Haken and the Current State of Progress

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As there will be reviews of the upcoming Haken album just about everywhere in the next few weeks, I wanted to do something a little different to celebrate the release of this wonderful album.

In my relatively short tenure of listening to heavy progressive music, I have noticed a few shifts on what is considered to be the current zeitgeist. In this article, I am mostly referring to the “lower” meaning of progressivism, which basically removes the “experimental” attribute from the tag. The lower progressive is describing more of a solid genre and not an added descriptor. In simpler terms, depending on the era, when someone described a new band simply as “prog metal”, you instantly had a good idea of what that band was going to sound like. This semantic discussion between the two meanings of “progressive” has occurred here a few times on the Toilet (mostly by W and Guac), but it has mostly been to praise the “music that progresses” over the plateaus that those progressions inevitably create. I want to dig into those plateaus.

Here I will attempt to classify these various stagnations in progressive music (the oxymoron that makes “progressive” music as a genre so controversial). Note that although I have end dates on each era, it does not mean music like that is no longer being made or being made well (which I will highlight later), but they are attempting to be approximations on what the label of “prog” meant at that time. Obviously there are eras before these, but I am not as comfortable in discussing them at length, and they are unimportant to my point.

  1. (When I Became a Nerd – 2012) – Identified by: Dream Theater, Symphony X, Riverside, Pain of Salvation

This era is the origin story for me and surely many other progressive fans who started to lean towards the metal side of things. It is distinguished by clean vocals, epic themes, heavy keyboard use, and general musical dorkery. Most of the music here is easily more rock than metal, but it reigned supreme as the definition of prog for a very long time and has a very direct connection to eras before it. I don’t think I need to spend much more time on this one.

2. (2013 – 2016) – Identified by: Periphery, TesseracT, The Contortionist, Countless Instrumental Bands

Somewhere around when Periphery released their second album, the term “prog” shifted in this heavier direction. This era is distinguished by the djent tone (though not always), mixed vocals, and general hatred from the metal community. I think this era is going to be more short lived than most, but it is far from just a fad. I would attribute the quick boom and bust to a bubble in the self-produced music industry. Too many people found out that they could replicate some of the sounds easily, but with no real artistry, they contributed to it getting old rather than letting it developing naturally. As of now, there is still a good chance that prog is referring to this era, but I feel that the label is moving on.

3.(2016 – Future) – Identified by: Son of Aurelius, A Sense of Gravity, Existem, ???

Now this era is mostly a guess since my prediction skills are sub-nostradamus levels. As usual, the era will form when some “high” Progressive band makes it big and will then be overly replicated. There’s a good chance I am way off the mark with my listed bands, but these are three bands that had amazing releases in 2014 and seemed to have something in common that I’d like to see more of. I am not even sure if the band that will define this era exists yet (as I would argue DT and Periphery defined the previous), so my list is wildly incomplete. I think the band will still have both harsh and clean vocals. I think the band will dominate the catchy riff and chorus. I think this band will become my favorite band for a few years. For the most part, these bands won’t change what feelings you already have regarding progressive metal, and will probably be wrongly lumped in with era #2 at some point in the distant future since there will be many similarities, but with most djentyness removed.

Now here is where things get interesting. Haken, who really started to excel after the end of era #1 with The Mountain, are undoubtedly closer in sound to that era than the next. With their new album Affinity, it seems like they read my mind about some of these concepts.

On a few songs, and especially “1985” and “Earthrise,” there are obvious call-backs to extinct sounds, including almost comical synth tones and rhythms of an older generation of music that many of us are happy to forget. However, the small samplings are used in a way that make the songs diverse and fun without bogging you too far down with nostalgic annoyance.

Interestingly, the 15-minute long “Architect”, has a chorus with some djent hidden in the tone (and even harsh black metal vocals!?!? from Einar Solber of Leprous), which seems to show that they understand the shift and are proving they have have the ability to keep up; however, they are still unquestionably not “selling out.” The whole album is a beautifully erratic mix of old and new.

Without doing a track-by-track analysis (which would probably be pretty torturous without a full album stream published yet), I found another thing about this album quite interesting. I typically love this era of music for its energy and find slowdown tracks entirely skippable (like “Wait for Sleep” or “I Walk Beside You“), but the final track “Bound by Gravity,” is captivating with its melodic progression and is one of my favorite tracks on the album.

Overall, Affinity will please fans of The Mountain, but might not do much to capture an audience that is on the borderline with the band. That is not to say that the two albums are similar, because their differences are striking, but it will appeal to the same crowd. Some songs take a few listens to really get hooked on, and there are some forgettable bits, but when they hit their stride they are extraordinary. Haken are definitive proof that sometimes it is possible to stay relevant by dredging up the past for missed ideas, even in a genre that is supposed to be forward-looking.

Haken seem to have an uncanny ability to be both fully entrenched in a decaying plateau, yet still maintain some elements of high Progressivism by bringing something new to the table. But here is the problem with these labels: If you are only ever looking for what is undeniably high prog, then you will miss these micro progressions and dismiss bands that are too similar before you can really see what is great about their take on a sound you already know. I don’t think prog as a genre would get so much backlash if it were named anything else. It is possible that I am thinking far too much about this, and all I actually need to know is that Haken is consistently making some of the most fun music out there, regardless of what you want to call it.

Affinity is released on April 29th. Pre-order here.

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