Well, the day is nearly upon us. After three release date postponements, this week we finally get the sixth chapter in renowned progressive rock band Haken’s storied history. Loyal readers of this site will know that a Haken release is pretty much guaranteed to land on progressive music year-end lists. 2016’s Affinity was our prog album of the year, and 2018’s Vector came in at Number 5. And if we were around for the band’s first three albums, those almost certainly would have featured on lists as well. Basically, we love Haken.
Virus does not change that feeling. Even initial listens without understanding the background story elicit feelings of joy. “Prosthetic” may kick things off in a highly metallic, mechanical nature much like Vector, but this serves merely as a transition into the album, and the song’s chorus is so melodic and catchy that it usurps the heaviness of the track.
The remainder of Virus – six more songs, for a total runtime of 52 minutes – harkens back to Affinity and The Mountain, two albums fans would rightly consider the band’s high points. And there’s a story to this. Virus, and to an extent Vector, further the storyline from The Mountain of who the Cockroach King is. That story arc extends across both albums, and in fact listening to them back to back makes for a long but totally engrossing and unified play.
Let’s be honest, though: storylines don’t matter if songwriting can’t hold up its end of the bargain. Luckily, Haken are gifted in this regard. “Invasion” features a fabulous Ross Jennings vocal line with percussive backing during the verses and a unified melody in the choruses. The opening moments of “Carousel” had me cringing, overwhelmed by the sappiness of it, but thankfully that lasts less than thirty seconds, and the remaining ten minutes quickly turned this into one of the album’s strongest songs. The wonderful arrangement and stellar instrumentation adds up to the most enthralling number here.
That’s saying a lot, as the five-part, seventeen-minute “Messiah Complex” is clearly meant to be the album’s holy grail. Here is where diehard fans will find multiple references to The Mountain, both lyrically and in arrangements and vocals. The writing over the course of this song is nothing short of amazing, with all five parts possessing their own lifeforce yet fitting seamlessly alongside each other, making this one of the most engaging long songs of the year.
Faults have been hard to find with Virus over the past three months of twice-weekly listens. The production does come off as a touch sterile, primarily due to the overly loud kick drum. And the album’s denoument, “Only Stars,” serves more as a two minute comedown from “Messiah Complex” than anything. It may be necessary for the narrative, but it feels needlessly tacked on. Minor nitpicks, to be sure.
Haken have taken the heavy, at times djent-like attack of Vector and tempered the edges, bringing back more of their renowned melodicism and of course Jennings’ trademark vocals. The integration of themes and styles from Affinity and The Mountain make Virus a truly special release, and one that will most definitely earn a place in 2020’s upper echelon of stellar albums.
(released July 24, 2020 on InsideOut Music)
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Watch Haken – “Invasion” Video