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Monday 20 July 2020

Reviews: Haken, Häxan, Massive Wagons, Catalysis (Alex, Simon, Bob & Paul H)

Haken: Virus (InsideOut Records) [Alex Swift]

Vector made my album of the year in 2018. Despite the adoption of the splicing, forceful tones provoking a mixed response, largely within the prog metal community, I still stand by the piece. The dystopian compositions spliced with the altering rhythms and harrowing melodies excellently complimented the theme of psychological torture and strange experimentation. So, to hear they were making a sequel to that record excited me – how further into the story could we fall? Would the musical motifs present themselves with yet more ferocity? The title Virus was obviously an oversight on behalf of the band – they had no idea we’d be in the situation we’re dealing with, and if indeed the record carries those ideas of tyranny and panic, which the predecessor did so well, then we could be witnessing a scarily accurate allegory. Does that transmit? Well, I’ll make one point – those fans who were left alienated last time, are in for a shock. Virus takes chaotic elements to a striking, almost industrial level. Lyrically, we’re in denser territory – different from the dramatizations we’ve come to expect, yet innovative nonetheless. Challenging would be another key descriptive word yet the effect proves one of inspiration, not disillusionment. Vitally, we may be seeing the most contentious work in the Haken catalogue so far, yet certainly not the most expected.

A commanding drum beat opens on an infiltrating note. Griffith’s guitars can be heard amongst the tidal wave, creating melodic yet adventurous frequencies in constantly shifting time signatures. Bright though gripping keyboard textures zoom in, the swirling sound now encircling the listener. The track slows to a complex, multifaceted riff as whispered vocals are heard weaving their sinister poetry above the chaos. Soon, we explode into a huge chorus, which proves the centrepiece of the opener. Not comprehending your own thoughts and being trapped in a mental prison is the theme of Prosthetic, and the rapidly shifting alterations, from the waltzing middle section to the astonishingly hostile closing seconds excellently stresses the idea of being caged. Invasion starts on a disquieting swelling of synths. “One less life for us to live. Holding on to something real. If these walls could talk to me. What if all these eyes only saw what they believed”. As these words flow, different elements grow in the background, multiplying and swarming – like a Virus under a microscope. There’s a tender, yet sinister feeling always present. On the last record, you were carried through the tail of a character who has been hollowed out and ‘left to die’. This time, you are the character – the instruments feel like machines buzzing and whirring in your ears until their language becomes all you comprehend. The effect proves invasive yet fascinating.

One of the huge differences here is that rather than being swirling and expansive the instrumentation is singular, throwing different experiences at the listener yet doing so in a schizophrenic and deliberately imbalanced way. I confess that the approach is far outside of my ‘comfort zone’. Still, I feel if Jennings and co. intended to play to where we’re contented, many of the creative risks wouldn’t have been taken. ‘Wish we could go back to how it was, but we’re too close to the wire’ he screams on Carousel, the harmonious landscape in a constant state of flux. Much like the world the album now inhabits, the music carries a sense of great anxiety yet features elements of hope in the beautiful melodies which flourish from the turmoil. These are definitely some of the greatest hooks these musicians have ever written – even if they are disparate and disconnected from one another. The Strain reveals an individual becoming empowered and confident in himself as the stories cascade. Canary Yellow proves another moment where the elegant course of the journey we’re being taken on detracts from any sense of estrangement we might initially feel at the experimentation. On the other hand, maybe that’s the strangeness reaping its elusive and indefinable effect.

We finish on the Messiah Complex suite. A 17 minute suite, and its gloriously adventurous. Ivory Tower begins on a groove inspired note, the infectious rhythms immediately enthralling the listener – the impression left by the clever contrasts are counteracted by a sweet yet melancholic chorus melody. Who is the cockroach king? Asks part 1, revealing the creations development into a power crazed king of the insects. ‘Spirit me away. Crawling under my skin. Spiralling through my head. Taste my own medicine, drunk on the power’. A Glutton For Punishment captivates, the maddening yet obsessively theatric tempos, keeping us in that pure and scary exploration of madness, each instrument playing a megalithic image of an ‘ivory tower’ – one where the gluttonous presides. By contrast, Marigold rejoices in delicate ambiance and mood-infusing subtleties – for the first few seconds, as upon the cry of ‘How does one forgive himself’ we ascend into one of the most multidimensional pieces we’ve ever seen these players put to paper, yet despite hints of self-indulgence the perilous moods kept in sway, the narrative continuing to chart a revolutionary coarse. The Sect and Ectobis Rex encompass epic throwbacks to Cockroach King, except this time with more ferocity, bite and diverse instrumentation. The reinvention is quite extraordinary.

