Album Reviews

Issue 2016-014

Haken - Affinity - Round Table Review

Haken - Affinity
Country of Origin: UK
Year of Release: 2016
Time: 60:26
Track List:
affinity.exe (1:26), Initiate (4:16), 1985 (9:08), Lapse (4:44), The Architect (15:40), Earthrise (4:48), Red Giant (6:06), The Endless Knot (5:50), Bound By Gravity (9:29)
Raimond Fischbach's Review
The Restoration EP in 2014 had already shown the direction in which this band was heading, and on Affinity, their fourth full release, Haken have walked down that road a long way and delivered an album that should be considered as an all-time iconic piece of progressive metal.

Barely has an album impressed me so much in so many aspects. After a dozen spins I am still flabbergasted. I have to hit the pause button because my brain needs more time to process what has just entered my inner universe.

The new aspect is that now it is not only guitarist Richard Henshall who writes all the music. The entire band is now involved. So all the influences of all six musicians have brought a broader variety to the typical Haken sound, and so added to the overall experience. On the metal edge, the fierceness of their mates in Leprous now enters the Haken universe, as well as some djent elements as we know them best from Tesseract. Some post metal ambience is also brought to the mix, and keyboardist Diego Tejeida incorporates a few fusion moods and smashes a heavy, techno groove against the audience.

Of course it's not that they have written a djent song, a fusion piece or a jazz tune and so on. What we get is the usual set of Haken songs, but with these new elements sneaked in to where they fit best. In 1985 for example, a song that is firmly built on 80s styles, the chorus excels as an ecstatic djent headbanger. A thing you would think is impossible, but surprisingly these alternations of styles are just the best thing that can happen wherever the guys weave them in.

I can imagine that making this music must have been the most intense experience for the boys, but the outcome is ultimately brilliant. Everybody plays as many notes as the song, or song part, can bear, not too much, but as many as possible. At the same time everybody is humble enough not to not eat up all the sonic space, leaving enough air for all the other voices.

While making such an intensive album through of their own creativeness, the guys even found it necessary to invite Einar Solberg, Leprous' vocalist, to guest on The Architect. And like everything else, Einar's shouting part here is the most impressive one I've ever heard. Jesus, this man shouts as if it is the only way to safe his life!

On the same track Diego delivers a stunning solo on the new iPad app Geoshred, a touch device developed by Jordan Rudess (Dream Theater, Liquid Tension Experiment) that combines the advantages of keyboard and guitar in a fully new layout. A new instrument, so to say, but Diego is already a master of it.

Given that the album is a super-intensive collections of notes, ambience and emotions, it is a miracle that it still doesn't sound over-produced.

Another member who needs some extra notice is wunderkid Conner Green, the new young man on the bass. Anyone who has had the opportunity to see him on stage knows what Conner is capable of, and must have wondered why he was so shy on the EP. Well, he has got rid of that and gives full force on Affinity. His metal, pop and jazz skills add another dimension to the Haken sound and he really has a perfect approach. Conner's musicianship is incredible, and him replacing Tom MacLean is the best thing that has happened to the band in years. (I am very sure that Tom will not be mad at me for this statement). He has a lot of bass tones and voices. He has spent a lot of research and money to build a battery of sound effects to fit all possible scenarios. He's the bass man, and everything bass is him, even at times when it doesn't sound like a bass guitar at all.

With this tightly-stuffed composition of various modern, and sometimes not so modern styles; with this firmly-woven tapestry of notes; with an intense atmosphere throughout, but retaining a crystal clear production, Haken have raised the bar to new heights. All that was previously considered as the ultimate in melodic progressive metal, has now become outdated!
Ale Dunzie's Review
Although nowadays progressive metal seems to be more and more a static genre, with almost no room for innovation, there are still some bands introducing novel and interesting peculiarities in their music. One of these bands is Haken.

This London-based sextet has previously released two EPs and three albums, reaching good notoriety and visibility in 2013 with the release of their superb third album The Mountain.

Haken's prog metal is massively influenced by pioneers such as Dream Theater and Opeth, as well as by other classic prog rock formations like Gentle Giant and King Crimson. Their music is complexly built on odd time signatures and combined patterns, which can often be difficult to follow, while constantly alternating powerful hard rock and metal riffs, with peaceful and atmospheric moments. Overall, there's no doubt about the astonishing technical skills of these musicians.

On April 29th the waiting of Haken's multiplied fans comes to an end, and they will be finally able to press "play" on the band's fourth album, Affinity.

