Haken - The Mountain
Indeed the only track I could access before getting the album was Atlas Stone, which you can hear below. While showing an undoubted compositional flair exceeding anything I had previously heard by the band, albeit my opinion is only based on cursory listens to their earlier work, it still seemed to be in the same vein, but with a far defter touch. Once the review copy arrived, to say it confounded my expectations is somewhat of an understatement, and I am glad I followed up my instincts to delve deeper.
The review copy I have is a 192kpbs mp3 download. It is perplexing quite why any label would send out such a low quality review copy of something that patently has high production values, although their reasoning may be obvious. The argument that review copies end up on file-sharing sites is fairly spurious as far as I'm concerned. We do it for the love of the music, for free, often taking hours of our own time on each review, so we, of all people are most unlikely to "bite the hand that feeds", so to speak.
The band praise the efforts of prog-metal sound guru Jens Borgen on their website in helping them craft this sonic epic, but with this copy his work is lost in the distortion evident at anything above moderate volume. However, for you dear reader, I shall persevere.
Countering my argument is the label's contention that once they stopped sending out CD copies the number of pre-release shares dropped dramatically, although I can safely say I cannot think of any reviewing colleague, and I know a fair few, who would stoop so low. Maybe the problem lies closer to home, too?
Right, that's got that particular pesky little monkey off my back, on to the album. Like I said, it confounded my expectations, and then some.
Opening with a melancholic piano-led piece, we are off on a trip of joyous musical complexity and lyrical striving against adversity. Then, the aforementioned Atlas Stone sets the scene and meanders off down an almost jazzy path after a straightforward enough beginning. The guitarist slots in a Brian May-like short solo before the turnaround.
The song bemoans carrying the weight of the world, but rises above the usual "woe is me" lyrical obsessions of many in the modern prog fraternity by defiantly also stating that the protagonist will "rise to the challenge I set myself". Good on, yer, fella!
Then...the first surprise. Cockroach King does indeed sound like Gentle Giant in its convoluted vocal construction, the initial call and response cyclical section reminiscent of Cogs. "Prog metal" this isn't. You, see, that worn out and deeply rutted musical ginnel, for me at least, and I'll admit I'm no expert, seems to be overpopulated with two kinds of sound. The first is a "look at me, can't I play fast and complicated" ego-stroking, originally popularised by Dream Theater. I like my complexity fired up with a bit of soul, or at least a smidgeon of a sense of humour, something painfully absent in most of the bands who choose this diversion. The other variety is the lumpen-prole rifferama that has been done to death, revived, and flogged around the studios of the world, and killed again, the cycle repeated forever and a day. Frankly, it is very very dull.
There I go again; well, it's my blog, and I'll moan if I want to. Back to the fabulous construct that is Cockroach King; the Gentle Giantisms continue, and Kerry Minnear must be quietly smiling to himself. Suddenly, three minutes in, we briefly turn left into a jazz club, and it doesn't seem the slightest disjointed as it might in the hands of less dexterous musicians than these. Things get even more complex further in and sections take a detour down my favourite bewitching musical tributary, ending up in the wondrous land of avant-prog. No, really!
It transpires that Cockroach King is the best song on the album for me, but there are many other highlights. All the multi-tracked vocals on this complete musical experience of a song were provided by Ross Jennings, but have no fear, for the band have done the acapella thing live before, so we should be able to hear the song live in all its glory.
The others in this band include keyboardist/guitarist Richard Henshall, bassist Tom MacLean, who are both also in prog metal act To-Mera, raved about by a good colleague of mine; maybe I should venture there, too? And then we have drummer Ray Hearne, guitarist Charlie Griffiths and keyboardist Diego Tejeida completing the picture.
Now into their third album, often a significant point for any band, this for once stable line up, a rarity with bands these days, obviously know each others' playing inside out. This is highlighted on a song like Because It's There, another peak of musical achievement, if you'll excuse the pun. Starting with another acapella sequence, some lovely harmonising reprising the theme from opener The Path, leading into the intertwining and sinuous playing of the band, each instrument with its distinctive role combining in a whole that stands proud as an example of highly skilled writing and arrangement. I must see this live...but not on a boat; that's another bugbear, but luckily for you I won't go off on one here about the trend nowadays for "prog at sea", which as far as I'm concerned means as much metaphorically as literally.
I am told that the longest song on the record, Falling Back To Earth references Dream Theater, but to these ears it sounds less deliberately "flash" than the somewhat overbearing Americans. I can hear Rush in here, too by the way. This song is undoubtedly well arranged (again), but is not really my particular cup of lark's vomit. Strangely I don't actually mind it at all, particularly when it goes a tad "odd" three minutes in. This is not your standard spotlight-grabbing showing off prevalent in the metal community, the interplay makes me smile, snatches of "Gentle Giant with balls", as another colleague rightly puts it, flying across the stereo spectrum.
I could almost imagine Freddie Mercury singing the short and sublime ballad As Death Embraces in one of his more introspective moments, and it is a much needed respite from the full-on attack of the tracks that surround it.
Personally I find that the album loses focus a little after the middle. Falling Back To Earth is maybe a touch too long, but Pareidolia is more interesting, with its massed bouzouki section, and a middle song section that reminds me of Bruce Swoord from The Pineapple Thief. In fact when he's not harmonising or multi-tracking, vocalist Ross Jennings' voice is very similar to the Pineapple man.
More Gentle Giantisms return in the vocals of album closer Somebody, that ends with a big production brass section arranged with some aplomb by drummer Ray Hearne, who earns a crust playing tuba in various orchestras.
Ending the album with two long tracks has the effect that by now I'm feeling a bit ear-weary, which admittedly might be down to the poor quality copy I've got rather than anything that could be laid at the band's door. There are still bags of originality and power in those last two songs, but maybe the last half of the album has too much to live up to?
Sisyphus, depicted on the cover, was punished by the gods for living a life of wicked deceitfulness, something you could never accuse Haken of. Wearing their countless influences proudly on their collective sleeve, there is never any attempt to bury those traits in layers of fancy production or over-complicated musical convolutions. In a similar fashion to The Mars Volta, although the end result is markedly different, Haken have taken a trolley-dash through the supermarket of prog, grabbing every influence they can get their eager little hands on, sometimes wholesale, and the end product is dizzying in its ambition and scope.
And therein lies the only drawback to this jaw-dropping album; maybe, just maybe, it tries just a little too hard? As far as the future goes, how on Earth, or anywhere else for that matter, do Haken follow this? Let us hope that unlike Sisyphus they are not condemned to never reach the top of the mountain.
1. The Path (2:47)
2. Atlas Stone (7:34)
3. Cockroach King (8:15)
4. In Memoriam (4:17)
5. Because It's There (4:24)
6. Falling Back To Earth (11:51)
7. As Death Embraces (3:13)
8. Pareidolia (10:51)
9. Somebody (9:03)
Total running time - 62:15
Like I said up there ^
More info at Inside Out