The Islington Assembly Hall is a nice venue. Tonight there were plenty of people to enjoy it. Unfortunately the last time I was here was the same tragic night that a terrorist attack took place at the Manchester Arena. There were murmurings as I came out, which dampened the joy that goes with these occasions.
I knew only of the first band Bent Knee through reviews, and listening to a couple of songs beforehand. What I did pick up from those favourable reviews was that they are an interesting band, and their merchandise is expensive. After a struggle to get to Islington thanks to the railway being royally messed up – the winds, you know – I walked in just as Bent Knee were starting, and never looked at their merchandise. At least I could now relax. I’m not sure that this is a band to relax to, however. I’m not averse to a bit of avant-garde, but this took some working out. The female standing behind the keyboard centre stage had, let’s say, a unique voice. The violinists and the usuals around her played a rather indigestible mix of prog and metal and some sort of artsy music that I couldn’t identify or associate with. The lady’s voice was a bit Giersbergenish, maybe something of the woman from Madder Mortem but without the fluidity. But fluidity evidently wasn’t the game of this band. There were nice little instrumental touches but then teams with brilliant individuals don’t usually win championships. These oblique, unfathomable songs were leaving me cold. The lady wailed, the guitarist picked … and it stopped. Six men appearing on stage to do a conga signalled “fun”. At least the band appeared to be enjoying it, as they moved and grooved and smiled. The rather good bearded guitarist with the curly hair bobbed up and down and even did the can-can at one point. Disconcertingly and through no fault of his, he bore a striking resemblance to Richard “Travel Man” Ayoade. The tune I heard became dramatic, then mellow and there was a bit of Giesbergian emotion, but for my part I felt I was on some other wavelength here. Then came “Being Human”, which I had heard before coming and quite liked. It’s a moody, sultry little piece with crystals of magic and power. Of course it went off into tangential incomprehensibility. The mix wasn’t helping as the vocals struggled to overcome the waves of sound. I wished for something normal, which I know isn’t very adventurous of me. My wishes weren’t granted as the songs took their course in their own unconventional way, stopping and shifting like tectonic plates. I wasn’t getting into the feel or emotion of this. Bent Knee were just doing stuff. The beardy bloke had a nice jumper though. After a long and gracious thank you speech from the vocalist, Bent Knee launched into their last song “Holy Ghost”. The vocals now reminded me of Eartha Kitt, and this song with its funky oompah beat had backbone for once, but for me it was a lost cause. Still, this was better than trailing up to Grimsby to watch my lot draw 0 – 0 in the freezing cold and rain, which would have been my alternative source of entertainment today. Bent Knee’s music is weird. I give them credit for their sense of adventure. I think it’s fair to say that I found their set challenging.
When I was in Malaysia earlier this year, I discovered a sublime green tea cake. It was light at the top, creamy in the middle with a solid, perfectly textured chocolate base to provide contrast. The music of Vola is like this – light, airy but with a dose of heaviness and always delicious. I discovered their 2018 album “Applause of a Distant Crowd” late in the year, surprisingly so after revelling in the magnificent “Inmazes” (2015), and have been making up for lost time ever since. At 8pm, the room was full. With immaculate Danish precision, Vola woke us up with the intriguing “Smartfriend” – crunchy, djenty, electronic, mysterious, futuristic. This was like a power surge after the enigmatic Bent Knee. The main man looked terribly metal with his black collared shirt and flowing hair. Vola rocked and the crowd loved it. Heaviness ran through most of their songs. Their choruses are strong and there’s a distinct commercial element, yet unlike pop songs there are multiple layers and twists and turns. “I’ve been holding back the night, now I’m holding back the day”. I don’t think they’ll be analysing this lyric for GCSE English or whatever they do these days, but it’s going through my head and it’s from “Starburn”. The songs seem happy, light and airy, yet there is sophistication and dark moments. The djent sees to that in part, but the keyboardist makes statements too. Every note counts. Meanwhile the vocalist proved he has a pure voice, and even where there’s thunder, there’s an invitation to dream too. I liked the smooth, sound-rich “Ghosts”. We were riding on the crest of a mysterious wave but then momentarily I felt it went a bit flat as if the band had lost their connection and were playing to themselves. And then … keyboard alert. Cue djenty sounds and the sublime “Alien Shivers”. Shivers ran pleasingly down my spine, to be sure. Sensitivity and power combined. Bring on that cake. Perfect cake, perfect song. The quiet “Ruby Pool” kept us in heaven. The keys tingled and the drums exuded calm, as the vocalist brought out the depth and beauty of this song. As is their way, Vola changed direction and led us into the darker yet melodiously commercial “Whaler”. The set finished with the instantly recognisable “Stray the Skies” (and the vocalist told us what it was called). The epic beginning signalled the start of yet another sophisticated and mesmerising song. We’d gone full circle. “Stray the Skies” has something futuristic about it. The harmonies were once again delivered to perfection. The song is celestial and dynamic. It’s massive. But this is Vola. They took us everywhere, through light and dark, through sensitive and heavy. And how epic and enjoyable it was.
