Tag Archives: Tom MacLean

Haken – English Music’s Finest Hour?

A while back now, I posted a blog whereby I listed my favourite 5 albums of all time. If you are interested, it can be found here. In that post, I found it impossible to keep my list to 5 and therefore rather autonomously added a sixth. The sixth album was the newest of the list having only been released in 2011. However, such is the impact that it has made on me and the wider progressive music community, it had to make my list.

Enough of being cryptic, I am of course referring to ‘Visions’, the sophomore album by UK-based progressive rock/metal band Haken.

Haken band

In the last few days, Haken have announced full details of their impending third album, entitled ‘The Mountain’, due out on one of my favourite record labels, Inside Out. In light of this and the fact that my excitement and anticipation has reached fever pitch already, I thought it would be the perfect time to explore the music of this extremely talented six-piece a little more.

Comprised of guitarist/keyboardist Richard Henshall (To-Mera), vocalist Ross Jennings, bassist Tom MacLean (To-Mera), guitarist Charlie Griffiths, keyboardist Diego Tejeida and drummer Raymond Hearne, Haken formed in 2007 and burst onto the scene in 2010 with their debut album ‘Aquarius’. I heard mumblings about it on-line and decided to give it a go. Initial spins were not the most favourable it must be said as I found the collection of apparently disparate and unusual influences challenging and a little jarring.

haken aquariusLong compositions that offered everything from death metal growls and heavy down-tuned riffing right through to jazz, circus music and melodies reminiscent of sea shanties addled my brain at the outset and had me muttering phrases under my breath such as ‘what the hell…’ and ‘oh dear God…’ Nevertheless, I stuck with it through sheer bloody mindedness.

I’m glad I did because with time and effort, the mists began to clear and I started to understand and appreciate the music a whole lot more. The atmospheres, complex layers of music, constant shifts in tempo and direction and some genuinely anthemic melodies began to seep into my psyche. I no longer thought the music to be odd; instead, I realised that here was a band with massive talent and an even bigger imagination. The fact that the album is wrapped up in the most progressive of packaging in the form of a concept story that features, of all things, a mermaid, just underlines the point about the band’s imagination.

The clinchers for me were to be found in the form of ‘Aquarium’ and the epic closer ‘Celestial Elixir’ The former, with its heart-breaking closing guitar solo is one of the album’s best, although the quirkiness and beauty of the multi-faceted and ambitious closer follows hard on it’s heels. Some have been critical and suggest that the album lacks sufficient flow and cohesiveness. I understand what they are trying to say, but would personally firmly disagree. For a debut record, it is nothing short of spectacular.

Fast forward to ProgPower Europe 2010 and I fairly and squarely loved this band. Interviewing the guys on their ‘tour bus’ at this same festival and in so doing finding out that the sextet were genuinely lovely people cemented my admiration for the band.

Haken!

Haken!

It was fitting then that I got to hear their highly anticipated follow-up, ‘Visions’ back in Holland, in the Kasteel de Berckt at Progpower 2011. Sitting in the café, the music bellowed out, reaching the ears of an eager handful of festival-goers, many of whom were a little worse for wear I suspect after a night of partying. First impressions were very positive but I knew it needed more time before it would hit the heady heights reached by the debut.

hakenSitting here now, a couple of years later, all I can say about the album is ‘wow’. I was lucky enough to review both albums for Powerplay Magazine and was delighted to bestow a rare full house, ten-out-of-ten upon ‘Visions’. I’m not always comfortable awarding full marks but on this occasion, the score was fully justified in my opinion. Damnit, the music is that good, the band left me with no other choice!

Everything that was present and good on the debut is in evidence on ‘Visions’. The complex compositions remain, as does the stellar musicianship all round and the trade-mark quirkiness; I mean, who can really sample a Nintendo Game Boy sound effect and get away with it? Haken, that’s who. That said, the quirkiness has been reduced ever so slightly or, to be more accurate, has been blended into each composition more skilfully, so that it doesn’t assault the ears quite so readily. The oddball moments are there, but in order to enjoy them, you need to really be listening.

This result is an album that maintains an impressive amount of complexity but also benefits from a smoother, more cohesive flow from start to finish. Part of this is a natural by product of a stronger production. When Haken let go, your ears are assaulted by walls of sound and of tangible atmosphere but when things are taken down a notch, the intricacies are not lost. Some of the bass guitar work for example is sensational and can be heard with clarity throughout.

