Haken – VIrus Review

Haken’s VIrus, fittingly, got caught up in the storm that has been COVID-19. Originally slated to be released months ago, the band’s sixth record is entering a world much different than the one it was going to enter in the spring. Similarly, Haken is not the band it once was. Frequently maligned for being derivative of Dream Theater by Assholes on the Internet,1 VIrus, instead, follows in the djentle footsteps of its predecessor, Vector. The continuation is visible in the artwork, as well as audible in the record’s production and writing. The challenge for Haken on VIrus, in my opinion, was always going to be whether they could make it sound and feel like a Haken album, rather than an experiment. Happily, VIrus finds Haken producing an album that perfectly balances its past and present.

What is it that sounds quintessentially “Haken,” you ask? At its root, I think, is the band’s ability to consistently maintain the Rush Ratio – that sweet balance between progressive, interesting or technical that makes music engaging to listen to and the pop sensibility that makes the music accessible and memorable. Throughout Haken’s career, they have managed to blend these things so well that it can often be disorienting for a listener to realize that, for example, a track like “Carousel” is 10 minutes long. Like early Opeth, Haken does an exquisite job of holding a listener’s hand through the ebbs and flows of the song; each twist and turn feels so natural that you don’t realize how much time has passed until you actually bother to look. Haken accomplishes such a feat in two alliterating ways: musicianship and melody.

Captured at SECC on 09December,2019 by Max Taylor Grant

I don’t need to tell you that one of the premiere prog bands in the world are good musicians. However, as they belatedly pick up the djent flag,2 it’s fun to hear them work the syncopated and polyrhythmic material in. This makes the music heavier, and while it can sometimes go amiss (see: the breakdown in “Invasion” that took me back to the mid-2000s), it mostly makes VIrus a more compelling listen by adding contrast. In particular, the bass and drums on VIrus have taken a major step forward (“The Strain” or “Carousel”). Conner Green (bass) and Ray Hearne (drums) work so well together, holding everything together and still managing to flash. Moments like the bassline in “Canary Yellow” that borders on a countermelody make music fun and engaging. It also helps Haken feel like Haken.

Haken isn’t just good at their instruments. They also write songs that are intricate, interesting and catchy. And, in a notable convergence between the prog and djent scenes, VIrus strongly reminds me of later Caligula’s Horse in the best possible way: balancing groove and techy riffs with memorable melodies. Ross Jennings does a lot of this work vocally. He has the kind of emotive voice that works so well in the band’s melancholier material. This is the most obvious on songs like “Ivory Tower” and “Canary Yellow,” where the band leans away from its heavier side. But the band’s riffs also seem to spend a lot of time in harmonic minor,3 which gives the whole record – and honestly, much of the band’s discography – the same kind of melancholy feel (see album closer: “Only Stars”) that I love in acts like Soen or Opeth or the writing of Steven Wilson when he’s not trying to be a pop star.

Captured at SECC on 09December,2019 by Max Taylor Grant

What moves any band beyond “good” is the ability to combine its strengths into something unique, which VIrus does brilliantly. The record combines the beautiful, melodic, and smart with the heavy, techy vibe that the kids apparently love. Wrap that up in a production job that, while “modern” (read: loud, but in this case it does a great job of centering the rhythm section) steps away from the “Djent” ledge that hampered the album’s predecessor, and VIrus is the band’s best since The Mountain. The real jewel that pushes it from being a very good album to being a great one, though, is the 17-minute “Messiah Complex” quintet that makes up the album’s back half (mostly). It is here that VIrus crests into something brilliant, combining the riffy (“V: Ectobius Rex”), technical (“IV: The Sect”), and soulfully melancholy (“I: Ivory Tower”), with the band’s brilliant melodic sensibilities into something that is addictive, fun and even a little self-referential (see: “The Sect”).

Three months after receiving it, VIrus is still getting constant rotations. The record shows that sometimes what a band needs is just a test run to help their sound coalesce. So, rather than delivering another album that feels like it lacks a true identity, Haken delivered an album that only they could have written and delivered.

Yellow is the new manbun.

Rating: Excellent!
DR: 7 | Media Reviewed: 320 kbs mp3
Label: InsideOut Music
Websites: facebook.com/HakenOfficial
Release Date: July 24th, 2020

Show 3 footnotes

  1. If only Dream Theater had ever been this good.
  2. In honor of all the suburbanites who will have to go back to their IT jobs now that the trend has died off.
  3. I didn’t actually transcribe it or anything, it’s just an impression.
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