Ayreon, the project of Dutch multi-instrumentalist Arjen Lucassen (formerly the guitarist of heavy-metal bands Bodine and Vengeance in the early 1980s), specialized in symphonic prog-rock operas that fused science fiction and medieval mythology.
Ayreon's saga started with
The Final Experiment (1995), in four acts,
in which the blind minstrel Ayreon infiltrates
the medieval world of King Arthur and Merlin in order to save the future,
an album on which about 30 musicians performed.
Awareness sounds like an electronic version of soft-rock of the 1970s
(Kansas, Styx and the likes) with
Keith Emerson-ian organ and
Iron Maiden's guitar.
Eyes of Time blends the crunchy guitar riffs of hard-rock with
tumultuous soul-jazz organ a` la Colosseum
and Queen's catchy operatic refrains.
The operatic overtones inevitably sound like excerpts from a
Jim Steinman-produced concept in songs with
aggressive vocalists and driving rhythm like Computer-Reign.
The music of pompous melodic fantasias like the eleven-minute The Banishment
mixes medieval folk and metal guitar, somewhere between
Mike Oldfield and
Dream Theater, with a cheesy-horror touch of
The number of citations is endless, particularly in the instrumental parts.
The instrumental Swan Song even sounds like early King Crimson.
Lucassen's melodic skills are on full display in the anthemic quasi-gospel motif of Sail Away To Avalon with Renaissance harpsichord and synths that imitate heroic trumpets,
in the gentle folk-rock lullaby Nature's Dance,
and in the bombastic singalong Merlin's Will with symphonic choir and baroque harpsichord.
The humbler Actual Fantasy (1996) employed more electronic arrangements (in fact it was mostly recorded using synthesizers), for more traditional prog-rock excursions.
Lucassen is a gifted composer of melodies and the album is more about the
catchy refrains than the electronic arrangements, but too many are pieces
rely on facile poppy melodies (Abbey Of Synn to start with).
A soaring arena-pop refrain (one of the catchiest of his career) lifts off from the martial metal of Beyond The Last Horizon.
The most original of these extended pop songs is perhaps The Stranger From Within, somewhere between the Beatles of Abbey Road and the Pink Floyd of Welcome to the Machine (and with a vibrant Steve Winwood-ian organ solo).
The Pink Floyd influence is even stronger on Computer Eyes, that begins with the guitar licks of Welcome to the Machine and programmed drumming inspired by Echoes, but the rest of the song is a trite power-ballad.
The Beatles influence is obvious on the psychedelic march of Farside Of The World.
Forevermore has the most sophisticated aria, full of Queen-ish pathos.
But where it doesn't work, the music can be truly tedious.
Besides the dubious choice of arrangement and the amount of filler, the album suffers from lack of musical imagination.
Robert Soeterboek, Edward Reekers and Okkie Huijsdens are the other vocalists, and the other keyboardists are Cleem Determeijer and Rene Merkelbach
Lucassen returned to a symphonic sound
on the "space opera" for eight singers Into The Electric Castle (1998),
a 100-minute double-disc tour de force that contains the multi-movement suites
Isis and Osiris,
with echoes of Jethro Tull
and convent choir before the pop-metal eruption,
Amazing Flight, with southern-rock guitar and soul-jazz organ
and more Jethro Tull in the flute-driven coda.
The ten-minute The Garden Of Emotions packs several songs into one, running the gamut from visceral blues-rock to the closing bombastic synth melodies, which proves hic musical eclecticism and his narrative skills but also shows the limits of his Babelic method.
The shorter songs echo
the Who's passionate rock'n'roll of Quadrophenia (The Decision Tree)
the raging pop-metal of the Scorpions (Across the Rainbow Bridge, The Two Gates), but too many intone cheesy arias in the vein of Broadway musicals.
More than ever, his muse is the techno-rock of Alan Parsons and
Electric Light Orchestra, with a touch of
Here began his collaboration with drummer Ed Warby.
The story introduces an evil alien race, the Forever, that tinker with humankind.
The singers include legends like
Peter Daltrey (of Kaleidoscope),
Fish (of Marillion) and Edward Reekers (of Kayak)
as well as younger vocalists like
Anneke van Giersbergen (of the Gathering)
and Sharon Den Adel (of Within Temptation).
Musicians include flutist Thijs van Leer and keyboardist Clive Nolan.
But half of the album is garbage.
Universal Migrator (2000) is a melodic
concept that frequently mimics
latter-day Pink Floyd, enhanced either with
synthetic polyrhythms (My House On Mars) or with
Erik Norlander's abrasive organ.
And The Druids Turn To Stone,
are representative of this mellower, poppy style (even folkish in the brief
Carried by the Wind).
Lucassen's pop-metal competes with
Bon Jovi's in matters of pomp
(One Small Step).
Melodies like the themes of
The First Man On Earth and
The Shooting Company Of Captain Frans B Cocq
compete with the Beatles' White Album.
The top moment of hysteria, Chaos, feels insincere, like a parody of black metal, although the close second in this style, The New Migrator,
sounds like Yes on steroids (sandwiched between monks choirs).
A balanced blend of
catchy refrains, raunchy guitar riffs, grating organ lines and epic synths
yields Out Of The White Hole, one of Ayreon's classics.
And nobody beats Lucassen in matter of bombastic and symphonic rock music, with Dawn Of A Million Souls (with Symphony X's Russell Allen on vocals) being the principal exhibit here (although it is reminiscent of both Europe's The Final Countdown and Pink Floyd's Comfortably Numb).
All the "symphonic" rock musicians like
Vangelis of the past pale by comparison.
Rather than trying to imitate others, Lucassen would do well to stick to what he is best at: pomp.
Alas, several of the longer pieces of emphatic synth-heavy prog-metal, like
Into the Black Hole (with Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson on vocals) and
Through the Wormhole (with Rhapsody's vocalist Fabio Leone and Shadow Gallery's guitarist Gary Wehrkamp),
are tedious and backfire badly. The album loses momentum and Lucassen loses much of the credibility that comes from The New Migrator, Out Of The White Hole and Dawn Of A Million Souls.
The album was released in two parts,
Part 1 - The Dream Sequencer
Part 2 - Flight Of The Migrator.
The second part contains the three most powerful songs, but also most of the filler, while the first part contains the most melodic songs, and little filler.
The Human Equation (2004) is another 100-minute double-disc and
another massive opera, this time divided in 20 "days",
with vocalists like James LaBrie of Dream Theater, Mikael Akerfeldt of Opeth
and Devin Townsend of Strapping Young Lad, and especially
Devon Graves of Deadsoul Tribe.
The songs are generally shorter, and in this kind of more traditional song format Lucassen delivers two little gems:
the stately Merseybeat of Hope
and Loser, which is a splendid fusion of country musichall, gypsy music and Stan Ridgway (with also a visceral organ solo by Ken Hensley of Uriah Heep).
Plenty of songwriters would kill for ballads like Pain.
There seems to be an increasing interest in folkish medieval and Renaissance themes (Childhood, Sign and Love)
next to the usual melodramatic doses of Queen and Who (School)
and the usual doses of Pink Floyd-ian melodies (Voices and especially
Confrontation, that could have been on Dark Side of the Moon).
The music is, by now, a well-oiled hybrid of folk, metal and electronic sounds.
The nine-minute Isolation sounds like the most elegiac David Bowie fronting metal band Helloween (six vocalists appear in this song alone).
On the other hand, the ten-minute Trauma tries but fails to ape gothic rock of the 1980s.
Unfortunately that's when Lucassen started writing music to follow the text
instead of writing the text to follow the music.
The 102-minute double-disc
01011001 (2008), that continues and perhaps concludes the saga of the Forever race,
marked a return to the format of lengthy suites but the result
is more uneven than ever.
The music is often trite and predictable, with inferior derivative melodies
and trivial heavy-metal riffs. There is little to salvage in
the eleven-minute Age Of Shadows/ We Are Forever in three movements (despite eight vocalists),
eight-minute six-movement Newborn Race,
the eight-minute Liquid Eternity,
and the ten-minute The Fifth Extinction.
There are two notable exceptions.
The eight-minute Beneath the Waves in five movements boasts, besides the usual Pink Floyd-ian guitar solo, intriguing keyboard work, a hymn-like choral refrain and a surreal Chinese coda;
and the six-movement twelve-minute The Sixth Extinction, which
has ten vocalists competing for attention, alternates suspenseful macabre sections of tribal drums with a romantic piano elegy (Joost van den Broek), one of Lucassen's proverbial hymn-like thundering choral refrains, and a galloping final call to arms.
Lucassen is helped by three keyboardists, two guitarists, a flutist, a violinist, a cellist and the usual Warby, besides the dozen vocalists
(Anneke van Giersbergen in primis, but also
Daniel Gildenlow of Pain of Salvation and Hansi Kursch of Blind Guardian).
Ayreon's typical bloated sound was on full display again on
The Theory Of Everything (2013), an album that has the honor of
featuring both the titans of prog-rock keyboards, Rick Wakeman
and Keith Emerson
of Emerson Lake & Palmer, besides
Dream Theater's Jordon Rudess.
The storyline, having abandoned the intergalactic saga, is about a mad scientist in search of immortal glory.
Singers include Lacuna Coil's Cristina Scabbia and Ancient Bards' Sara Squadrani, and Tommy Karevik from Kamelot is the lead.
More prog-rock veterans among the musicians include
King Crimson's bassist John Wetton and
Genesis' guitarist Steve Hackett.
This time the album is divided in four "phases", each made of several movements:
the eleven-movement Singularity (with instrumental Progressive Wave, a sort of medieval square dance,
and the tender chamber-folk instrumental The Eleventh Dimension)
the eleven-movement Symmetry (with a peak of pathos in Alive),
the nine-movement Entanglement (with the most exhilarating movement, the breathless Collision)
the eleven-movement Entanglement (with another punkish highlight,
The Uncertainty Principle).
This should have been a ten-minute EP, but of course Lucassen's goal was not the music but the story.
The Source (2017), a sort of prequel to the saga of the Forever,
recycles some of the usual vocalists (notably LaBrie, Karevik and Allen) but presents an underwhelming lineup of instrumentalists.
The 12-minute The Day That the World Breaks Down is a good example of what works (the vocals) and what doesn't work (everything else) on this album.
The instrumental furor of Aquatic Race is a rare exception: the rest
is mostly bombast for the sake of bombast.
The other songs are shorter, but mostly the music is a collage of cliches,
from the medieval folk of Sea Of Machines
to the Chinese atmosphere of The Dream Dissolves.
Each of them buried in bombast. For the sake of bombast.
As usual, the 80-minute double-disc Transitus (2020) employs a large
cast of singers
(Tommy Karevik from Kamelot is the lead again)
and musicians, but it tells a different story, a love story
set in the 19th century, rather than the usual intergalactir sci-fi story.
The album is fragmented in 22 shorter songs and
somehow the shorter format brings to the surface the fundamental problems of
his project: derivative melodies and predictable solos
(despite Joe Satriani popping up in a song). In addition, this time the singing
is almost as trivial as the instrumental part.
The album parades the usual square dances (Dumb Piece of Rock),
the usual poppy metal (This Human Equation), the usual
atmospheric Pink Floyd-ian ballads (Message From Beyond, with a solo by Megadeth's Marty Friedman), and so on.
All of them has spoken-word section, and the spoken word is clearly the protagonist here.
Overall a pretty tedious experience.
Live In The Real World (2006) and The Theater Equation (2016) are live albums.
Lucassen also formed Stream Of Passion but left after their first album, Embrace the Storm (2005).
Lucassen was also active as Star One, documented on Space Metal (2002) and Victims of the Modern Age (2010),
as Guilt Machine, documented on On This Perfect Day (2009),
and in the duo Gentle Storm with Anneke van Giersberge that released The Diary (2015).