Alright, first off: no, Virus is not the product of a cynical marketing ploy designed to exploit current world circumstances. In fact, the notion of Haken’s sixth album and sequel to 2018’s Vector germinated while they were still making Vector in 2017. But that doesn’t mean these albums and their concept aren’t relevant to current events in other ways that have more to do with people and myopia and the systems that exploit it than the mindless bugs that bedevil us as a matter of nature’s course.
Back in 2013, Haken released The Mountain to critical acclaim and it remains the strongest record in their catalog. The highlight of that album is a track called, “The Cockroach King,” which lovingly fed Queen and Gentle Giant through that modern prog metal sieve to tell a cautionary tale of idolatry, hubris, and blind ambition. 2018’s Vector continued the story begun by that wonderful song and, in digging deeper into its shadowy details, shifted to a darker, heavier palette, and embraced a wider array of synthesized accents, but retained the melodic focus and even expanded upon the brilliant harmony that “The Cockroach King” featured as its centerpiece. And now Virus concludes the tale, beginning with lead single, “Prosthetic,” introduced as a bridge-track between Vector and Virus.
The first thing to notice about “Prosthetic” is just how fiercely it comes bolting out of the gate. This is pretty new for Haken, having led each of their last several albums with relatively subtle openers. And it stays heavy, which is also noteworthy, as Haken continues to buck a trend that’s vexed prog metal fans (and heavy metal fans, more broadly) forever. Whereas so many progressive metal bands tend to lighten up as they progress, sacrificing the heft to emphasize melody and atmosphere, Haken has gone the opposite direction, getting heavier and darker as they’ve come along, especially on the last couple records. Of course, too much heavy gets a lot of prog fans in a dither, but Haken has done very well to ratchet up the metal without sacrificing those core prog elements; melody, complexity, diversity of sound and especially harmony continue to feature prominently and are executed expertly on Virus.
Haken’s talent for telling a complex story through diverse and intricately arranged musical devices is reflected almost immediately in the stark contrast between the opener and second track, “Invasion,” in which time slows, mood darkens, and perspective shifts, as if from fiery defiance to desperation in the growing shadow of an insidious, inhuman enemy. Sounds reflect the shift with cold, metallic textures and an unnerving sense of dissociation. Then, as Virus’ tale unfolds, it swings between extremes of mood and interlaces them, tracing its characters’ arcs through all the emotion you’d expect from a story that involves intimacy and betrayal, mental illness and mad doctors, hope and disappointment, and malevolence and redemption.
As compelling as the story is, it’s a joy to listen to because of how well it’s conveyed musically. Ross Jennings’ vocal melodies on Virus are among the best he’s ever done and the band’s harmonies are even better, which is remarkable given that he and Haken had already built a strong reputation for both in the prog world. The scaffolding for all that wonderful melody and harmony comes from Richard Henshall’s and Charles Griffith’s guitars, riffing in ways that are thoroughly and patently modern and yet crafted to support songwriting fully and faithfully rooted in the classic symphonic style of Prog’s golden era, most notable in the magnificently rendered climax of the story, the 17-minute epic, five-part, “Messiah Complex.” Whether manifested in pure prog metal or any of its many variations, to include indie- and alt- and post-rock, or all the electronic ambient and atmospheric resonances, “Messiah Complex” and Virus broadcast the sound of a fully formed band, as one in both vision and execution. That’s surely due in no small measure to Haken’s remarkable stability, with five of the six current band members being together since 2008 and the most recent addition, Conner Green on bass, coming six years, an EP, and three albums ago.
Because the quality of the songs and their execution is so strong, every listener will find something to love but, because Virus is the product of an invested and time-tested team of creative artists, it will yield the greatest treasures to those listeners who dive deep, especially those who’ve been on board since before The Mountain. Heavy metal and prog fans who love Easter eggs, who love following story lines and discovering connections and tying loose ends together (uh… all metal and prog fans then?) should get endless reward from allusions to earlier elements of the Cockroach King story, as well as layers of both blatant callbacks to and subtle variations on aspects of earlier songs.
Although this review didn’t touch on the particular details of the Cockroach King story, it’s worth noting that the listener will surely notice more than a few parallels between it and current world affairs, especially the largest personalities at their forefront. Obviously, Haken didn’t mean to make an album that so eerily reflects the world’s current state, and the fact that the story’s similarities are largely rooted in themes of hubris, selfishness, and fear reflects a none-too-new indictment, even if it does say so much about where we are presently. No, all they set out to do was make a first-class progressive metal album to conclude a really fun and compelling chronicle of human experience. And they did that, wonderfully, solidifying their standing as one of the most creative, talented, and reliable bands in prog metal today.