Sunday, 20 December 2020

Log #221 - Spotting Haken From The Panopticon

Eddy Bamyasi


The heavy rock/metal band Isis are a surprise to me... because I really like them. Why do I like them when I have previously written about how I don't much like "post rock" instrumental bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Explosions In The Sky or Mogwai? I can only put it down to a significant difference even if I can't quite put my finger on what that difference is. To be fair I heard the band name mentioned in despatches in connection with Tool and Opeth, who I do like. 

Anyway right from the very first power chord Panopticon is a tremendously exciting album. The sound is full on wall of sound - rather like My Bloody Valentine (who I don't know much to be honest - I used to have Loveless but fell out of love, if you excuse the pun, with that possibly overrated album quite early on). The pace of Panopticon is much slower and more ominous than the musically more dynamic Tool and Opeth. In fact some of the music is verging on ambient or drone. But boy is it heavy! 


Melodies are provided by repeated simple four or five note guitar sequences supplemented by long drawn out chords drenched in feedback and sustain, rather like Neil Young's languid playing on Zuma's longer tracks. There are very few vocals - singer Aaron Turner growls but the voice is so low in the mix it is really used as just another instrument in that very thick wall. The other distinguishing feature is clear sharp down tempo drum taps which at first sounded a bit out of place to my ear: these remind me of some of the "shoegaze" bands from the early '90s, particularly Ride. Now Ride had that famous album Nowhere which I, again, had at the time but never really got (notice how the album artwork is similar too). More on that later.

Isis only produced 5 studio albums. The final one Wavering Radiant in 2009 broadened their instrumental palate with more keyboards, without, I'm glad to say, reducing their raw power. 

Generally the music on both albums is simple and goes where you expect in a satisfying way. There are less of the sudden mindbending U-turns you get with bands like Opeth and Tool - hence the drone descriptions. The tracks tend to shift and build gradually usually over 7 - 10 minutes. 

Will I ultimately find this music unsatisfying? I don't think so. Like pure ambient music there is more to discover the more you listen. I think Isis will have staying power at Bamyasi Towers.

So on to the Ride album Nowhere. Was my initial impression from 30 years ago wrong? Well, actually no. I still don't like it. This has got to be one of the most overrated albums in history (were the band just lucky in time and place)? I'm not going to spend much time writing about it here. The 40 minutes or so I spent listening is long enough suffice to say the out of tune singing doesn't help - painful - better off growling. 

There were quite a lot of new rock bands emerging around the turn of the 80s/90s decade weren't there, combining traditional guitar led rock instrumentation with a shuffling dance beat - most disappeared as quickly as they came - Jesus Jones, The Farm, The LAs, Inspiral Carpets, The Wonder Stuff, Charlatans etc. Did any have staying power other than The Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses?

Isis - Panopticon
Isis - Wavering Radiant
Ride - Nowhere
Opeth - Sorceress
Opeth - Blackwater Park
Haken - The Mountain

I thought the Opeth trajectory would continue upwards but I was left slightly underwhelmed with Sorceress (their 12th album from 2016). It has several tracks which are right out of the early Love, Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd catalogues. It also has classical guitar, bongo drums and strings. 

Mmmm, what did the trad. Opeth fans think of this release? Had they finally taken their prog influences too far? One easy listening instrumental is actually entitled The Seventh Sojourn which is a Moody Blues album title - a rather too obvious homage. I hope it's a grower. Either way it's the first album from Opeth I haven't been hugely impressed with so they are allowed an off day.

Last new album this week and continuing my discovery of nu prog metal I tried The Mountain by London prog band Haken. Honestly this is a whole new world to me. I thought prog music died in 1974 (apart from a tiny revival in the early '80s with Marillion). I had no idea. But of course, every other type of music has been revived so why not prog? I'm just surprised at myself, having been a keen fan of prog back in the day, I had not discovered this vibrant current scene. I guess, good music, like cream, will eventually rise to the surface irrespective of any current trends or fads. 

Opening track is a gentle piano ballad in the style of The Cinematic Orchestra around the time of Ma Fleur. This gives way to the exceptional Atlas Stone - a sort of combination of Rush and Yes. Think that is exceptional? Then hear Cockroach King! Here the band throw in Queen on top of Rush and Yes - in particular the operatic Queen of Bohemian Rhapsody: 

The Cockroach King sits on his throne
With the Midas touch and a heart of stone
An empire built on guile and greed
A bleeding ground for those who heed

In Memoriam is on the face of it a 4 minute rocker, but there is so much packed into this modest timeline it really needs to be heard to be believed. There's a whole Genesis album in this track. 

Because It's There starts with acapella harmonies before moving into skittish jazz percussion and guitar. There are also some distant glitchy effects giving the song a Radiohead flavour, but ultimately it's a beautiful ballad with a moving chorus.

Falling Back To Earth is the longest track on the album at a more traditionally proggy 12 minutes. It's an epic number containing multiple shifts and the deepest metal riffs on the album. Similarly Pareidolia allows Haken to display all their Opeth chops.

The musicianship is amazing throughout but it's the vocals that really standout as on As Death Embraces and the slowly building closer Somebody - singer Ross Jennings resurrects the high clear enunciation of classic prog vocalists Jon Anderson, Geddy Lee and Rodger Hodgson.

The whole album is blindingly technical, but the beauty of what has been crafted here is that The Mountain doesn't feel like an exercise in how to get the most notes out of any given instrument.

Steven Reid 

I realise I've thrown around a lot of casual comparisons and influences here which could lead to a dog's breakfast of a sound. But fear not, Haken offer a unique perspective on the metal prog scene and The Mountain, albeit constantly shifting across a myriad of styles, presents a very cohesive whole. I'm looking forward to hearing more from this talented band.







About The Author

Eddy Bamyasi

Eddy is a music writer from Brighton, England, named after a Can record. Each Sunday he logs and reviews the albums that happen to be in his vintage Pioneer 6-CD magazine changer, amongst other things.

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