A friend of mine who is wise in such matters has been quietly persuading me to listen to ‘The Mountain’, the third effort from progressive geniuses Haken, for some time now, and with only one listen it was easy to see why. Formed by members of To-mera, an ex-member of linear sphere, not to mention graduates from the very best conservatoires, Haken explore the progressive regions that straddle the epic rock pretensions of the Who, the blazing metallic assault of Dream theater and the unconventional rhythms and spacy travails of King Crimson and Yes. It is a broad, wildly diverse musical canvas upon which they paint and the result is an album that slips and slides between moments of breath-taking beauty and grandeur and sharper passages filled with jagged guitars and raging percussion. It’s an album that genuinely deserves the term ‘progressive’, so forward thinking is much of the music and there’s a good chance that even avid listeners will still be endeavouring to unravel the albums many charms for years to come.
The album starts in sedate fashion, calmly sitting between Radiohead, Muse and Jeff Buckley as singer Ross Jennings beckons you onto ‘the path’. It’s a deeply beautiful piece of music with lyrics to match, and it is a bravely gentle opening track to an album of such varied musical adventures. ‘Atlas stone’, a seven minute epic filled with bizarre jazz-infused diversions, sees the album take flight, the driving piano that begins the track soon joined by up-tempo percussion, needle-sharp guitars and huge choral sweeps that are nothing if not ambitious. In contrast the syncopated beat and quirky verse is closer in feel to The Mars Volta whilst the post chorus breakdown is part yes, part Miles Davis. It’s all but impossible to describe, my deranged musings as liable to confuse as to enlighten, with the only real help I can offer being that what should, by all rationale, be a jumbled, atonal mess is, in the hands of Haken, a cohesive, beautiful offering that glides majestically over the myriad potential pitfalls of such genre disloyalty to land gracefully in front of the listener following its sumptuous display of musical athleticism. ‘Cockroach king’ is an easy favourite with its crazed, theatrical bent doing its best to pour on more pomp than ELP’s ‘brain salad surgery’ and even then the band can’t resist seguing into pure jazz territory before bouncing off into Spock’s beard territory for the brilliantly arranged vocal work of the finale.
One of the album’s shorter, sharper shocks is ‘in memoriam’, a track that opens on a blazing, metallic riff before throwing the Queen book of ludicrous arrangements at the track, taking it off in new and wholly unexpected directions complete with sci-fi overtones and flashes of King Crimson. Similarly short, ‘because it’s there’ segues directly from the previous number whilst picking up the motif from the intro track and developing it into a choral piece that is delivered in sombre tones before some stunning, Sonny Landreth style guitar work signals the return of the band to action. It is, perhaps, one of the most straightforward tracks here, picking up on the same vein of inspiration that ran through Muse’s ‘black holes and revelations’ and filtering it through the raw emotional honesty of latter-day anathema for good measure. It is, however, the calm before the storm, as ‘falling back to earth’ opens on a riff that brutally borrows from Meshuggah and Dream Theater before settling into a subtly shifting set of dark jazz, all fizzing snare drum and wah-inflected guitar. It’s a long, ever-evolving track, fully utilising Ross’s amazing vocal abilities and suggesting a love of Devin Townsend’s unerring ability to take complex progressive metal riffs and imbue them with a pop sensibility that sticks in the brain, sometimes even weeks after you last listened to a track. These are, of course, reference points created by a blind man in an unfamiliar landscape and ultimately Haken sound like no one but, well, Haken – making the creation of any kind of meaningful review somewhat challenging. Indeed, if one was to write ‘it is awesome’ in six foot high, fire-dripping letters, it might be a more honest and accurate representation of the thoughts this album sends spinning through the brain – but brevity never was Sonicabuse’s strongpoint. At eleven minutes it is the album’s longest song, and yet even over such an epic run time it never feels any less than perfectly balanced no matter the number of ideas that fly through the mix.
The pace is bought back down to earth with the short, unutterably beautiful lament of ‘as death embraces’ which is almost unbearably gorgeous and needs no further exposition. ‘Pareidolia’ – a condition which overly verbose music journalists frequently suffer from (it is a psychological condition that renders random stimuli important – for example seeing shapes in clouds or a man in the moon) is a sumptuous metallic banquet of cyclical riffs, acrobatic percussion and ethereal harmonies that reaches a ferocious climax that hits the consciousness like a shot of adrenalin to the bloodstream whilst the closing track, ‘somebody’, drifts dreamily into view, the band weaving a silken musical web around Ross’s sublimely delivered vocals.
What more is there to say about Haken when I’ve already said too much and yet nowhere near enough. This is music about which whole dissertations could be written, but ultimately all that matters is not the reference points, the musical quirks or the immense amount of time that must surely go into such an endeavour, but simply the wonderful music with which we are left. Over analysis strips the fun and the potency from so much that the only way to truly experience and understand such a work is to lock oneself away, dim the lights and allow the mellifluous waves to slowly wash over you. The letters here may be neither flaming, nor six feet high, but the message is the same – this is an album that is awesome in the literal sense of the word. It inspires awe at the musical ability of the band, at the magical pictures they paint with their melodies and lyrics and at the power with which they deliver their music. It is a stunning, progressive, sublime work of art and must surely be listed as essential for anyone who considers themselves a fan of music.