It is a testament to the enduring strength and quality of the music made by the progressive rock giants of the 70s that this first wave of now-legendary bands continue to exert an inspirational grip, even upon the diverse and adventurous terrain of today’s scene. As a result, for all the great work produced by the likes of Spock’s Beard, Porcupine Tree, Opeth and their numerous peers, prog rock still remains in the thrall of a bygone age, during which the rules of the game were skillfully and meticulously laid down.
Haken: The Mountain
Bands may wow us with a stunning debut album and thrill us again with a second, but it’s that tricky third release that’s the real test.
Out of necessity, prog has a magpie-like nature to it. That thievery and combining of influences is essential to the unerring quest for compositional expansion. This means that very few new bands are able to conceive and realise an entirely unique and convincing musical world of their own. But even though their debt to the genre’s greats is clear and undeniable, Haken appear to be far closer than most to clasping that nebulous Holy Grail in their dexterous paws.
By the time most bands reach their third album, they have either struck upon their own winning formula or run out of ideas altogether. Fans of this preternaturally gifted British crew should have no such concerns, however, because The Mountain is both a consolidation of all the promise shown on 2010’s Aquarius and 2011’s Visions and a haughty display of talent and verve that makes any and all comparisons with other bands, ancient or modern, almost entirely redundant.
Something about this band, whether it’s the fizzing chemistry between its six virtuoso contributors or the fact that every last moment on The Mountain crackles with a sense of joyous invention, marks them out as special. Here, then, is the moment that Haken become impossible to ignore.
The album begins with The Path. A brief and beautiful intro nods admiringly towards Anathema’s magical melancholy, while setting the tone for what is to come with audacious subtlety. Ross Jennings’ voice is as mellifluous and mesmerising as ever, but even at this early stage of the song, his enhanced confidence, and that of his bandmates, is tangible. What follows simply takes the breath away. A twinkling piano figure gives way to a rugged, off-kilter groove, surges of Mellotron-affected voices and, over eight breathless minutes, a scintillating splurge of exquisite, interwoven melodies, quasi-metallic riffing, deft detours into syncopated jazz rock and a towering final chorus crescendo. Even by the high standards Haken set on their first two albums, this is a stunning opening salvo.
Remarkably, Cockroach King is even better: a dizzying sprawl of scything guitars and vocal harmony mischief worthy of prime Gentle Giant, underpinned by a menacing fairground strut and layered with chord changes and melodic tricks so sublime they could make XTC’s Andy Partridge blush. Its eight minutes fly by in what seems like half that duration, and yet there are so many exquisite ideas being intuitively thrown into the mix that, if The Mountain ended here, few would feel remotely cheated. Gloriously, however, there are another 40 minutes of this extraordinary madness to come.
They are succinct and yet still wildly brave on In Memoriam, elegiac and serene on Because It’s There and As Death Embraces. On the 12-minute Falling Back To Earth and its mutant mirror image Pareidolia, they’re wonderfully heavy and outrageous in their mastery of dynamics and mood shifts. It would seem that there really is very little that Haken are unable to conjure between them. Most importantly, this band have struck upon a sound that, for all its polite observance of prog tradition, now belongs exclusively to them and which, if justice prevails, will surely entice countless thousands of like-minded, prog-loving souls across the Brits’ glittering threshold.
Well-defined musical genres always need new heroes to drown out the echoes of a revered past. Haken are standing atop their mountain, chin to chin with the prog gods of four decades, staring them in the eye and, with a cheeky smile, whispering, “We can change the world too, Grandad!”
The Mountain is an absolute triumph, a joyful celebration of everything our world holds dear and an imperious show of strength from a band who may just hold prog’s future in their hands.