'The Mountain' - Haken (9/10)
I don’t think there is a band in progressive rock today that has managed to impress me as consistently as Haken . From the release of 2010’s stunning Aquarius onward, they have filled my ears with what I might describe as a progger’s dream formula: rich, eccentric and boldly complex, yet melodic and ultimately heartfelt. Still, as enraptured as I was by the debut, Haken had left room for improvement. The narrative concept on Aquarius was hokey at best, the cheese factor was likely indigestible to the lactose intolerant, and the style took after Dream Theater a bit too much for the album to have earned top honours. In the few years since however, Haken have made audacious steps towards fulfilling their potential as the heroes of modern progressive rock. To anyone who was as disappointed by Dream Theater’s latest affair as I was, I raise you Haken’s The Mountain ; quite possibly the greatest statement in progressive metal yet released in 2013.
When I first heard Haken just over three years ago, I remember feeling a rush of excitement that signified I was witnessing the birth of something major. I was not alone either; Aquarius took the prog community by storm, and left listeners wanting more, with a handful of detractors loathing the album with equal intensity. It’s not often a modern prog album divides and inspires audiences like Aquarius did, and that reception evidently lit an impetus for Haken to progress rapidly. Especially considering the industry standard of waiting years between the release of albums, it’s a feat of its own for Haken to have unveiled a third album within three years of the first. The Mountain is indeed cut from the same proggy cloth as the debut and 2011’s Visions , but this third effort is finally seeing Haken come unto their own stylistically. Considering how impressive the first two records were, this is a cause for excitement.
Even if Dream Theater hasn’t been particularly consistent recently, they laid down a brilliant framework, the likes of which countless bands have tried to copy. Haken weren’t as cookie-cutter as some of the clones out there, but there remained the impression that they were still lurking underneath the shadow of the tired gods of progressive metal. Not only is The Mountain darker in atmosphere and tone than its predecessors; Haken have also placed an emphasis on the weird and eccentric end of their style. Not only does their craft sound more focused here, they have also widened the range of their sound. Although they remain rooted in a framework of melodic progressive metal, Haken are so often over the map that the music never gets boring. For instance, “Atlas Stone’s” uplifting atmosphere and epic scope give way to “The Cockroach King”, an experimental piece that finds identity in its unsettling barbershop vocals and creepy whimsy. The epic “Falling Back to Earth” brings the progressive metal front and centre, before giving way to “As Death Embraces”, an emotional zenith of the album that weaves soft piano and haunting vocals together beautifully. “Pareidolia” has everything from Middle-Eastern ambiance (à la Orphaned Land ) to blastbeats and groove-centred rhythms. At the very least, these examples should serve to convey what a rich variety of sound and style Haken is drawing upon.
Better still is how effectively The Mountain mixes this variety together. Granted, some of the choruses feel a little shoehorned within the context of the compositions, but Haken has taken some great steps towards smoothing out their proggy segues and detours. Although they’re still weighted towards complex arrangement and strict composition over the merits of more conventional songwriting, there are plenty of hooks to stave the album from dryness. “Atlas Stone”, “Pareidolia”, and the gorgeous “Somebody” are all fine examples of how progressive rock can be made melodically sound and relevant. Haken’s skill with melody is only amplified by the vocal talents of Ross Jennings, who owns a voice perfectly suited to the band’s sound. Jennings’ vocals are uncompromisingly melodic and graced with grace, but impressive above all else is that his delivery is distinctive and even unique. Progressive metal is filled with prodigy soundalikes, and it takes a distinctive voice like Jennings’ to really impress me.
Even as their grasp of melody improves, Haken’s best side still comes out in the form of their proggy instrumentals. The influence of bands like Dream Theater and King Crimson are undoubtedly evident, but Haken have finally claimed ownership of a sound unto their own with The Mountain. In terms of pure ‘progginess’, Haken are already two steps further ahead than Dream Theater ever dared to venture. The instrumental segment in “The Cockroach King” is wonderfully puzzling, and “Falling Back to Earth” features a salvo of off-timed riffs and oppressive textures worth consideration even by the most seasoned progsters. Although it’s practically a requirement of the progressive metal label these days, Haken’s virtuosic capability as musicians cannot be underrated, and unlike Dream Theater , Haken sound like they’re still trying to push their own envelope.
As per usual, Haken’s weakest link comes in the form of their lyrics. Keeping with the tradition imposed by the previous two albums, The Mountain takes shape as a conceptual piece. Unlike the first two however, it doesn’t assume the form of a narrative, instead building itself around a vaguer theme of the human struggle for worth and meaning. It’s a lofty concept to be sure, but the lyrics tend to feel as cheesy and heavy-handed as they have always been. “The Cockroach King” offers a welcome exception to this rule lyrically, with some sharp wordplay to bolster the Ross Jennings’ eccentric a cappella. Others have written that “The Mountain” is a far more personal sort of concept album than what’s usually seen progressive rock. While I’m still not feeling Haken’s lyrics on a gut level, it’s a marked improvement from the ridiculous fish-questing lyrics on Aquarius , and the decision to cut past the sci-fi/fantasy banter in exchange for something more sincere and mature has made for an excellent move on the band’s part.
Having been a fan of this band since the debut, it’s remarkably satisfying to hear Haken having come so far from their roots. Aquarius may have wowed me at the time, but with The Mountain, I’m truly sold on their sound. Solid arguments could be made for each of Haken’s three albums as to which one is the ‘best’, but one thing is for sure: The Mountain brings to the table what the other two sorely missed; a sense of standalone identity. At this point, Haken are rivalled only by Norway’s Leprous as the brightest stars of modern progressive metal. Haken haven’t yet achieved progressive metal perfection with The Mountain, but their dedication to constant self-improvement and exploration means it can’t be far away.