Haken’s Prog Metal “Virus” Usurps Your Mind (Album Review)
The year 2020 has been a gluttony of riches for prog metal fans.
When I say prog metal, I don't mean the ever-burgeoning worlds in each subgenre of metal that have been more and more openly embracing prog rock and experimentalism over the past 15 years or so; instead, I mean prog metal: Dream Theater, Fates Warning, Queensryche, Pain of Salvation, the real shit. And last year was in no shortage of heavy hitters: from reigning legends Opeth, Devin Townsend, and the aforementioned Dream Theater to returning greats like Arch/Matheos to contemporaries Leprous, Wilderun, and Cult of Luna.
But 2020's game has been strong so far. Caligula's Horse have produced their strongest record yet, as have the returning Green Carnation which was an incredibly pleasant surprise. Ihsahn is about to drop his second EP of the year, this one explicitly tilted toward prog compared to Telemark's implicit prog. Katatonia reconfigured what once was going to be a Jonas Renske solo album into yet another strong offering in their unimpeachable run as a more straight forward prog rock/metal act. Protest the Hero, Hällas, and Thought Factory have each produced impeccable showings of the genre, and The Ocean have a new one on the way.
Haken is easily the most exciting of all of these offerings, though, and the reason is simple and superlative: for the past decade, Haken has been the best prog metal band on the planet.
Haken has been a widely acclaimed band in the genre since their debut Aquarius was released in 2010. That was a momentous year for prog metal: Dream Theater, the absolute and undisputed titans of the genre, had just lost founding member Mike Portnoy as drummer and would begin the long, slow process of rediscovery that seemed to only fully erupt with their most recent studio record. Devin Townsend was finishing up his Devin Townsend Project four-album cycle and was indicating at the time that he intended, albeit only briefly, to step away after. Between the Buried and Me, a band which to many was the heir apparent to Dream Theater, had just released The Great Misdirect, an album that would both be the platform for the future of the band as much as it initially confounded some who wished that the trajectory of their career would remain unaltered.
And seemingly out of the blue arose a British band fusing elements of Opeth's moody and death metal-graced approach to prog with similar young upstarts Periphery's post-Meshuggah take on the genre, all alloyed against a deliberate base built from the type of prog metal Dream Theater had developed into a veritable genre field.
Over the next decade, Haken would release five studio albums and a 40-minute EP consisting of rearranged and re-recorded songs from that first self-released demo album. Each record was met with rapturous response from the prog metal world, and for good reason: finally, a band had arrived that was delivering both the kind and quality of progressive metal Dream Theater was dishing out with ease in the late 1990s and early 2000s, updated with all the modern tricks and play styles that had been developed since (but without sacrificing that core aesthetic). Mike Portnoy must have noticed their exceptional quality as well, because when he finally set out to tour a setlist comprised of the finished 60-minute epic suite based on the 12 steps, it was Haken that he called upon.
To say their sixth album Virus, releasing Friday, has a lot to live up to would be a drastic understatement. Like Dream Theater before them, they run the risk of having built an esteem too great to ever possibly live up to.
But, thankfully, mercifully, Virus is not the record where Haken cracks. Instead, it follows the arc that Haken has been traveling since The Mountain, stripping their admittedly only ever brief usage of harsh vocals to further foreground their world-class vocalist while simultaneously making the music consistently heavier and more metallic. The album opens with the punishing prog metal tune "Prosthetic" -- the main riff pummels with a tight syncopated chug that feels head-spinning without sacrificing a direct and potent 4/4 groove. And even when the song decides to start throwing odd time signatures your way, Haken maintains a sheer percussive force that emphasizes groove over trying to impress you with tricky time changes.
It is not a sign of unoriginality that I get whiffs of the proggier post-metal of Cult of Luna, especially their material from Vertikal onward, or of the post-djent doom metal of Obscure Sphinx. Instead, the fact that they are able to fit those textures and aesthetic approaches within the broader framework of prog metal feels a fulfillment of one of the most enticing elements of the genre as an enterprise. In fact, it is precisely because these elements seem at times like deliberate nods but are so impeccably deployed that makes Haken as a band so wonderful -- and also why so many superlatives are often thrown their way. We've all heard even acclaimed prog metal bands occasionally fall flat on their face when their ambitions and interests exceed either their songwriting acumen or their patience in making sure those ideas really work well together. This is never the case with Haken; it consistently feels refreshing and exciting when they wink and nod at other groups, be they heavy metal, prog, or electronica flourishes.
So when "Carousel" flits between anthemic alt-rock, passages that are reminiscent of "Home" by Dream Theater, burbling electronic breaks and Tool riffs, it comes across less like a band that doesn't know who they are and more like a band that is endlessly capable of synthesizing anything and everything under the sun into what they do.
The entire two-disc concept functions as a large-scale nod to their own work, a double-disc concept arc built off of a single song from a previous record. For Haken, that expansion is of "Cockroach King," the magnum opus track from 2013's The Mountain and what might be the best prog metal track of the 2010s -- producing material that feels like a satisfactory expansion of ideas inside of it can come at a fine compromise to any listener. The focus on Virus isn't on blowing your hair all the way back with brief and mind-boggling passages anyway. Haken have matured not just as songwriters but as composers of album-length spans of music, retaining a much keener sense of pacing and the emotional and mental taxation long spans of difficult music can produce. It helps as well that their execution of hooks both melodic and rhythmic is simply stronger now, able to consistently grab a hold of you even as they maneuver through dizzying stretches.
Like all great concept albums, Virus is less concerned with the specific story than it is using that story as both a skeleton to structure the pacing and arrangements of the tracks within it. Like most prog metal concept records, it may be hard to follow the precise story without liner notes and reference materials in hand, something the genre is sometimes criticized for. But it's important to remember that this is less the intention of the record than to be sonically catching, to get stuck in your head, to compel you to press play on it like a rabid animal the second the rush has faded following the close of the final track.
On that mark, Virus is a tremendous success. It is now the sixth release in a row from Haken that lives easily among their most esteemed peers. It is impossible to imagine a fan of progressive metal not loving this album; further, it is impossible not to recommend any fan of heavy metal music to give Virus (and, more broadly, Haken) their time, even if they find it maybe isn't ultimately to taste. That's because Haken has simply become one of those bands, one that you need to know and be familiar, a fact this album underlines.
Virus releases Friday, July 24th via Inside Out Music.