Visions is the second studio album from UK progressive metal act Haken. The 2011 release comes just the year after their 2010 debut, the highly acclaimed concept album Aquarius. Visions, like its predecessor, is also a concept album and features eight tracks of music, including the title track which lasts for a whopping twenty-two and a half minutes in true progressive epic style. The Haken line-up remains unchanged between the two releases. I haven’t been able to interpret the whole of the concept at the time of writing, but I gather the gist of it is that someone has a vision of someone’s (or possible themselves – one or the other) death, and then sets out to change it. It’s obviously a lot more detailed than that, but this is how I’ve loosely interpreted it.
Haken’s debut Aquarius was, without any other way to put it, a masterpiece of progressive music. What few flaws to be found in the album were buried deep down and didn’t deduct from the listening experience. With the album Haken really made their mark on the world of progressive rock and metal music, gaining widespread acclaim, but in the process set the bar really high for themselves for when they made their second album. Progressive music doesn’t get much better than Aquarius, but despite its greatness, it’s this second album, Visions, that Haken’s reputation is really riding on. Have they done it again?
Initially I thought that answer was going to be a no, and a big resounding no at that. Then I remembered that I wasn’t exactly thrilled with Aquarius when I first heard it either, and it took more than a couple of listens for me to regard it as the masterpiece that I do now, so despite some early doubts I kept giving Visions listens, and true to the form of the debut I soon began to regard the album extremely highly. I’d say that ultimately it took less listens to fully appreciate Visions than it did Aquarius, possibly because Visions is more in line with a traditional progressive metal sound than Aquarius. And just in case you were wondering, just because it is more in the traditional prog metal vein (or if you prefer, the Dream Theater school of prog metal) it does not mean that Haken devolved into your typical prog metal act. Visions may be a more traditional album as far as the genre is concerned, but doing this after an album such as Aquarius is actually very good for Haken, as I’ll explain in detail in the next paragraph. Of course all this doesn’t answer the question about if they’ve done it again, so before I move on, let’s clear it up. Suspense over, yes they have, Visions is another release of the highest level of quality from Haken.
The sound of Visions is still recognisably that of Haken, but Visions doesn’t feel like a hasty rehash of Aquarius. It has a different feel to the music even though at the core they remain a progressive metal act. In some ways it may initially seem that there is actually less variation on the album compared to Aquarius, but that’s because they incorporate new ideas into their progressive metal instead of doing the same things again, so when you come to the album expert certain trademark themes you won’t find them, which is definitely a good thing, as it keeps their music fresh and interesting, despite the fact that as I have already said, Visions is more along the lines of traditional prog metal. This is okay though, as it just happens to be as mighty fine slab of traditional prog metal as you’ll ever find, and by doing this Haken shows that they’re no one trick pony. Sure in terms of overall uniqueness within their field Aquarius has more of its own identity, but would you rather hear a band make the same album twice or explore multiple paths? I sure as hell know which I’d prefer, and I fully expect Haken will continue to do such for many years to come.
There are no death metal growls on the album, as there were in both Haken’s demo songs and Aquarius, with vocalist Ross Jennings sticking to his most melodic vocals throughout the album, although his performance is still somewhat varied in approach. I can’t say I miss the growls. They were used for effect on Aquarius really well rather than Haken specifically trying to add a brutal aspect to their music, and it’s very clear that aren’t needed for Visions material. Having got myself established with Haken through Aquarius I knew what to expect of Jennings’ vocals, but I will reiterate here for any newcomers that somehow missed the stir that Aquarius caused last year; his vocals do, in my opinion, take a bit of time to get used to and to fully appreciate. If Visions is your first encounter with Haken the vocals may need to do some growing on you because of this, but once fully grown you should realise what a quality vocalist Haken has in Ross Jennings. He sings the way the composition and the concept demands, and I love this about his performance a lot.
The flow of the album from track to track is exceptional. Although they are both concept albums with Aquarius I did feel that you could take each track as a track rather than as a chapter in a story, mainly because I felt the Aquarius story was hard to follow. Visions feels in some ways like one really long composition rather than individual tracks, as is most evident with the way the music flows together and sometimes you don’t even realise you just went onto the next track, such as between first two tracks Premonition and Nocturnal Conspiracy. Visions has more clarity as a concept album because of this, and the music is equally stunning as Haken’s past work. It’s made even more exciting by the fact that they quickly establish that you aren’t going to know quite what they’re going to pull out of their hats as the album progresses.
Like with a lot of progressive metal there is a large focus on instrumental work on Visions. So much so that this time around Haken have not only included some lengthy and progressive instrumental passages, but also some fully instrumental compositions in the opening Premonition and also with Portals. In general the tracks on Visions are shorter than on Aquarius, with a couple of them not even hitting the five minute mark, but it does include what is essentially the crown jewel of the album in its title track that I mentioned earlier in this review. The amount of different sounds in the album is truly astonishing in the way the band fits it all together and makes it work. There’s even a bit that sounds straight out of a retro computer game (I believe people refer to this sort of thing as Nintendo rock, or Nintendocore or something). Even that works amazingly well and although such a thing may seem light-hearted and quirky, it doesn’t in any way distract from the serious nature of the storyline or indeed the enjoyability of the music.
The riffs are once again not the heaviest that you could expect from a metal band, although there are some really crushing moments in Shapeshifter that remind me more of bassist Tom MacLean’s work in To-Mera (where he plays guitar). You can once again expect a larger focus on progressive and technical playing rather than raw intensity though, and this is definitely to Haken’s strength. This is exceptional progressive music from a group of exceptional musicians and I honestly think you won’t find finer despite Haken still being a pretty young band. I’ve said before in my reviews that there are three classes of band: the sort that can make one or two masterpiece albums in their career, the sort that can make several and the sort that never really gets there. With just two albums under their belt Haken has already slipped into the ‘one or two’ class and if their two albums so far are any sort of indication then they are well on their way into not just the class that makes several masterpiece albums, but the even more exclusive subclass that makes those masterpieces sequentially. As good as Visions is the thing it succeeds most at for me is whetting my appetite for even more releases from Haken. They prove between their two albums that they don’t need to repeat themselves and with epic tracks such as Nocturnal Conspiracy and Visions they promise that there is even better to come.
So while we’ve established that Visions is another masterpiece from Haken, one final question remains: Is it better than Aquarius? Ultimately I have to say no, but that shouldn’t in any way discourage you from a purchase of Visions. The album is a more than worthy follow up, and in many ways it does things a lot better than Aquarius. It’s really only just under Aquarius overall, and a score right at the top end of the scale is still very much deserved, but I can’t shake the feeling that the band didn’t quite manage to top their excellent debut. They certainly didn’t fall at the wayside though and Haken proves once again that they are not only one of the best new progressive metal acts, they are the best. Haken are also easily the best band to come out of the United Kingdom since Iron Maiden. Get this album. No, don’t argue about it, just get this album!
(Originally written for Heavy Metal Haven, scored at 9.8/10, "Masterpiece/Classic Album")