Wednesday, April 20, 2016
Album Review: Haken - Affinity
Over the last few years, possibly no band has done more to elevate their stature than Haken. Their previous records have been nearly unanimously praised by both critics and progressive musicians, to the point where it's hard to find a dissenting opinion. They are considered one of the shining lights of prog at the moment, which makes it all the more curious that I don't think I've given them a fair shake yet. I've heard bits and pieces of their music, but nothing, not even the rapturous talk, has been enough to convince me I'm missing out on anything. As this new album arrives, I'm willing to consider the error of my ways, and so I dive headlong into the abyss.
After the obligatory minute of noise that supposedly sets the stage, "Initiate" follows literally from the title. What we get is four minutes of shifting tones and sounds, with jangly Smiths-style chords, a heavy breakdown, pianos, and plenty of crooning. It's a lot to fit into four minutes, and frankly, it's probably too much to try, since none of the parts are especially strong. It's one of those songs that's pleasant enough to listen to, but you can tell as you're hearing it that you won't be able to remember a lick of it when the album is done.
The literal theme continues on "1985", which is a time capsule unearthed from prog's past. Between the synth tones and the faker than fake drumming, the sound is pulled so hard from the 80s that it feels like a relic, and makes the song come across as a gimmick. It's hard to take it seriously in the present, since it was consciously made to feel like it was from another time, minus the bass drop, of course. The shame of that is that not only are the sounds they borrow from the darkest days of prog, they are also horrible when compared to what the band can do when they play things straight. It was an unnecessary trick that drags down what is otherwise a very good song. The pieces are more well-integrated, and the main hook of the song is more than solid.
"The Architect" delivers the heaviest dose of prog on the album, stretching to nearly sixteen minutes, and packed to the brim with spastic riffing and ramshackle songwriting that bounces from here to there like Daffy Duck before his personality was changed from insane to paranoid. It's in here that I hear the problem I've always had with my experiences listening to Haken; they don't carry on the through-line of their songwriting well enough. They come up with a nifty riff or a solid melody, and then it's gone thirty seconds later, because they have something else they want to try. While that might excite the people who condemn songs for following an A-B-A-B structure, it also means that these songs take detours when they don't need to, and needlessly dilute their own power. "The Architect" has great ideas in it, but there's also a good five minutes or more of padding that doesn't add anything to the crux of the song. If that was trimmed out, we would have a sharper, leaner, more powerful song.
The only through-line Haken hits on repeatedly is the recurring theme of digitization, which rears its head in the form of stilted, distorted vocals bits that are supposed to sound like the voice of a computer. They are not interesting in the least as musical bits, nor do they add anything of note to the songs, other than to propagate the conceit. We'd be better off without them, to be honest.
The shorter tracks here tell the story. Songs like "Earthrise" still have some of the tricky instrumentation Haken likes to employ, but there it's used in a way that doesn't distract from the song. We don't turn into a brick wall, but instead just get a solidly written and executed song. That shouldn't feel refreshing, but it is. Hearing that, or "The Enless Knot", it makes me wonder why the 'epic' was put together in such a disjointed fashion. It's not as though Haken can't write a good song, they just let prog overtake them.
I can hear in "Affinity" what it is people love about Haken. They're seriously talented, and can take prog in a direction that not many others can. That said, they are also a band that is frustrating to listen to, because they insist on being weird for the sake of being weird too often, often at their own expense. There's a lot to like in "The Affinity", but not enough for me to say it makes a great album.