With thirteen albums and over thirty years in their past, age and inevitability establishes the notion that we won't have Dream Theater reigning as the progressive rock/metal kings forever. The incoming candidates to take their place are stacking in numbers including the likes of Tesseract, Leprous, and the more recent style of Between the Buried and Me. Perhaps not hitting as high of a mainstream stride as these main contenders, Haken's diverse approach to the prog realm allows them to easily be considered an equal challenger.
Three relatively successful albums has extended the UK-based group's presence from Europe to overseas here in the states and their latest LP, Affinity, will likely even further their international notoriety. Starting with an industrial-tinged instrumental, one can already sense that this record won't exactly be what is to be expected based on previous Haken material. Aptly titled, "1985" sets the tone of what will unfold with a showcase of throwback synths beside warm and welcoming instrumentation. In the same direction, "Lapse" and "Earthrise" feature uplifting, anthemic qualities alongside the quirks and production of the 80's. Nearing the end of this release, "Red Giant" and "Bound By Gravity" provide a very vulnerable point in time for the band. While intriguing, these songs provide the transitional and moody atmospheres between what feels to be the actual meat of the album.
The first eye-opener, "Initiate" is best defined by its inclusion of heavy riffs confined in a rather simple song structure. "The Architect," clocking in at over 15 minutes (their fourth longest composition behind "Visions," "Crystallised," and "Celestial Elixir") is likely the most impressive off the album. Similar to other lengthy tracks by the band, the piece focuses on tension and transformations between musical movements. Resembling traits of both Riverside and Porcupine Tree, the duality between melody and intensity makes for a memorable experience. The harsh vocals that come in about halfway through produce one of the most intense moments of Haken's career. Lastly, "The Endless Knot" delivers a compelling amount of verse-to-chorus hooks and guitar work. I am quite certain that these will be the go-to songs in the live setting and in general.
I feel it is also necessary to address the subtle shift in sound that Affinity establishes and how it compares to previous records. As I hinted at before, the album possesses a very 80's-esque vibe. The album art, instrumentation, production, and flow were all chained to a sense of retro experimentation, which in all honesty, didn't quite feel like a step forward. The avant-garde traits of past pieces such as "Cockroach King" or the mesmerizing attributes on "Crystallised" are missed, but the layered and eccentric aspects make up for this absence.
Back to the possibly over ambitious hypothetical regarding Dream Theater's eventual replacement, it is truly hard to say who, if any, will take that throne. A fitting balance of rock and metal within the prog universe allowed DT to capture an exceptionally wide audience. Although these incoming groups are generally accomplishing the same amount of prowess and creativity, I don't believe they will ever represent the breakthrough of epic proportions that Dream Theater achieved and continued. As for what I predict of these bands advancing up the progressive ladder, I believe they belong to a new modern wave of the genre in which they all coexist equally rather than competing for a top position.
Truthfully, Haken had no need to prove anything on this record. Their past few releases have been nothing less than monumental. I can't confidently claim that Affinity is a large improvement from their past discography, but rather the necessary continuation and expansion on the ideas to an extent. It may not be as immersive and technical as The Mountain or the Restoration EP per se, however the stylistic experimentation and homage to the roots of the genre is highly respectable. Furthermore, the unique dynamic between synth dominated atmospheres and the heavier pieces allows for a pleasant diversity. In a nutshell, Affinity is more fitted for the patient listener. The vintage tendencies throughout the LP prove that the group are not only talented in conveying a variety of musicalities, yet also knowledgable in executing such in a tasteful modern depiction.