In music as in politics, it isn't always clear what it means to be progressive. But while the former is about policy and procedure, the latter is more about a state of mind. Progressive music can't be defined by one or even a dozen components; it outgrows its criteria long before anything has time to stick. It allows bands and artists to be collected under the same umbrella without sharing so much as a single theme in common. That doesn't just apply to inter-band similarities, but intra-catalogue ones as well. The best bands are those that refuse to repeat the same action; albums must change and evolve at the same rate as those who make them.
That can be a tricky balance to achieve. Casual fans latch on to a single album, and expect that same dynamic and magic to be repeated until the end of time. AC/DC have been repeating the same formula (and chords) for more than three decades, to miraculous results. But they are the exception, not the rule. Others would be decried and dismissed for even attempting to recycle their own sound. It tempers our expectations as consumers of music; our desire for what we already know we love, versus the need for something new and challenging.
Admittedly, we came late to the Haken party. Our entry was with 2013's The Mountain, an album that, to this very moment, ranks as among the best we've ever heard, progressive or otherwise. But having such an affinity for an album is complicated. It becomes an unrealistic measuring stick for everything before and everything that comes after. When news of the fourth Haken studio album found itself to our desks, our initial thoughts were, looking back, embarrassing. We longed for more of The Cockroach King, the off-the-beaten-path third track from the previous release. Maybe all of Haken 4 would follow that tone. Or maybe it follow the arc of Falling Back To Earth, relying on those pitch perfect harmonies.
But Affinity is none of those things. There are no prequels, no sequels. More than ever, there is no room to look back at what was. From the very top of the order, the introductory track Affinity.exe, it feels like that first reboot after the installation of a new operating system. You know the pieces are the same, but it looks and sounds fresh and new. There is an air of poetic introspection carved into the lyrics, as if we're being welcomed to see the world as it is through the eyes of frontman Ross Jennings. As he croons, "I observe a world jarring in turmoil, a million people waging war at the hands of a god, and I can hear them crying," the imagery floods in; the battlefield, the carnage, the uncertainty. We're seeing what he sees, and vice versa. It's a powerful vessel to harness, an emotional tie between band and listener.
But the new Haken isn't all mired in the worries of the modern world. The subsequent track, the aptly titled 1985 echoes the new wave and arena rock sound of that very year. You hear as much Dire Straits as you do Rush. And yet under those familiar tones, there is still an underlying and modern theme, finding one's way through the noise and static. It's a brilliant juxtaposition of then and now, complete with keyboard and guitarist passages that bind the track together like bits of tangled string and wire. But what it paves the way for is the purest of modern love songs. Lapse is, perhaps, the song in which many listeners will find safe harbor. It speaks to our inner most joys, our fears, and our regrets, all in ways we might never be able to express them ourselves. Lost found, love lost, memories fading. It feels simple, structurally, and yet complex; it says so much by saying so little. And yet, more than anything, it speaks to the relationship we form with music, and the people who write it.
Those waiting for the towering epic shan't be disappoint, of course. The Architect is every bit the M.C. Escher piece of the album, leaving the listener to wonder where it begins and ends, and what came before or after. It allows space for expansion, including a foray into the world of not-so-clean vocals. Conversely, Earthrise is the most anthemic of all of the tracks found here. It's inspiring on the most basic level, in both sound and inspiration. "Evolve and we'll ensure our survival, we are the revolution," sings Jennings, his voice moving seamlessly up and down, high and low.
But in completing the record, Haken prove once again why they are both the present and future of the genre. They employ stark contrast to bolster everything; The looping acrobatics of The Endless Knot are made all the more prominent by the soothing timbre of Bound By Gravity. Yet, at the same time, the latter is made all the more profound by the former, a dramatic change of pace and mood that would be impossible to lose. They begin to close what becomes an infinite loop. There are lyrical call-backs in the finale - "If this is life will space and time bleed into one?" hearkening back to Lapse - as if the story has progressed into a new stage: finality. All become one, and balance is brought to the universe. It's unsurprisingly self aware and self reliant, right down to the beeps and blips that end the song, mirroring those from where the album began.
The concept of a perfect album is neither real or imaginary. The subjective nature of music is such that an album achieves perfection only if it finds a home within you. That also means that there is no such thing as perfection compared to anything else. One album is not better or worse than another; they must exist on separate planes. The Mountain will forever be the record that welcomed me into the Haken section of the prog multiverse. But there will never be another like it, nor should they ever hope to repeat what that album says, what it means, and how it sounds. Affinity is perfect; it's evolved beyond what we would have expected three years ago. It tells a different story, from a different perspective. It speaks of love, of loss, and of progress. It's the album we didn't know we wanted until it was right in front of us. And now it will always have a place.