I will start by saying that this album is surprisingly different to what I was expecting. That is basically my fault, because I was expecting something similar to The Mountain, but I have to admit that this feeling of surprise, mixed with my high expectations, at first created some difficulty in appreciating these eight tracks (+ intro). However, as soon as I thought seriously about it, I realised that I love Haken for their creativity and their fresh ideas. With this in mind, I erased the first listening from my head and I listened again and again to this new album. And I loved it!

Contrary to the previous albums, where founder Richard Henshall was playing the major contribution, Affinity is the first composed by the whole band, together from the first to the last note. It is a group effort, requiring a new grade of affinity between the band members, and from this comes the title of the album itself.

Another change in relationship to The Mountain is that this time the band's sound is more oriented towards music coming from the 80s rather than from the 70s. This does not mean that the band has shifted towards a pop direction. It's still maintaining the identity of a skilled band composing complex and intricate music. However, there are some super, easy-listening parts on this record, such as 1985's main riff or Earthrise's disco drum beats.

Moreover, although often very complex and articulated, the vocal lines seem much more appealing than on previous releases. From this point of view Gentle Giant's influence is largely replaced by Yes's one, with more space given to classic backing vocals and vocal doubling.

At the same time, Dream Theater's influence is still heavily present along the whole record, concerning riffs, sounds, solos and frequently-changing time signatures.

Overall the result is really good and I fully appreciate this new album. However, there is one characteristic which might be improved, and that is the stylistic coherence between each track (and thus along the whole album). Sometimes a song seems to be easy listening, relaxing and relatively simple, and then with the blink of an eye it becomes frenetic, metal-oriented and/or super complex. And vice versa.

This could have been done on purpose to make it more interesting and peculiar, and generally speaking I would appreciate this approach. But it happens so many times throughout Affinity that I started wondering if this characteristic is really purposely made or if it's rather a result of the new composition method, where every band member is bringing his own contribution and thus his own personal influences.

Listening to the third track, 1985, is a good example. It opens with a very enjoyable, easy-listening guitar riff built on a 7/4 time signature, which is joined soon by an overlapping, complicated riff created by the other instruments. Everything leads to a frenetic section, combining keyboards sounds of the 80s with hard rock/metal guitar effects. It's a wonderful crescendo. I love it! But then there's another easy listening part (although, once again, complex in its signature) dominated by keyboards and electronic-effected drums coming straight from the 80s, which makes me think about a mixture between Genesis's Turn it on Again and Yes's album 90125.

Then after an impressive refrain, we shift again, this time towards a metal riff. The track goes on until we reach the solos section, and here we have the strongest contrast, between what could be a Japanese video game soundtrack and the subsequent keyboards/guitar solo (resembling Dream Theater's Octavarium). A more modest listener like myself would appreciate more a coherent choice between an easy listening and a complex song. Instead, here we have a track which tries to be a mixture of the two categories, and thus can't be properly labelled with one or the other.

This characteristic, which can be found throughout several songs, is the only aspect of the album which I consider not so positive.

I'd certainly put the powerful Initiate, and the calm and soft Bound By Gravity as some of the highlights. They constitute the opening (after the introductory Affinity) and the closing tracks, and somehow they fulfil the same function as Atlas Stone and Somebody in the previous album, The Mountain.

Moreover, I can't avoid mentioning The Endless Knot. An awesome collection of frenetic, powerful, complex and impressive music, including cool sounds and electronic effects.

However my favourite track is Lapse. I warmly recommend anyone to listen to the central instrumental part of this track, where the bass, guitars and keyboards are perfectly combined and overlap in a complex structure, perfectly supported by drums. The first time I listened to this album I listened to this section at least four times in succession before going on with the rest of the record.

One last mention should be made for the 15-minute epic The Architect, which also features Einar Solberg from Leprous in an awesome performance. Although not my favourite, this song represents one of the closest moments to previous Haken's sonority, and it should be considered a suite, switching between metal and atmospheric sections.

A positive comment must also be made concerning the quality of the recordings, and the mixing and the sound care. The whole job is really well done.

Affinity represents an evolution of Haken after the successful The Mountain. It is different, and that's a positive thing. The major diversity is probably derived from a different approach in the composition and I think you can actually feel that this album is much more of a team effort.

I enjoyed this album and I will certainly keep it within my record collection, coming back to it from time to time. Furthermore, I'm waiting for their gig in Milan (Italy) and I definitely recommend you to check out the band's forthcoming European tour dates. These awesome musicians are worth it!
Kevin Heckeler's Review
Although I've heard a few Haken tracks online over the past few years, they are not a band I would say I'm familiar with. When the call for this Round Table Review came out, it seemed like a good opportunity to get acquainted. Despite being relative newcomers, they have already received critical acclaim and built quite a following in the progressive metal community.

