Haken — Virus
London's Haken should need no introductions to the progressive metal community at this point. The band have released a steady flow of studio and live albums since their debut, Aquarius, in 2010, and have built a massive fan-base throughout the world, thanks to regular touring and festival appearances. They have also had a steady line-up since 2013, consisting of Richard Henshall and Charlie Griffiths on guitars, Conner Green on bass, Diego Tejeida on keyboards, Raymond Hearne on drums and the ever charismatic Ross Jennings on vocals.
The band also perform alongside ex Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy, as part of his Twelve Step Suite, where they perform early DT material under the name Shattered Fortress, which also includes Eric Gillette from The Neal Morse Band on guitar.
Haken's output has almost entirely been received with critical acclaim from across the prog world. Fans and journalists alike fiercely debate which of their albums might be the strongest, and there is no doubt each release has been filled with superb songwriting hooks, catchy melodies and incredibly complex arrangements. My personal taste tends to lean towards their early work, with it being on the more progressive side.
As the band have evolved, they have taken on a more guitar-driven, modern metal approach, especially on 2018's Vector. While they still fall quite definitely within the grounds of prog, I can't help feel that some of their originality has been ever-so-slightly lost in the translation.
This brings us to Virus, Haken's sixth studio album and partner to the aforementioned Vector. The two albums together tell the story of the fictional character, The Cockroach King, created in the song of the same name from Haken's 2013 album, The Mountain. Drummer Raymond Hearne descibes Vector as "An origin story", and Virus as "an ascent to power, tyranny and subsequent endgame".
The album opens with Prosthetic, one of the heaviest songs Haken have ever released. It begins with a powerful, down-tuned, rhythmic guitar riff and razor-sharp drumming. This evolves into some brilliant metallic riffs and a bass-heavy groove, before settling down to reveal Ross Jennings' immediately recognisable vocals. The chorus hits without warning and is as catchy and as memorable as I've come to expect from the band. There are some parts during this track, especially during the guitar solo, that venture close to tech-death territory, but Haken do a very good job of keeping it contained within the song, and the whole section fits very well.
Invasion follows quickly, and is a similarly heavy affair, although this songs takes a while to build up, and contains some fantastic atmospheres, some almost Tool-like vocals from Jennings and some truly inspired lead guitar work. All this really make this track standout and it's clear the band are off to a flying start.
I found their previous album, Vector, almost relied on the heavier guitar riffs a little to much, yet here the band seems to have nailed the balance. The whole thing sounds more focused too, the production and mix being just about spot-on, no matter what sort of listening device you prefer to use.
At some point during the ten minutes of the third track, Carousel, there was a moment I realised that this album was going to be one of those really special ones. This song is simply outstanding. Like the track before, it may be a slow burner, but there are so many intricacies hidden throughout its running time.
It feels like a classic conceptual song. The story is delivered bit by bit through the lyrics, while the band fills in the rest with a flurry of progressive guitars, blistering Megadeth-style solos and clever keyboard work. The song constantly throws curveballs at the listener, making you want to go back and immediately listen to it again because you will have surely missed something. It's this kind of sporadic songwriting that I felt was missing from Vector and I'm glad they've gone back in this direction.
The duo of The Strain and Canary Yellow flow together seamlessly as a long piece; whether they are meant to or not doesn't really matter, they feel like one long piece and work together really well. Beginning as a fairly straightforward ballad, things soon become heavier. Ross' lyrics paint a picture in your head of the dire situation the characters seem to have found themselves in, the melodies washing over an ever-increasing tempo as the guitars and drums build up into a fairly run-of-the-mill Haken track. Canary Yellow, however, is a much more melancholic piece, one that haunts the listener with beautiful melodies and an atmosphere that reminds me of something Steven Wilson might have done. The bass tones are incredibly full and prominent and add a huge sense of foreboding to the track. It's one of the highlights of the album and its quieter moments also serve as a resting point between this and the monumental epic that is to follow.
The second part of the album begins with a 17-minute long piece entitled Messiah Complex, which is split into five tracks. Haken are no stranger to long songs, yet this seems like a real undertaking even by their standards. Opening with one of the most beautiful riffs the band have ever written, it all seems to end too soon as Jennings' haunting vocals begin once again. The band's focus on attention-grabbing melodies is better than ever here. As a listener I was constantly excited, waiting for what the band would throw at me next, and they don't disappoint. The song continues to become more hectic and intense; flurries of keyboards follow disjointed guitar lines and out-of-time drum rhythms, all the while maintaining an entirely listenable structure.
As we enter the third section of the piece, entitled Marigold, the song becomes more mysterious, then again batters the listener with more technical, heavy riffing and impressive rhythm work. The Sect continues this barrage of intense prog metal, followed by quieter vocal sections. There is a wonderful part filled with blast-beats interchanged with Diego Tejeida's signature computer game samples. Yet with all of this going on, the song remains edge-of-the-seat stuff. I can only compare it to Devin Townsend's massive track Singularity, from his recent Empath release. It's that impressive.
I won't spoil too much, but this part of the album contains multiple references to some of the material from The Mountain, which long-time fans will surely pick up on. I personally love it when a band do this and I'm very glad Haken chose to include these references to cement the concept, and they will surely serve as a treat for hardcore fans.
The album closes with Only Stars, a tranquil piece that brings the story to a close with soft vocals, keyboards and samples. It's an expected, yet slightly frustrating end, as it leaves you wanting much, much more.
