Review Summary: The greatest debut album I may have ever heard, Aquarius by Haken would be one of the greatest releases of the year standing alone. Taken in context, it is one of the most promising releases I have heard in an incredibly long time.
Haken's Aquarius is one of the strongest debuts created in recent memory. Many bands first attempts at professional release fall short, their sound not fine-tuned to perfection, not yet having found their niche. Haken has managed to break this trend, bursting out of the gate with enviable force, their music already composed better than many comparable bands have been able to achieve throughout their entire respective careers.
This debut manages to combine the force and utter technicality of the finest Dream Theater recordings, compositional bombast not heard since the heyday of 1970s era prog-rock, and yes, even some fantastic death metal growls. The latter do occasionally clash jarringly with the feel of the rest of the album collectively, and their abandonment wouldn't have been an entirely bad decision, but I'll be damned if they don't scream with the best of them.
I feel I have to admit that I was drawn into this music by catching a glimpse of the album cover, a man in a winter coat with the hood pulled up over his head, holding on to a limp, bloody mermaid. The description fails to do the cover justice, however, for I would have to use at least a thousand words, assuming the old saying rings true, and I simply don't have time for that unfortunately. The image may be a tad cliche, but it sets up such a great atmosphere, even without the music, that I feel it is an impressive, if not utterly overwhelming sight. However, I do confess that I came into the fold expecting to hear the aforementioned death growls, but upon hearing the song Streams, I quickly found myself to be wrong, for the greater portion of the song. The beautiful intro piano medley, quickly followed by an intriguing vocal layered across the instrumentation. This music creates its own atmosphere, just as the album cover had at first. I was unable to resist pressing repeat, closing my eyes, and simply letting the music captivate my imagination. It is definitely capable of performing such a feat, with incredibly intricate sonic passages, beautifully sung vocals, even the growling, after you get back its initial clash with the rest of the music.
But of course, were would it be with the infamous progressive flight of fancy solos? That element that has divided audiences over the genre between those that view them as utterly technical and compositional geniuses and those that see it is overly pretentious garbage, is present in abundance on this album. Aquarius is definitely not the album to play to an uninitiated in order to convert them, but to those already comfortable with the long keyboard passages will greatly enjoy this.
And upon first listen, this does seem to fall into all the categories that are stereotypes of the genre. Haken makes no attempts to circumnavigate these elements either, but rather plough through them with a reckless abandon rarely heard in any musical genre these days. It's abundantly evident that this group of musicians is in it for the music; the energy I've heard is in such forceful presence in their live shows is clear even in the context of a studio recording. Their sheer determination is what allows this album to have all the trappings of typical progressive, and yet still manage to rise above many of their long established contemporaries. It isn't always clear on a first listen through, but those huge solos are just a little bit more melodic than many other bands compose, the music not merely eclectic notes played at incomprehensible speeds. And that is the heart of the matter: despite Aquarius's hefty length, the run time is barely registered, because every single moment is spent lost in some new sonic movement. My first listen to this entire album was the best 70 minutes I can remember ever experiencing in quite awhile.
So, with such an incredibly debut, relatively inexperienced as a band at this point, I quiver in excited anticipation to see what this genius group of musicians releases next! I can easily foresee them as the next Blind Guardian, perhaps even the next Dream Theater. Standing alone, this is one of the strongest releases of 2010; taken in context, the potential displayed here is utterly overwhelming. Anyone who considers themselves to be even remotely interested in this genre needs to listen to this absolute behemoth. It will be time well spent. The progressive genre, which has grown largely stale in recent years, may have just witnessed the birth of its savior.