There's a tremendous amount of stylistic variation on this album. In the press release they mentioned tapping into their 80s prog influences from recordings like 90125 and Three of a Perfect Pair. This is evident on the track 1985 where they manage to modernise the composition, while being highly original with their blending of 80s-inspired instrumentation.

The Architect swings from metal, to classic prog, to djent, to alternative several times. It is easily the most ambitious song on the album, clocking in at a very entertaining (never dull) 15 minutes. On The Endless Knot they courageously inject dub-step (yes, you read that correctly) into the middle of a metal song. I'm sure in ten years we'll look back at this track and laugh like we do at most band's attempts to throw some unrelated, fleeting genre into a perfectly serviceable song. For them to even try such an exercise is a mark of a band pushing the envelope.

While I enjoyed the slower, textured, and nuanced music found on tracks Red Giant, Bound By Gravity, and Lapse, their consistently heavier songs were more to my liking. Bound By Gravity is the stand-out of the softer tracks.

Beneath their talent and originality is this lingering sense that there's a ton of elements being stolen or borrowed from Dream Theater (the final few minutes of 1985 and the beginning of The Architect exemplify this). Doubting my own assessment, I Googled reviews for their prior albums, and in many of them the term "Dream Theater clone" was either used or inferred. However, the moments where they sound alike are usually fleeting, and let's face it, no band is expected to reinvent the prog metal wheel. It was worth mentioning, but ultimately I discard these notions when listening to Haken, because there's just so much more going on than recycling Dream Theater licks.

Additionally, I find their lyrics a huge improvement over almost anything Dream Theater have penned. Hopefully at some point, the comparisons fall away and Haken are allowed to stand on their own, perhaps even inspiring other bands to emulate them. Perhaps with Affinity the torch will finally get passed.

The vocals often reminded me of Mariusz Duda (Riverside), in being sombre and restrained, but at other times there's a higher degree of eloquence and accomplishment. When vocalist Ross Jennings gets particularly energetic, creative and passionate, his vocals sound their best. There's also some excellent multi-part harmonies on various songs worthy of mention.

The keyboard and bass work are solid, if not a bit subdued in many of the compositions. The guitars tend to be at the forefront on most songs. There is not much lead work, despite the guitarist having plenty of chops, as demonstrated on some of the faster progressions. I'm glad they don't feel it's a requirement, because it isn't. The drumming is sometimes mechanical, but usually only when they're playing aggressively in some odd time signature. As a whole the exceptional ability and precision of the band left a big impression on me.

I found a lot to like on this album. The band is not afraid to try new and interesting things, a defining element that I think is sometimes lost in the mechanics of progressive music. I believe most prog rock fans are open-minded enough to find the heavier elements of Haken's music enjoyable, while also appreciating that the more classical progressive sections are executed with the highest skill. On top of all that, they actually write good lyrics and melodies. Not all bands know how to do this, especially in progressive music.

The balance that Haken have found with delivering excellent performances along with a well thought-out message, is unique and, to my ears, unparalleled.
Bryan Morey's Review
After seeing Haken perform live a year ago on the first show of their brief US tour, I just knew that this band had set a high ceiling for themselves. With their new album, Affinity, my suspicions are confirmed. While Haken has yet to release a bad album, their latest takes things to a whole new level of brilliance.

One of my biggest worries before listening to Affinity was whether or not the band would be able to live up to the bar they set with The Mountain and the Restoration EP. Well, those worries were completely unfounded.

While avoiding any sort of formula, Haken has managed to retain their unique sound, while diving into brand new musical territory. While The Mountain was heavily influenced by 1970s progressive rock, Affinity is heavily influenced by the sounds of the 1980s. Initially, I worried that this would not work very well, but after listening to this album well over 20 times, I can assure you that Haken has picked the best of the 80s when composing these songs. Indeed, Affinity is their strongest and most cohesive album to date.

The song 1985 has the strongest 80s influence (understandably), but it does so in a very classy way. It has the stereotypical 80s synth sound like you might hear in an episode of MacGyver, but it is in no way overdone.

The centrepiece of the album, The Architect, combines some of the best that Haken has to offer. It features both the heavy and quiet elements the band is known for, including a great bass solo by Conner Green, the American in the group. One of the most surprising parts of the song comes with a guest appearance by Leprous's vocalist, Einar Solberg. His growls give the song a hint of darkness, that perfectly completes the piece. Throughout the album, Ross Jenning's vocals stand out. I believe he has one of the best and most unique voices in the prog scene today. No one else sings like he does.

