Live Review : Haken + Vola + Bent Knee @ Academy 3, Manchester on February 15th 2019
It's modern prog-tastic Friday tonight at the Academy 3 as Haken start a lengthy European tour here in Manchester. Including the excellent supports that they have brought along for the ride, this package is three solid gold examples of why progressive rock is in a healthier form today than it ever was in supposed heyday of the Seventies. Bent Knee are first on and god they are young. I initially fear an apologetic stab at ‘so bad it's good’ ironic prog, but bloody hell they are absolutely fantastic. This is prog spliced with indie art school cool (think Yeah Yeah Yeahs play Yes) and the result is an avant-garde hybrid that is both quirky and compelling. Those in the know bounce along with the infectiously energetic Jessica Kion, whilst those like me new to the unique mash up of funk and twee-core stand open mouthed by utter bizarre brilliance of the whole thing.
For me, VOLA typify modern progressive rock in that they are a perfectly balanced cacophony of thousands of intricate influences. In one song I hear death metal, A-ha, Rush and Stevie Ray Vaughan (in fact that was all in the same minute, by the time I had got that lot written down they had moved onto another set of musical tent-poles). However the common thread that joins the seven tracks aired tonight is that they all have a strong heavy metallic bottom over which VOLA weave a beautiful tapestry of melodies and stunning guitar work. Their usually luscious keyboard flourishes are also there but tonight are presented through the medium of samples and backing tracks as founder member Martin Werner is on personal leave. VOLA are most definitely progressive rock, but have enough pop sensibilities about them to mean that their songs are catchy and accessible. There is something fresh and breezy and distinctly moreish about their stuff and they leave the stage having made a bunch of new friends.
I adore Haken on record as they produce the albums that I wish Genesis had made after “Duke” (rather than the headlong plunge into stylised eighties pop). However in the flesh, Haken are a heavy and uncompromising live act and tonight they are simply extraordinary. From opener 'The Good Doctor’, there is an unbridled energy about their performance, like a racing horse that has been kept in the starting gate too long and is now ready to let loose with a ferocious intensity. The sold out crowd know every word and lap up every minute of the performance replicating the dynamism coming from the stage. I swear that at times the normally sedate Prog crows look like they are about to break into a Pit! The set is dominated by last year’s “Vector” and all four tracks aired have much more of a crunch live than they have on record. Stand out for me is instrumental 'Nil By Mouth' which is simply stunning. Guitarists Richard Henshall and Charles Griffiths trade pulsating riffs whilst bassist Conner Green brings the funk (I swear there was dub step in there) and even keyboardist Diego Tejeida joins them at the front of the stage with a very fitting keytar as 'Nil By Mouth' unfurls into a vibrant and breath-taking display of outstanding musicianship and as one the audience stand open-mouthed.
‘1985’, the standout track from previous album “Affinity” follows and as always it is a fabulous amalgamation of every good bits from every prog rock albums made in the eighties. Frontman Ross Jennings sports a fabulous pair of luminous glasses and, as he does all night, he flirts and banters with the crowd creating the type of connection that is rare in this genre. Some Prog vocalist (naming no names, James LaBrie) can come across as cold and aloof creating a gulf between them and the audience, Ross however feels like your goofy mate who would be as comfortable cracking gags in the bar as he is on stage. The main set finishes with another “Affinity” track 'The Architect' and for the encore we get the nineteen minute masterpiece 'Crystallised' (the rumoured appearance of a Radiohead cover 'Paranoid Android' fails to materialise). ‘Crystallised’ is a stunning vortex of vocal dexterity, swirling keyboards and just exquisite guitar work and provides a fitting end to an amazing night. And all I can do is agree with Ross’s parting shot to the packed crowd of “Next time, can we be in the bigger room?”, in fact I would go all the way and stick them in the main Academy as tonight they are simply that good.
Words by Stewart Lucas
Photography by Johann Wierzbicki