Haken’s last album, 2018’s Vector, was widely praised; yet, some listeners—myself included—felt that it occasionally veered too far into generic progressive metal tropes. It was still a great release, don’t get me wrong, but it was a tad less idiosyncratic and special than its immediate predecessors, forgoing some of the English sextet’s colorful eccentricities and variety for more common and predictable routes. Although Virus—whose title is unintentionally timely—generally follows the same stylistic path (as it should since it’s a direct sequel), its increased emphasis characteristic range, nuance, and allure make it a stronger outing overall. In other words, it’s sure to satisfy no matter which Haken persona you prefer.
Ingeniously, Virus doesn’t merely continue where Vector left off; rather, it goes all the way back to Haken's third studio LP. In the album’s official press release, drummer Ray Hearne explains: “Since releasing The Mountain in 2013, one question has been asked of us time and time again, ‘Who is the Cockroach King?’ This is something we were interested in exploring more deeply too. . . . The end result is in an arc that spans across two albums: Vector and Virus.” Here, the band aims to represent “an ascent to power, tyranny and subsequent endgame” that showcases all the different manifestations of what a virus can be and do. Once again, it was produced by Adam “Nolly” Getgood; likewise, Blacklake created the cover art, which, like the album, “jumps 20 years ahead [into the 1970s] . . . [to] portray an infected, decayed time capsule of the events which have happened since we last visited Mountainview Institution,” according to guitarist Charlie Griffiths. Its fresh content is highly enjoyable, and its callbacks to previous material—both subtle and overt—are just as thrilling.
To be fair, Virus does wear some textbook progressive metal clichés on its sleeve, especially at first. For instance, the opening instrumental section of “Prosthetic”—as engaging and tricky as it is—could’ve come from any number of genre acts. Its melodies seem similarly uninspired at first; fortunately, though, subsequent listens reveal more distinctions, innovation, and overarching cohesion, resulting in one hell of a catchy chorus alongside gripping percussive changes and clever guitar theatrics. Afterward, “Invasion” and “Carousel” evoke Affinity in their juxtaposition of soaring vocals, glistening tones, and irregular rhythms. The latter is especially hooky and dynamic—including an Animals as Leaders-esque dreamy interlude near the end—making it a strong prelude to the downright arresting “The Strain” and comfortingly emotional “Canary Yellow.” Throughout, each player fires on all cylinders and vocalist Ross Jennings is as powerfully charismatic as ever.
Of course, the five-part “Messiah Complex”—which bassist Conner Green rightly calls “the most ambitious and challenging Haken song to date”—is the highlight of Virus. Not only does it excel as an original composition full of compelling moments and seamless transitions, but its perpetual references to previous motifs (including a particularly beloved vocal counterpoint) are equally logical and exciting. In fact, it’s among the greatest progressive rock/metal suites of the millennium, and closer “Only Stars” conjures “The Path” and “Somebody” amidst its soothing—if slightly unsettling—coda. It’s a fascinating intersection of benign and bizarre textures that only Haken could provide.
Despite some formulaic moments along the way, Virus is another superb entry in Haken’s catalog. It improves upon virtually everything that gave Vector its identity while also feeling very much like an extension of it. Beyond that, it acts as a reflection on the band’s entire history at times, rewarding longtime admirers with easter eggs and fulfilling closure that’s guaranteed to please. Undoubtedly, it marks the end of an era in Haken’s history, too, so it’s more exciting than ever to see where they’ll go from here.