Review Summary: Caught in the shade of The Mountain.
It's always interesting, if a little harrowing, to see how a band follows up a true magnum opus. Do they repeat the same formula and risk growing stale, or do they change directions and risk alienating an enamored audience? In either case, the result is rarely as well-received as their previous effort, inevitably leaving the band in the shadow of their own colossus.
There are rare exceptions, yes, and Haken's Affinity
does well to stand on its own the downslope from the pinnacle of 2013's The Mountain
. But a second opus, it is not.
That said, given the facts at hand, there's not much to be disappointed about with Affinity
. Well, maybe short of a full-on Opeth impersonation right around the 10:30 mark on obligatory long prog metal track "The Architect." That aside, Affinity
is a strong prog metal album that opts to tread its own path rather than follow the wispy and natural hiking trail of The Mountain
, Haken follow a decidedly sharper, faster, and darker route more reminiscent of a highway than a trail. The lows are lower, the distortion is heavier, and the overall sound is insulated from the wind that could be so easily felt whipping around The Mountain
. Bright keyboard melodies and several electronic drum parts are intentionally dirtier and less organic, with the apparent intention of conjuring up the sound and image of the early '90s. And as a tone, it works, jarring as it may initially be to those expecting Haken to repeat the opus formula.
But is there as much space to play in the 64 megabyte mainframe of old as there was on the peaks and summits of the world's tallest landmasses?
Not quite. Affinity
is a finely-crafted progressive metal record - best at its most progressive, as Haken are - but it feels more constrained than its predecessor. Some of that is bound to be by design, of course, but it simply feels as though Haken are better taken with a wind in their sails than they are with a current in their circuits. While the group execute with precision on the dystopian, hacker-y concept dreamed up for Affinity
, the broader space for dreaming on The Mountain
seems to have allowed for more big and sprawling ideas to come forth and flourish, while it's the quick hits that deliver the statement of Affinity
The progressive quirks that showcase the best the band have to offer are plenty present, of course, but where these elements experienced wondrous long-term evolution on tracks like "Cockroach King" and "Pareidolia" on The Mountain
, they're either concentrated on Affinity'
s briefer tracks or used more as a "bell and whistle" effect on its longer tracks. For example, the stutter-step and open, positive tonal shift of "Earthrise" easily make it one of the album's best offerings despite being one of its shortest. The drawn-out and oddly timed "Red Giant" places it as another shorter track that's a cut above the mean, while "1985" serves up Haken's best long-form prog (just keep an open mind with the dubstep section and remind yourself that the theme du jour
is "dark electronics").
Meanwhile, elephant in the room "The Architect" feels as though it grows self-indulgent and repetitious without ever exploding with a truly unique sticking point. There are plenty of intriguing elements, of course - bass, keyboard, and guitar solos among some truly impressive drumming - but these are sparse peaks in an overwhelmingly flat landscape. While there's not necessarily anything bad to any of the tracks presented on Affinity
, much like on "The Architect," I can't help but feel that the opportunity to make a lasting impression is somewhat squandered in the name of indulgence.
Haken are definitely at their best when focusing on their progressive side, but their experimentation with some constraint and structure has resulted in a good album residing in a long shadow. This is clearly a band that's still ambitious, powerful, and skilled and I think it's more reassuring than not that they're also a group not comfortable to rest on their laurels. That said, playing more to their progressive strengths may better suit them than playing dark, heavy, and long. Haken certainly don't need to climb The Mountain
again, but letting some of that high altitude air inflate their headspace could be all it takes to put their next release on the path to making another big splash.