An engrossing listen that never loosens its grip, but provides ample breathing room with well-placed changes of pace peppered throughout…
It’s unlikely Haken will ever experience a greater coincidence in their career than the christening of the latest gem in their catalogue. If their buddies in Dream Theater had their own such freakish moment on 11 September, 2001 when they released a live album with NYC’s twin towers set ablaze on the cover, Haken upped the ante nearly two decades later by recording an album they prophetically titled Virus – shortly before the entire world was to completely change as a result of that very thing.
Musically, the band continue on the same road they’ve been on with Vector and Affinity before it, but they are a lot farther down that road now, having clearly learned a thing or two along the way. Virus arrives as the product of the band’s trials and experiments over the last half decade, an impressive amalgam of the finer elements of their previous works, with the best ideas plucked and the weaker ones scrapped. The resulting work lands with confident authority, an engrossing listen that never loosens its grip, but provides ample breathing room with well-placed changes of pace peppered throughout. And although it can easily be seen as a companion piece to Vector, it does come across in many ways the far superior followup, as though the prior album was merely a trial run, a necessary stepping stone to where they needed to advance. Would the band see it quite that way? Not necessarily… but the listeners just might.
It will come as no surprise that this new platter is at times quite heavy, and of course technically complex – as they’ve all been – but there is a discernible elegance to Virus, an appealing maturity that can only come from a band who already have five or six albums behind them. The lighter, melodic moments accentuate the power of the heavier ones, the band skillfully interweaving the styles rather than awkwardly welding them together. Ultimately, Haken display a remarkable advancement in composition and scope, while retaining the core elements of the sound that has endeared them to their fan base since the dawn of their debut release Aquarius a decade ago. And they remain inventive showmen, tenaciously chiseling out their own niche with admirable finesse while breaking away from the pack of their contemporaries.
Opening track and lead-off single Prosthetic, with its relentless thrashy energy and machine-gun riffs, has been met with mixed but largely positive feedback. It’s not the song I would have chosen for the first single, however, as it doesn’t exhibit the same variety the other new compositions do. Invasion, for instance, is a fantastic track that opens with low, rumbling pulses and somber, chanting vocals from Ross Jennings before the full band joins in to produce a complex and diverse piece. An early favourite that is not only one of the best on this album, but one of the best the band has recorded to date – and I don’t throw that out there carelessly. Carousel is a 10-minute progressive epic with a gentle, melodic opening that belies the extravagance to come. Destined to be a fan favourite, the piece explores numerous compositional approaches and techniques, a swirling blend of styles anchored by heavy, rapid rhythms. So much happens in this track, it demands multiple playbacks to take in everything that was missed the first, second, and fifteenth spins.
Followup song The Strain feels like a more controlled, contained piece by comparison, but is far from simple or common (despite its reasonably orthodox chorus and structure). As usual, I’m drawn to the spectacular drumming of Ray Hearne, and even on first listen this piece comes across as a strong contender for live performance (the band has said they plan on playing the complete album live anyway, so a moot point perhaps). Flowing straight into the (comparatively) gentle Canary Yellow, the album’s sequence provides a moment for the listener to gather their thoughts before the centerpiece track rears its head.
Messiah Complex is the big one a lot of fans will be waiting for, and it does not disappoint. This magnificent 17-minute suite pulls out all the stops and delivers on a silver platter everything Haken does best on the journey through its five distinct sections. Technical, aggressive, quirky, imaginative, emotional, tuneful, compelling, suspenseful, and brilliantly artistic, the track deftly earns its rightful place in the top tier of the band’s epic-length pieces, and also serves as a throwback to a popular character from several years ago. Yes, that’s right… The Cockroach King returneth! But there are more Easter eggs than that to be found on this album, and with fans as rabid as Haken’s, you know they will be. Sometime in the future when this… erm, virus, is gone, the vast, sprawling Messiah Complex is going to absolutely murder live. I don’t envy the band for having to learn, rehearse, and perform this piece, but I do envy them for the rapturous response it undoubtedly will garner. As though conscious of minds shattered and jaws on floors everywhere, the album sympathetically drifts the listener back down to earth with Only Stars, a somewhat eerie-sounding lullaby that seems to serve as an epilogue.
Perhaps most noteworthy about Virus is that it handsomely showcases how significant yet subtle an evolution can be from one album to the next – as much as a band can evolve within the confines of a sometimes narrow genre, that is. If indeed the recipe must include heavy, distorted guitars, intricate drum patterns and dizzying arrangements, well, Haken do these things as well as or better than any other band working today. But they take their greatest strides when they ignore the box and draw from their own eclectic influences and sonic choices. Though it would be interesting to see them revisit the breathtaking grandiosity of their first couple of albums, it’s nonetheless exciting to watch them forge their way on this current path, and try to guess where it might lead in the future. There isn’t much to criticize on this ambitious new release… but there’s a lot to be exhilarated by.