Every now and then, an album comes along and kicks me off of the metaphorical ledge like Leonidas in 300. It’s wonderful and yet for some reason almost disappointing to run into an album of this caliber so early in the year. It’s just the middle of April, and we may have found ourselves the album of the year. I wrote about Haken’s last released LP, The Mountain, back in 2013, and it was my favorite album of 2013, beating out serious competition in Steven Wilson, Dream Theater, Sound of Contact and Ayreon. The Mountain had it all – it was a beautifully written concept album about climbing a mountain (or other metaphors like that) that was complete and glorious from start to finish. I loved every minute of that album, and I find myself at that same juncture now with Affinity. I almost can’t believe it.
I made sure to give this album several listens before sitting down to write about it, to make sure I wasn’t overrating it in my mind. There were songs that stuck out to me so aggressively that I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face until they ended. That happened on two instances in this album, which happen to be my favorite tracks – 1985, and The Architect. Trust me, I’ll talk a lot more about those tracks, along with the rest, as we proceed. I realized that in this instance, I wanted to go track by track through the album, especially since I can only share with you two of the shorter tracks as of now. As a final note before we get started, I originally planned on writing this review in one sitting, but after listening to the album yet again, I wanted to sleep on it before coming back with a vengeance. After all this, it turns out I needed a few days to digest this album, so apologies to those who expected my review on this album to come out last Friday. I needed to think about this album, and I was also distracted on Saturday from about 4:30 pm to 8 am (yep, Japan) with a series of fight cards. Let’s do this thing!
This track, Initiate, is the first full track on the album, as affinity.exe opens the album but is is a 90 second introduction that leads directly into Initiate. affinity.exe starts slow with an almost industrial sound that reminds me of gears in a machine starting to slowly turn again to shake the rust off. Around one minute in, the percussion picks up and everything starts to speed up. This leads in perfectly to Initiate, which is in your face from the moment it starts. The guitar slams in like a hurricane, and then relents to Ross’s serene vocals. Luckily, I don’t need to describe the rest of this song for you as you can hear it and make a judgment call, but it’s a lot less proggy than most of the rest of this album. This track was definitely made to be a single. It has that combination of technical skill along with a short length and some elements of pop (not the bad pop, but in terms of more radio-friendly progressive rock). This goes right out the window, when the band completely switches gears to dive into one of my two favorite tracks on the album: 1985.
This track, 1985, answers a musical question I have had in the back of my mind since I was a kid. What would a band I like now sound like if they existed 30 years ago? This song, 1985, goes in a whole different direction, immediately presenting a sound that would be at home with either 80’s Rush or Yes. It even has some early Dream Theater vibes, especially with Diego on the keyboard, until the floor falls out and the synthesizer goes full 80’s. The drums even follow suit, and I can’t wipe the grin off my face. This song is as authentically 80’s as it gets, and it does not sound like a cheap imitation. They used the true sounds of the 80’s, and then threw in some of their more Haken-like heavier guitar riffs for good measure. This nine minute song goes by in the blink of an eye, because it’s so completely 80’s prog rock…with a little more. When the bass comes in hard and heavy, it starts to deviate from the 80’s a bit, but then it dives back in full force. The keyboards are swirling and it just forms a whole 80’s experience. I was not expecting something like this, because this track is completely unique, even by a progressive rock sense. Not only did they change up the nature of their music, but they essentially changed the time period in which they were making the music for this one track. At least from an outside perspective, it sounds like they used the legitimate instruments from the time. At 5:45, the song really takes off, and goes into the progressive rock synth and guitar world of soaring synthesizers and sweeping guitar solos. The song comes to a close with some very Dream Theater-esque keyboards and guitars and then drops into heavy territory for a second until it ends.
I know, I had a lot to say about 1985. Guess I’ll move on to the next track, Lapse. As we find out, 1985 is clearly a one-off track that the band may have just done because they could. Lapse goes back into more familiar Haken territory with melodic drum beats and the floating vocals of Ross once again. It’s important to have some sort of a buffer before or after big songs like 1985 and the song that follows Lapse, which I’ll dive into shortly. The drums are impressively diverse in this track and very well timed and all over the place (in a good way). The main highlight of this track is the keyboard solo that the comes in around 2:30, which then transitions into a guitar solo in about 20 seconds. It has an almost muzak quality to it, which is a great interlude or calm before the storm as we would have it.
The next track (three more until we get into the other song that I have posted below) is the other big one, called The Architect. It’s the longest track by far, and lasts 15 minutes and 40 seconds. Similar to affinity.exe, this track starts very quietly and industrial-esque, until the warlike guitar and drums chime in. Those fall away and we get a very intriguing and extremely proggy guitar and keyboard section that must be very difficult to play. This track, more than most others, has several direct influences that make themselves very known on this track. This track could be split up into different portions that could almost be named “the X band section” because of how clearly they sound like certain other bands. They start with something of their own, and then grab great sounds from other great bands out there.
I don’t usually go into the lyrics of the songs, but I’d like to point out a few in particular on this track that for some reason really stuck out to me. “A message on a screen before me, caught a glimpse of the ending to our story, I’m sorry I haven’t called you recently, it’s not surprising I’ll just learn a lesson, take some time to process the evidence, and analyze the apathy.” The words “analyze the apathy” really hit me, and I’ve listened to this album and am not still entirely sure why. One potential reason is that they use the word apathy to rhyme with the next few lines, ending with words like sympathy, empathy, toxicity, and affinity. The vocals go through a string of choruses like a traditional song, but then the song disassembles itself around the 6 minute mark into a King Crimson-like soundscape (with a few riffs that will sound fairly familiar) for the good part of four minutes. From there, a guitar solo bridges the gap from the clearly King Crimson sound into something much darker.
