyed it so much until I began to compare it to Dream Theater. The verses and choruses could just as well have been lifted from a DT track, which is certainly not a bad thing. However, where the band excel is on arrangement. While DT have a propensity to lump all the verses and choruses in the first half of the track with a great long instrumental to look forward to at the end, Haken spread everything out, perfectly exacting the tension created by waiting for the chorus with brilliantly executed instrumentals. When the music is this good, I don't mind waiting another three minutes for the next chorus!
Nevertheless, The Mountain falls at the last hurdle, and I mean that somewhat literally. After a blindingly good 40 minutes or so, the momentum just seems to leave towards the end. Don't get me wrong, Pareidolia and Somebody are good tracks, but to these ears they don't quite fit the high standard the band set themselves earlier in the album. The expected reprise of The Path does happen, but only halfway through, in Because it's There. I don't think I'm alone in saying that I was expecting a more hardcore reprisal in the final track. Sometimes you need to give the fans what they want. Eerily, this isn't the first time I've been underwhelmed by the ending of a Haken album. My only hope is that this album is perhaps the Part 1 of something grander, and that themes from this album might be revisited later, causing me to rethink my rating, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.
So yes, it's a fantastic album, one of the best I've heard all year, and one I'll be playing for many moons after this review. However, it seems to shoot itself in the foot towards the end with regards to the masterpiece rating. At one point I was certainly considering a 10 for this album, but a 9 will have to suffice for what I consider to be the band's best album to date. There's always room for improvement! On the other hand, I've seen the music from this album excite those prog fans who would otherwise have never touched a prog-metal album in their life. Haken and their sister band To-Mera are really pushing the boundaries of prog-metal, boundaries that haven't been pushed since Dream Theater got into their stride about 20 years ago, and it's albums like these that are there to chart the progress.
|From the DPRP Archives...
Previous Haken CD Reviews:-
|"A very impressive debut from a band who I have high hopes will become leading lights in the modern progressive rock scene."|
(Tom De Val, 9/10)
|"With Visions, it’s a classic case of ‘difficult second album’. I will admit, given the sheer power and freshness of the band’s debut, I was slightly disappointed by this album, but nevertheless found it an interesting and exciting listen."|
(Basil Francis, 8.5/10)
"It's too ambiguous to have any truly defining moments and until fans have had time to listen to it repeatedly and make their own decisions, I shall remain slightly ambivalent.!
(Jon Bradshaw, 7.5/10)
Previous Haken Live Reviews:-
|"Haken kept the whole hall hooked from beginning to end. Possibly the best band ever to open a day at this festival."|
|Summer's End Festival|
|"Sound-wise this wasn’t perfect, with the keyboards in particular being rather low in the mix at certain key points, but this wasn’t a big enough hiccup to detract from a thoroughly professional performance."|
(Tom De Val)
|"The whole band is now an incredibly tight unit and they were clearly enjoying their time onstage."|
|Night of the Prog|
|"Great showmanship and superb musicianship well prepared for a show at an open-air festival. An absolute smash."|
"This is a band I will certainly check-out further and anyone that likes their prog a little on the crazy side is well advised to do the same."
|Ittervoort, The Netherlands|
|"I must say that all the twitches, nuances, rhythm changes and stuff of this band are awesome and one of a kind. Maybe Haken was the real headliner of the night."|
(André de Boer)
|The Borderline, London, U.K.|
|"As The Borderline empties, I am left wanting more. Play all night. Play until tomorrow..."|
|De Borerderij, Zoetermeer, The Netherlands|
|"An absolutely stunning show strengthened by Ross' best vocals ever and some deliciously sparkling interludes."|
(André de Boer)
|Night of the Prog|
|"I was not as impressed with the performance of the songs as last year, maybe even disappointed in singer Ross Jennings singing a bit off key at times. May have something to do with too much and not enough rest."|
"Haken's performance was a bit of a mixed bag...it was quite rough around the edges and Ross' singing wasn't on best form."