Album Review: Haken, “The Mountain”

The Mountain

London-based Haken could’ve chosen any number of beautiful, snow-capped Alpine peaks for the cover of their album The Mountain (2013). Instead, they went with an unidentified mass of naked rock, half-hidden in clouds: huge, impressive, forbidding. And if you look closely, in the lower right-hand corner of the cover, you’ll see the Greek figure Sisyphus, doomed forever to roll a stone uphill. This image is an ideal set-up the band’s muscular-but-melodic progressive rock, and gives a clue as to this concept album’s narrative arc as well.

In point of fact, The Mountain draws not only on the myth of Sisyphus, but also on that of Icarus, who flew too near to the sun on artificial wings, only to fall back to earth in a shower of hubris and melted wax. In like fashion, The Mountain charts the meteoric rise and precipitous fall of an unnamed narrator. The music and lyrics toward the first half of the record exude a spirit of determination and ambition, as on the richly harmonized “Because It’s There”: “With hope you will find the life you seek.” Our hero strives relentlessly for success, and somewhere around the first half of “Falling Back to Earth,” he seems to achieve it. But no sooner does he realize his dream than it is snatched from out his grasp. By the time we reach the penultimate track, “Pareidolia,” optimism has been transformed into confusion and despair: “All my kingdom’s gone/It’s burned to the ground/Reason leaves me.” The record ends with in frustration with “Somebody,” as the narrator rails against the forces that conspire against him:

Give me back my right to prove that I can fight
Let me show them all
Tonight can be my night…
Just as a bird was meant to fly
Unbind these wings or let me die

Haken paints in broad strokes: neither the nature of our narrator’s ambitions nor the circumstances surrounding his disillusionment are very well-defined. But this may be for the best, as conceptual prog rock can easily bog down in its own narrative pretensions.

The music with which Haken tells their story is dynamic, heavy prog in the vein of Dream Theater. Indeed, a review on Prog Archives describes lead vocalist Ross Jennings as “the singer James LaBrie wants to be,” soaring and expressive without LaBrie’s excessive theatricality. This is also a good précis of Haken’s music in general. For while they have much in common with Dream Theater (particularly in their more metallic moments), Haken seem to be less enamored of their own technical brilliance than John Petrucci & Co., despite ample evidence of virtuosity. A heavier Spock’s Beard might be a more apt comparison, though Haken lacks the distinctiveness of either group.

The band is clearly familiar with the prog corpus, however, combining pummeling riffs (“Pareidolia”), jazzy instrumental workouts (“Atlas Stone”), vocal counterpoint sections (“Cockroach King”), and piano balladry (“As Death Embraces”), often in the space of a single song. With so much going on, you end up having to traverse long instrumental valleys to get to the peaks; and more often than not, the view is of the older and higher mountains of the prog giants of yore (for instance, anytime those Gentle Giant-style harmonies come in). But what you can see (or rather, hear) is promising for Haken’s future endeavors, especially when things quiet down and the songs have a chance to breathe.

At the end of the myth, Icarus falls back to earth; the Stone of Sisyphus rolls back down the hill; the Mountain wins. Perhaps this setback will prove our narrator’s final downfall; perhaps it will serve as a necessary (albeit painful) prelude to a final, successful ascent. The album is open-ended, inviting the listener to complete the story. Likewise, Haken may not have reached the mountaintop this time around; like the cover artwork, their music is superficially impressive, but in the end another undistinguished peak in a big mountain range. But The Mountain leaves them at least poised to continue the climb.

6/10

Buy it here. Spotify it here.


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