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REVIEW: HAKEN & I BUILT THE SKY – MAX WATTS, MELBOURNE

Words: Joshua Batten Photos: Jason Rosewarne

To tour Australia even once is a dream for most international bands, regardless of style. For UK Prog metal icons Haken, who are touring the country for the third time in two years, it’s a rare feat indeed. They toured twice in 2017, first as headliners promoting their then-current album Affinity, then again two months later as members of Mike Portnoy’s Shattered Fortress, a one-off world tour celebrating Portnoy’s music with Dream Theater. As their previous headline tour failed to sell out, this was always going to be a test of loyalty for Australian fans of Prog Rock, many of whom still aren’t even aware of Haken’s existence. Fortunately, the die-hard fans have come from far and wide to Melbourne’s Max Watts tonight for an evening of strong musicianship, melodic vocals, and occasional mosh-pit inducing beats. 

Rohan Stevenson and his technical instrumental project I Built The Sky are this evening’s warm-up act. Stevenson is a fine composer and an accomplished player, utilising open chord arpeggios, wave-like fretboard slides and flickering tapping. Ro and his hired guns (bassist Sam Tan and drummer Rob Brens) are energetic performers and their onstage antics pique the audience’s interest. Although IBTS is Stevenson’s project, Tan handles most of the inter-song crowd banter, while Stevenson lets his guitar do the talking as he uses the whole stage as his performance space, and running through the crowd halfway through one of the songs. While IBTS might lack a little in musical variety, they more than make up for it in technicality and stagecraft, setting the mood for the rest of the night.

The main theme for the music and lyrics of Haken’s latest album, Vector, is psychoanalysis, set against the backdrop of a 1950’s mental institution. The pre-show music sets this scene, with Rock & Roll classics such as “That’ll Be The Day”, “Johnny Be Goode” and “Rock Around The Clock” taking the audience back in time, juxtaposing the music that is about to come. When the house lights finally go down and the band hit the stage, the small but passionate crowd goes wild for Vector’s opening tracks, “The Good Doctor” and “Puzzle Box”. The former is an example of Haken’s ability to write catchy choruses without compromising heaviness or technical skill, while the latter is a seven minute wormhole of musical twists and turns. The first of the ‘back catalogue’ songs comes next, with 2013’s “Falling Back To Earth”, a ten-minute retelling of Icarus’s Flight that slowly takes shape in the first half, with each new section adding something to the previous one, and an atmospheric second half, representing Icarus’s fall. 

For some progressive metal frontmen, like Dream Theater’s James LaBrie, their role can sometimes be overshadowed by the virtuosity of the other instrumentalists. Ross Jennings, however, seems to have no problem being the centre of attention whenever he’s onstage. His unique voice gives him the ability to go from a straight croon to a high, soaring wail without missing a note, and his stagecraft is well-developed, keeping the audience in the palm of his hand. The other stand-out of the night is keyboard player Diego Tejeida, who can not only shred on piano, seaboard and keytar, but has an array of samples at his disposal enabling him to take on a dual role of rock instrumentalist and techno DJ. Ray Hearne’s drumming is a powerful blend of acoustic & electronic polyrhythms, bassist Connor Green combines jazz chops with metal riffage, and lead guitarists Charlie Griffiths and Richard Henshall lock into each other despite standing on opposite sides of the stage. Combine this with the fact that all the members sing backing vocals, and it’s easy to see that with Haken, apart from a few pre-recorded intros, everything is being played live, on the fly, and perfectly replicating their studio counterparts.

Although Haken now have five and a half studio albums to draw from in their main set, the focus was very much on Vector, with five of the album’s six songs getting performed. Despite the album itself only having a 45 minute runtime, each of the songs have their own unique identity. “A Cell Divides” is a response to their previous heavy anthem “The Endless Knot”, The instrumental “Nil By Mouth” induced heavy moshing in the middle of the dancefloor, and the 13-minute “Veil” is another epic journey through different musical moods. Somewhat disappointingly, the focus on Vector meant the inclusion of back catalogue songs was limited to just two songs each from their previous two albums, “Affinity” and “The Mountain”, but these songs were well-chosen. Aside from the aforementioned “Falling Back To Earth”, the band’s most popular anthems, “1985” and “Cockroach King” each got a run, before the main set closed with 2016 “The Architect”, an 15 minute commentary on current technology, starting out ominously, and culminating in Jennings letting out a fearsome Death Metal Growl before the climax. 

After leaving the stage for a couple of minutes to bask in the glow of the “spontaneous encore”, Haken returned for one more massive 20-minute epic – the classic prog inspired “Crystalised”, which first appeared as “Snow” on Haken’s original demo in 2007, and was re-worked and fixed up for inclusion on 2014’s “Restoration” EP. It’s very rare that Haken would write a song in E major, so it comes as a total emotional 180 from the dark themes of the main set and instead closes the night on an incredibly uplifting and euphoric moment. 

The final lyric of the night, “Escaping the past, by embracing the future” is a fitting commentary on why Haken are a force to be reckoned with. The fact that tonight’s show wasn’t a full house is an insult to their immense talent, which largely goes unnoticed due to their ties with the prog rock community. Still, if artists such as Dream Theater, Opeth, Nightwish and Steven Wilson can tour here consistently, surely there’s room for Haken. I can’t wait to see what they come up with for their next album, and I highly encourage fans of Prog, Metal or both to check out their back catalogue.

PS: A massive thanks to Richard Henshall for taking time out of Soundcheck to give me a 1-hour guitar lesson that was more informative and educational than any Meet & Greet!

Reviewer Joshua Batten with Haken’s Richard Henshall