Tonight marked a special event, not because of Mother’s Day or England v Lithuania, but because the UK has apparently become a continent, if the tour banner “Touring Europe and the UK” is anything to go by. What we did have was an interesting international musical mix and an anniversary. The venue was a new one to me. The Islington Assembly Hall, mid way along Upper Street, is described as “an elegant concert and public events venue”, which once hosted tea parties and variety shows. I don’t get to many elegant concert venues, I must admit. This one is a very nice one.
Next to None are known for the Portnoy connection. Band member Max is the son of Dream Theater legend Mike. This is perhaps unfortunate as these Americans, like any band, deserve to be considered on their own merit. As the set got going, I feared the worst. I was listening to a classic pattern of heavy progressive metal. The vocalist was inaudible and, horror of horrors, he introduced a solo by our ersatz celebrity drummer Mr Portnoy. All flash, no substance? My attention turned to the wobbly keyboard, which swayed on its base and looked like it was going to topple over at any second. Yet wobbly keyboards aside, there was plenty happening to entertain the crowd. I counted over 150 out there. I warmed to the crunchiness and enjoyed the frenzied instrumental attacks. “You Are Not Me” started with a kind of hardcore energy – progcore? The guitarist pulled a threatening face but I didn’t feel threatened. But I could feel something. There was power in the ascending riff. The vocalist managed to swallow the title of the next song. The sound was muddy, and the mix of calm, frenetic play and harmony wasn’t working for me. The unknown song wavered between bursts of energy and less interesting bits. The vocalist did however hit home with his emotive vocals. By “Blood On My Hands” I was getting the hang of this. There was a bit of a mixed grill: growls, prog, heavy metal, headbanging, more prog metal. You can’t accuse N2N, as they like to be known, of simple structures. Isn’t N2N a train company? I finally came to appreciate the fact that they are different, and for sure they put on an energetic live show tonight. And the keyboard managed to stay intact. That’s always a bonus.
I was particularly looking forward to The Algorithm. I’m a bit of a sucker for electronic music, and the dark soundwaves I’d heard previously from this French band reek imagination and atmosphere. Hailing from cyber space, this is straight out of one of those 90s Platipus trance album collections but with a heavier edge. I hadn’t realised that The Algorithm are a two piece. There was a drummer and another gentleman in an Atari t-shirt who did everything else: keyboards, programming, guitar, bass, headbanging and general bonhomie. Atari man, whose name was Rémi, bore more than a passing resemblance to that Russian guy with a fiddle who won the Eurovision Song Contest one year for Norway. But this was no fairytale. Bleeps, dashes, pulses, hard-hitting electro trance and much heaviness were the order of the day. Waves of luxury appeared from nowhere. Deep ambient tones took us to higher planes. If the Frenchmen took a leaf out of the book of Jean-Michel Jarre, it wasn’t for long. Stop-go-stop, we went from pounding trance to ethereal atmospheres and emotive guitar playing. There was a film score element to this. I think we heard “Floating Point” before embarking on a video game spree and the all-out attacking energy of “Pointers”. Such earthly trivia as song titles was not dispensed. It was mesmerising. Some audience members around me looked bemused. Personally, I appreciated the form and most definitely the fluidity as the two men in the shadows treated us to evolving dramatic soundscapes. Bang, bang, bang – we were being attacked by deep trance, or perhaps it was the sound of thumping tyres. Unlike more impersonal bands of this ilk, Rémi engaged with us by thrusting himself forward when the opportunity arose. In the thumping excitement, he acted as the DJ as we galloped musically through this Gallic countryside. Rémi switched over to the bass guitar before taking us on another energy-packed adventure. Drums popped and the electronics were now industrial. This was hard, dark and intergalactic at the same time. Electronic melodies appeared within the hard beat. Crashing waves and the driving beat created a riot of sound. The shuddering, juddering samples that you get on the recorded version had been missing in the live set but here they were. Now wait … here came a reggae drum and bass line. This was the incomparable “Access Granted”. It went heavy again. The hypnotising, mesmerising beats of this video game music were frenzied. Rémi led the clapping. Ooh la la. De quoi s’agit-il? I’ve seen The Algorithm’s music described as trance mixed with darkwave metal, trance-djent and even djentstep. Well, I can now answer that one. As I was topping up my collection at the merch stand, the nice Rémi handed me a sticker on which it said: ProgressivedarksynthwavepostavantgardeneoglitchidmetalismyfavouritegenreTheAlogorithm. I’d add a couple of adjectives – creative and imaginative – and there you have it. Bravo, mes amis.