With Virus, Haken have provided another solid, consistent and truly magnificent album. Not only is it a worthy continuation of the story that started with The Cockroach King and continued with Vector, it surpasses the previous album in almost every way. Is it their best yet? I think not, but if this is the direction the band keep moving in, then I am incredibly excited to see where they go from here. Now we just need this annoying 'virus' to be done with so I can go out and enjoy this live.
Virus is released on June 5th via Inside Out music and is available as a standard CD, as well as a 2CD media-book with an instrumental version of the album, and as a vinyl and digital album.
It was late February when Haken posted a photo of guitarist Charlie Griffiths holding ketchup and mustard bottles side by side, asking fans to caption the image on the band's social media. I thought it was just a funny random picture they took during their tour with Devin Townsend and The Contortionist in North America.
After a couple of weeks they shared another image with ketchup and mustard, but this time it was the bassist Conner Green in the picture. Then I remembered there is nothing random with Haken, and so started waiting for the news that they were building up the hype for. They kept posting photographs of the band members with ketchup and mustard bottles, and on 2nd of April they announced "10 am UK time tomorrow".
Once again, the image showed ketchup and mustard bottles from the brand "Haken", where the red bottle had the artwork of Vector on it, and the yellow one had a depiction of a bacteriophage. Maybe some of us were waiting for Haken Microwave Hot Dogs as an alternative branding opportunity for the band in these strange times, but (luckily) the band announced that their album would be called Virus, and released the first single Prosthetic with a video clip. The marketing part may not be interesting for all fans, but for me it was great fun to follow those social media posts.
Following the release of Vector in October 2018, Haken had been on stage until the lockdowns started all around the world. In addition to the headline tours, their shows also included support slots with Devin Townsend. After all the hard work, it was no surprise when Haken won the award for "UK Band Of The Year" in 2019 Prog Awards by Prog Magazine. While on tour, they also managed to secretly complete Virus, their follow-up album to Vector.
The name of the album sounds a bit strange in these times but singer Ross Jennings states that is just a coincidence. I read many sceptical comments on social media, but considering the average time spent on producing an album, and the bacteriophage image instead of a corona virus, I believe it is a coincidence.
Drummer Ray Hearne mentions that Virus is a harmonic, rhythmic and lyrical expansion of the song Cockroach King, just like Vector. Based on the question "Who is the Cockroach King?", these two albums together form an exploration of the answer.
The band emphasises the metal side of progressive metal and stay heavier compared to their previous releases. However, Virus has more obvious links to the previous Haken works compared to Vector. The first single Prosthetic bridges Vector and Virus with brutal guitar riffs. When I heard the song for the first time, it reminded me of the Train of Thought sound of Dream Theater. I would describe it as a raw energy, unleashed and diffused in a complex and interesting way. It is one of the heaviest Haken songs, maybe the heaviest. You can hear the Gojira, Lamb of God, Pantera influences in the song.
It also has lyrical links with previous works, as well as the music video. For instance, the cards that the doctor shows to the patient are Haken's album covers in chronological order. However, it is still not obvious who the characters are. Is the doctor in the video, The Good Doctor appearing in Vector? Is the patient the Cockroach King? I look forward to finding the answers.
About a month after the release of Prosthetic, Canary Yellow was released with a video clip as the second single. The song is much closer to the original Haken style compared to the first single, and has a completely different characteristic. With ambient guitars, and its vocal and guitar melody lines, Canary Yellow is like the continuation of Host from their previous album. The music video reminded me of Routine by Steven Wilson but it is full of easter eggs! The Haken fridge, The Mountain album cover on the wall, and Haken's moonfish in front of the window are the ones I could find. The symbol on the head of the crash test dummy appearing on the single cover is also formed by three moonfish.
My favourite song from the album is Carousel. Contrary to how cheerfully it starts, the core of the song is formed by dark, powerful guitar riffs and ethereal synth pads. With its structure, guitar and synth tones, and eery vibe, it feels like Haken wrote a song for Opeth's Ghost Reveries album. "Now I'm sinking in the mire" is the second line of the lyrics. Maybe it is the same mire mentioned in Beneath The Mire of Opeth, where the woes were left beneath.
The 17-minute progressive metal epic Messiah Complex comprises five pieces and serves as the main body of the album, both sonically and in terms its position in the story of the Cockroach King. At each part, it is possible to catch something related to previously-released Haken material. Obviously this whole suite is full of references to The Mountain-era material, particularly Cockroach King. Moreover, the connection of this suite to various Vector songs, especially Nil By Mouth, makes it even more interesting. Nil By Mouth is one of my favourite Haken songs and I am so happy to hear it referenced (or partly reprised) everywhere in this album.
Although the final track, Only Stars, is not listed as a part of the Messiah Complex, it is strongly connected to the suite and it serves as the end of the long story started with Vector. It is actually the song Clear, the opening track of Vector, revisited with lyrics.
In conclusion, Haken has released an awesome album as a follow-up to Vector in order to complete the story based on Cockroach King. When listening to Virus, I felt like I was watching the new season of my favourite series after a long break. Almost everything is familiar but it is giving something new, while completing the missing pieces in the previous seasons. By means of the visuals, easter eggs, and a new way of story-telling, all complementary to some extremely well-rendered compositions, the Haken experience is going beyond the sonic arts. What we have is an extremely high quality, multi-art-form rooted in music.