Haken have rapidly become one of my favorite bands in the world. Since my introduction with 2013’s The Mountain I’ve retraced their steps back through Visions and Aquarius – both slightly uneven stylistically and in terms of quality but with truly exemplary moments – and eagerly devoured their revised versions of older tracks on their 2014 EP, Restoration. I’ve seen them live twice and would be seeing them again in a month but for some pesky exams which will impact my future. It was therefore with great enthusiasm that I sat down with their fourth album Affinity. While Haken‘s core is consistent they deftly dabble in myriad other bands and genres to forge their unique identity: the only remaining questions are will there be more different sounds this time around? Would it still be brimming with progressive goodness?
The short answer is Yes to both questions. You may justifiably question the originality of a progressive band drawing on Yes – they all do. But I don’t mean Yes in the Fragile, Close to the Edge or Relayer sense. I mean Yes straight out of 1983 and 90125. The opening to the appropriately-titled “1985” screams “Owner of a Lonely Heart” through its cheery lead guitar, reverb-laden drums and bright synths. This 80s feel pervades Affinity: while not always as overt as “1985,” there’s a brilliant sense of fun and insincerity which makes them all the more lovable. The opening track “affinity.exe” bleeds in with the booping-beeping reminiscent of old-fashioned computers, which recurs at the conclusion. The lo-fi cover art looks as if it were drawn on some scrappy predecessor to Microsoft Paint. Hell, even the transition from 2:48 in “The Architect” – the record’s 15-minute epic – is pure 80s dark synthwave, the type of which is currently gushing from Blood Music’s every orifice.
Aside from “Cockroach King,” which is an entity unto itself, I view The Mountain as measured, very carefully-composed and broad in scope. That quality isn’t lost on Affinity despite its revelry. “The Architect” is huge, both musically and in duration, spanning decades and genres in unifying its whole. It has the epic orchestrations backing spacious riffs, oodles of noodles and the vocal gamut run by an increasingly varied and nuanced Ross Jennings. It’s a magnificent piece, made all the more special by it being the first time (I think?) that Haken has used harsh vocals and djenty guitars, previously beyond their range for heaviness.
As AMG noted in his review for The Mountain, the willingness to integrate poppy melodies is admirable, evocative of The Dear Hunter to me. Harmonious moments anchor the album in memorability, with sparkling vocal lines and guitar/synth harmonies which have an annoying habit of winding through my head while I’m diligently examining ambulatory constructive trusts of the home. “Earthrise” and “Bound by Gravity” are prominent examples. The former is unspeakably catchy: its leading riff is among the best I’ve heard this year, its opening vocals so bouncy and its chorus endlessly singable (“Resolve to carry on / another life awaits beyond / the horizon!”). The latter opens as a melancholic ballad and makes for a serenely peaceful listen. At both ends of Haken‘s spectrum – the proggy and the melodic – everything is executed wonderfully.
You know I said that Haken is one of my favorite bands? Well it’s in the batch behind Moonsorrow who are probably at the top of my list. So when I say that Haken released the best album this month it resonates – and when I say they released one of the best albums this year I mean it. Time will tell if it supersedes The Mountain atop their discography but the signs are very promising. Do not miss this.