In honor of the two new exclusive Haken vinyl variants in our store, Langdon Hickman dives deep into the two standout albums which have recently been re-issued...

Haken have, over the past ten years, established themselves as the preeminent progressive metal band producing work in the style's classic mode. Of their works, The Mountain is the chief argument for this crowning. It's an eruptive moment that arrived at just the right time not just in terms of the development of the sound, style and compositional ability of the band but also in the broader historical and social context of progressive metal as a whole.

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In the 1970s, it was largely driven by stray experiments from bands that merely dabbled in the style. Occasional tracks from groups like Yes, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Rush, King Crimson, Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, Rainbow, and more established a framework of ideas and musical language for the burgeoning heavier wing of progressive rock, one that did not yet have a clear and definitive center. The 1980s saw a more discrete development and calcification of sonic ideals for the form, giving us the rise of groups like Iron Maiden, Queensryche, Fates Warning and more, acting as a heavy metal counterpart to the neo-prog movement spearheaded by groups like Marillion. These dual overtly proggy movements were a response to the otherwise dimming view of outre prog music in broader musical circles. There, tastes had turned toward music that focused more keenly on fusing prog motifs and concepts against more accessible pop frameworks, giving us everything from New Wave to synth pop and more as popular fusion styles. Prog metal in the 1980s had a largely dispersed nature; there were certainly a smaller number of key bands in the 1980s than in the much more scattershot development during the 1970s, but it was still a wide span in terms of approaches to the style.

The 1990s, meanwhile, saw the rise of Dream Theater, a group which, with their second album Images & Words, established themselves as the prog metal figure du jour. This is not without reason; while Dream Theater's earlier demos and debut LP were certainly works of keen students of the already existing tools of prog metal, Images & Words saw the band fusing in a much wider palette of influences against that framework and, in doing so, generating a new language that was both modern and fertile. Off of the back of that mighty record and their own sonic developments in the years after, Dream Theater became both a cottage industry and a capital of progressive metal as a whole, using the early internet and fan zines to help promote smaller up-and-coming bands, using their opening slots to help generate now-headlining bands of the style, as well as spawning the numerous side-projects and collaborations the members engaged in over the years. There is a great deal of internal filigree within the vast tapestry of progressive metal, certainly, but it would not be wrong to say that, for two full decades, Dream Theater more or less was the progressive metal, either to the delight or chagrin of the listener depending on how much they liked Dream Theater. Because this was the longer standing ecosystemic shift caused by their dominance: a gradual withering, at least in commercial viability, of the once-disparate styles that marked the subgenre through the 1970s and 1980s. The realities of this stylistic congealing around the works of Dream Theater is, of course, more complex and murkier, but it has nonetheless often been laid at their feet, rightly or wrongly.

In the 2000s, the ground won and defended by Dream Theater finally became a flowerbed of activity. What once was a somewhat shunned genre kept alive largely by diehards suddenly saw a wild efflorescence of bands, some of which, like Between the Buried and Me, worked within the style Dream Theater set out while others, like Mastodon, deliberately sidestepped it to create new shapes. There had been a critical and public shift in opinion that occurred over this period where prog slowly emerged from the shadows, with more and more bands openly acknowledging their already-present prog influence and citing bigger bands of the style, helping to reverse decades of social damage dating back to the late 1970s. By the end of the 2000s heading into the 2010s, we had a number of bands establishing themselves as forces within progressive metal, itself becoming more and more an openly-beloved and almost mainstream facet of the heavy metal landscape.

But then the 2010s, like so many things in life, took a sharp left turn. Mike Portnoy left Dream Theater, an event that was as close to a black hole ripping through a galaxy as the prog metal world could have pondered, leaving Dream Theater searching for a new firm status quo to build from for the next ten years. Between the Buried and Me, once considered the heirs to Dream Theater's throne, seemed to struggle to capably follow up The Great Misdirect and continue their steady upward trajectory, releasing a series of solid but uneven records that confused as many fans as they delighted, a trend only righted recently. Mastodon went from delivering Crack the Skye, an all-time great prog record, to retreating to a more inwardly-directed hybrid of prog rock and hard rock, likewise still producing solid work but, for seemingly indefinable reasons, not resonating as strongly as it once had. There was almost an Icarusian descent following the high years of the 2000s, like the period of 2009 to 2010, which had been so fruitful for so many, had simply exhausted something that needed time to be refilled. Into this landscape came djent, a sound that had been long-gestating but had its proper big bang moment with the release of Periphery's debut in 2010. In many ways, this was a style that was designed as an heir to Dream Theater's throne, adding elements of metalcore, Meshuggah-style polymetric flourish and pop-punk anthemism, but for precisely those reasons it failed to connect with certain elements of the broader prog metal community who adhered to the genre largely to avoid some of those elements.

