Haken have proven over three previous albums and two EPs that musically, they can do pretty much anything they set their minds to. That said, the question was one of where to go after 2014's compelling and adventurous release, The Mountain. With new bassist Conner Green replacing Thomas MacLean, the band rethought its approach to songwriting. Previously, they'd composed around themes and ideas by keyboardist/guitarist Richard Henshall, but these nine cuts were written by all six members.
Affinity contains a themed schematic that deliberately falls short of a full concept: the ubiquitous presence of computers and their evolving relationship with human life. Interestingly, Haken go back to the '80s -- specifically the synth-heavy prog of the decade -- as their musical lift-off point -- the era when synths became de rigueur in popular music. One needn't go further than "1985," the set's third track, to illustrate this: Its intro and vamp quote almost directly from Yes' "Owner of a Lonely Heart" off 90125 -- though it contains a brief dubstep section that adds 21st century dark electronics to the mix. That Yes era is a prime inspiration here, but trace elements of Sky, Patrick Moraz, Toto, Bill Bruford, Mike Oldfield, Rush, and the synth soundtracks of Vince DiCola make their presence felt as well.
That said, Haken wind a lot of this music through their love for hard rock and heavy metal. The single heaviest track (and longest at nearly 16 minutes) is "The Architect," with knotty djent guitars from Henshall and Charles Griffiths, as well dirty vocals from guest Einar Solberg of Leprous. It's easily the heaviest thing in the band's catalog. There are plenty of hooky tracks too: The sparkling emergence of "Lapse" with organic drums, German-styled synth pulses, and shimmering guitars engaged in interplay with soaring melodic voices. The bridge answers with a jarring shift of heavy riffs without abandoning the tune's lyric center. The cascading synth and guitar solos add tricky but irresistible dynamics. "Earthrise" melds an elegant pop melody with swelling hard prog, staccato rhythmic syncopations, and graceful tonal shifts. "The Endless Knot" comes right out of Dream Theater or early Fates Warning in its guitar and keyboard attack but offers another dubstep breakdown woven into the bridge. Closer "Bound by Gravity" emerges as a long, lovely ballad, then emerges as a cinematic pop-prog anthem but gives way to ambient outer space atmospherics to close. Affinity is less dense than The Mountain musically, but no less sophisticated. The textural scope is wider and considerably brighter. The striking harmonic sensibilities in these songs are marked statements of how prog is capable of attracting those listeners who aren't predisposed to it, but more than that, it's great fun to play.