Haken – Virus (Album Review)

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The dramatic and abrupt ending of “A Cell Divides” from Haken’s last album “Vector” left listeners in limbo. Since then, devoted fans have been speculating about a possible sequel to conclude the story about good doctors, fallen empires and puzzle boxes. After a long period of both mysterious and humorous teasing featuring ketchup and mustard, fans were finally left off the hook: Haken’s new output would be entitled “Virus”, it’s set to be released on the 19th of June 2020 and, yes, it picks up exactly where “Vector” left off.

While one might think its title is inspired by the situation all of us are currently living in, it has actually been determined over a year ago and its connection to the pandemic is nothing but a result of weirdly accurate timing. The concept of “Virus” is set 20 years after where “Vector” ended and explores more about the story’s catatonic protagonist, as well as harking back to a fan-favorite character from Haken’s history. Fans suspected a broader concept behind the allegory of a certain insect when “Vector” told tales about a fallen empire, but “Virus” finally offers an answer to a frequently asked question: who is the Cockroach King?

Sonically, “Virus” can’t deny its connection to its predecessor, but still manages to expand the band’s sound, slightly moving away from the groove-defined thunderstorm of riffs, towards more homogenic arrangements, in which each of the six musicians is an equal protagonist. While vocalist Ross Jennings always had to strive against a wall of instrumental top class, this seemed to culminate on “Vector”. On “Virus”, however, his clean voice and characteristically sustained lines manage to find their niches, creating a welcome contrast to the abysmally deep 8-string guitar staccato riffs that once again populate the whole album. The symbiosis between the six musicians seems to grow little by little, allowing them to present their increasingly demanding hemiolas, syncopes and polyrhythms with the nonchalance of a perfectly intertwining conglomerate, leaving nothing to be desired by musicians and music fans alike.

For the first time since the band’s debut album, the listener is thrown into the scenery completely intro-less – but then again, “Virus” is a second half of a two-part creation. The merciless and comparatively straight lead single “Prosthetic” is a bodybuilder of a song and bridges the gap between these two parts with its pounding ternary groove, memorable chorus and a bridge that will be reprised with great effect at another point in the album. It even includes some clean guitar ostinatos à la Fripp & Belew, hinting one of the 80s references that have become characteristic for Haken’s sound. The blunt heaviness of the opener is not to be heard until the “Messiah Complex”.

Instead, the short cuts on “Virus” focus on very balanced arrangements, as featured on “Visions” and “The Mountain”. During “Invasion”, the heavy guitar riffs take a backseat and work as just one of many sonic ingredients. This hidden gem is a little more introverted than most of Haken’s previous follow-up songs to the opener. The space that was previously occupied by “Puzzle Box”, “1985” and the “Cockroach King” – songs that have become the equivalent of a “hit” in the progressive genre – now brings a more thoughtful edge, focusing on melodies that are beautifully presented by Ross Jennings. Still, even the vocals contribute to the rhythmic dimension that has become ubiquitous to the band’s sound. Filled to the brim with ideas, there are countless of little details to be discovered here, like a small syncope only featured in the second verse or a subtle rhythmical “Nil By Mouth” reference.

“Virus” Album Artwork

Every single song on the album contains these little pinpricks. “The Strain” includes some electronic influences as heard in “The Architect” and “Puzzle Box”, but doesn’t incorporate them solely as a gimmick, but seamlessly into a pre-chorus, contributing to the dramaturgy of the song. The stomping beat stands next to lamenting melodies, expressing the protagonist’s desire to be heard. Together with the following track it provides a welcome pause from the complex polyrhythmic layers featured in the longer tracks of the album. It’s even possible to nod your head to it. “Canary Yellow” aims to fulfill the purpose of “the ballad” on the album. However, it would not be Haken if “the ballad” was just a simple ballad. It builds on a slick 7/8 drum fundament by drum monster Ray Hearne, but the vast sound constructions of keyboard wizard Diego Tejeida are in charge during this somber track. The instrumentation is toned down in favor of the vocals, giving Ross Jennings another chance to shine. Similarly, to “Host”, “Canary Yellow” gives the listener a short break from the HenshallGriffiths riffage, but it doesn’t give a break from the sinister atmosphere. However, while “Host” was a radical change after the preceding heavy songs, the catchy melodic quality of “The Strain” and the overall balanced instrumentation of “Virus” help to better insert “Canary Yellow” into the flow of the album.

