While it may seem like it, I actually don’t hear everything. I check out more bands than the average (or slightly above average) music fan. Still, the occasional artist slips past me.
So you’ll pardon me if I feel a double dose of shame for missing out on the wonders that are Haken and the Devin Townsend Project. I have been introduced to both by way of their latest live releases, Townsend’s Ocean Machine Live at the Ancient Roman Theater Plovdiv and Haken’s L-1VE. Both are stunning recordings that left me asking the same question: “HOW did these guys get past me?”
I suppose it’s better to show up late to the party than not show up at all. And so I’ll spend the rest of this time expressing my joy at encountering this incredible music, in spite of my tardiness.
While both bands are often labeled “progressive metal,” Townsend’s music strikes me as more “metal” than “progressive.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that. There may not be as many tricky notes flying about as on many other albums of the same ilk, but the songs are certainly epic in scope.
Townsend takes his music to the next level by using The Orchestra and Choir of State Opera Plovdiv to back his band for the first half of the show. While this is not a new concept for metal-oriented bands (Rush, Metallica, and Dream Theater have done it, among others), the Orchestra does a marvelous job elevating Townsend’s already lofty compositions.
The show also had the distinction of featuring a set list requested by Townsend’s fans. Since I had never heard the Canadian’s music before buying this set, every song was a new adventure for me. It didn’t take long before the crowd gathered at the show was eating it up, and I was right there with them!
Townsend’s music seems to run at three levels: Pretty Heavy, Really Heavy, and INCREDIBLY Heavy! The show’s songs can leave the listener breathless, but ultimately there is room to recover for a moment or two. Highlights for me included songs like “Truth,” “Stormbending,” “By Your Command,” and “A Simple Lullaby.” All of the songs are played with a level of relish and commitment given by an artist attempting to play the show of his life.
The band kept toes tapping and heads banging. As the show progresses, Townsend got past his self-professed anxiety and really got into the music as well. It was like he stopped playing and started channeling, feeding off the crowd’s energy as he did so.
After the orchestra cleared the stage, Townsend’s Project (DT on lead guitar and vocals, Ryan Van Poederooven on drums, John Harder [taking over for Brian Waddell] on bass, Dave Young on rhythm guitar, and Mike St. Jean on keyboards) ripped through their Ocean Machine album in its entirety. Again, I had no prior knowledge of this record. But based on the live performance, I’m dying to check out the studio version! Who can resist songs like “Seventh Wave,” “Regulator,” and “Things Beyond Things?”
Ocean Machine Live … is a great jumping off point for anyone interested in Devin Townsend’s music. I was deeply disappointed to learn this would be his last foray with this particular project. But musicians must be allowed to move on, and I’ll explore his back catalog while I wait.
English prog masters Haken (pronounced HAY-ken) are one of those special bands who can flaunt their influences without sounding like clones. The group has taken the music it loves (I could hear Yes, Genesis, Dream Theater, and King Crimson — among others — within the band’s sound) and turned it into something all its own. Former Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy has dubbed Haken the second coming of his former band. I believe the band is a bit more melodic than Dream Theater, with slightly less heavy stomp, depending on the sound. No matter: this band is absolutely amazing.
L-1VE (you can pronounce it “Live One”) was recorded in Amsterdam on the last night of their 10th Anniversary tour in 2017. Haken pulls out all the stops, working the crowd into a frenzy from the instant they launch into “Initiate,” a song that manages to sound as heavy as the toughest metal and tender as the most melodic pop at the same time. Until this very tune, I didn’t think that was possible!
And how could I not smile at a song like “1985,” which may as well have a credit reading “produced by Trevor Horn.” It would have fit perfectly on the Yes album 90215, which was released in ’83. The song embraces everything crucial to that era of prog, including Korg-sounding synthesizers, Simmons electronic drums, and those bloody key-tars. But even with all that backdrop, the song is still pure Haken.
Like any top-flight progressive rock band, Haken is more than capable of carrying out its share of epic-length songs like “Aquamedley” and “Visions.” This is a band that must be heard to be believed. Clearly, everyone else seemed to know about this band while I sat about, blissfully ignorant and well behind the power curve.
Haken are able to capture the scope of vintage Genesis, the interlocking guitars of the ’80s King Crimson, and the heavy groove of Rush, often in the same song. Their music is both stunningly intricate and easy to follow. The level of talent coming from vocalist Ross Jennings, guitarists Charlie Griffiths and Richard Henshall (who also plays keyboards), bassist Conner Green, keyboardist Diego Tejeida, and drummer Raymond Hearne very nearly defy belief. I can’t tell you how eager I am to catch this band live this November, when they headline a show in St. Louis. In the meantime, I have yet another back catalog to explore.
Both of these live packages come with the complete concerts on both CD and DVD (or blu ray if you so desire). The Haken package contains a second concert from 2016, which is every bit as thrilling.
I enjoy playing these two collections back to back, because I have no doubt it would have made for one helluva show. Who would headline on that tour? The only answer I can offer is flip a coin, and let the bands alternate from there. It’s only fair. Any way you slice it, you’ll be in for nearly five hours of amazing music.
Either set is worth buying this instant. But you won’t be fully satisfied until you own them both.