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This is the context into which Haken themselves emerged. Their demo album had been released in the late 2000s to a positive response within the deepest communities of prog, showing a sound that was much more in line with the high era of progressive metal of the post-Dream Theater world. Beyond Dream Theater, their other influences skewed more toward the annals of progressive rock, showing flourishes of bands like Opeth, Gentle Giant, IQ, Marillion, and more as adjuncts to the decidedly Dream Theater/Alder-era Fates Warning core of their sound as well as djent, which was then in its forum-driven infancy. Off the back of the strength of that demo album, Haken was signed to Sensory Records, sister label to prog rock heavyweight label The Laser's Edge, home to major groups such as Gordian Knot, Riverside, and Zero Hour. Aquarius, Haken's proper studio debut, was received to rapturous applause in the prog rock world, currently sitting at #3 for best studio record of 2010 on ProgArchives. Aquarius established immediately certain sonic and compositional trademarks of the group, such as long-form compositions in multiple movements, album-length narrative conceptual sweeps, and dense and intertextual modern progressive rock and metal drawing from its vast canon. Aquarius was quickly followed by Visions the following year to equal levels of acclaim. Visions was, sonically speaking, "the same but more", featuring the group choosing to focus on fine details and adjustments to their compositional style rather than a drastic seachange. Much like its predecessor, Visions was a concept album featuring dense and deeply progressive compositions, including the longest track to date for the group in the title track, clocking in at just over 22 minutes.

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It is from this ground that The Mountain springs, a record which currently stands as the group's greatest work as well as the album that thrust them into the clear lead position for contemporary progressive metal of that classic style as we know it. The Mountain displays Haken showing a shocking level of bravery and self-criticism when it comes to the songs present. Despite the high acclaim of the group's first two records, it is not hard on relistens to find certain pervasive flaws, ones not large enough to render the records unenjoyable but still significant enough that they can't be avoided. Those first two present a band eager to show themselves and, as such, producing incredibly dense and busy works. This, combined with the heavily saturated production and their lengthy compositions, leads to a deep level of sonic fatigue, a sense of wariness that is at odds with the otherwise stellar playing and richly evocative imagistic musical motifs of the group. The Mountain, their first for InsideOut who has been their label ever since, sees the band taking a ruthless editorial approach to their compositions, trimming not only track lengths in many instances but also the number of competing sonic layers. The tracks wind up being a great deal more transparent and full of air and breathe as a result, each sonic element arranged with a great sense of balance as opposed to a continuous and unending assault. This is all done without sacrificing either the complexity of the parts demonstrated or the overall complexity of the record as a whole; all that is lost is the previous dizzying opacity brought about both by compositional and production choices.

The Mountain also shows the band at their most cognizant by this point in their career of the emotional pacing of a record. Despite not being a concept album proper, it does feature repeating motifs that emerge in transfigured forms over various tracks, offering a sense of sonic, imagistic, and emotional unity to the material even though they are no longer narratively linked. Likewise, the peppered shorter tracks which focus primarily on beautiful figurework allows the five lengthier cuts of the record to both feel more special and be more digestible. It is sometimes presented as a point of pride within the world of progressive music that a record may taken dozens of listens to be fully digested, to fully flower out in the mind, but in a certain sense this can be a real and debilitating compositional crutch if bands aren't wary, encouraging ever-increasing levels of density and opacity even when certain compositions or themes demand more transparency and more firm showdressing to let them shine uninhibited.

Haken indulge in a more song-oriented, beautiful, and, dare I say, romantic form of progressive rock on The Mountain, such as the Moon Safari-gesturing chorales of "The Path" and "Because It's There" or the Porcupine Tree moodiness of album closer "Somebody". One of the great beauties of prog is that it is unafraid to show its influences boldly; being in the shadows for so long often with only itself for company, there came to be a kind of pride in being knowingly in dialogue with the work of peers and legends, one balanced against a sense of giving back and developing on those ideas as much as they are iterated. Haken nails this symbiotic relationship with the canon and contemporary landscape of prog masterfully over The Mountain, feeling at once like a history lesson or survey of styles as much as it is an increasingly confident band growing not only more capable but more sure footed in their compositions, be it of melodies or songs or even full albums.

