Haken would appear ideal to cover the man vs. machine theme in a concept-styled album. Their lavish journeys throughout "Aquarius" and "Visions" were more soundtracks to stories than songs stitched together to form a collective opus, and thus I naturally anticipated "Affinity" to tickle my prog spot. Part of Haken's appeal comes from their diverse musical background; they are not firmly rooted in progressive metal, but use it as a catalyst to instill other influences, often to superb degrees. "Affinity," according to the band, was mostly inspired by prog from the 80s and that time period's general bullsh*t, hence the cover art that looks stripped from the box of an Atari game. The record is a throwback to prog of that era, as mentioned, only they manage to drop down a peg from the reversion process. As much as I enjoy Haken's mannerisms, "Affinity" is an underwhelming experience.
The theme is standardization. Haken's progressive metal/rock style is in full form, but a lot of the adventure of their prior works is sterilized for a more traditional approach. Take, for instance, the innovative keyboard work, a focal point of the band's pursuits, that appears scaled back compared to its usual role, probably to make way for songs that are more like typical prog than Haken's usual dish. I don't recall the guitar work leaning on modern progressive metal chugs and notations to such a degree, and generally a piece like "Initiate" or "Earthrise" does just a basic routine without truly grasping the artistic depth of, say, "Eternal Rain" or "Portals." Granted, the big, multifaceted templates appear in the album's longer tracks, and it's no surprise they lead the charge. "The Architect," in particular, is fifteen minutes of Haken in true form, not to mention its harsh vocal section is wonderfully placed and hits like a hammer.
Moments of foreign genres crashing into the music do not appear as smooth and fluid as a past epic like "Celestial Elixir," instead dialing back on this exploration for a safer, more convenient approach. A notable example of this working appears in the synth pop section of "1985," which is a massive force that keeps the record above water. The dreary chorus, driving riffs, and strange avenues upon which it travels during its nine-minute voyage rekindle the tinder that makes Haken the leader of the progressive metal pack. However, they seem comfortable drifting towards the pack, as that seems to be the coding scheme around these cuts. I can't tell you a thing about "Red Giant" or "Lapse" unless I'm hearing it, and there are other parts here and there that could use a little spice. "Bound by Gravity," though, is the first Haken track I've heard that convincingly sucks: A paltry, spacy ballad with nothing but wasted time to show for nine minutes of prog doodling. This is like watching paint dry.
Haken strength is writing detailed tracks which feature multiple musical webs and ideas intertwining to create a singular, complex entity. Half the numbers on "Affinity" perceptively drift away from this texture and become basic, run-of-the-mill prog rock/metal cuts that are way below the creativity of which Haken is adept. Maybe this is a path worthy of credit, as they seem to nail down "The Endless Knot," and thus prove capable of exploiting its fruits, but the other songs are just songs, doing song things and song stuff. It is, then, no surprise that the longer, more developed tunes are the takeaway points worth praising; they are far more enticing than the deprived numbers. At day's end, "Affinity" has enough to save itself by the skin of its teeth, despite its clunky paradigm shift.