Finishing on the melancholic Only Stars, we are given closure on a story which began three albums ago, and we didn’t even know had carried on for so long. There’s a reminder in that of the permanence of Haken’s music – the considerations and subtleties which show themselves in both the lyrical and musical expressions. In doing so, Virus stands as a brilliant work in an experimental discography, whilst embedding itself in the context of the Mountain, and Affinity and Vector. That’s not to say that Virus stands above those records. Rather, the piece occupies a vital place in a career swarming with risk and investigation. 8/10

Häxan: White Noise (Self Released) [Simon Black]

Häxan are a South Wales based Hard Rock trio and this long-awaited debut album has been a long time coming, although despite being local myself I’ve not managed to catch them live … yet. The ladies have been at this a while, with only a couple of EP’s in the bag to keep peoples whistles wet, whilst live they are thoroughly established beyond the confines of the local environment. This is really going to help them once this global madness lifts, as with an album as solid as this behind them to build on that live groundwork, I think they may prove to be unstoppable.

Album opener Damned If You Do doesn’t hold its punches. It’s an impressive in your face kick-starter and a reminder of why so many of us found ourselves in this little sub-culture in the first place. Killing Time has a more mid-paced feel to it, but is as heavy as hell and like many tracks on the album I find myself pleasantly surprised by the fact this band is a three-piece, so rich is the sound. Nine Lives doesn’t feel as polished and tight as its predecessors, and that sense of spontaneity actually works in its favour as the sense of energy is positively infectious. Grave Digger with its sense of lyrical entrapment really takes the pace down and once again brings on the heavy, with lyrics that all of us can relate to and a very stripped back anthemic power chording guitar dominates. It’s probably the strongest song on here, and the one I keep coming back to. Louder Than Words is apparently the oldest song on here and it does feel like the band have developed much more confidence and richness since, but nonetheless it’s a catchy and well-written piece of music with that magic ‘can’t-help-but-tap-along’ quality many bands in the genre lack.

Black Sheep again takes the speed back, and it’s a ballad with teeth. There’s a lot more subtle complexity going on here, not least in the highly effective vocal harmonies building up to a crescendo, which I am keen to see them pull off live. I also believe that this is a direction that they can explore further beyond the straight-ahead R’n’R, as once again the fact that this rich sound comes from a 3 piece is mind-blowingly impressive. Crash And Burn feel a bit stripped back in comparison, but I can see it working well in a sweaty room and the fact that the band can run the gamut between these two extremes and still sound so rich is a credit to the song-writing. Single Skeletons is catchy, infectious and dripping with energy from the opening riff and although vocally it’s a bit more radio friendly, lacking some of the emotive passion of other tracks, the production values shine through here and again some subtle changes of style throughout that carry you with them. Close Living Dead takes the lyrics into a fantasy direction, emphasised by a slightly different vocal sound, and a lighter hearted way to close an album that in the main doesn’t pull its punches lyrically and I loved the return of the vocal harmonies for its closing moments.

I remain impressed throughout what these three have achieved, especially as the vocals were recorded separately during lockdown, which I would not even have suspected had the press release not pointed it out, as this sounds like a tight-knit but relaxed group poised on the verge of something significant. It’s very easy for bands in that situation to feel very stripped back without that second guitar, but Häxan manage just fine and I never noticed this holding the likes of Mötorhead back for the vast majority of their career. The reason is the same – damn solid musicianship, tight and effortless sounding song-writing and a backbone of pure Rock’n’Roll. Great things await I suspect. 9/10

Massive Wagons: House Of Noise (Earache Records) [Bob Shoesmith]

‘What goes around usually comes around again’ they say and if you are a dedicated rock fan that scans the associated magazines and radio shows as I do, you will have been living in a cave to avoid the “New Wave Of Classic Rock’ blitzkrieg over the last 18 months or so, with full page ads, rock radio coverage and rapidly released albums and unveiling of “new” bands all looking to ride said wave. One of the bands leading the NWOCR charge from the front are Massive Wagons. After relatively slow progress for the Lancaster five piece from their inception in 2009 they were scooped up by Earache Records in 2017 who seem to be slowly ditching their old roster of punk/thrash bands they supported in the 80’s and 90’s in favour of this new - old school retro, such as Clutch, Blackberry Smoke, Rival Sons and Those Damn Crows etc. In fact, the (pre Covid) 2020 UK tour diaries, including Kent’s Ramblin’ Man Fair, was crammed with multiband NWOCR types and Earache stablemates. One thing is for sure, Massive Wagons really can’t complain about the promotion they’re getting from their management and record company of late as there’s all manner of social media, sites and merch dedicated to our Northern lads and you can’t open a glossy rock magazine without seeing vocalist Baz Mills bowler hatted face gurning back at you most editions!

