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Haken - Affinity CD (album) cover




Heavy Prog

3.94 | 620 ratings

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Rock Progressivo Italiano Team
4 stars UK Prog-metal with crossover appeal band Haken are now up to their fourth album (fifth if you throw in their great `Restoration' EP from 2014 that runs for over 33 minutes, which is longer than many 70's prog discs, so let's count that too!), coming after their well-received occasionally Seventies-flavoured `The Mountain' in 2013, an album that lifted their profile considerably in the prog community, even if opinions on it are still divided today! 2016 sees them return with `Affinity', this time adopting a frequent Eighties sheen and AOR power to their always soaring pieces (and ditching the Gentle Giant obsessions of their previous two discs along the way), and it's one of their most accomplished, varied and sophisticated musical statements to date. `Affinity' is not so much a concept work as a collection of tracks with a loose shared sci-fi theme, and despite offering some of their purest metal moments, it also remains powerfully and endlessly melodic with smart choruses in between the delirious and bombastic instrumental technicality going on around the strong tunes.

After a mysterious lightly industrial intro, `Initiate' is an introspective and gently melancholic rocker with a tougher late-era Porcupine Tree-like bluster that, while probably one of the least interesting tracks on the disc, improves into a reliably easy opener on repeated listens that gets the blood flowing right from the start. But the first `wow' moment hits with `1985' that bounces with a buoyant Eighties vibe, grooving bass and snappy drumming powering the piece, and it's unsurprising to learn that keyboard player Diego Tejeida was greatly influenced by composer Vince DiCola, as the synth-heavy instrumental spot at the 5:45 minute completely recalls his E.L.P-styled soundtrack to the fondly remembered `Transformers' animated film of the same decade! Add in some snarling heavy riffs, a battery of pummelling drums and an earworm chorus delivered with precision from lead vocalist Ross Jennings that refuses to quit grafted to infectiously cheesy stadium rock fanfare, and it's shamelessly "Prog" dialled up to eleven with a side order of guilty-pleasure!

A shorter piece with the hopeful and romantic qualities of Coheed and Cambria, `Lapse' is another reflective rocker with a lofty chorus that bookends an impossibly tight little blitzkrieg soloing spasm (little shades of Yes' Steve Howe in there!). But the centrepiece of the album is the frequently Tool/Porcupine Tree-like fifteen-plus minute `The Architect', and despite it being loaded with an endless variety of hard-riffing grooves, slithering bass and powerhouse drum-work, making it one of Haken's most balls-out gutsy metal efforts to date, it also incorporates some sublime slinking electronic programming, ambient passages and ethereal floating voices (although a brief guest vocal from Leprous' Einar Solberg in an Opeth-like passage at about the ten minute mark may push the friendship for some older prog listeners, but to be fair, its more `tortured pained moan' than `death metal growl'!).

Another stream-lined piece `Earthrise' is an unashamedly power AOR/80's pop-rocker with a catchy chorus, yet not overly simplistic and obnoxiously radio/chart-friendly, and the fanfare synth break in the middle reminds of the first (good!) Asia LP and the E.L.Powell album. The moody `Red Giant' is more concerned with building a sombre atmosphere but delivers a surprising up-tempo sprint in the second half over sighing harmonies, and the breathless `The Endless Knot' is crammed full of stop-start spiralling electronics and frantic snapping drumming with a hopeful anthem-like chorus. Nine-minute closer `Bound by Gravity' begins as a classy and dreamy ballad of great hope to a low-key ambient synth backing that slowly has the group coming together in restrained drama, with little traces reminding of the most recent Anathema albums before a powerhouse symphonic finale.

While there's occasional little dull moments and the album initially feels overlong at just over an hour, the trick here is to really commit to giving it plenty of spins. Take the time to read into the lyrics, listen closely to how carefully controlled Jennings' vocals are and especially pay close attention to the variety of the lavish instrumental elements (try to pick up one of the two-CD special editions that have a bonus completely instrumental version of the album on a bonus disc). There's such a joyful energy to so much of the soloing that proves hugely addictive, the choruses are frequently anthemic without being dumbed down easy AOR, and the disc archives a great balance of accessible and technical qualities throughout.

Placing it alongside other heavy rock/metal discs of note of the last year or so, it's more focused and punchier than Dream Theater's bloated if ambitious `The Astonishing', not as fanbase opinion-dividing as Opeth's `Sorceress', and certainly much more complex and weightier than Riverside's `Love, Fear...'. `Affinity' sits alongside Headspace's `All That you Fear is Gone' as one of the most surprising and musically rich metal-related albums of 2016, and it's another winner for the hugely talented group that is Haken.

Four stars.

Aussie-Byrd-Brother | 4/5 |


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