Although the concise structure of these songs is not to be underestimated, the more extended cuts once again constitute the pinnacles on Virus. “Carousel” is an excellent follow-up to songs of similar extend like “Veil”, “Falling Back to Earth” or “Pareidolia”. The song is cleverly built around one rhythmic idea which is reprised and varied in different harmonic contexts throughout verses, bridges and solo spots. This creates a red line and concise feeling over the course of the song – an approach the band has proven to be very effective before. A longer instrumental breakdown leads into what seems to be a final chorus, but immediately after, the band tones the whole song down and gradually builds it up again. My personal highlight of the song happens right here. Drummer Ray Hearne and bass-lumberjack Conner Green shift through rhythmic dimensions with very few notes during a whacky, yet somewhat funky bass & drum interlude. The clean major-chords give off a relaxed feel and provide a lot of room for Ross Jennings soft voice, before being broken up into harmonized tapped-arpeggios by guitarists Richard Henshall and Charlie Griffiths. Instead of leading into the expected reprise of the chorus, the band knows again how to surprise their listeners. An altered version of the main theme offers answers to the problems presented during the song, perfectly rounding up the “Carousel”.
Taking a different approach, the 17 minute five-part suite “Messiah Complex” presents the listener with quite a challenge. During the first few listens, this bulky chunk of music overwhelms even the toughest Haken fan with its sheer amounts of brutal riffage. The five separate tracks clearly develop different themes but add up to create the incessant flow of ideas that is the “Messiah Complex”. Several circles that were opened up during “Vector” and “Virus”are being closed here (spoiler alert). “Part I: Ivory Tower” presents a catchy chorus that surely won’t be heard for the last time, before reprising the final theme from “Host” by completely changing the mellow character it was originally presented in. “Part II: A Glutton For Punishment” and “Part III: Marigold” introduce what can only be described as a rollercoaster ride through steamrolling 8-string playing and shattering drumming – of course not without referencing “Puzzle Box” – with keyboardist Diego Tejeida and vocalist Ross Jennings interspersing few but effective melodic counterparts and breathing pauses. The whole suite seems to build up tension to finally reference the “Cockroach King” again – with an opulent gesture like only Haken can provide it. Along the journey, the band works their way through the djent-influenced polyrhythms, Nintendo keyboard sounds and blast beats, with the equal importance of each band member creating quite an amount of information that wants to be exploited and understood by the listener. At the end, the devoted fan is rewarded by thematic and melodic references, a melody that seems to have appeared somewhere before or just a riff and a backbeat with headbanging potential and a “badass”- label on it.  The “Messiah Complex” is brought home by the obligatory main theme reprise and a big “Prosthetic” reference.

But the album doesn’t end here. The listener is calmed down and released into their normal life by “Only Stars”, an epilogue and counterpart to “Vector”’s opener. Atmospherically, quietly and melancholically, o Tejeida and Jennings close the final circle of the double concept album. And all is clear.

While every album by this six-headed monster of a band explores new territories, “Virus” still sounds unmistakably like Haken. By now, the complexity of their creations has reached a head-spinning level – yet apparently not a plateau – which is basically unreachable for a normal human being. Every note seems to be thought over ten times, every single hit on a drum is in its place for a reason. There is no acoustic guitar strumming somewhere in the background just to cover another frequency spectrum. Instead, every instrumentalist could play their tracks alone and it would still sound interesting. Inexplicably, the band still manages to soak their music with melancholic melodies and vast harmonies. Finally, the whole album is packed into a thoughtful artwork by Blacklake, as well as an opulent mix by Adam “Nolly” Getgood. As always, the open-mouthed listener must wonder how this should even be possible to perform on stage. But a visit to one of the band’s concerts never fails to prove this thought unnecessary.

Finally, listening to “Vector” and “Virus”from start to finish revealed that these two are meant to be listened to in one sitting. “Virus”comes across completely different in combination with “Vector”and vice versa. This double-decker is a phenomenal effort of gargantuan proportions, one that every future album of the progressive metal genre will have to compete against.

Released By: Inside Out Music
Release Date: June 19th, 2020
Genre: Progressive Metal

Musicians:

  • Ross Jennings / Vocals
  • Charlie Griffiths / Guitars
  • Rich Henshall / Guitars
  • Diego Tejeida / Keys
  • Conner Green / Bass
  • Raymond Hearne / Drums

“Virus” track-listing:

1.- Prosthetic 5:58
2.- Invasion 6:42
3.- Carousel 10:29
4.- The Strain 5:23
5.- Canary Yellow 4:14
6.- Messiah Complex I: Ivory Tower 3:57
7.- Messiah Complex II: A Glutton for Punishment 3:38
8.- Messiah Complex III: Marigold 2:24
9.- Messiah Complex IV: The Sect 2:02
10.- Messiah Complex V: Ectobius Rex 4:57
11.- Only Stars 2:10

9.3 Excellent

When I reviewed “Vector” I wrote “Haken managed to once again develop their trademark sound into a new direction. Album number V and no signs of wear and tear on one of today’s greatest bands”. Album number VI leaves nothing more to add

  • Songwriting 9
  • Musicianship 10
  • Originality 9
  • Production 9
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