The prospect of seeing three different types of prog band was enticing. The Garage at Highbury is one my favourite venues, so the signs were good. I very much looked forward to this evening.
First on was Arkentype from Norway. The bits I’d heard prior to this concert suggested that they like to cross musical boundaries. Friends who know their music speak highly of them. An immediate distraction tonight was the hooded dressing gowns that the guitarist, bassist and singer were all wearing. It seemed to be a distraction to the singer too, as the hood kept slipping down and impeded his growling and headbanging. The song was “Ashes and Dust”, a heavy rock song with some clean vocal insertions. The clean vocals were good as were the growls but anything in between was not very good, as we found out on “Epitome”. The guitarist and bassist lurched vigorously and in a way that seemed disproportionate to what was being played. This added to the surreal nature of the set as for me the band’s style seemed neither one thing nor the other. Arkentype managed to strike up a growly, thunderous tribal rhythm a couple of times, including on “Welcome to My World” but here the thunder was spoilt by high-pitched caterwauling. The last song they played had a tinge of Eastern mysticism and a freedom of movement which had previously been lacking, but all in all there just didn’t seem to be any shape to the songs whose ending caught me and other spectators out more than once. Far more entertaining was the bassist who at one stage received a piggy back from the singer, and then later wandered off into the crowd and stood next to me. I said hi, he turned away and wandered back. The singer looked as if he was having a bad hair day. I suspect it was that hood again. Nothing musically or visually seemed to happen for any obvious reason. Arkentype were strange. In fact the title of their album sums it up perfectly: “Disorientated”.
“Now this is weird”, commented the very nice Slovakian gentleman next to me as Special Providence began their all-instrumental set. Fluid leaked from my brain as dissonant jazz keyboards matched some swanky stuff from the other instrumentalists. Prog jazz fusion or chaos? Either way I liked it. It was like Canvas Solaris going bananas. Some may see it as dissonant test card music but for me this had heart and soul. The colourful patterns became more fluid and comprehensible, and the music had the feel of a journey. There were a couple of technical imperfections as the passive keyboard player seemed to be on a different wavelength from his colleagues. But this was difficult music and in any case didn’t escape from the overall sensation of warm hazy sunsets and patterns of luxurious jazz prog. As the set continued, I started that this calming soundtrack music was falling into blandness, and concluded that Special Providence were playing it a bit safe. But the creative persona of the band re-appeared towards the end with a pacier number. The dynamism was back. I heard the “Theme from Shaft” in there, no doubt unwittingly. It was just more evidence that the technical skill was there and the band was back to its invigorating creative best. The final piece was announced as being from the latest album, and I was very pleased that it featured the experimental jazz disharmony with which the set had begun. The result was a kaleidoscope of funky sounds. Special Providence know how to challenge the grey matter in an interesting way.
Haken have been regulars on tour in Europe and have received acclaim here and in North America for their impressive performances and the way in which they have expanded and developed their musical vision. I’ve seen them several times and made a mental note here not to take them for granted, as each time I’ve seen them they have surpassed themselves and my expectations. I was rather hoping they would feature songs from their latest release, the sublime “Affinity”. Well, they did it again. For an hour and three-quarters they mesmerised me and the sizeable audience with songs from “Affinity” and the back catalogue. Haken simply don’t do performances, which simply fulfil a contractual obligation. I’ve concluded that there is a template for a Haken song, which goes something along the lines of: epic start, song and soaring sing-a-long chorus, instrumental mastery and more song and chorus. This was there, but it’s never formulaic. Haken exploit and build on each element. As they captivated me with “Falling Back to Earth”, I reflected that the big songs, which is most of them, are mini prog rock operas, scaling heights and transforming in moods and atmospheres. “Initiate” was an obvious choice to start with, and set the scene nicely and energetically. “What year is it?” asked Ross the singer, who these days has taken on a passing resemblance to Mick Hucknall. “1985” was of course the answer, this being one of my favourite tracks on “Affinity”. Ross’s neon specs went with his green tie and black shirt for this one. It’s hard and heavy, delicate and playful – immaculate blending of styles and musicianship, and pure theatre. “Break the code … lose control”, we growled together.
The crowd-pleasing “Earthrise” followed but neither this nor “1985” was the highlight for me tonight. The eccentric “Cockroach King” was a contender with its staccato style, jazz and sheer fun, and was delivered brilliantly. Ross’s range of vocals and his ability to act out each scene are a joy, but for me it was the instrumental combinations and subtleties, which had me rapt. “The Architect” was one delight after another. Apparent simplicity becomes sophistication as deep rumblings led to mystical tones as if waves were passing through swirling fog. The implacable Charles Griffiths on guitar sent out an utterly haunting rhythm and was joined by Diego the keyboard player in raising the tension, before Ross took us back to the deceivingly simple lyrics and started the sing-a-long. Whenever I listen to “The Architect”, I think of Supertramp’s lyrical simplicity and Opeth’s instrumental majesty but the point here with Haken is that they collectively create their own boundaries and surpass them with all the contrasts and overlays and atmospheres. The main set finished with the melancholic “Deathless” and the upbeat “The Endless Knot”, which reminds me a little of Leprous with its modern-style urgency. More importantly it’s a great upbeat track, with another dazzling built-in solo from the maestro Griffiths, and of such magnitude and expanse that the crowd, already in a state of heightened euphoria, were baying for more. We got this in the form of “Crystallised”. And what a final piece of magic this was. It highlights all the talent of this band in one hefty track. The great thing about Haken is that while there’s individual talent aplenty, no one individual dominates or unbalances the overall feel, as happens with some bands. Diego the keyboard player had less of a dominant role than I can recall from previous Haken concerts, but there was still plenty of keyboard magic. The drum has impact, the bass contributed further to the darker feel and the guitar work was outstanding and imaginative. Everything here was laced with exotic instrumental heaven. The sounds were dreamy and ethereal. And Ross switched mid-stream to light and airy vocals. His stunning irregular vocals were accompanied by harmonies. “Crystallised” captures perfectly the band’s eccentric and creative side. The end was epic – what else could it be? There’s something very personal about a Haken performance. Whether it’s through mystical instrumentals or crowd-pleasing lyrics and choruses, they take us to faraway places and invite us to breathe it all in and join them in the journey. Thank you.