Album: Aquarius; Visions (reissues)
Release date: 03.02.2017
British new-generation prog metallers Haken are celebrating their 10th anniversary as a band this year, and their first two albums, Aquarius (2010) and Visions (2011), are being re-released on February 3rd (today). Having only heard last year’s Affinity from these guys before, I decided to check out how their journey started.
As I said in our “2016 in metal” blog post, I used to think of Haken as a bit of a Dream Theater clone. I wasn’t totally off-base, as that influence is very clearly audible on Aquarius, especially in Ray Hearne’s drumming and Diego Tejeida’s keyboard playing. The album is a little all over the place stylistically – the opener, “The Point of No Return”, is a rather heavy track, though there are gentle moments as well, whereas “Streams” has a lighter feel for the most part, with its 70s prog influences and playful backing vocals. The top point of the record is in the middle – the massive and dramatic “Aquarium” has got strong melodies, and the upbeat “Eternal Rain” is full of great musicianship. However, as most debuts, Aquarius isn’t without its missteps; Ross Jennings’ unique clean voice is pleasant and doesn’t sound like typical metal singing, but his occasional growling doesn’t feel like it totally belongs to the music. In “Celestial Elixir” there’s a brass section that gives a circus music feel at a few points, which isn’t really my cup of tea – luckily the soaring chorus is enough to make this epic worth listening to. “Drowning in the Flood” also goes a little overboard with the flashy instrumentation towards the end. My overall impression is that the band were trying to cram in as many influences as possible on the record – perhaps out of youthful enthusiasm – and while it makes the music diverse, it ends up sounding slightly chaotic in the process. Despite this and the obvious Dream Theater influence, Aquarius is fairly good for a first effort, and you can tell Haken were already a tight unit after the first 4 years of their career.
Although both albums are good pieces of modern prog metal, I find Visions more consistent and focused. The songs are more concise and well-thought-out, the album’s flow is better, and the music has a clearer common thread running throughout. “Insomnia” is my favorite song – that opening riff is just so cool – but “Nocturnal Conspiracy” is a good contender as well, as it never falters during its 13-minute length, and Ross Jennings’ vocal performance is very strong. “Shapeshifter” showcases Haken’s heavier side well, while “Deathless” is a beautiful mellow piece before the big finale, just like “Sun” on Aquarius. However, Visions isn’t a perfect album, as “Portals” veers a little too far into the terrain of musical gymnastics for my taste, although I guess coming off the heels of the restrained “The Mind’s Eye” it is a good counterpoint. The 22-minute title-track is good for the most part, but around the 16-minute mark there’s a section with annoyingly repetitive vocals that goes on and on to the point of getting infuriating. The production is also not as good as on Aquarius, but in almost every other way Visions is a step up from the debut, which is impressive, considering that a mere year had passed between the albums.
While the two albums are good for a starting band, and Haken’s great sense of melody was there to balance out the technicality right from the start, the songwriting is not as original as it is on Affinity. However, I see this as a purely positive thing, because it means that Haken have grown and matured a lot, and if that continues, we might be in store for something amazing in the near future. Besides, I haven’t heard The Mountain (2013) yet, so I have one more full-length album to listen to while waiting for the next chapter. The reissues come with bonus discs that include instrumental versions of every song. If I were a diehard fan, I’d prefer to hear material from the archives, such as demo versions or unreleased songs, but I don’t know whether Haken had any of those, so hopefully the remastering and instrumental discs will be enough of a drawcard for those who own the original CDs.
Rating: 7/10 (Aquarius), 8/10 (Visions)
1. The Point of No Return
4. Eternal Rain
5. Drowning in the Flood
7. Celestial Elixir
2. Nocturnal Conspiracy
4. The Mind’s Eye