But the key piece of The Mountain, the one that thrusts it so high, the one that makes it transcend from being merely a phenomenal album by a rapidly developing and wonderful group, is "Cockroach King." The song is a masterful blend of everything from Gentle Giant and Queen nodding vocal chorales to Zappa and King Crimson adjacent heavily syncopated sections to the requisite post-Dream Theater synthesis of prog metal styles. It is perhaps one of the best examples of the greater sense of compositional clarity and transparency the group developed on The Mountain; despite moving through a bevy of often quite different sections, Haken are always keen to keep away from clutter, each musical component present playing a clear role and given clear space. This stems, according to the band, from live performances of "Visions", the 22-minute title track of their second LP, where to heighten the impact of a vocal section of the recorded piece they would perform that passage a capella. This offered a direct impetus toward the Gentle Giant-esque canons, but seemed to have a broader impact of underscoring to the band the sense of compositional necessity and clarity. The result is a piece that stands comfortably aside greats such as "Metropolis Pt. 1" by Dream Theater, "Selkies" by Between the Buried and Me and "Beyond the Pale" by Pain of Salvation as a true great of the genre.

The deep critical success of The Mountain ironically offered a steep cliff for Haken to climb. It is fair then that their next move, as opposed to immediately penning new studio material, was to rewrite and rerecord material from their demo album as a stopgap EP titled Restoration. This process seemed to be the second stage of the compositional knife they took to their songwriting present on The Mountain, moving backward and making similarly minded adjustments to earlier works, discarding parts that were cluttering the frame before and expanding on the melodies and rhythmic motifs they had wanted to be more central. Despite being about 40 minutes in length, it's clear why the group framed this release as a minor one as opposed to their next major statement; in the context of both The Mountain and Affinity, their next studio LP, it reads as a craft project, documentation of the group's attempts to hone their songwriting to match their already clearly impeccable musicianship.

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So it is no surprise then that Affinity immediately bursts off the page as perhaps the most keenly hook-oriented album Haken have ever produced. The record sees Haken don a specifically 1980s glossy aesthetic to match the narrative arc of the material concerning a computer virus crafted by The Architect all set against a backdrop of the cyberfuturism of the 1980s. The intervening decades between this decade and that one allowed for the processing of that overall sonic aesthetic first as modern, then as kitsch, then as cliche, and finally emerging in their work as a cultural and imagist signifier; they are wisely sparing with their gestures toward it, grounding the bright neon gloss of the synths and the clean rounded sparkling tone of the guitars against modern approaches such as deep djenting and the post-Porcupine Tree melodic/alt prog sensibility.

The amount of sonic details active at any given time on Affinity feels on average denser than The Mountain, but between better production and the sharpened compositional sense that group acquired from taking an editorial eye to their demo material, these arrangements are still quite legible and easy to parse despite their relatively increased density. The details ebb back and forth between popping out, taking center stage in the frame, and receding into the background as dappling sonic scenesetting. There is a greater sense of theatrical control demonstrated across Affinity, making the starkly apocalyptic tale make more immediate sense through sensuality, letting the timbres and moods of the music tell the story as directly as the lyrics themselves. There is a greater sense of cohesion across the record as a result, often making the record play less as a collection of independent songs and more as a tightly-knit songsuite. Despite this sense, however, the group still does a keen job offering sonic separation of the material, choosing not to have seamless segues between each of the tracks like some records deploy but instead more cleanly delineating the beginning and ending of tracks. The sense as a listener is often not immediately that of a track ending but instead something closer to a scene shift, at once cleanly closing the door on previous melodies and sonic ideas as it mentally resets us to take in the next set without fatigue. As a result, Affinity, despite being just a kiss longer than The Mountain, feels instead like the shortest of their records. There is not a sense of emotional exhaustion by the end of the album; if anything, its closing strains leave you energized at the prospect of more.

These two albums, The Mountain and Affinity, seem to describe a kind of center to Haken's work, at least currently. Different bands tend to have different internal patterns and cycles; for Rush it is four album cycles while for Voivod it tends to be trilogies. Haken's body of work thus far can be divided in twos or threes, what with the following two albums Vector and Virus being a clear duology in that they are a single concept spread over two discs but also cinching up tightly against Affinity at least in terms of aesthetic and compositional matters. Whether you divide their career into twos or threes, The Mountain and Affinity remain at its center. These are the records in which the vast promise of Haken was refined, the real moment the band went from profoundly gifted players with wild and rich imaginations to masters of the form, producing effulgent material on both a song- and album-length level. They are by now rightfully major names within the style; these two records are that eruptive moment that made it all possible.

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New reissues of The Mountain and Affinity are both available in our store on exclusive vinyl variants (with bonus CD). Each is limited to 200 copies worldwide, and pictured below: