The first time I ever heard of Ayreon was back in 2000. I was on vacation in Sicily with my then girlfriend. Since I get restless after five minutes lying in the sun doing nothing I always bring with me magazines and books to read and this noon, I was lying on our very large balcony reading a mag called Bright Eyes Magazine – that later turned into Sweden Rock Magazine – and in there was a pretty big coverage of Ayreon. The article was about Ayreon’s then new Universal Migrator twin releases The Dream Sequencer and Flight Of The Migrator. Now I found the whole project really interesting, both musically and the story the albums were based on. What also caught my eye was that founder, project leader and conductor Arjen Anthony Lucassen (once guitarist in Dutch melodic rockers Vengeance) had managed to recruit no one other than Iron Maiden air raid siren Bruce Dickinson (yes, THE Bruce Dickinson, but without any cow bell (sic!)). I figured that if this project sucked, there’s no way he would participate in it. Still Dickinson or no Dickinson, I found the project so interesting that I just had to check it out. Remember, back then there was no Spotify or Pirate Bay or whatever source people use these days to check out new music. If you wanted to listen before buying, you had to go to a record store and do so. I couldn’t be arsed with doing so so I looked up a second-hand record store, got lucky and found both albums and bought them unheard.
Fortunately, both albums completely knocked me off my rocker and I became a fan. Since then I have checked out most of Lucassen’s projects – Star One, Guilt Machine, Ambeon, Stream Of Passion and his solo work – and I’m a fan of pretty much all of those projects but none of them comes even close to the brilliant majesty of Ayreon. If I dug the Universal Migrator album, then there’s nothing compared to how I feel towards its follow-up The Human Equation (2004). The album is nothing but a true masterpiece with no bad links at all – it’s perfect. The same can (almost) be said of the next album 01011001 (2008). To follow up two such brilliant masterpieces and top them is, of course, more or less impossible. Hell, it’s almost an impossible task to come up with a record equally as good, no matter how much of a musical genius you are. And of course, The Theory Of Everything (2013) didn’t manage to do either, but it’s still impressive just how great that album really is – it’s not that far behind, actually. When Lucassen now releases yet another Ayreon record, it’s still with enormous expectations surrounding it because nothing else than ‘great’ is expected – or accepted, to be honest.
The story here is as always massive and I just can’t be arsed to get into it deeply but to make a long story extremely short, this opera is set before the 01011001 story takes place – which kinda makes sense since the Ayreon sci-fi saga actually ended with that album. Whenever a new Ayreon album is presented, one of the most intriguing things I look forward to is finding out is which singers that will be presented. On this album, there’s a few names that made their come back to the world of Ayreon. Hansi Kürsch (Blind Guardian), James LaBrie (Dream Theater), Tommy Karevik (Kamelot), Floor Jansen (Nightwish), Simone Simons (Epica) and Russell Allen (Symphony X) all makes their comebacks, but there are a few new names as well. How about Nils K Rue (Pagan’s Mind), Michael Eriksen (Circus Maximus), Tobias Sammett (Avantasia, Edguy), Tommy Rogers (Between The Buried And Me), Mike Mills (Toehider) and Zaher Zorgati (Myrath)? Some cool names there but there are a few I haven’t heard of before. It’s gonna be interesting to make their acquaintance here. Paul Gilbert (Mr Big) and Guthrie Gowan also guests on guitar and Mark Kelly (Marillion) on keys.
Opener “The Day That The World Breaks Down” is a huge progressive piece. It starts out pretty soft and laid back but soon builds up to a big, bombastic classic sounding Ayreon tune. There’s also a pretty funky middle break which breaks some new Ayreon ground. Brilliant. The thrilling “Sea Of Machines” comes with a sounds that takes us back to 01011001. It’s a pompous song, heavy and distinct with a melody that is really catchy in all its progressiveness. There’s also a taciturn violin on top which brings out yet another level of dynamics. Awesome! “Everybody Dies”, that concludes Chronicle 1, is dark, heavy and even though it sounds somewhat mechanical, it’s emotional and digs deep under your skin. I hear a slight Yes influence here, but the song is progressive aggressive – and it contains a very memorable main melody – so awesome.
Chronicle 2 starts with “Star Of Sirrah”, a big, pulsating and heavy blaster with more than a fair share of darkness over it. But all that marries fine with the memorable chorus and James LaBrie’s melodic melodies. “All That Was” takes a more folky tone, complete with a flute riff and a mid-ages feel. The vocal melody goes into Celtic pop territory over an even mix of acoustic and electric guitar as a base. Brilliant! “Run! Apocalypse! Run!” is faster and in-your-face and quite straight forward metal for an Ayreon song, very edgy. The big keyboard sound combined with the metal and the incredible hooks makes it a real winner. The second chronicle and the first CD closes with “Condemned To Live”, a pretty groovy prog metal piece with Celtic undertones, keyboard laden but still big on the guitars.
The second CD and the third chronicle begins with “Aquatic Race”. The tune begins with an a’capella like vocal line but quickly goes right into being big, pompous and ballsy. It’s heavy and tough but also sports some softer moments, big on dynamics. Style wise, it takes us back to the sound of 01011001 – awesome track. “The Dream Dissolves” is a heavy ballad, a bit psychedelic where both experimental synthesizer effects intermingle with heavy guitar riffs and a flute. It’s a very atmospheric track that draws the mind back to both 0101100 and The Human Equation. Do I have to point out just how great this song is? I thought so. “Deathcry Of A Race” is apocalyptic but at the same time it comes with a captivating ambiance. There’s a Celtic vibe present but also an Eastern flavor and a catchy pop arrangement in the vocal melody. Brilliant! The closing of chronicle 3, “Into The Ocean” is a pop song in a prog metal disguise, but also with a bluesy, classic rock sound where the big Hammond sound brings the late and great Jon Lord to mind. The memorable melody catches on right away and it could be the closest thing to a “hit” song Lucassen have ever put on an Ayreon record.
The fourth and last chronicle starts with “Bay Of Dreams”, a big and ballsy prog rock track that lies on the border to balladry, so it’s not a hard song. There’s some electronica sounds here and the synth gets much room but the song gets heavier along the way. “Planet Y Is Alive” is a big, fat heavy metal tune on the speedier side. The oriental influence that takes the song into ballad style in the middle break is a great twist but the song goes back to being heavy and fast towards the end. “The Source Will Flow” comes with a dark twist and although the tune is a heavy ballad, the sound is also filled with positivity and warmth. A’capella vocal harmonies starts “Journey To Forever”, an acoustic guitar continues the song before it bursts out into a more melodic metal mode. The upbeat, happy and positive vibe stands in big contrast to the somewhat bleak and dark vibes that surrounds this story. It also contains a huge chorus, some melodic rock riffing and a very pop melody that hits right where it should – awesome! “The Human Compulsion” goes back to the more dystopic, apocalyptic and burdensome darkness that was very much part of the 01011001 album. It’s also the song where Arjen brings out all the main vocalists letting them shine together – epic! The final track “March Of The Machines” is mechanical, clinical and sterile in sound – hence the title – full of synthesizer effects and futuristic robot-like voices. It’s actually more of a spoken word outro than an actual song.
For everybody who though that The Theory Of Everything was a bit messy and sprawling with all the short snippets turned into songs, this album will be a relief. Sound wise it connects heavily with 01011001, which is by the book as the story also connects with that album. But also, the songs are more accessible – and the fact that we don’t get 20 songs on each CD to digest makes it more easy to take in, both musically and lyrically. The fact that Arjen went back to 01011001 was also the reason he reconnected with a few of the singers on that album. That is something that Arjen usually doesn’t do – he wants new voices on every album. But I don’t really have any complaints in that department other than that I have issues with Hansi Kürsch’s voice – I’m just not comfortable with it. Same with Tobias Sammett – the guy’s a fantastic song writer but I have always felt that his typical German power metal style of singing with a forced vibrato is quite annoying. But it’s not anything that is even close to ruining this record. As a whole, it’s one of Ayreon’s best records with only The Human Equation and 01011001 as its superiors. That said, this album still grows on me so who knows how I feel within a few months. For Ayreon fans, this one’s a no-brainer!
More Ayreon reviews:
Chronicle 1: The Frame
1. The Day That The World Breaks Down
2. Sea Of Machines
3. Everybody Dies
Chronicle 2: The Aligning Of The Ten
4. Star Of Sirrah
5. All That Was
6. Run! Apocalypse! Run!
7. Condemned To Live
Chronicle 3: The Transmigration
8. Aquatic Race
9. The Dream Dissolves
10. Deathcry Of A Race
11. Into The Ocean
Chronicle 4: The Rebirth
12. Bay Of Dreams
13. Planet Y Is Alive!
14. The Source Will Flow
15. Journey To Forever
16. The Human Compulsion
17. March Of The Machines