Within the first sixty seconds of Haken’s debut release, Aquarius, the London-based rockers share with their listeners what can be expected from the rest of their work. You’ll hear the sound of a harp mixed with guitars and some heavy percussion transition into what can only be described as a circus made up of trombones, xylophone, and other horns. Quickly, we turn back to guitars before finally entering a melodic motif using keyboards, guitars, and other synthesized sounds. This sort of quick-change from one style to another – even from one set of instruments to another – epitomizes the eclectic sound of Haken.
Aquarius is a concept album telling the story of a family that gives birth to a mermaid sometime toward the end of the 22nd century. The gender of the child is never really discussed, but the cover art seems to show a female so we’ll go with that. Within track one, “The Point of No Return,” vocalist Ross Jennings shows us the point of view of her parents: initial joy at their child shifting over to horror at her, for lack of a better term, deformities. The remaining tracks then give us the rest of the story. “Streams” provides us the thoughts of the mermaid as she swims free after being released by her parents into the wild. The third track, “Aquarium” describes her capture and display in a circus’ sideshow. Next we learn of the guilt felt by those who capture and capitalize on the child in “Endless Rain” before we hear about some natural disaster wherein the child saves her captor and sacrifices her own life in “Drowning in the Flood.” Finally, in the final tracks “Sun” and the epic-closer “Celestial Elixir” we hear more about the memorialized child and a requiem to her existence.
I will admit that the lyrics to these songs are simple, but complex in their meaning. It’s entirely possible that I’ve entirely misconstrued the purpose of the album or that there is some deeper meaning to Haken’s story that I’ve missed out on. But, even without worrying about the lyrical interpretation, what this group has delivered is an amazing feat of musical vibrancy that at times feels more like a rock opera than anything else.
The song styles shift effortlessly between rock, blues, jazz, atmospheric soundscape, and circus motifs all of which is surrounding by the excellent tenor of Jennings. At times, you do find some death vocals, for example in track one when the parents first consider abandoning their child. This style is certainly used in the minority so if you’re uncomfortable with such things you don’t have to worry that it will be too prevalent. More often, Jennings and his back-up of other male vocals sing in some fairly tight harmonies which give the music a somewhat classic feel.
Beyond the variety within Haken’s vocal capabilities, their instrumentation is top notch. Utilizing everything from guitars to clarinets, the band stops short of employing a full symphony … but not by much! The mainstays of the instrumentalists are the group’s primary members who bring the guitars, keyboards, and percussion. This leaves the horns, woodwinds, strings, and harp to be played by guest musicians throughout the album. These guests give the album a depth that it might have otherwise lacked and enhances the overall experience by keeping you interested in the music that you’re hearing.
Be prepared for the circus themes. Considering the sideshow elements within the album’s story, it’s not surprising the there are motifs within songs that Barnum’s house-band would more usually perform. You’ll hear them almost from moment one, but not in every song and never as the focus of a song. The final track, “Celestial Elixir,” is also the longest of the album which gives it the most time for musical hijinks; an opportunity that they take with great success. This is unquestionably an epic piece utilizing all of the styles and influences that the band has in one piece. It would be a great one to listen to if you’re wanting a taste of what the rest of the album will bring you.
The skill of the group is evident in the value of the music produced for Aquarius. This is not background music; this is a work to be focused on, analyzed, and enjoyed for its complexity and its variety. As a debut album, it is perhaps even more exciting to think about what Haken might be able to bring us for the future. In my on-going quest to familiarize myself with the bands playing ProgPower XII in September 2011, I’m quite pleased to have had the opportunity to review Haken. I know that you’ll be pleased to give them a listen, too.