Boston’s Bent Knee are another of those defiant genre-dodging acts who proudly resist easy categorisation as they demolish musical boundaries. In practice, such high-minded experimentalism tends to sound like warring musical styles vying for supremacy. There’s certainly some of that in this self-styled democratic collective’s occasionally over-busy stop-start compositions – a bit of jazz here, a smidgen of metal there, some funk bass to get the audience grooving.
On the plus side, keyboardist Courtney Swain’s distinctive soaring vocals hold it all together rather well, the novel guitar/keyboards/violin blend provides a rich sonic palette, and they prove adept at reining it all back in when things start to get a little too avant-garde. Bent Knee could probably fit on a variety of bills, but their brief, energetic opening 30 minute slot is warmly received by this capacity crowd.
Copenhagen’s Vola are a man down tonight, with Martin Werner being AWOL due to those pesky “personal commitments”, which means that they perform as a trio with sampled and triggered keyboard sounds. That’s not ideal, but they still sound sublime. Like Bent Knee, Vola refuse to be constrained by genre, but are more firmly rooted in prog-metal – albeit with a rich variety of influences ranging from old-skool King Crimson to djent and even synth-pop.
Frontman Asger Mygind proves equally adept at spoken and high clear vocals on the likes of Smartfriend, and when his voice combines with that of bassist Nicolai Mogensen for those blissful harmonies it’s hard not to be reminded of a heavier Von Hertzen Brothers. All this complex and polyrhythmic music is driven by a well-developed pop sensibility, which is never more evident nor earwormy than on their catchiest song, Ghosts, from the rather splendid new album Applause of a Distant Crowd.
Virtually all of B24/7’s metal and prog picks for February sold out, which is good news for live music in general and great music in particular. It’s especially pleasing to see Haken doing so well, given their penchant for none-more-unfashionable prog-metal epics.
The London sextet’s mouth-watering covers setlist from Yes’s recent Cruise to the Edge (that’s right – a cruise ship full of progheads) provides an insight into their varied influences: Rush, Radiohead, Yes, Gentle Giant, Toto, Van Halen, etc. But the truth is that they sound nothing like any of these bands, with the exception of the way-ahead-of-their-time Gentle Giant, who split long before most of us were able to cross them off our bucket lists and whose vocal and instrumental complexity is echoed in many of Haken’s own compositions. Only one of those Cruise to the Edge covers survives in tonight’s set. Alas, it’s Paranoid Android rather than Peel the Paint.
But that’s a minor quibble. The Haken on stage at the Fleece tonight is a far more confident beast than the slightly nervous, first-night-of-the-tour Haken who played here three years ago. Indeed, they’re on stunning form after a New Year romp through Latin America and are justly confident enough in the songs from current album Vector to play the three lengthiest ones (Puzzle Box, Veil, Nil by Mouth), squeezing out crowd favourite Cockroach King.
This is certainly an epic-stuffed set, comprising just nine songs over the best part of two hours and reaching back as far as 2013’s breakthrough The Mountain album for all 12 glorious minutes of Falling Back to Earth. This time these neatly bearded musos have just about worked out how they can all squeeze on to the Fleece’s modestly proportioned stage, though bassist Conner Green is obliged to stand right at the back. Unable to contain himself, the similarly relegated Diego Tejeida bounds out from behind his keyboards on several occasions to give it some serious keytar’n’gurning action.
There’s much more metal on Vector than on previous releases, but Haken never go full Meshuggah and Ross Jennings’ note-perfect clean vocals help ensure that it doesn’t get too heavy for all but the most conservative of proggers. Naturally, this means guitarists Richard Henshall and Charlie Griffiths have plenty of opportunity to show off their breathtaking technical skills.
Jennings breaks out the funny specs for 1985 and even attempts Einar Solberg’s harsh vocals on 15-minute closer The Architect, both of which were unveiled last time round but have now become comfortably bedded into the set. Those who may be missing the old-school stuff amid all this cutting-edge tech-metal are sated by sole encore Crystallised (another epic, obviously), which plunders the Gentle Giant songbook openly and liberally for its odd time signatures, quirky keyboard sounds and those gorgeous multi-part counterpoint vocals. On the strength of this performance, they’re clearly ready to move up to larger venues alongside the likes of their peers Riverside and The Pineapple Thief – both of whom play SWX next month.
Read more: Metal & Prog Picks: February 2019