Enter Opeth. There is absolutely no mistaking the riff around 10:20, coming straight from Opeth’s The Drapery Falls. The first time I heard it, I had goosebumps. Unbeknownst to me, Haken invited Einar from the prog metal band Leprous to join them in this song. Einar is the lead vocalist of Leprous, and chimed in with some growls as early-era Haken fans would appreciate. Personally, I am not nor have I ever been a fan of growls in music, but I’m ok with them here because a) I like the guest vocalist they brought in, 2) they’re limited to this track and iii) they’re limited to a small portion of this track, which is something out of the Opeth playbook so they’re incredibly faithful to their inspired source. The heavy segment moves along into something more aligned to Dream Theater (I mention them a lot only because I’m quite familiar with their music and can recognize when other bands draw from them) until it comes back full circle to end like a Haken track. It’s terrific to see a band take some sound from the greats and transform it into their own sound, and Haken has done exactly that in The Architect.
The next track, thankfully, takes its foot off the gas a little and makes a track in Earthrise into something more of an anthem than some of the heavy progressive rock/metal tracks featured previously in the album. It’s a lot more accessible than some of the other nitty gritty we’ve delved into so far, and that’s just fine. It’s not filler, because it’s still quality music, but as you can hear in the vocals it’s quite different from anything else on the album. I again gravitate to the term “poppy” but I don’t mean that in a negative sense, I mean it as less complex and more approachable for listeners who are not progressive fans. From Earthrise, we drift into a space-y and off tempo track in Red Giant. I should note now, I’m fairly certain that Affinity is kind of a concept album. At the very least, it uses recurring themes and sounds from earlier tracks. For instance, the end of The Architect features a part of Initiate, thus reinforcing what I said earlier about the track coming full circle. While Haken’s previous album, The Mountain, was a more definitive concept album about climbing a metaphorical mountain, Affinity hasn’t totally triggered the concept album button in my mind. It’s very aware of what it’s doing and is self-referential, but I am not certain if it has the singular theme or story like The Mountain did. If it did have a concept, based on the song titles and some reused themes in tracks, I would say that this album was a journey into the stars and back home again. Take all the metaphors you want from it. Back to Red Giant, this song features a lot less guitar than the rest of the album, and instead places a focus on Ross’s voice, Diego’s moody keyboards, and new member Conner Green’s bass. There are some intriguing electronic elements to this track, like how Ross’s vocals shift around. After about 5 minutes and 15 seconds, the song abruptly drops into a solemn little piano piece to wrap things up and go into The Endless Knot, which you can hear.
This is the penultimate track, The Endless Knot. It is one I am glad I can share with you, even though I can’t give you the experience of 1985 or The Architect. This track is arguably the most proggy of all the tracks on the album. It’s complicated, diverse, and even though it clocks in short of six minutes, it feels like a whole voyage on its own. It may not have the same emotional impact as some of the heaviest hitters on the album, but it makes up for that with technical mastery. This is the first full album that Haken has released since the departure of founding member and bassist Tom MacClean, and this was the first opportunity that the new bassist Conner was able to shine. In the EP that was as long as some full-length albums these days, Restoration, Conner was playing tracks that he didn’t have any creative input on. The tracks from Restoration were brought from an early demo before the band had released their first album, Aquarius. In this track, like the one before it, Conner really shines. His bass travels everywhere in this track. The Endless Knot uses a lot of different tools that hadn’t really been previously displayed by the band before, including distorting their instruments. I won’t go into the time signatures of this track but this track really moves around a lot. It doesn’t stay in one place, and this six minute track really shows the diversity of this band. Like Initiate, I don’t have to go into this one like I did to some of the others I’ve discussed, and you can hear it for yourself.
Finally, the album (and this review) draws to a close with Bound by Gravity, which is very reminiscent of both Falling Back to Earth and Somebody from their last album The Mountain. It’s a very clear closing track, and feels like the only track of this entire album that could be suitable for the end, especially if this is indeed a concept album. It’s a ballad, and a definite “coming down”, both in mood and style. It’s slower than any other track on the album, and Ross’s voice sounds almost listless. Until about six and a half minutes in, the song floats along, and then the drums kick in and give the track some direction. The chimes are a nice touch, as well. The layers the band build on top of each other in this track are impressive, slowly adding more and more without making it at all overwhelming. The drums make the foundation, the guitar builds the walls, and the voices and keyboards do the rest. After the song reaches its zenith, it doesn’t come back down, and instead just ends. The final minute hearkens back to affinity.exe with the electronic and quasi-industrial sounds, as well as the quiet beeping. It starts and ends at the same place, kind of like an endless knot (or Mobius Strip or infinity loop).
Overall, this album blew me away. The band had set very high standards with The Mountain, which was my favorite album of 2013, and at the very least Haken maintained that level of excellence. I haven’t made a determination yet if The Mountain or Affinity is superior, although I don’t necessarily have to. To those Haken fans out there reading this, you can be the judge of that when the album comes out soon. When it does come out, if you like progressive rock and metal, you’d be crazy not to pick this album up. It’s a masterpiece. The album is well balanced and put together. The long tracks are spaced well throughout the album and never overwhelming or too much. Each member of the band has several moments to shine, and at no moment in the album was I bored or ready to move on to something else. This is one of those rare moments where I’m struggling to find even a minor flaw in this album. Some people may not prefer Ross’s vocal style, but it is pleasing to my ears and in the vein of many other prog rock vocalists I appreciate. I proudly and happily give this album 15 out of 15 Ratings Units. It’s musical perfection, folks. It inspired me to write over 2500 words about an album, and to those of you readers who made it this far, well done. Haken is the future of progressive rock and progressive metal, without any doubt. This album is a serious contender for the best album of 2016, and rightfully so.
Thanks for reading!