I have always really, really enjoyed heavy music. Sadly, a high-school colleague turned me away from metal for many years. He’d come to our creative writing club reeking of pot, wearing the same Metallica shirt for days on end, and would then take the entire 45 minute lunch break to read his gruesome death poems (think Metallica lyrics as written by a 15 year old).
Now, I loved the sound of Metallica, but I always found the lyrics to be a little… obvious. I’m a reader, I’m a word-nerd, and I’m picky as all hell about my lyrics. Metallica just wasn’t my thing. And this kid just annoyed me enough to completely turn me off from the “metal” scene, not to mention truncating my brilliant career as a poet. Instead I got pretty firmly entrenched in the harder end of classic rock, alternative rock, and then oddly segued into some pretty interesting electronica (psychedelic ambient, heavy drum and bass, NINesque music) and flamenco. I’m telling you, my tastes just run all over the place.
It was all really great, and some of those albums still get pulled out and played on my nostalgic days (looking at you A Perfect Circle’s Mer de Noms, NIN’s Things Falling Apart…) but I feel like I really missed out on a lot of things. I could have been listening to Symphony X’s The Odyssey 15 years earlier, maybe even gone to see them on tour! In turning me away from the metal scene, my stoner-classmate may have turned me away from my people, my destiny. Or at least a lot of really good concerts. So I’m happy to finally be able to let go and get back in. And man, is it a good time for those who love music that’s hard n’ heavy as well as elegant and complex!
(As a note, with the wisdom of age, this kid was probably just looking for friends and as a nerdy, lonely kid myself I should have tried to be more open. Young and dumb, we all go through it.)
That’s what Vector is. It is the heaviest of Haken’s albums, with walls-of-sound that absolutely require me to put on my good headphones – you know, the ones with a cord so long you have to loop it up to use it with your phone, maybe even pop the phone out of it’s case because the jack is a bit bigger than for “normal” earbuds. I don’t have a super-nice sound system at home, so these puppies pick up the musical slack for me.
Haken in general, and Vector specifically, does not suffer from Metallica’s overly-pointed poetry – it’s as lyrically subtle (for the most part) as it is heavy musically, and it’s pretty heavy. Not quite Meshuggah, but leaning that way minus the growling. In contrast, the vocals are clean, clear, and poignant, which helps keep the tone of the album on point for its theme. Because, of course, it’s a concept album, touching on mental and physical health, destiny and self-determination, and the definition of life and being human. So if the music seems on edge, reflective and also deeply angry and disturbed (almost frantic), good news! You’re not imagining it. You can expect the usual for a prog album: long songs, frequent changes in rhythm, tempo and time signature, as well as complex arrangement and solos for all instruments, not just guitar. I give a break-down by song, but if you want an over-all impression, skip to the “In Summary?” paragraphs. I can’t help but want to go almost line-by-line, but I’ll hold myself back so it’ll take less time to read than listen.
Breakdown – The Songs
The album starts with a mini introductory song, “Clear”, it’s first note an immediate blast of distorted noise, like a wail from some hungry electric beast. A slow series of notes, think creepy synth organ, build tension, with cleaner tones moving in to elevate the listener from the dark depths of fear and paranoia to a strange glimmer of hope. While there are no lyrics, the name and feel echo an idea of forced resurrection, paramedics fearlessly reanimating flesh with electric paddles. And as this anticipation builds, as some form of life comes back to the funeral-march, the song segues seamlessly into the next.
“The Good Doctor” immediately uses fast guitar and supporting synths and drums to give a feeling of manic-ism and paranoia. Oddly, the guitar taps out and the singing begin over a pretty sweet bass line. And the lyrics here are simple and narrative – a doctor the patients all fear, save one lost in his mind, damaged beyond reaching. Electricity as a treatment. The refrain welcomes back the guitar, while each additional verse gives guitar, synths, and bass room to play while the drums alternate between heavy metal and jazz, mainly giving backbone to the song. Jenning’s vocals really walk the line between darkly playful and a little thin and high. It’s a fun song, but relatively light for this album.
“Puzzle Box” is far more meaty and less straightforward and I find the album really shines from this point forward. An eerie, emotionally undefined intro with gentle vocals, pulsing bass and floating background chords push into a much more forceful refrain, including beautifully precise crashing drums and soaring vocals. And to my joy, the words are poetic and abstract (and remain so from this point forward); now you get to infer meaning, leaving layers of possibility to peruse even as overall emotional tones cascade from determination to puzzlement to bewilderment to desperation. It’s spectacular. I have to be careful of my ears as I usually want to listen with it as loud as possible and sing along at the top of my voice. You can also expect furious guitar, great use of atmospheric synths and frequent changes in tempo and pacing. It is prog, after all. The ending reminds me a bit of Muse back in Black Holes and Revelations with the synth’s tone and sweeping effect.
