Album: Affinity (2016)
Genre: progressive metal
Where to buy: here
Affinity opens with ambient sound effects of Morse code and radio receivers scanning all frequencies. We’re in a post-apocalyptic world and desperate for something familiar, and we’re in luck: the staticky drone turns into a pulsing guitar, soon joined by drums, and “Initiate” explodes onto your transceiver with tight and clean rhythms of distortion and a hard-hitting backbeat. In the span of two minutes the album takes you from a 60s sci-fi serial to modern conceptions of space and time, and these elements and more are woven throughout the subsequent hour of songwriting and production. This could be the scene for some truly weird ambient music, but the alloy of Affinity is a comfortably progressive metal. Into a crucible were poured complicated meters, big 80s synth, melodies that are almost irreverent in their self-awareness, guitar solos Steve Vai would be proud of, and Haken’s own particular heaviness. The dross removed, the amalgam shaped, the production finessed, and we get to listen to the love child of Herbie Hancock and Rush, and it’s fun and self-confident without being tedious.
I admit that teenage me loved noodly guitar, from the purposeless solos of Jim Morrison to the purposeless solos of Joe Satriani. It is less compelling to me these days, and for most people it gets old fast. There are guitar solos on these tracks, but they are much less the focus of the songs than you might find in a given Satriani or even Dream Theater track. Guitarists Richard Henshall and Charlie Griffiths are well-studied and play with precision and poise, but the nine tracks on Affinity are not merely excuses for them to mash their fingers on their fretboards in increasingly high-pitched ways. In fact, the most musically compelling element of this album is the song construction. The centerpiece here (track five of nine, as well as in showcasing songwriting strengths) is fifteen-minute-plus “The Architect,” which provides all band members and guest vocalist Einar Solberg ample opportunity to conceive, build, breakdown, and reassemble melodies and rhythms. Each measure is obviously the result of long collaboration among the band members. It is easy to imagine their conversations about which rhythm figure to use, how to change it, how the melody instruments will offer counterpoint to the rhythms, what tone and timbre to effect, and so on. Affinity is tightly controlled, and moments that sound like improvisation are deceptive, but Haken is building something here, and we very nearly get to watch them do it.
All this said in favor of the album, I should write that it took a few listens to grow on me. At first it sounded to me like an album my teenage self would have loved but that did not have much to offer me half a lifetime later. Intentional and concentrated listening paid off and revealed much more to appreciate, as good progressive metal tends to. A new fan of Haken may take some time to discover for their own what they find compelling about Affinity, a dynamic that plays out across prog rock and other genres that resist casual listening. This is not a criticism but a caveat, and anyone who enjoys prog rock and metal and who listens to Affinity with this in mind will find something to like about it.