March 8, 2023

…if you’re a Haken die-hard, there is absolutely nothing here that you shouldn’t love. It’s on a par with the band’s recent releases, and if they float your boat, you can set sail here without fear of ill winds or rough tides.

By this time in their career, you pretty much know what you’re going to get from Haken, in terms of broad brushstrokes. You’re going to get crushingly heavy riffs, you’re going to get ‘twiddly’, uber-prog instrumental bits, you’re going to get obtuse sections devoid of any memorable hooks which will take some time to worm their way into your waiting headspace, and you’re also going to get some occasional bits which settle on an accessible chorus melody which by sheer contrast will appear catchier than Covid at a Downing Street meeting. You also might well get all of those things within the space of one track (I use the word ‘track’, because ‘song’ often feels utterly inappropriate, in the way that Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake aren’t exactly ‘novels’). And right there you get the dichotomy which makes some people adore Haken while others will be sent in the opposite direction. This isn’t mass-appeal music. It isn’t ‘easy’ music (though one must stress that never is it atonal or avant-garde). Clearly, however, neither the band nor their substantial legion of admirers would want anything remotely easy or populist. This type of music may be a niche, but it is one which the band have climbed into, waved to the crowd and happily put a ‘No Vacancies’ sign on the door. And one has to applaud such single-minded strength of purpose.

As the reviewer of this latest, extremely accomplished release, I have to declare my allegiance at this point – but I am going to court disappointment by taking the middle ground of being squarely on the fence and trying not to fall off. Haken are a band who I have admired greatly throughout pretty much their whole career, and yet they are a band I have never quite been able to ‘love’. I’m not sure why that latter caveat should be the case, as my admiration for the band is prompted by the fact that most of what they do in isolation pushes my own musical buttons, and while I am listening to their stuff I am frequently overtaken by astonishment and excitement at a particularly stridently bludgeoning passage, or a turn-on-a-sixpence piece of ensemble trickery. This is absoutely the case with this album, which certainly ticks any boxes you might want on the Haken Listening Form.

The usual touchstones are very much in evidence. There’s a lot of echoes of King Crimson at their most angular, variously from the mid-’70s Red period, the ’80s Discipline era and the love-em-or-hate-em ’90s of Thrakk and the like. There’s plenty of spiky, tricky stuff like Tool or Devin Townsend, a fair few dollops of Dream Theater and Pain Of Salvation, and even some hints of Pure Reason Revolution poking their heads into the studio. This is obvious right from the off, with the hard-edged Taurus acting as a pretty effective ‘overture’ of sorts, and the lengthier Nightingale following it up with a fair array of the band’s various strengths jostling for position. In fact, this latter comment strikes at the heart of what perhaps keeps me just slightly at arms’ length rather than entirely engaging with some of this material – it’s just too ‘busy’ for the sake of it at times, with an air of ‘why use one song when five will do?’. Several of the tracks here manage to shoehorn so much into themselves that, while there are bound to be great moments, they may be undone somewhat by losing that momentum again directly afterward. Sempiternal Beings, at over eight minutes, is perhaps the chief example of that on display here – some remarkable passages of genuinely jaw-dropping power and musicianship, but a little too disjointed, as if the band are trying too hard to be as complex and ‘proggy’ as is humanly possible. Of course, one man’s meat is another man’s tofu, so those on board with the band will almost certainly be in Haken Heaven with this stuff.

Those aforementioned catchy chorus elements creep in notably on a couple of the shorter tracks here – Alphabet Of Me and Lovebite – which are both impressively put together. I’m not entirely sold on Haken doing ‘woh-eh-oh’-type backing vocals I must admit (but then again, I’m not particularly sold on anyone doing ‘woh-eh-oh’ backing vocals to be quite honest!) The best track here for me is the remarkable Elephants Never Forget, which – perhaps appropriately – does stick in the mind despite its considerable complexity. The longest track here at over eleven minutes, it displays a general tone somewhat at odds with the rest of the material, coming over at times reminiscent of a bizarre alternative world where Brian May joined Gentle Giant instead of forming Queen. That might sound a ghastly liaison – but it works supremely well, and the track never runs out of steam despite its tricky construction. It’s a masterpiece of extended complex composition, and truly the one track above all others here which keeps drawing me back to it. As the penultimate track, it does come as a bit of an anticlimax, with the closing Eyes Of Ebony perhaps the weakest on the album, being a little short on ideas to sustain its eight and a half minutes.

To sum up, if you’re a Haken die-hard, there is absolutely nothing here that you shouldn’t love. It’s on a par with the band’s recent releases, and if they float your boat, you can set sail here without fear of ill winds or rough tides. To the curious, I would say that despite my reservations, Haken remain well worth checking out, but I would probably still recommend 2013’s The Mountain as the one to start with. As previously stated, Haken are a band who are impossible not to admire. But for me, still a difficult band to love. Your mileage, as ever, may significantly vary…