Review Summary: Ayreon produces a solid and consistent album with the typical lows and highs of a Lucassen album. With that, the first mandatory purchase for the prog metal fan
Dutch music has never had that much to export, let alone break the US market succesfully. Artists that sell well in their native homeland here, such as Anouk, never seem to make it outside the borders; the only fortunate ones that have done so and achieved great success are sympho-metallers Within Temptation (though at the cost of a major quality drop in their works) and none other than the famous Golden Earring. In the shadows hide some impressive gothic/symphonic metal bands a la After Forever, but as the music they play is so niche it really prevents them from crossing over into the mainstream.
So what do you do if you are a Dutch multi-instrumentalist into progressive and metal, and you aspire to make the records that could have the same sort of popularity Dark Side of the Moon, or even something like OK Computer enjoy? You create Ayreon, a band formed by the one and only Mr Arjen Anthony Lucassen. Now, Lucassen can do much, but he can't sing well (though he does do some lead vocals with double-tracking) or drum. So Ed Warby (of Gorefest) is back behind the kit for the sixth Ayreon installment, which is to be expected, but what does he do vocally?
He amassed a who's who of prog and metal to sing and do his vocal tracks for him, which you can only do if you're somewhat well-known. Ayreon has achieved a cult following in the Netherlands, and word of mouth has spread. In the past he's worked with such vocalists as Bruce Dickinson (Iron Maiden), Mikael Akerfeldt (Opeth), James LaBrie (Dream Theater), Russell Allen (Symphony X), Ian Parry (Elegy), Neal Morse, Devin Townsend (Strapping Young Lad, Devin Townsend Band), Heather Findlay (Mostly Autumn) and an amazing amount of other singers.
The new lineup reads just as great for the new album. Lucassen has assembled a pretty strong cast for this round, including Pain of Salvation mastermind Daniel Gildenlow, Jonas Renkse of Katatonia, Jorn Lande, Hansi Kursch, Floor Jansen, Steve Lee, and many more. All in all it's an impressive vocal cast any other band would be jealous of. The vocal performances are not limited to songs like on the Universal Migrator epos, however; like on the Human Equation, they are split between the songs. This means you'll hear for example Renkse appear various times through the album, delivering his trademark vocals (since Renske is one of the few who wrote some of his own vocal melodies, he gives off a definite Katatonia vibe in some of his peaces, contrasting nicely with the music.)
Other vocal standouts include Lande, who provides first rate melodic hard rock vocals, Gildenlow with his unique expressive range, and Anneke van Giersbergen/Floor Jansen combine for some epic dual vocals to dominate the songs. The only times singers appear to sing full songs, are the Man vocalists, who usually share lead vocals on a song. They are less numerous and apart from Simone Simons (Epica) and the unknown Dutch hiphopper Wudstik (who is actually an excellent singer and Lucassen deserves some credit for picking this guy up to play), they don't stand out as much as some of the "Forever" vocalists.
The reason of course, why Ayreon is renowned besides Lucassen's preference for a dazzling amount of vocalists, is of course their concept albums. Ayreon albums are constructed like a science-fiction movie. Most of them hinge (except the Human Equation, which was also a story, but more of a drama-type thing) around some SF concept. Yes, it's cheesy to the max, but you know in this case the lyrics serve more as a backdrop to the music. All Ayreon's lyrics and stories are intertwined, however: you will find references to the famous Final Experiment, Flight of the Migrator/Dream Sequencer, Human Equation, and Into the Electric Castle albums. This epsiode hinges on a race called Forever, whose planet has been dominated by machinery, and they set out to travel through time and colonise another planet for their survival. They arrive at the planet Earth at the time of the dinosaur's extinction (various Ayreon albums also make reference to real-life events or previous events in the Ayreon Saga; the ending of the album centers around the destruction of the earth in 2085, and what happens to the Earth then. Further information should lead you to the Universal Migrator installment.) It's all complex and interlinked, and hard to get into unless you're a hardcore fan of the band, which does not make this the ideal newcomer's album, but it's there to get into if you like the music.
And musically, Ayreon does not disappoint. Ayreon always married prog and metal, but on this album Lucassen has added electronics to his widening arsenal, along with the folk elements returning. The album ranges through various moods, from the stomping opener Age of Shadows which openes with an almost Rammstein-esque riff, to the folk-metal inspired River of Time, to the drowsy Floyd meets Depeche Mode Comatose, to some terrific 80s hard rock choruses on Unnatural Selection (Lande plays a big part in enhancing these.) Overall the material on offer is varied, yet sustains a mood and a typical bombastic Ayreon sound with a lot of segue-background effects. Of course the technical enthusiasts aren't kept begging, with Michael Romeo delivering a grand guest solo, and various other synth/guitar/keyboard solos to be found. There are even violins and flutes, just to add to the grand drama of the whole thing.
The question really is: does the album suffer from the enormous pretense and weight of the music? The truth is that it is a double cd, and some of the songs do wind on for too long and could have been cut shorter. It's not that a single song stands out as being awful, more that the song lengths seem padded. Hence its 100 minute runtime just feels too long and tedious, and a single-cd would probably have served better (though it might have excluded a guest vocalist or two from appearing.) However, due to its variety and the scale of genres on offer, there is something for everyone on this disc: proggers will appreciate the Floydian atmospheres and the technical lines of Lucassen and his guest artists, metalheads will like the dark riffs combined with a subtle electronic backdrop, and even folk lovers get a nice dose with short, concise blasters such as River of Time and The Truth Is In Here.
In short: this is just another Ayreon album. Is it mind-numbingly excellent? No, it's not, though the vocal crew this time is particularly good. Is it awful? Only if you are already a hater, and despise this band for its bombast, pride, and cheesy science-fiction stories. Ayreon may not have the standout technicality of Dream Theater, or the extreme atmospheres of Pink Floyd, or the intensity of Metallica, but Lucassen does make a pretty consistent set of albums, and that alone is something to be proud of. It won't win over the people who desperately hate this style, but it's a good album for fans of the style, and in 2008, a prog fan could do much worse than making this their first purchase of the year.