Hot streak, purple patch – call it what you will, but Haken have been effortlessly riding on one for the last five years.
Their rousing second album Visions, released in 2011, was a vivid example of how to purvey prog metal with panache, while 2013’s The Mountain was simply magnificent. It left the follow-up with a hell of a lot to live up to. Instead of ploughing along the same path, however, the London-based band have taken some detours on Affinity. It’s the same destination, but there are more left turns.
The 1980s is a surprising influence here. Where the group previously eulogised 70s proggers Gentle Giant et al, this album plugs into the following decade’s technicolour synth and penchant for kitsch via keyboard player Diego Tejeida. Think Yes’ Owner Of A Lonely Heart, but bug-eyed after seven Red Bulls. Suspense building opener affinity.exe references Haken’s MS-DOS-influenced pre-release promotion, before things hot up with Initiate, a rousing salvo of juddering chops and velvety melody from vocalist Ross Jennings.
Dextrous prog metal with retro pizzazz and roller-coaster riffs.
Then there’s 1985, the most unashamed tribute to that era. It’s engrossing and grin-inducingly fun, with contemporary djenty guttural spurts sharing the bed with instrumental flourishes that wouldn’t sound out of place on the theme to a Top Gun spin-off. If this isn’t a live favourite by the summer, Prog will eat its wizard’s hat.
In true Haken style, Affinity is a cerebral dichotomy of light and dark, heavy and soft. It’s what the sextet do best, with Lapse and Earthrise providing some accessible floral moments – the latter at one point channelling Coldplay – while The Endless Knot conversely contributes grinding guitar gymnastics from the stellar tag team of Richard Henshall and Charlie Griffiths.
But the album’s spine, 15-minuter The Architect, is the jewel in the crown. It crystallises what makes Affinity special, with its dextrous next-generation prog metal juxtaposed with some retro pizzazz, hooky refrains and rollercoaster riffs. And the song’s guest screams from Leprous’s Einar Solberg, layered on top of Opeth-like distortion, inject Haken with a previously unheard snarl.
It’s not all convincing from the get-go, though. Listening to the sometimes stolid, key-driven Red Giant and Bound By Gravity, you worry Haken’s kooky charm and intrinsic personality may be fading. Go with the current, however, and it starts to make sense. This is a band keen to eschew those early, lazy Dream Theater comparisons. And after the hour is up, you can’t help but excitedly ponder just what Haken will conjure up next. To Affinity, and beyond.