Speaking of atmosphere, this is where I think that ‘Visions’ excels. Some of the music on this record is genuinely moving, meaning that you drawn into the music and don’t just listen to it, you end up living and breathing it as well. A personal favourite is the moody and emotional ‘Deathless’, a track that deals with the powerful subject of an individual who feels suicidal but who cannot bring himself to actually end his life. By the time the track has built upon a gorgeous melody to an all-too-brief heavy crescendo of sorts, I personally feel drained and on more than one occasion have had a few tears in my eyes. But the emotion that I feel is not just because of the subject matter, it is because I realise just how beautiful this music is. I feel honoured to be able to listen to it, so heaven only knows how the band themselves feel having created masterpieces like this.

The tour-de-force of ‘Visions’ however, is the 22-minute closing title track. The scope of this composition beggars belief and will stand for many years to come as one of the very best pieces of progressive music ever made. Combining strong melodies, intricate and challenging instrumental passages, dramatic twists and turns, this behemoth has it all and has to really be heard to be believed.

And so, as I write this, I find myself excited and a little nervous. It is strange to think that I can love a band this much when they’ve only been around for a total of three years in the public eye, particularly when they have only released 15 tracks across two albums to date. But love the music I do and I simply cannot wait to hear the next instalment, entitled ‘The Mountain’ when it is released in a couple of short, yet massively long months. When it arrives, buy it. Much to my chagrin, I can’t tell you what it sounds like yet but suffice to say if it is even half as good as the two that have gone before it, it will be magnificent.

Haken – English Music’s Finest Hour? They are in my humble opinion.

An evening with Haken – a live review

An Evening with Haken – A Live Review

Haken1

An Evening with Haken – A Live Review. For this blog post, I thought I’d combine a couple of things, kill two birds with one stone, so to speak: offer readers my first ever live review for this blog and at the same time, offer a personal insight into my gig-going experience, from start to finish. The band that I have chosen for this will come as no surprise to existing readers, as it’s one of my very favourite bands, Haken.

One reason for this was that I wanted my first live review to feature a great band. The other reason is pure pragmatism and plain reality. Now that I’m a father, I have responsibilities and this means that I’m unable to attend the sheer quantity of gigs that I once did. Therefore, when I’m let off the leash and I make the effort, it needs to be for a worthy band. So Haken it is.

The Gig:

Haken, supporting the Von Hertzen Brothers, with the Barbe-Q-Barbies as opening support.
Islington Assembly Hall
5th April 2013

My evening actually started much earlier than that – mid-afternoon to be precise. It was a working day so I ended the day early and took the dogs out for a nice walk in the sunshine to ensure they’d be content while I was out. A quick cuddle with the littl’un and by 4:30pm, I was out of the door. If you’ve read previous blogs of mine, you’ll know that I don’t live too close to London and so I had to travel the 70-odd miles down to the big smoke which on average takes about two full hours door-to-door. On the car stereo? A mixture of Spock’s Beard, Hypocrisy, Leprous and Dark Tranquillity.

With the car safely parked, it was a short trip along the Victoria Line on the London Underground to Highbury & Islington station. Normally, I’d never choose to get this close to a certain football club that resides here – I’m more of a Seven Sisters chap – but for Haken, I decided to make the exception!

After a quick bite of some fast food (no healthy eating lectures please!), I arrived at the venue just as the doors were opening. The first thing of note was the very small number of fans queuing or milling around outside. When compared to the queue at the nearby Garage for Paramore, it was somewhat disappointing although perhaps fully expected. Nevertheless, I handed over my money and made my way into the venue.

Once inside, I made a beeline as I always do to the merchandise stand. Unfortunately, I had just about all of the Haken merch on sale and there were no shirts available with tour dates on the back. Therefore no initial purchase was made. I did however bump into Haken’s vocalist Ross Jennings and had a brief chat, which was great.

Barbe-Q-Barbies were first up on stage and to be honest, their brand of straight-up rock ‘n’ roll was not really my cup of tea. In spite of a very sparse crowd and a very muted reaction, the five lasses did give it a damn good go. The mix was quite loud but was clear and the music was executed with a decent level of professionalism. However, tracks like ‘Shut The Fuck Up and Dance’ and ‘Friday’ felt very average, meaning that their thirty-minute slot did drag a little bit.

