Review Summary: Ayreon's defining moment defines nothing but the spectacular.
The Electric Castle is, essentially, a true fore into the progressive concept album, and you wouldn’t expect anything less from the mind of Ayreon helmsman Arjen Anthony Lucassen. This go around, Lucassen employs numerous vocalists to act as different stereotypical figures from time, the majority of which appear to be warriors. To use the album’s labels, these figures are a Roman, an Indian (feather not dot), a Barbarian (or more aptly a Norseman), a Highlander (not the one that fell off the cliff), an Egyptian, a Hippie, a “Futureman,” and a Knight.
The album is essentially about the motley crew having been assembled by “Forever of the Stars,” a spoken role portrayed by Peter Daltrey, and placed in a virtual land so that they could have their emotions surveyed. They are charged with passing through many obstacles which either stir up their emotions directly (“The Garden of Emotions,” “The Tower of Hope”) or cause them to see things or make decisions which evoke emotion (“The Decision Tree (We’re Alive),” “Evil Devolution”). In any case, they are charged with reaching “The Electric Castle,” and none of them really know why, but since it’s their only way out, they press on through obstacles previously mentioned and more, all the while learning about each other and establishing a group dynamic. Throughout, they lose several companions before reaching two gates and returning to their own times with limited memory of the experience.
The voices of the album, as with most Ayreon releases, are necessarily powerful and cooperative. However, on this album there seems to be a bit of a problem with a few voices. For the majority of the album, the Indian seems almost forgotten about, or blends in so damn well with the Egyptian that you’d almost never notice that the beautiful voice of Within Temptation’s Sharon den Adel was there at all. Sadly, this seems almost the same with Edwin Balogh and Damian Wilson who play the Roman and the Knight, respectively. The lyrics really do seem to distinguish those two, however, as the Knight is always gallivanting about rambling about the grail while the Roman calls upon Roman gods to give him strength and the like. It’s not the case with the Indian, whose lines are essentially little fillers or chants until the track “Cosmic Fusion” where she gets her few lines and is promptly killed by Death (voiced by Robert Westerholt and George Oosthoek).
As for the other characters, they’re all pretty distinct. The Barbarian (Jay van Feggelen) has a gruff, huskier voice than the rest of the male singers, and is often making fun of or taunting the rest of the group. Notably this occurs in “Amazing Flight,” where he talks about his barbaric exploits, “The Decision Tree (We’re Alive),” where he insists that his glory is too great for him to be the one left behind, and “The Two Gates,” where he challenges the gods to kill him if he chooses the wrong gate.
The Hippie is voiced by Arjen himself and provides a great comic relief and some relatable insight. While he obviously goes off on psychedelic spiels and later dwells on whether or not the entire thing was just a bad acid trip, there’s some great emotive singing in tracks like “The Mirror Maze,” “Amazing Flight” (the lines “hey dude / you’re so uncool / but hey that’s alright / there’s no need to get uptight” give me an inward giggle every time I hear them), and “Across The Rainbow Bridge.” Arjen’s voice is featured on just about every Ayreon album, so it’s really nothing new for this one, but he does a great way of incorporating mellow tones (which his voice seems to be built for) to get across that sound of a man really stoned out of his mind just admiring his surroundings.
Anneke van Giersbergen does a pretty good job as the Egyptian, and must be given credit for being able to sing “Heliopolis” in any sort of cohesive way in “Across The Rainbow Bridge.” She also gets a whole track to herself (“Valley of the Queens”) where she sings beautifully, but it’s about a fifth shorter than most of the tracks on the album, clocking in at only 2:25, and she’s absent from the album following this track, which is ninth of seventeen total tracks.
Edward Reekers provides the voice of the mysterious Futureman, who provides an interesting insight and the perspective of an intellectual among relatively uneducated individuals. It seems that the Futureman lives in a relatively optimistic time of understanding, but still fails to comprehend most of the features of the Electric Castle, and is even taunted by Forever when, in a song left to Reekers alone (“Evil Devolution”), the Futureman is shown a future where humanity has submitted to a mechanical brain and “devolved.” The Futureman provides a rather mundane character compared to the rest, spare his knowledge of things such as “The stations of the moon,” and is sung in a melancholy way which, in a sense, embodies this attitude. The Futureman is, thankfully, a consistent character with a unique voice.
Finally, there’s the greatest character of all – the Highlander, portrayed by Fish of ex-Marillion and solo fame. Fish really toned up the Scottish on this, and sings with a thick accent through ever line, really providing character immersion. Through it all, however, he remains capable of providing emotional highs and lows. Having never heard Fish before, I even thought he sang naturally with a Scottish accent, and was severely disappointed I found it absent from his other works. Fish really creates such an interesting character that you’re almost loathe to listen to the album following “The Tunnel of Light,” which is without the Highlander, solidifying the first six tracks as the gold of the album at least for me.
The album is generally great as far as instrumentation goes. The introduction is catchy and atmospheric, establishing a tone of darkness which is both embraced and debunked throughout the album. The guitars vary from heavy, ripping, and quick (as seen between the Hippie’s color descriptions in “Across The Rainbow Bridge”) to slow, acoustic, and even folksy.
Many tracks feature a good deal of keyboard and/or piano which add greatly to the ambiance established primarily by the vocalists and the guitar, and is prominent on tracks like “The Mirror Maze” and “The Tower of Hope.” When there is keyboard, it’s generally distorted in some sort of funky prog-metal way – and if you know Ayreon, it’s essentially what you expect. That’s not to say that it’s predictable or cliché playing – not at all. All of the keyboards are catchy and drive the songs exactly in the direction they needs to go.
As a contrast, the drumming on the album isn’t really anything great, but it does go along with the songs, so you can’t really argue with it. There’s also a hefty deal of spoken word from “Forever of the Stars,” on the CD, and with the exception of the track “Forever of the Stars,” it’s all generally straightforward and a simple prelude to a track. However, it doesn’t really seem to get annoying like it could in other bands, since he usually gets to the point, with a few words which are poignant or fun to repeat in your own head (the phrase “for they do fish for men” sticks out in my mind).
Just about every track is great, though there are a few which, in my mind, can really be overlooked. Namely, “Valley of the Queens” and “Evil Devolution,” but maybe that’s because I prefer the sound of the project’s singers in concert rather than a track where one goes off and does a solo. My personal favorites are probably “Isis and Osiris” and “The Decision Tree (We’re Alive)” due to the fantastic vocals of Fish, and “Tower of Hope.”
Into the Electric Castle was the make or break for Ayreon, in which Arjen really pulled together all of his resources and created a premier product. Without the expert instrumentation and vocal performances on this album, the project may certainly have fallen apart, but Arjen really was able to produce something amazing with this album, and if you’re a fan of progressive metal, or even progressive music in general, your collection will not be complete without Into The Electric Castle.