Haken performs a masterpiece hat trick! UK heavy prog kings Haken have always mesmirised me with their glorious blend of ambient prog and heavy instrumental blitzkriegs. Both previous albums delivered exceptional high quality prog rock and always offered a surprising array of musical styles. There was never a dull moment and overall the albums were masterfully produced. The band's lineup has not changed too much and on this latest release there is still the incomparable virtuoso musicianship of Charles Griffiths on guitars, Raymond Hearne on drums, Richard Henshall on keyboard and guitar, Thomas MacLean on bass and Diego Tejeida on keyboards. The vocals are well handled as usual by Ross Jennings, who can move from a range of octaves effortlessly. I always look forward to sitting down and being blown away by albums such as "Visions" released in 2011, so I was really hoping this new album would be something just as special, if not better.
The enigmatic Sisyphus inspired front cover is an immediate attention grabber. Obviously there is a concept involved somewhere with this. It opens with Gentle Giant nuances, a cappela harmonies, something the band returns to on songs such as 'Cockroach King'. The soundscape transforms to a heavy prog vibe as the guitars crank into life and then the crystalline vocals of Jennings chime in. 'The Path' starts off proceedings leading to the heavy approach on 'Atlas Stone'. This track takes more twists and turns then er.. Sisyphus himself. As that rock is rolled up that hill futilely and with blind purpose, the music takes on its own ambitious agenda. The keyboards are grandiose and they blaze over the incessant bass and drum rhythm machine.
'Cockroach King' channels Gentle Giant and then Genesis vocals, till after a springy boing there is a weird section of percussive mayhem. A lead guitar freakout and some squibbly electronics take on their own life. The time sig is fractured to pieces, and there are some quirky motifs that are at polar opposites to the actual melody. Suddenly it volcanos out into chugging distorted guitar riffs and shimmering keyboards. Then it breaks and channels a vintage Yes sound, before splashing out to an odd tempo instrumental. What a wonderful homage to the sensational golden era of 1970s prog!
'In Memoriam' opens with grand piano tinkling till an ultra heavy guitar riff destroys the ambience. A Porcupine Tree style vocal and melody locks in, then it leads to a raucous chorus. The mind blowing speed metal riff dominates for a moment till it moves to a slow meandering section. It all settles down with an a cappella harmony "life is a dream" and the harmonies are absolutely brilliant, like a progressive barbershop quartet. Then a broken tempo is heard as if someone had chopped up the mix; very complex and striking in its structure. 'Because It's There' is very tranquil driven by harmonies and some odd atmospherics.
'Falling Back to Earth' is an 11:51 rocker with some blazing guitar riffs, and a range of vocal styles. When Jennings reaches the high register it reminds me of Muse. The guitar chugs with a heavy low guttural distortion. The chorus is the one I remember the most when I return to this album. It has an infectious melody but the main drawcard of this masterful track is the experimental innovation on the instrumental break. There is a section that is like some manic jazz freakout and the time sig shifts boldly into adventurous directions. The lead guitar solo features some fret melting speed licks and spasmodic tempo shifts.
Somehow the track merges back to the main melody, with Dream Theater like precision. It settles into a haunting ambient passage of layered guitars. Then there is the memorable section with dreamy flowing harmonies "Ha-aaahh" and the lyrics that focus on the crest fallen angel falling back to earth into the ocean. The heavy distorted guitars return like an old friend, and some delightful vocalisations that add to the ethereal atmosphere. Finally we are treated to a pastoral flute, then it builds to a crescendo with swathes of synths and that catchy chorus; what a mind melting masterpiece!
'As Death Embraces' is minimalist piano and Jennings melancholy voice with the protagonist pleading for forgiveness at the end of his life as he leaves his wings behind and fate's doors close over. This quiet piece feels like a transition as we catch our breath before the next onslaught of delicious prog calisthenics. 'Pareidolia' is an almost 11 minute slice of infectious heavy prog. The melody grabs hold instantly and locks into the consciousness.
There is an Egyptian flavour, as we hear of the kingdom burning to the ground, and the treasure left for whoever to find in the desert. The sound gets heavier in the chorus and then a lead guitar riff bursts from captivity. The song delves into a very choppy staccato rhythm with the drums laying it on thick over metal guitar chunks. There is a freakout of hyper guitar and speed drums and some Egyptian sounding guitars thrown in; this is intense and builds into choral chants till it breaks and all is quietened again. There are vocals layered with harmonies, echoing phrases and some King Crimson like guitar rhythms take over for a while.
'Somebody' closes the album with a 9 minute finale, beginning with a calm atmosphere. The harmonised vocals are gorgeous on the chorus that has a melody that hooks into the memory.
The complexity on "The Mountain" is astounding, (how good would this be heard live!), and I admit at this point that half way through this I knew I was listening to another Haken masterpiece, who don't seem to be able to put a foot wrong. That's three masterpieces in a row for my ears and this latest release is perhaps the best in terms of musicianship and addictive melodies. Haken pour so much passion and energy on each release that it is impossible not to like if you are into the heavier side of prog while still demanding supreme complexity at the highest level, along with infectious songs that all have a unique and distinct flavour; Haken deliver every time and this is no mean feat. Somehow the band knows exactly how to hook in a listener, and they give every band member a chance to shine maintaining a strong unity with just the right amount of light and shade on every track. The Gentle Giant influences are prominent on this release, and it has its fair share of metal with classic prog influences sprinkled here and there. Haken are becoming one of the greatest prog bands of recent years because they deliver outstanding albums that are all killer, no filler. "The Mountain" gets my highest recommendations and is one of the finest releases of 2013 without a shadow of a doubt!