The title and themes of prog-metal crew Haken's sixth and latest album couldn't have been more (unfortunately) dead-on if they tried.
The U.K. six-piece dropped Virus in July 2020 — as the world was mere months into adjusting to life amidst the ongoing COVID-19 viral pandemic. And while the record's concepts of anxiety, depression and suicidal tendencies were pitch-perfect for the emotional unrest that many people were (and still are) experiencing, the timing was a "complete coincidence" says singer Ross Jennings.
"We couldn't even have imagined we would be announcing this album during a lockdown, during an actual pandemic," said Jennings. The singer explained the road to Virus actually began several years earlier during the creation of their previous album, 2018's Vector. Back then, Haken had already landed on the themes that would make up Virus and had been "secretly working" to complete Vector's companion record well before COVID-19 hit.
While the pandemic will eventually fade, Virus is poised to stand the test of time thanks to Haken's conceptually ambitious and technically adventurous take on prog-metal, which over the years has earned the respect of OG progressive greats like King's X and former Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy (both of whom have tapped Haken as live support).
We asked Jennings to weigh in with some of his favorite, time-tested progressive metal albums. He obliged, with the following caveat:
"Honestly, these kind of lists should be taken with a pinch of salt, and that pinch of salt can shift depending on what day it is," says Jennings. "Regardless, these are five albums that hit me the hardest. You will probably notice that they all fall into a similar era as this was a time when records probably had the most impact on me as a young adult discovering a whole world of fantastic music ..."
It is debatable, of course, that Symphony X may have greater records in their repertoire — Paradise Lost perhaps is them at their commercial and creative peak — but this one album was a shot in the arm for someone like me who was not specifically a fan of symphonic and operatic driven stuff. Despite some slightly dated synthetic strings and sound design, The Odyssey boasts just the right balance of classical influences with metal, and is chock-full of great melodies — not [to mention] Russell Allen's beast of a voice and an insanely epic 24-minute title-track. Along with John Petrucci and in the same realm as Yngwie Malmsteen, Michael Romeo is up there with one of my all-time favorite guitarists for sure! I'm still dreaming for a full band and live orchestra performance of The Odyssey before they all pack up and call it a day.
I mention this one a lot whenever I'm asked about my favorite albums of all time, and Terria is without question Top 5 for me! The timing of that record and when it dropped was like stars aligning. A track like "Mountain" is Devin at his heaviest, with just the right amount of discord and discomfort. Compositionally, I recall being incredibly floored by some of these tracks. Of course, there are nods of comedy in this melting pot of fantastic anthems. It's probably the first time I truly appreciated Devin's affinity to ambience, which he would later go on to fully explore in albums like Ki and Ghost. Terria contains everything that makes Devin one of the greatest musicians, songwriters and performers in the biz!
You never forget your first time … hearing Dream Theater! For me it was actually the album Awake and I recall a fuse in my mind blowing that day. DT's influence on Haken has been no secret to anyone and 17 years from that fateful day where we took a gamble on this supposedly random CD, we would find ourselves on stage with Mike Portnoy himself, performing "The Shattered Fortress" suite around the world. Six Degrees holds a really special place in my heart as it came out shortly after discovering them — yes, I discovered Dream Theater after Scenes From a Memory! Plus my first live experience of Dream Theater was on the London leg of their world TOURbulence in 2001, which remains one of my all-time favorite shows that I've attended. They've arguably been more metal on other records but they've never been so prog in my opinion. And I'm referring mostly to the 42-minute title-track, which is a journey through classic prog, heavy metal, folk and power ballads. Back on side one we are treated to some of Petrucci's most crushing riffs and a few of the strongest songs in the entire Dream Theater repertoire. [Keyboardist] Jordan Rudess even gets to dig deeper into his sound design rabbit hole on "The Great Debate." This is Dream Theater at their finest and I while I can't recommend all their records enough, this was the game-changer for me.
It's not possible to talk about prog metal and not mention Opeth. For those generations that maybe only were exposed to Heritage onwards, I can't express more how important it is to dig deeper into their back catalog. In my opinion, everything they've put out since My Arms…Your Hearse I regard as essential listening. The music we listen to provides a soundtrack and a time stamp to our lives and it's all subjective at the end of the day. Blackwater Park simply revives too many fond memories of high school/university and coming-of-age that it remains one of the most treasured prog-metal albums of all time for me. With [Porcupine Tree's] Steven Wilson's input of course in the producer's chair, a perfect marriage of sonic choices were made to bring Opeth's black-metal tendencies to a wider audience. This included more balance of the light and the dark elements, growls and soft melodic vocals, crushing riffs and acoustic strumming … For anyone yet to explore the world of Opeth … start here and never look back!
One of the most underrated bands in the genre in my opinion. Although a constant rotation of band members and an ever-shifting sonic palette and approach to songwriting and production probably has something to do with why Pain of Salvation aren't as mainstream as they should be. Every album they've released is unique and excellent in its own way, with BE probably being my personal favorite, yet Remedy Lane has all the hallmarks of a classic album. There is no weak track on Remedy Lane and it's one of those rare occasions when a concept album is dealt with in a subtle way and not flying the "I am a concept album" flag. Listen carefully to drum patterns that are off the charts and Daniel Gildenlöw's ever-emotive vocal delivery. He is truly a master. Tainted only by a rather flat mix, this was fixed tenfold in the recent re-issue which contains the album performed live in its entirety on disc two. This is a must purchase for any music lover.