“Veil”, the next song begins with a tender piano intro and lovely, warm vocal harmony that, with the beat of the drums, crescendos into a lovely metal passage with heavy guitar and bass backed by that sweet sweet drum really giving you hell. This is a song of contrasts. For a few bars you’ll get acoustic guitar with gentle, almost crooning style singing followed by ultra-heavy, dark passages dominated by heavy instrumentation. Again, you’ll have frequent changes in tempo and rhythm. The variety is perfectly done, the pacing is excellent. Despite being over 12 minutes long, you don’t get bored or tired. The song endlessly explores variations on riffs and rhythms so it is coherent as well dynamic. Halfway through you get what feels like a different song completely. It’s calmer, with soothing and beautiful vocals, and it’s a good break before the storm…
Because “Nil by Mouth” is a beast. It is the heaviest song on the album and purely instrumental. The drums really drive you here, with the beat blasting you into your chair and synths, guitar and bass reinforcing the heavily rhythmic nature of the piece. There are calmer sections, usually followed by a swelling return to thumping goodness. Near the end, choral style synth gives a really epic background for the still amazing drum, hammering you into blissful submission. While “Veil” changes itself frequently, “Nil by Mouth” keeps a coherence of vision as arresting as the perfect orchestration. The instrumental references to The Mountain‘s “Cockroach King” made me smile as that’s a song I’ve loved for several years now. And they fit this song strangely well. This is the song I get weird looks for when I’m driving around, because I usually have my stereo cranked way up, the car is probably vibrating, and I do not look like the “usual” metal-head; I’m pretty non-descript, and so is our car. I’ve had very bad-ass looking dudes with tats and piercings one car over at a light giving me thumbs ups and rock-on hand signs and we’ve briefly bonded over the heaviness of this song. It brings people together in awesome, but I’d be careful if you’re wearing a pacemaker at higher volumes or work in a crystal shop. Dem beats have a potential to wreck, and wreck hard.
At this point, you’re hopefully ready for a change, for “Host” is different; it comes in quiet, with a melancholy that carries even into the heavier portions of the song. A low, echoey trumpet in slow, sad jazz style accompanied by piano set the mood, and the song really keeps this feel even as it changes its pacing. Sounds of rain in the background, mournful singing and lyrics, a really slow tempo with constrained instrumentation (even when the drum and bass are playing a fairly fast and powerful beat) are the heart of this song, but a clashing cymbal adds fearful tension and stress. Again, it’s well orchestrated and a nice melodic break after Nil by Mouth. It’s still heavy, but in a different way. Like the crushing weight of realization that your life is never wholly your own, and your destiny approaches with or without consent. It’s a dirge, a march to surrender. Also, a totally satisfying song.
The last song of the “regular” album is “A Cell Divides”. It’s a good place to end, and the song begins with another set of heavy guitar riffs, furious drumming, strongly supporting bass, suddenly calming down for a brief moment as Jennings begins his intro verse over a more precise drum line. The singing tends to soar, with plenty of long holds on high notes, and occasional choral harmonies, while the drums and bass create mini patterns in the overall beat. I’m a big fan of clean, almost choir-boy vocals being mixed into heavy music and this song delivers again. The feeling is accepting, almost tender at times, yet somehow gives also conveys subconscious rage – perhaps the contrast between the heavy instrumentals and the aforementioned vocal style. It’s a short song, by prog metal album standard, just shy of 5 minutes, yet I occasionally bring up this song all on its own if I feel like, again, singing at the top of my lungs. Because it’s catchy and short enough to fit between teaching gigs and the other million chores being a mom, writer, partner, and all around bad-ass shove into my day (lots of chores…).
In summary? An amazing album. Maybe some mixing/mastering tweaks?
Vector is an excellent album, and when I’m in a heavy-metal kind of mood, it’s my default. Every song is good, most are fantastic, and the overall pacing and variation stands out in a world of 12-minute prog-solos that can make you zone and tune out a little. Vector demands your attention from the beginning to the end. It draws you in, then alternately beats you into submissive joy and massages you back into calm acceptance. I really love Haken’s use of various synths to add a lot of flavor and atmosphere to all their albums, and they continue the trend here without missing a literal or metaphoric beat. I’m not always a fan of synths (uhgggg 80’s style, and 70’s church-organ sounds, excepting The Doors who knew what’s what) but Haken gets exactly the right tone every time. No whiny drones or farty noises here. It’s like a synth messiah is whispering in their ears.
There are only two areas I can criticize. First, “The Good Doctor” is a bit fluffy as a song. Fun yes, but lacking the depth in both style and lyrics the rest of the album delivers. I still really enjoy it, but it doesn’t have the same feel as what follows at all. Second, Jenning’s vocals aren’t quite up to the instrumentals, which may simply be a mastering issue (a little extra volume at times could fix this, IMO). They come through a little thin and sometimes just a wee bit flat; none the less, he is still MY FAVE, right alongside Leprous’s Solberg, another epic prog metal singer. I mean, these guys got hot vocals, ladies and gents. The hubs knows my obsession and is slightly jealous. So many layers of sexy in this music, it’s hard to believe. Indeed, I’m not sure who I’d want most to serenade me anymore: Maynard James Keenan, Einar Solberg, or Ross Jennings. And that is REALLY saying something.
And if you’re a big composition, arrangement and mixing nerd, the deluxe albums’s instrumental song versions are PERFECT. The removal of vocals (words are naturally distracting to the human mind) really allows you to listen to how the songs are set up to deliver their full impact. You really get the impeccable synth tones, the amazing bass, the killer drums, the guitar that (thank you!) doesn’t try to outshine all the other instruments but instead revs them all up before breaking into it’s own amazing solos. It’s a great lesson in how a band can and should fully coordinate their members and song writing, rather than relying on one or two talented people or intricate solos to carry their sound.
In short (hahahahaha, me, short, yea right…), I love this album. I really, really, honestly and completely enjoy it – over and over. I’ve listened to it twice a week minimum since oh, November. I need more intensifiers to describe how much I enjoy it. A 10/10 as far as albums go, for me.
Thank you, Haken, for another amazing album. I’m hoping this is the kind of thing my two-year-old daughter will enjoy when she’s a teen and we’re trying to bond past the angsty-teen phase, like me and my parents did over Jethro Tull, Heart and Deep Purple.
Anyone not agree? Give me your reasons, give me you comparisons, let the Prog Wars continue, to the benefit of us all!