The worst thing that ever happened to London’s Haken was that someone once compared them to Dream Theater. In fact, enough reviewers compared the band to Dream Theater that on Metal Archives the only “associated act” is the unfortunate Berklee Music School graduating class of nineteen eighty-boring. “Why,” you ask, “is it a problem to be compared to DT? They have a long and storied career!” Because I am not alone in finding the band’s music to be void of creativity. It is insipid, lacking in feel, and often only an exercise in form. So when someone says to me, “Yeah, man! They’re like Dream Theater!” that’s an instant cue for me (and many others I’ve met) to shut down; to tune out; to back out of the room slowly and look for a shotgun. Still, being the daring man I am, I couldn’t help but listen to Haken‘s new album The Mountain when it landed in my box a few weeks back. Honestly, the band has such a fantastic loyalty from its fans, that I felt like I had to at least give them a chance. In general, InsideOut is a trustworthy label and they put out good material [With a few notable exceptions, of course — F.t.A.G]—so what choice did I have?
What makes Haken so loyalty-inducing and good, in fact, is that they don’t quite sound like any one other band in particular. Their style is an amalgam of interesting, progressive tendencies that could be referenced from all over the map. Going between the sparkling cleanliness of modern Kaipa on opener “Atlas Stone,” while straddling the legacy of Mr. Bungle on “The Cockroach King,” or even wandering into what sounds like Leprous territory on “In Memoriam,” Haken never fails to be interesting and cool.
Like so many of the best progressive metal bands—and certainly The Mountain lands Haken among the very best in modern progressive metal—it is the band’s ability to mix in beautiful melodies and pop structures into music that is intellectually stimulating and unpredictable that gives the band its appeal. They vacillate easily between funky weirdness and metal on “Falling Back to Earth,” while dropping into a full-blown free jazz variation in “Atlas Stone.” “Somebody” screams Marillion, Anathema and Porcupine Tree, while never feeling even remotely derivative of any of these bands. A lot of this has to do with the vocals of Ross Jennings, who is talented and has a good range, but doesn’t fall for any of the horrible tropes of post-Dream Theater progressive rock and metal—way more Danny Cavanagh than metal-influenced prog vocalists. His presence gives the record a consistency through all the variation, and his sense of melody and harmony is brilliant, often with melancholy undertones that are heart wrenching.
It goes without saying, though, that it’s not just the vocals that make this record brilliant; the band is obviously highly talented and the record is produced in such a way as to make Tom MacLean’s bass not only present, but standout, producing some of the best moments on the record. Both guitarists balance their work beautifully, while being able to play heavy, fascinating riffs next to jazz solos and funky minimalist work. The production is also good enough that the keyboards and guitars never run into each other’s territories, instead working in harmony. The one complaint that I have is that the drums are quite flat and buried at times; the use of Neil Peart signature tenor toms and bongos don’t carry the dynamic range and breadth that one would normally expect. This flatness is likely because the record is on the loud side. While it’s not as compressed as it could be, the drum tone falls victim to this.
Haken is one of those rare bands that can write a 70 minute record that is entertaining for every minute while wandering between all sorts of different styles. The record feels fluid, flowing seamlessly from one awesome variation to the next; sometimes heavy, sometimes somber, sometimes funky or jazzy, but always excellent.