Haken and the Current State of Progress

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.

  • Joaquin Stick

    Everyone have enough to read today? Wall ov Text day here at the Toilet.

    • (you and i have a LOT of shared prog interests, btw)

    • Spear

      I could go for some more Wall ov Text days.

      • Lacertilian

        Text Death Thursday coming up, mate.

    • EsusMoose

      My favorite parts of going to the bathroom involve reading the toilet writings on the stall doors.

      • JWEG

        The other day I was fiddling with Google Translate, and discovered that one possible Latin translation of “Toilet of Hell” is “Cultus Barathri”

        What I like most about that is that it looks sort of like it should be translated opposite to reality (admit it: without deep familiarity with Metal Latin, you too can see someone thinking “barathrum” is the word that translates to Toilet).

    • JWEG

      I would almost post a Wall of Text reply just to that, but I usually save those for Open Swims.

      Instead I’m going to thank you for the reading material, and pretend it was so long that I only just finished reading it. I suppose I shouldn’t explain the joke, though…

  • Joaquin Stick

    Lol, I just noticed my “list” is all 1s. Supposed to be 1-3… My bad.

    • Dubs

      Not your fault. Werdprezz does weird things with numbering.

    • CyberneticOrganism

      Fates Warning – Sad Satan Hallway

  • Nice job! I really appreciate these longer analytical pieces (obviously). I think my tastes clearly lean very far toward what you call high progressive (or experimental or avant-garde or generalized Weird Shit) music and very little of what is featured in this post appeals to me but your analysis is remarkable and it’ll be very interesting to see what new developments arise.

    • Joaquin Stick

      Much appreciated, boy genius. I see it as like the “pop” of progressive music almost. Much more digestible than the crazy shit (and by that I mean really interesting) you posted above, but is still nothing like radio rock.

      • Guac, W. and I have talked about the dichotomy before, and of course it’s been highlighted on the Toilet before (as you linked above), but it is really interesting such a dichotomy could exist. I think Guac put it best when he asserted the “progressive” qualities of music wholly depend on to what the listener has already been exposed.

        • The Tetrachord of Archytas

          I agree with that to an extent, but I think you can also qualify progressive objectively. it seems like the root of progressive music has more to do with the weaving together of multiple styles or being forward looking to a degree. But forward looking is based on what era and environment they’re in too.Like Xenakis isn’t experimental or progressive cause he’s a modernist and he fits into the modernist era does set theory whatever it’s old and that wave of avant garde is done to death. Doesn’t mean it’s not good or interesting. But its inaccessible for lots of people, which I think has more to do with the dichotomy of art music versus pop music (pop includes metal in this distinction)

  • i’m very excited for this, especially knowing that a prog nerd like yourself approves. i jammed The Mountain more times than i can count. i wonder if, when you speak about “obvious call-backs to extinct sounds”, the staccato vocal interplay on “Cockroach King” applies. then their confident usage of autotune* in “Because It’s There” is probably the best i’ve heard in the industry.
    *at least i believe it to be autotune… perhaps these gents are just that skilled?

    • Joaquin Stick

      One of the songs has a section that straight up sounds like a bad 80s TV theme. It’s ridiculous.

      • Joaquin Stick

        And yeah, in a way, I sorta mean the weird sections like the one you speak of on Cockroach King. I can’t see anyone else being this weird with that much confidence. Well put.

  • Paddlin’ Rites ov Beargod

    Great… thing-y. When it comes to the new Haken songs, I didn’t feel either very strongly (yet) and when it comes to the other opinions I think I can say I mostly agree.

    But I’m not so certain I enjoy your new S(ch)tick, Hoakim.

    • Joaquin Stick

      I felt the same way, which is why I was hesitant to do a standard “review” but after a few more listens, the whole album grew on my quite a bit. Is good.

  • Ol Dirty Blastbeard

    prog is blowin up lately. i cant get down with this vocal style as much, or perhaps this just isnt heavy enough. nice read though

  • Dubs

    I think the digital age has really changed a lot in the realm of metal. Your article ties back to what Christian Munzner was saying about having the tools to produce metal that stylistically fits a “prog” mold but that lacks the heart and actual ability to really matter.

    • hieronymus bossk

      It just comes down to what bands can’t hacken it, and which bands can.

  • Nothing upsets me more than watching the losers at /r/progmetal call djent “progressive metal” with a straight face

    • Joaquin Stick

      In spirit I agree with you, but, like with grammar, it depends on if you take the descriptive or prescriptive approach. Since calling djent “prog” is so widely used, I think at some point it is just what we have to go along with. There’s no telling thousands of nerds that they are wrong, much like there is no way to tell millions of people that they are using a language improperly if they still successfully communicate. Or maybe the ideas aren’t related at all. ¯_(ツ)_/¯

      • either old school progressive metal needs to change, or modern progressive metal (djent) needs to change.

