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Haken - The Mountain CD (album) cover




Heavy Prog

4.17 | 1159 ratings

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4 stars (8/10)

I've been listening to the stream of "The Mountain" at progrockmag for the last few days, and my immediate thought is "at last"!

At last Haken deliver an album with an emotional heart to it as well as the quirky epicness that they've long striven for (but only now properly realised). "The Mountain" is definitely their strongest and most well-rounded work to date. Whereas "Visions" was very much "Aquarius" version 2.0, this time things have been shaken up structurally and broadened musically, rather than just honed. New logo, new Haken - this time with a more thoughtful, more intelligent application of their talents. We are now swimming in them joyously, rather than drowning in the overkill.

That being said, this is undeniably still the same band, the things that I liked on the previous releases remain, and their sonic palette has been carried forward (albeit expanded). The band is refreshed, rather than reset. But this time around the focus has shifted from showing off and ticking boxes to placing song-writing as the main priority. There was talk in interviews of much soul searching and self reflection before deciding where to go, with this being more of a full band cooperation. Drawing presumably from their own struggles as a band, the concept of "The Mountain" came to be, symbolic (obviously) of some great personal obstacle to be overcome or goal to be accomplished - the struggle to achieve greatness, and all it entails. It's actually quite a simple concept really, but a good one if you can do it justice. Everyone has their own mountain, after all.

There are weird parts still present, but Haken worked out how not to overdo it, and how to transition meaningfully between parts. Critically, the vocals are much better, which was my biggest problem before. There's also a much better use of ambiance and dynamics, as well as less focus on vocal lead lines, with more focus on the whole composition, which reduces the cheese factor down to negligible. The album has plenty of entertaining Gentle Giant-isms, even if they are completely blatant.

"The Mountain" kicks off with "The Path", a short atmospheric piece with soft piano showing us the changes straight away. The soft vocals have also improved, with Jennings' exhibiting some nice falsetto. This leads neatly into "Atlas Stone", the album's first single. It's full of lovely lighter textures, a very happy song, with bright piano and bouncy riffs. Actually, it sounds like the lighter happier parts of "Images And Words" but with some fun odd bits thrown in, without smothering the drive of the song.

"Cockroach King" is (as Second Life Syndrome has pointed out) an obvious highlight. It's got moments of heavy stomp and the most obvious GG influence of the whole album. Not just with the GG inspired vocals - the whole sound is very GG inspired. There are some fun angular basslines, and lots of odd little noises. It calls to mind "Knots" immediately for me, for these reasons. In this setting, the quirkiness doesn't come off contrived, it fits the style perfectly (they aren't trying to be too many things simultaneously). There's even a random bit of jazz inserted into the middle (inserted much more sensibly that on "Visions" for example). It's an off-kilter romp and my favourite song from the album.

With "In Memoriam" we move into heavier territory again. It's more of a standard prog metal song to start with. There are a few extra twists thrown in, and there's nothing really wrong with it, it's just not quite up to the tracks that precede it. It is just 4 minutes though. Similar Story with "Because It's There", except that it's a much calmer song. We are at least treated to a chamber-choir-like opening and the song does float along in a nicely ethereal manner, with good layers of vocals.

"Falling Back to Earth" brings us back to the DT progmetal, though it is interspersed with low key quieter sections. Some of the parts make me think of Muse a lot, actually (even vocally with the floating falsetto voice). The second half is spacier, moving gradual into heavy working its way marching to the end. "As Death Embraces" offers more soft piano and vocals, harking back the the first track "The Path". Again I enjoy the tasteful use of the falsetto voice.

"Pareidolia" was the second single of the album, and sort of feels like symphonic metal version of Tool in places. It's initially led by a nice twiddly eastern Tool-esque riff, and then moves into a more metallic riffing bit featuring what I'm told is a 'bouzouki'. This is followed by a more ambient section, then some headbanging metal, and then gradually back to the main theme from the start to tie it all together. It's all topped off with a quieter lullaby section to end, and is another of my favourites from the album.

And with that, the album finally concludes with "Somebody". It's not the standard symphonic metal epic reprising the opening track overture that you might have expected. It's more of an understated and emotional sign-off, cementing Haken's new approach and skill, and ending on a high. One cool moment is the vocal lines where the number of syllables are out of sync with the melody, causing the phrasing of "I wish I could have been somebody" to cycle through different intonations.

Again, the album does drag a little bit in the middle third, but not massively this time, and the interlude songs and shorter length (the album is about an hour) help with this. There are places where the old tendencies sometimes do creep in (e.g. occasional overemphasis on technicality, or some of the vocal lines being a bit uninspired), but they are infrequent, brief, and stick out so much less, so they're easily within allowable licence. I've personally found Ross Jennings to be a bit of a limited vocalist, but he does get better with every album, and Haken have found a bunch of tricks here to frame his voice better, layering it and using the studio to provide counterpoints as a way to keep it interesting, rather than just letting it lead and strain at the more intense parts, without quite an interesting enough melody to drive the song. It does still creep into generic territory at times but on the whole the vocals are an asset, and one of the most improved components of "The Mountain" compared with Haken's previous albums.

I'll end by saying that this is basically the album I'd hoped Haken would make. Well, maybe not a masterpiece, but definitely excellent, and Haken do appear to improve with every album. Who knows in the future, right? Existing fans of Haken will no doubt lap this up merrily, but even if (like me) you weren't especially blown away by the first two albums ("Aquarius" and "Visions"), despite the rabid praise they received at the time, then you may still be able to scale "The Mountain".

ScorchedFirth | 4/5 |


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