As a band, Haken knows how to make a complete album. They are clear in stressing that Affinity is not a concept album, but they also work to create cohesion between the songs; something all great albums possess.

This was their first time writing the lyrics and music as a group, rather than just one member contributing lyrics and going from there. I believe this move has only made the band stronger. All in all, Haken has created what is likely the strongest album of their career, and their future looks very bright. Haken is the Dream Theater of the millennial generation.
Andrew Halley's Review
Affinity can mean a close connection, or the force attracting atoms together, but with this, Haken's fourth full album, it could also describe just how musically tight this band have become.

The press release states that this release has musical elements of the 1980s. But stay calm, there's no Dollar or ABC in here, instead we get full-fat Haken, but with added retro keyboards, plus all our favourite requirements in Ross Jennings' excellent vocals, great up-front drumming and the usual brilliant playing from the rest of this Premier League team.

In that same league there would be Dream Theater, Opeth, and the great District 97. But with this latest offering, these boys have just topped the leader board.

The album artwork (by Blacklake) was a great opportunity for me to reminisce, as in the top right hand corner it's printed with "Super Precision Mechanism" and "LOW NOISE / HIGH OUTPUT" which is what all the best cassette tapes had on them, and I had hundreds of those.

One of those cassettes was a compilation of movie soundtracks that a mate had somehow taped for me (I could never seem to buy them then). On it was a couple of tracks by Vince Dicola (plus Survivor's Burning Heart) who was responsible for the thick, synth-heavy, incidental music for (amongst others), Rocky IV. Check out the music to Transformers The Movie too, from 1986.

So imagine what a young bunch of talented musicians could do in a prog band with those influences? Envisage no more.

Book-ending the nine tracks, is a satellite type of Morse code, (affinity.exe the short instrumental introduction) and the spacey, floaty Bound By Gravity that puts the album to bed with it's beautiful prog, soul, ambient balladry with widescreen movie magic.

Before that cozy slumber, there are treats galore. The first single and terrific video is Initiate and it really sets the pace and feel for the whole record. The audio mix by Jens Bogren exemplifies what modern recording is capable of.

1985 is a track clearly influenced by Trevor Rabin-era Yes, with staccato rhythm keys, bold fanfare chords, Rush-style guitar flurries and anthemic chorus' setting the decade's identity. Diego Tejeida's keyboard playing cements the album in the era of its influence. The Autobot Decepticon Battle solo around the six-minute mark is a joy to behold. Raymond Hearne's drumming and splash cymbal bashing are world class too. This track is a highlight of an album that has only highlights.

In between the epics we get smaller epics. Lapse packs its five minutes to the brim with fusion rock playing, and Earthrise is like a hit single from a different planet.

The longest track, The Architect, starts like the film soundtrack to Optimus Prime's bio-pic with knock-down-the-walls drumming, syncopated guitars, string synth and more nostalgic leads from the keys man. After the metal beginnings we have a more atmospheric second part, with new bassist Conner Green given his own place in the spotlight, whilst giving Stanley Clarke a good run for his money. The two guitars of Rich Henshall and Charlie Griffiths are clearly delineated as two textures whenever they duel with each other. This track is more like Aquarius Haken to my ears and is as good as it gets. There's an Alan Holdsworth touch to their playing, and it makes you want to listen again straight away. Leprous vocalist Einar Solberg guests on the growly scary section (throat lozenges must have been part of the rider), but mercifully he's only a walk on and it's all part of this textually rich pallet.

Red Giant has a machine-like quality which I'm sure is what they wanted to give it that 80s vibe, then The Endless Knot whacks us back in the face with prog metal, albeit with those keyboards with lots of faders and red LEDs on.

There's none of the quirkiness about this. There is no comedy playing that we heard for example on Celestial Elixer, and no discordant Gentle Giant-ness. The music does what they said it would and that's do an 80s influenced album, where I guess the playing was more commercial and, dare I say it, simpler in approach.

Affinity is an excellent recording and for me it's part four in a continuing oeuvre that's put British progressive music not just on the map, but as world leaders of the genre. As Rocky himself said: "Going in one more round when you don't think you can. That's what makes all the difference in your life". This album is a knockout.
Raimond Fischbach: 10 out of 10
Ale Dunzie: 8.5 out of 10
Kevin Heckeler: 9.5 out of 10
Bryan Morey: 10 out of 10
Andrew Halley: 10 out of 10
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