Friday, September 13, 2013

Haken - The Mountain (2013)

And so the debate rages on; is it better to be different, or to be good at doing the same thing? Being different, while refreshing, doesn't always mean good. Doing the same thing, regardless of how good you are at it, doesn't always get you noticed. But much like the eventual meeting between peanut butter and chocolate, it was only a matter of time before someone did something different, and did it better than anyone before them. Haken, set to release their third album, may have stumbled into an unbeatable combination. They've found an open place in the musical spectrum; one that sits snugly between prog and avant metal styles, to this point untouched, or at least imperfect. But not only have they taken their box of 64 Crayola crayons and gone outside the lines, they've left the paper entirely. With sounds ranging from barbershop melodies, to thrashing guitars, keyboards that provide more sounds than you can count, and a constant presence of jazz funk, it's a wonder this new album can be contained on digital media. Because while "The Mountain" is different, it's the best something different in a long time.

It's somewhat refreshing, at times, when bands let a song grow slowly, without any rush to get to the hook. For Haken, "The Path" is that kind of opener, a slow, piano bound introduction, with frontman Ross Jennings invoking elements of classic Queen in his delivery. What allows this pairing to be most successful, though, is that it doesn't stop and start rigidly; it flows from beginning to end, and on into "Atlas Stone." The piano keys, delicate as they are, become the binder. But as the latter begins, the progressive metal elements flow through the dam. It is almost absurd how smooth and free flowing the melodies are here, a fusion of classic prog and soaring guitar solos. Adding another wrinkle to the fabric, bassist Thomas MacLean manages to introduce a fair amount of funk through his alternating slapped and plucked bass lines. Having found a balance to the mix, nothing goes unnoticed in this massive soundscape. That clarity becomes all too important as "Cockroach King" begins, a fun play on the idea of barbershop metal, once dabbled into by Shadow Gallery. This is far from a gimmick, however, as the musicianship goes far beyond a one dimensional foray. The track is broken into pieces, with the dividers coming in the form of wildly eccentric jazz passages and quivering keyboard movements. It is a true rarity to find a song that is equally fun and awe inspiring.

One thing to note; as the album moves along, the lyrical content is nothing short of interesting. It abandons the cliches and three word phrases of many mainstream acts, relying more on wordplay and more intricate structures, such as on "In Memoriam." Along with the more sophisticated vocals, guitarists Richard Henshall and Charles Griffiths put their stamp here, with some great bending string work. The balance between driving and airy is subtle, but appreciated, giving you a depth of sound that strengthens every piece. Once again, they dial it back on the opening to "Because It's There," a seriously rich vocal harmony occupying the spotlight alone. When the rest of the band joins the fray, you have something wholly unique and even more satisfying. Their sound is unlike any band in the world today, at least any that come to mind. Subtle electronic breaks make a world of difference here, adding accent to the main vocal. Keyboardist Diego Tejeida is a mastermind of synthesized sounds, not only in support, but in the lead role. Songs like "Falling Back To Earth" showcase his best work, providing foundation when the guitars dominate, and accent when they fall back into the mix. This a song of tangents, darting off into any numbers of directions, but always coming back to the tow line. For a song that clocks in just shy of twelve minutes, it is a rollercoaster ride of deft instrumentals and versatile vocals.

It's as if the band can hit the reset button at any time, allowing "As Death Embraces" to bring the tempo and the mood back down. Once again, Jennings is joined only by lightly touched piano keys as he croons, a stirring and successful combination. But it is somehow trumped by "Pareidolia," a track that boasts one of the most intense and varied percussion attacks on the album. Drummer Raymond Hearne, who to this point should be the subject of much awe, explodes here, crashing through a myriad of rolls, fills, and crashes. It becomes impossible to nail down all of the separate elements at play here, with every member of the band providing their own signature touches throughout the eleven minutes of metal glory. If you focus your attention to a particular riff, you'll miss a great bass line. But the common theme remains in broad, sweeping melody that ties the bow around this gift. In one final mood shift, "Somebody" puts Jennings back in the driver's seat, his voice commanding the entire track, and his eccentric combination of words and tones drawing many a nod of approval. But, like the rest of the album, this isn't a one man show. Were it not for the deliberate drum beats of Hearne, the smooth bass lines of MacLean, the rhythm and lead riffs of Henshall and Griffiths, or the beautifully delicate touches of Tejeida, this arch would fall to the ground without cause or meaning.

Very rarely does an album end, leaving you with your head cocked sideways, or your jaw lowered halfway to the floor. We've been fortunate enough to have a few of those experiences. But Haken, with their crayons in hand and unlimited surfaces to color, wouldn't be content to amaze us with their versatility or their eccentricity. They've made an album that is sure to breathe life into a stale, often convoluted progressive metal genre. The album is long, towering well over the hour mark, and yet it doesn't seem nearly long enough to complete the journey they have started you on. From the first track, the colors have already gone outside the black and white structures that the mainstream has put before them. By midway, they have run off the paper and onto the table, chairs, and floor. By the time the last note fades out, and the album has completed, you may need to take a step back to see what's happened. Nine songs, 62 minutes, and a creative flow that goes for days, and what do you have to show for it? Haken has gone ahead and finished their masterpiece. 'The Mountain" just drew a Picasso all over your fucking room. 


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