And now what we’re here for. I find it hard to believe that Haken are celebrating their tenth anniversary with this concert. So intense have their activities been that it seems much longer than that. Seeing them play live every year has been a ritual. This is testimony to the band’s work ethic. Prior to this concert, they promised us a selection of material from over the years. This was a tall order, given how much material there is and the length of the songs. I smelt a medley coming on. All credit to Haken. They didn’t mess about and were ready to go at 9pm sharp. And go they did. I’ve seen them so many times that I know what to expect but excellence must never be taken for granted. Vocalist Ross Jennings and the band swept all before them, as they started with “Initiate”, following it up with “In Memoriam”. Now this is a difficult track but it was played with great dexterity and power. Mixing prog chaos, playful moments and haunting atmospheres come naturally to Haken, or at least they make it seem that way. “Let’s go back in time”. A Rubik’s cube was displayed on the screen behind. Ross donned his neon glasses. “1985” has come a staple at Haken live shows. It really is the perfectly rounded song. There’s something for everyone: the funky riff, depth, harmony and, at the risk of making it sound like a chocolate bar, my favourite dark crunchy bits. Haken are not only brilliant musicians but their stage show has become so well developed over the years. Diego the keyboardist came forward but its Ross’s movements and gestures, which are most noteworthy, capturing the expanse and magnificence like a Shakespearian actor. The audience was rapt. This was a true celebration. Ross’s theatrical presentation and, let’s not forget, his magnificent voice, came to the fore again as the band embarked upon a “Visions” trilogy. We soared into the sky and indulged in dreams thanks to Ross’s vocals and the mind-blowing instrumentals, which included Charles Griffiths’s cultured guitar work. This is progressive music of eternal sophistication and sheer virtuosity. Light and heavy, emotional and quirky … now came the anticipated medley, the story of Aquarius, the band’s 2010 debut album. Feeling and growls, crunchy guitar work on the fairground. Take it away, Charles. What holds it all together is the expanse. It occurred to me that Haken’s brand of prog was more oblique in those days. Yet in this misty atmosphere, it’s still all an unfolding drama. Listening to the Aquarius trilogy, it seemed likely that Haken’s future would lie in themed prog metal opera, but they’ve taken a different and fresh direction. All the ingredients are there for that opera. “Will we live to tell the tale?” – it’s that memorable line from the magnificent “Drowning in the Flood”. Ross led the arm waving. Back in the day, I used to feel he could be an added extra on stage when not singing. Now he links band and audience with his movements and gestures when he’s not dazzling us with his vocals. Roll up, roll up. “The Haken Show” appeared on the screen. If “1985” is becoming a requirement, “Cockroach King” is a statutory obligation. Former bassist Tom Maclean now made a welcome return. Oompah, oompah … we’d not had so much eccentricity so far. Ross danced around and performed his harmonised a capella duet with Diego. It’s easy to forget the spellbinding instrumentals in all this. “Cockroach King” is a unique song. It’s utterly original and crowd-pleasing. The party was in full flow. Then it was time for my favourite of all: “The Architect”. The dramatic scene is set with the extended prog introduction. Ross tells the sinister tale. Thunder rumbles. “You turned your back, turned your back on affinity, now it’s turned to toxicity”. It’s dark but it’s also memorable. Ross leads the chorus. We join in. Dark waves from Diego, hypnotic rhythms from Charlie and the others, hypnotic drumming and sublime vocals. The musicianship is spellbinding. This is another world. There are growls, djent, power and a wall of ethereal noise. Haken is a team effort. We’re flying high as always. “We dream of places we can’t get to”. It’s the opening line of “The Endless Knot”, which Ross introduced as the next song. Well unfortunately with Sunday train times to break the magic, the place I wasn’t going to get to if I didn’t leave now was home. So I had to leave the party and missed the grand finale. I never found out what the union flag on the corner of the stage was there for. But it’s ok. I didn’t feel deprived. I’d been privileged to be part of a hundred minutes of Haken heaven. It was a sublime experience. All the bands played their part on this memorable evening in this elegant venue.