House Of Noise is the Wagons fifth full release and their second with Earache, rapidly hot off the heels of 2018’s Full Nelson. The opening track, In It Together, begins with a guitar riff and drum beat reminiscent of late 90s/2000s pop-punk bands like Green Day or a rougher edged Bowling For Soup and the track quickly dives into a hard-hitting classic rock and roll anthemic chorus and it reminds the listener right off the bat, if it were needed, that the Wagons natural habitat is the live arena. All the songs here are clearly geared up for the stage and audience participation. The opener is a classic live set starter for a festival, all sunshine, beer and silly hats, you can see it now. The whole Green Day/Offspring/BFS vibe carries on throughout the album until we get to Hero that completely changes the pace of the album with a bluesy AC/DC-ish chug-stomper, darker, yet satisfying and it still sits perfectly within the album. Continuing with the more serious sound is Professional Creep. This rapid paced pop-punk track reminds me of The Offspring (so not a personal favourite), even down to the lyrics although “You can’t vaccinate against being an asshole” is probably one of my favourite lyrics of 2020 so far in spite of it!

One of Massive Wagons strongest suits is that throughout all the high tempo, crunching rock anthems reminiscent of The Wildhearts, they also manage to retain a genuine laddish humour in amongst it, with the laugh out loud The Curry Song – a chip off the old Macc Lads block (ask your parents) which is a serious rock song yet manages to retain the funny and will also be another great live addition with a call and repeat chorus of “I say Rogan, you say Josh’ or Hallescrewya’ (pronounced like Hallelujah) which confirms that they don’t take all this NWOCR malarkey THAT seriously which is a quality sadly lacking from too many po-faced, angry faced rockers of late. It also explains why festival goers are warming to them in some numbers, and long may that last. House Of Noise is a very good, bright, up-tempo pop rock album with its fraternal front man Baz (a perfectly imperfect belter) and hearty, good humoured sing-a-long song writing. As a band, they exude a likeable brand of personality and while nay-sayers could justifiably point at a lack of originality as there are a whole number of bands you could liken them too (my best money would be on Lancashire’s Bowling For Soup or a better version of The Darkness) you can’t help warming to them. I can now see the appeal of a sunny festival, with beer in hand shouting back to “I say Rogan, you say…” a great summer rock album despite the hype. 9/10

Catalysis: Connection Lost (Self Released) [Paul Hutchings]

Connection Lost is the powerful and muscular debut release by Dundee five-piece Catalysis. Formed in 2016, the band’s recording credentials include two EPs, Into The Unknown and a self-titled release, the latter mixed and mastered by Mendel bij de Leij (ex-Aborted). He has remained on board to produce this fiery release, which should draw in a wide range of interest. Apparently, there are guest solos on this relentless slab of groove metal from Phil Demmel and Sacred Reich’s Joey Radziwill which is some coup.

It certainly is a big sound with mighty riffs and robust anthemic compositions. Conquer And Devour kicks things off in fine style, a rampaging burst of controlled chaos, followed by the thunderous Devils In The Panic Room. As the album progresses the sound and style doesn’t vary substantially but there are some elements which maintain the interest. With the band keeping each track short and sharp, Connection Lost moves forward at pace.

Whilst the band include the likes of Machine Head, Chimaira, Gojira and Sylosis in the list of ‘for fans of’, their melodic side also swerves a bit close towards Five Finger Death Punch, which may not be the sound that they were hoping for. A Bridge Too Far certainly echoes the American outfit. There’s a swing towards the stomp of Hatebreed on City Of The Dead and it’s in the final quarter where things start to fade a little. The driving Sentinel indicates a little repetition and the closing track, Version Of The Truth, with its gentle acoustic intro and horrible rapping vocals is one of the weaker songs, despite its positioning. Overall, this is a solid if unspectacular release which fades towards the conclusion. I would imagine the band are impressive live and I’d be interested to see that for myself. 6/10

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