Label: InsideOut Records
Haken, the UK’s gift to – and crown jewel of – metal, has surely kept themselves busy over the last decade. Despite being constantly on the road and members being involved in projects of other musicians as well as their own, their latest effort, Virus, is their seventh release in 10 years (if you factor in the Restoration EP). Haken’s been on a steep upward trajectory ever since The Mountain (2013), and Virus surely holds up to the band’s almost ridiculously high-quality past output.
While their previous record, Vector (2018), had a lot of musical and lyrical references to The Mountain – especially the track “Cockroach King” – it didn’t build on the story; Virus, however, is a direct sequel to Vector. The opening track and first single, “Prosthetic,” picks up right where “A Cell Divides” left off with its almost Fear Factory-esque riff-drum combo and snags the title of the band’s heaviest song so far. “Invasion” makes a ballsy move by immediately changing pace with its really soft beginning, growing bigger as it goes on. “Carousel” clocks over 10 minutes, feeling like a sibling to Vector‘s “Veil,” but the composition is so well-thought-out that it doesn’t feel nearly as long. There’s no dull moments during “Carousel” – such a great track!
After this, the album also reaches a halfway point of sorts. While the tracklist holds 11 cuts, Virus ultimately consists of only six. “The Strain” and “Canary Yellow” make up a whole, with the former reminding me a lot of Affinity‘s “Lapse” for some reason and the latter delivering a breather before the album’s penultimate song, the epic 16-minute “Messiah Complex.” The first movement, “Ivory Tower,” might start off a bit slow, but once “A Glutton for Punishment” begins, the band goes full-throttle, cramming a ridiculous amount of variety into the mix but still easily holding it together. There’s grandiose choir passages, 8-bit nostalgia, straight-up blast-beats, and once again a lot of musical nods towards the Cockroach King. The tender piano outro, “Only Stars,” closes the two-album circle, reprising the melody of Vector‘s intro, “Clear.” We can also hear a cockroach cricketing in the background – is Patient 21’s transformation finally complete?
Objectively speaking, Haken has probably made the best album in their career with Virus. The band is in tight shape, the album will surely win over a good deal of new listeners, and Ross Jennings sings better than ever – though I dislike the way he’s been mixed to sound equal to all the instruments, something that’s done on too many progressive music releases these days. Subjectively, reviewing Virus has been really hard process for me. Let me tell you why.
I absolutely LOVE Haken, especially the older stuff. I’ve been madly in love with their music ever since I first heard “Falling Back to Earth” from The Mountain and immediately devoured their whole back catalogue afterwards. Both Aquarius (2010) and Visions (2011) are masterpieces in my books, and “Celestial Elixir” (from the former) still is and probably will always be the best work Haken will do. Even their demo material, part of which later on was re-arranged and recorded for the Restoration EP, is lightyears ahead everything most bands can come up with in their entire careers. Because of this, I remember feeling a bit bummed out by Vector when it came out two years ago: it felt too short, unnecessarily heavy, and almost like transitionary work towards something better that was yet to come. To this day I’m not completely sure if I really like Vector, despite its evident merits.
I cannot lie: I had some reservations before giving Virus its first spin and there have been times when I’ve thought that this new, heavier musical direction Haken has taken just isn’t going to do it for me anymore. It took multiple listens for my mind to start mapping the songs with their titles because I hadn’t heard any passages I would’ve grasped instantly. The album felt devoid of those truly amazing moments, like the F I L T H Y guitar and keyboard bridge right after the second chorus of “Atlas Stone” (you know, the one that sounds more like Toto than all of Toto’s material combined), or the delightful lead melody in “Streams.” The production still felt too dense and the whole band seemed to be in such a rush, without letting the songs breathe. I felt almost anxious thinking about what positive to say about the album or how I’m going to be able to recommend this “new” Haken to friends who are not familiar with them.
Then suddenly a few days ago, when I was listening to both albums back to back maybe for the fifteenth time, something clicked, and I noticed that I’d started singing along with the songs. There’s no denying: Haken has once again made a great album that works well on its own, but definitely benefits if the listener has time to listen through both Vector and Virus in one sitting. It’s not what I had maybe hoped it would be, but that’s my problem, not Haken’s – they do what they want, because they can – and after all, you can only write something like “Celestial Elixir” once.
Rating: 8/10, 4 stars
4. The Strain
5. Canary Yellow
6. Messiah Complex I: Ivory Tower
7. Messiah Complex II: A Glutton for Punishment
8. Messiah Complex III: Marigold
9. Messiah Complex IV: The Sect
10. Messiah Complex V: Ectobius Rex
11. Only Stars