A chat with Peter, one of Haken’s biggest fans (and a relation to one of the guys I think) passed the time during the changeover, as did a meeti ng with Chris, one of the best follows on twitter (@WhiteRhinoTea if you’re interested).
And then it was Haken time. The band had announced that they planned to play a brand new track off their new album during the set and so my excitement was piqued even more as six of the most unassuming yet highly talented guys wandered onto the stage.

Haken2

The 45-minute set kicked off with ‘Drowning In The Flood’, from their debut album, ‘Aquarius’. It goes without saying that the standard of musicianship was outstanding because these guys are masters of their instruments, knowing exactly how to get the very best out of their tools. The sound initially was a little muddy with Tom MacLean’s bass guitar looming large over proceedings.

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However, as the set developed, the mix steadily improved and by the end , the only grumble was a slight lack of volume at the top end, which robbed the lead guitar work of Charlie Griffiths and Richard Henshall a little of its clarity.

Haken6

Haken3

The slightly shorter ‘Eternal Rain’, also from the debut quickly followed and then, all of a sudden, it was new song time. I could barely contain my excitement and, if I’m entirely honest, I suddenly became nervous. I needn’t have worried though, because the ensuing eight or nine minutes flew by as I desperately tried to commit as much as I could to memory. It is always difficult to accurately judge a previously unheard song on just one listen in a live environment but judging by the number of approving faces among the audience, I was clearly not the only one to like what I heard. If anything, this as yet unnamed track seemed to be even more reliant on Diego Tejeida’s keyboards, with giant atmospheric walls of sound assaulting the ears, ably assisted by some chunky guitar riffs underneath. Later, talking to Richard, he informed me a little tongue-in-cheek that this was by no means the best song on the new album but that it was the only one at a stage that was ready to air to the public. The mind boggles as to the quality of the remainder of album number three then.

From a performance point of view however, the next two tracks, ‘Portals’ and ‘Shapeshifter’ raised the bar to a whole new level. I have had the pleasure of seeing these guys play live on numerous occasions but there was an accuracy, intensity and professionalism here that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. Front man Ross was his irrepressibly energetic self, engaging with the crowd and interacting with his band mates wonderfully. However, as he exited stage right to allow the spotlight to fall on his colleagues during an ubiquitous extended instrumental workout, the crowd were treated to some of the most technically brilliant musicianship imaginable. Most impressive was drummer Ray Hearne who has developed in leaps and bounds over the last year or so to the point where you simply can’t believe he’s only 21 years old. I swear I must have stood in front of the stage with my mouth wide open for the entire time, only occasionally diversifying with an unbelieving shake of the head.

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And before I knew it, it was the end of the show – another top class performance from the sextet to send the hard core of fans and devotees home very happy indeed.

After their set, I met up with Freddy from Inside Out Music, with whom Haken have just signed. I have high hopes for this partnership because Inside Out are possibly my favourite label in the business. Not only are the staff helpful, friendly and passionate, if you like prog music, their roster is one of the strongest out there. Check them out here if you don’t believe me.

The headliners for tonight’s entertainment were of course The Von Hertzen Brothers. Their latest album, the recently released “Nine Lives” has been lauded highly by fans and critics alike but if anything, these Finns are better on stage than on record. In the live setting, their particularly palatable brand of melodic rock with understated progressive tendencies is afforded more energy and power. Truth be told, I wasn’t intending on staying for long after Haken, but I found it very hard to pull myself away and consequently, I stayed a lot longer than I’d bargained for. And, had it been another night with another support act, I may have ended up waxing more lyrical about The Von Hertzen Brothers. As it was though, the night belonged to Haken. And, as it’s my blog, I’m allowed to be biased!

After a light-hearted conversation with Ray, during which time I discovered how deep his love for the tuba goes, I had to face the prospect of the journey home. Stoically, I stuffed my headphones in my ears, replaced my beanie hat and headed into the crisp and cold London night. The journey home always seems to be twice as long but thanks to some pre-prepared sustenance in the form of fizzy drinks and chocolate, I made it home in one piece in the early hours of the following morning. And with that, another evening of live music was brought to a close. Bugger the time and expense, nights like this are what us music fans live for.