Virus is a beautifully played collection of songs from a band that know who they are, who they want to be, and how to make that happen
London’s Haken have made an indelible impression over the past 13 years. For many, they are England’s equivalent to the mighty Dream Theater and, looking back, it’s an apt observation. Their five full-length albums have shown a notable upswing in maturity and virtuosity throughout the years, and their name in the progressive music world is held in high regard. Their previous album, 2018’s Vector, was a heavy, intricate record that fired on all cylinders and was a wholly enjoyable collection of songs, if perhaps a little more commercial in certain areas.
Their new album, Virus (a fine choice of name for any album in 2020), is once again a very heavy affair that is laced with complex passages, and it also houses their finest progressive song to date. The band are on top of their game in tightness and a focus on songs before histrionics (although, as we’ll see, their chops are finely honed and lethal nonetheless), and it’s got more than a few uber-catchy choruses and anthems.
Opener “Prosthetic” is a seven-string barrage of riffs and prolific keys, and the chorus is impossible to ignore. If this was a pop band, this song would be the obvious single, although the prog elements are also tight and infinitely tasty. “Invasion” is modern djent/prog metal that reminds one of TesseracT or Periphery, with a vicious attack, a well-balanced lyrical vocal and epic chorus, and the guitar leads are tasteful and challenging at the same time. At just over 10 minutes, “Carousel” is an art rock journey that sways ever-so-gently between beefy metal riffs and moving passages, with vocals that, at times, remind nostalgically of both Thom Yorke and Steven Wilson in execution and feel. The guitar solos are a highlight with their flurries of arpeggios and fluid melody lines, but the true magic lies in the song’s composition, which is evenly metered out and flows like crystal waters.
Both “The Strain” and “Canary Yellow”, while not throwaway songs in any way, are somewhat formulaic and safe. This leads us to the aforementioned track that the record is built around, and could be seen to be Haken’s own “Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence”. Granted, Dream Theater went to the absolute extreme with that song and it may still seem overindulgent to some, but Haken’s “Messiah Complex” five-part epic avoids the excessive trappings and still manages to be a mammoth progressive accomplishment. Each of the segments has its own voice and the keen-eared old-school fans of the band will pick up vocal melodies and instrumental bits and bobs that reference earlier works and tie it deeply into the Haken canon. Hell, there’s even a saxophone solo and some video game pastiches, so you know it’s a heck of a ride. The album closes with “Only Stars” which is a short, quiet, tasteful palette cleanser that rounds the record off with class and style (and also feels like the part in a film’s credits where you’re given a taster for a possible sequel which, knowing the nerdy streak in this band is quite the possibility).
It’s a strong, clean, well-produced, beautifully played collection of songs from a band that know who they are, who they want to be, and how to make that happen. Apart from everything else, they sound completely confident in their direction and that is where the final Dream Theater reference comes into play, as confidence is that band’s sixth member. They play with tasteful abandon on what might be their strongest outing yet.
FFO: Dream Theater, Caligula’s Horse, Devin Townsend