It’s almost two years to the day since I last came to see Haken at this very venue. That was their 10th anniversary tour. Since then they’ve released “Vector”, an album that has all the classic prog developments and quirks that Haken are so good at. Yet I found it hard to get excited about. The place was full now so they’re clearly not losing their appeal. Unlike some bands, they don’t make people hang on in heightened anticipation. They know they’re good and don’t have to do this. So with minimal fuss, the band came on. The set began with dark, sinister and epic strains before the guys burst into their customary splurge of heavy proggery. The opening numbers were off the new album. It’s all out there to be fair, and sounding like everything else, these songs about doctors and things fit into a classic Haken set without discomfort. They are the perfect vehicle for Ross’s harmonies and the instrumental finery. Of the new ones, the instrumental “Nil by Mouth” impressed me most. It’s urgent, dynamic, powerful and atmospheric. Its ending was like machine gun fire. The crowd was at fever pitch. Before this we’d had twelve minutes or so of “Falling Back to Earth” off the 2013 album “The Mountain”. A delightful and typically quirky guitar and key combination thrilled us. Haken are so good at this. As ever, the musicianship was of the highest quality and originality. I’ve seen Haken play so many times now that it’s hard to find new compliments but equally I don’t want to take this talent for granted. “Falling Back to Earth” was mesmerising and magical. Haken took us further and further into the land of milk and honey. Ross, quite apart from his staggering range and quality of harmonies, knows how to work his audience in the nicest way, prompting reaction to “A Cell Divides” off the new album with an a capella rendition of the chorus to introduce it. The unmistakeable tones of “1985” struck up. Those neon glasses came out but although now a cliché to regular attendees of Haken concerts it wasn’t overdone and it was fun, no more, no less. They blew me away as usual with this catchy and anthemic song. Keyboardist Diego came forward, looking more portly than I remember him and in need of a good haircut, but not as much as the hirsute bassist – how much did he pay for that fringe? Ross led the cheerleading during the djenty rumblings. This was already yet another immaculate and imaginative presentation of prog metal, but Haken managed to send me further into raptures with a personal favourite of mine, “The Architect”. Amid the drama and epic build up, Ross led the sinister sing-a-long chorus. Thunder continued to rumble. Ross’s haunting voice supplemented the hypnotising rhythm. Charles and Richard looked serene as we entered the next deeply pungent spell of magic. This was beyond epic. The band walked off. The crowd demanded more, and got it with the small matter of the twenty minute “Crystallised”. The thing with Haken is that every song is like a climax and could end the show, but “Crystallised” has an additional H factor. Once more, we soared into the skies, where we found during the course of our journey deep, dangerous, lush and funky instrumentals, an a capella duet and a masterclass in vocal perfection and range from Ross even at this late hour. Guess what – Haken blew me away again. They were at the top of their game. Their delivery is so good.
In fact there was a little bit extra from Haken as they launched into Toto’s “Africa” to finish the evening. The members of Bent Knee and Vola joined them on stage. It was a celebration, and a fittingly joyous way to end the evening.