Review Summary: Bursting at the seams with creativity, The Mountain nails the fragility of the human condition while also pumping out some fantastic music.
For a species with such a frail frame, humanity has this odd knack for being persistent. It takes very little to knock us down - a sudden injury, an impassable competitor, or a vice we fall prey to can all instantaneously ruin our plans for the future. Constantly struck down, we nevertheless keep moving forward. Perhaps it's out of optimism, but more likely it's out of a drive to overcome what's been laid before us. Life's trappings are out of our control, but the one thing we can control is our responses to these mountains in our lives.
This is the general theme that runs throughout Haken's concept album The Mountain. Although not a concept album in the case that it tells a story, The Mountain instead focuses on the themes of the mountains that everyone must bear throughout their lifetimes. Each track on the album acts almost like an individual vignette that lacks a real plot - although there seems to be some progression of a character within certain tracks ("Cockroach King" and "Falling Back to Earth" come to mind), lyrically the album is very heavy on focusing on themes within each song instead of a story. This decision to disregard a running story like they did on their previous two albums, Aquarius and Visions, makes the music remarkably more relatable and personal to the listener. The themes that Haken explores are so universal that anyone who has ever felt any sense of difficulty in their lives will be able to find some theme or motif to latch onto over the 62 minutes that make up The Mountain, which is made all the more interesting by the way that the songs will often cross-reference each other lyrically.
Of course, Haken's here to write music, not poetry. The music that permeates the album is impossible to classify as a genre, although it's probably closest to progressive rock with metal tinges. There are certainly some heavy riffs in the album, but compared to their previous efforts Haken has toned back the metal to further explore their jazz influences while also incorporating some of the most creative vocal melodies in recent memory. There's the often mentioned Gentle Giant-esque a cappella in "Cockroach King", but there's so many more harmonies, unique phrasings, and even Gregorian chants in this album than one is likely to notice upon their first listen. A particular highlight comes towards the end of the album in "Somebody" with an incredibly melodic and creative usage of just one repeated lyric: "I wish I could have been somebody." The phrasing and harmonies on this section are a fun twist, and the fact that vocalist Ross Jennings has such a pleasing voice doesn't hurt either (Jennings is essentially a modern Jon Anderson but with a bit more force and emotion). The song lengths may turn some people away, but rest assured that all of the musical twists that these songs provide are consistently a treat to hear, and these technically proficient musicians don't wander off quite as much as they did in their last two albums. The jazzy interludes, the bouzouki solo, the crunchy riffs, and the brass sections never feel like noodling, but rather like coherent pieces of music that are still easily divisible into sections.
There's so many wonderful little nuggets throughout this album that it would be impossible to list them all in this review, and perhaps it's best that the listener discovers these on his or her own. The Mountain is certainly a triumph for Haken and for prog rock in general; we can only hope these talented lads haven't already reached their peak. For now, rest assured that they have created one of the best musical journeys of 2013.