        I don’t care which one really, I just don’t want to use the term progressive metal and have one crowd think I mean Fates Warning or Devin Townsend, then another crowd think I mean Periphery, Tesseract, and size 0 ear gauges

    • Count_Breznak

      Yeah, you can’t drop “Meshuggah-Ripoffs” in the same folder as “yodeling over synth-laden mindless wankery”.
      On the other hand, Periphery kinda fit into both categories…hm.

    • CyberneticOrganism
  • Waynecro

    Thanks for the outstanding review! I dig Haken, but I have to be in the right mood to listen to them. Every now and then, I just feel like jamming the band’s entire discography.

  • I don’t have time to check this right now, but I must congratule Joaquín for this great effort in analyzing prog with the base of Haken.

    Sadly, I didn’t enjoyed that much The Mountain, but it seems is another reason that I should listen to it again, isn’t it? 😉

    • Joaquin Stick

      I think so! It seems like something you might enjoy if you can stand the weirdness of it all.

      • Yep.

        I stand with Waynecro position, too. I have to be in the right mood to enjoy this kind of music. Most of the time I need a more straight-forward dose of melodies.

  • FrankWhiteKingOfNY

    The Mountain was a good album, but for some reason it didn’t really click with me. Still I’m very much anticipating the upcoming album. Maybe it’ll work this time.

  • The Tetrachord of Archytas

    Music is so much about function too. I think a separate tangent for analysis lies in a discussion of function because theoretically, progressive music should be an interweaving of functions. In a way prog music in any era should be a statement on the era. This is separate from progressive as in forward looking which is an interesting thing to think about. Like in that category the possibilities are infinite, but at the same time it’s almost progressive retroactively, because it’s essentially a gamble whether or not it sticks. Periphery is progressive because the idea of combining pop songs and meshuggah stuck, and it became a trend but it’s nothing like prog in the sense of yes, or btbam.

    • Joaquin Stick

      I like this idea. Not sure I could expand on it but I think we are on the same page.

  • Owlswald

    Tesseract and The Contortionist are similar in that they are two bands I believe will have very long, fruitful careers long after Periphery (and their clones) have gone. To be sure, both are very much driven by their vocalists (who we know are phenomenal) but they also seemed to turn a corner on their last albums, especially The Contortionist. Add their impeccable live show and you have a recipe for success.

    • Joaquin Stick

      Eh, I am not sure if I agree with your “who will have longer lasting success” hypothesis. I have never been big on The Contortionist, and I have seen them live a few times, and that usually changes my mind. I think the vocalist is great, but I don’t see their vibe catching on nearly as much as Periphery’s did. TesseracT is just a weird outlier and I can’t begin to predict where they are going. I do like them quite a bit though.

  • Guppusmaximus

    This is a tough nut to crack because, to me, “(P)progressive” (Capitalized only when typing the genre’s nomenclature)always meant a progression in terms of fusion. Taking what can currently be done or considered and intertwining (& interweaving) that style or styles with others that might either conflict and/or contrast with the one that comes before or after. The virtuosity to dabble in multiple genres that is seriously rooted in an understanding of cohesion in terms of the overall picture (melody,harmony,etc). To make lyrical statements that the music can capitalize on (or vice versa), again, with the appreciation of virtuous musicianship but not necessarily laden. While I think Haken is trying to carve out their own sound, I don’t think they’ve veered to far from what bands like DT, Porcupine Tree & OSI have already provided as an undeniable influence on the modern “version” (or lack thereof, imho) of the genre other than offering the currently acceptable form of wankery known as redundant & meaningless complex time signatures. Unfortunately, as talented as they are, their music doesn’t contain any progressive ideas that grabs me. Actually, if we’re talking Progressive “Metal”, I prefer this:

    • Joaquin Stick

      Hola Guppy! I think we are on the same page. I say that Haken are very embedded in that wave of “prog” that you mention, and, maybe not clearly enough, admitted that they are not capital Progressive for that and other reasons. I do think they are making micro progressions from that era, and I find them very interesting and pleasing, but they are a long shot from making something “totally new”.

      • Guppusmaximus

        Agreed. It’s almost like a fusion of influences instead of genre concepts. Not trying to be offensive, but, maybe most of these newer Progressive Metal / Rock, etc; musicians don’t have a lot of experience just listening to other genres / styles of music. Maybe they’ve never had their mind blown outside of Metal. I mean what really opened the doors for me, and I may have already mentioned it way too many times, was the introduction to Jazz / Experimental acts like The Dolphins (Dave Brubeck), Mr. Bungle (Mike Patton in general), Michael Manring, the classics (Yes, Rush, ELO) and Rap & what I call Beat Music (UTFO, Run DMC, Axel F) while I was getting my feet wet in all things Metal. Not to mention the budding, fairly underground, Crossover scene back then and the fact that Progressive Metal was just getting started (Watchtower, Fates Warning, etc). It was hard, for me, to maintain a Trve Metuhl mindset. That big late 80s macho attitude was hard to escape. Back to the point… There were a lot of ideas in that music that I thought would sound great mixed in with Metal. And, Yes was one of the originators that proved that point long before I had ever thought of it.