Here is an excellent album from the proggiest-of-prog bands, Ayreon, also known as the pet project of Arjen Lucassen, a very creative man, who has released a number of albums under the Ayreon moniker and which are nearly all constructed along the lines of concept albums or even rock operas. As Lucassen's vision grew in popularity with the rise of the progressive metal subgenre in the latter half of the '90s, his resources grew proportionally and he began to hire a number of enormously popular and well-known rock/metal vocalists to appear on his albums. The latest Ayreon effort, "The Human Equation," is no different, featuring a bloated two-disc song span and a story so elaborate that Arjen has hired a beastly array of vocalists to handle duties merely for each character.
This here is the real attraction for Ayreon: it provides fans of a diverse range of prog-metal and death metal music to come and listen to their favorite singers sharing the stage. The music isn't any slouch, however: while there is little obvious instrumental interplay of the type that breaks or bombs Dream Theater albums, Arjen focuses instead on vast interplay between synth, guitar, drums and bass, all supporting his own vision.
As for the story this time around, Arjen changed his tack a bit: he has typically written his progressive opuses about themes involving vast fantasy or, notably, sci-fi: here he sort of absorbs the plots of "Operation: Mindcrime" and "Scenes from a Memory" to create the following tale, described from Ayreon.com: "A man has a car accident and ends up in hospital in a comatose state. The car accident was very bizarre: it was broad daylight and there was no other car in sight. His wife and his best friend are keeping a vigil at his bed, trying to understand what happened, hoping he will wake soon. Cut off from the outside world, the man finds himself trapped in a strange realm where his emotions- most of which he’s ignored for a long time- have come to life to confront him with all the choices he has made in his life. As he is taken from one memory to the next, he slowly becomes aware of all the events leading up to his accident, and realizes that if he ever wants to wake up from his coma, he must find a way out of his prison…"
Now, I used to hate this album. It all seemed so bloated and meandering, and the vocalists in particular were VERY hit-or-miss for me. But I've been listening to it a lot recently and I've begun to appreciate it a lot more, and so here we are today: an excellent and very very long prog-rock album designed and destined to fill fans' hearts with glee.
Cast of Characters :
1. "Me" - James LaBrie (Dream Theater, Mullmuzzler)
2. "Best Friend" - Arjen Lucassen (Ayreon)
3. "Wife" - Marcela Bovio (Elfonia)
4. "Love" - Heather Findlay (Mostly Autumn)
5. "Passion" - Irene Jansen (Karma)
6. "Agony" - Devon Graves (Dead Soul Tribe)
7. "Reason" - Eric Clayton (Saviour Machine)
8. "Pride" - Magnus Ekwall (The Quill)
9. "Father" - Mike Baker (Shadow Gallery)
10. "Rage" - Devin Townsend (Devin Townsend Band, Strapping Young Lad, Steve Vai)
11. "Fear" - Mikael Akerfeldt - (Opeth, Bloodbath, Edge of Sanity)
1. Day One: Vigil
This track takes place in the hospital immediately after the car crash crippling "Me": the song is sung in an eerie fashion by Arjen as "Best Friend" and Marcela as "Wife" discussing the feelings of responsibility and fear they have for the life of the protagonist, into whose comatose mind we quickly move in the next track. Marcela's voice is beautiful.
2. Day Two: Isolation
LaBrie's voice hasn't changed a bit from his other efforts, but here it's very effective. We are inside his comatose mind: Mikael Akerfeldt comes in with wonderfully moody vocals as "Fear," telling him that he's alone. A marching prog-rock beat comes in quickly with awesome Hammond organ and distorted guitars. There is an awesome shuffling of vocalists throughout, with interesting changes in the instrumentations: we get Kansas-like violins and New Age flutes one moment and really moody, incredible Pink-Floyd-type synths the next. Great stuff.
3. Day Three: Pain
Devon Graves does wonderful here as "Agony" over a really moody synth/guitar passage. Devin Townsend also does great, screaming along with the singers as "Rage" here. The acoustic breakdown is great, with almost hilarious pan flutes and violins. Great track, with the lyrics being notable especially.
4. Day Four: Mystery
Great slide guitars and acoustics with heavily modified vocals lend an almost pseudo-Rush feel here mixed up with Pink Floyd ambiences. Arjen's vocals are kind of bad, but the great "Welcome to the Machine" synths entering in afterward make up for it. Marcela's vocals are great. There are hints that the friend and the wife are hiding something. Man, great synths.
5. Day Five: Voices
Almost all of the emotions guest here. More great folky influences here in the acoustics, flutes, and violins. Magnus as "Pride" is actually quite good, aside from his higher yells. Great lyrics, again. The sections here are tailored to each vocalist, with Mikael's voice being a highlight for me (Opeth fanboy alert :( ).
6. Day Six: Childhood
Great vocals balancing "Me" between the harsh testimonies of "Agony" and "Fear" played by Graves and Akerfeldt. Beautiful synths again. The folk interludes here are an Ayreon highlight, I'd say. Great stuff. There's a beautiful, emotional guitar solo.
7. Day Seven: Hope
The bouncy progression here is almost amusing, with the slightest hint of darkness that calls up instances where Pink Floyd would almost mockingly select, "In the Flesh"-style, well-used pop progressions to advance their concept and keep the listener off edge.
8. Day Eight: School
Great acoustics here and wonderful vocals from Mikael and Townsend, who has so far taken all the grunted vocals duties for himself. :( The switches from verse to chorus are jarring, probably deliberately, but I don't enjoy it so much. The almost orchestral interlude is great.
9. Day Nine: Playground
Fantastic, very folky influence here: there's a great Celtic melody played throughout that I just LOVE. Short but sweet.
10. Day Ten: Memories
And we're back in the hospital! Nice...wait, not really. More of the same, great synths, great vocals. If you're engaged on this on the story level, you'll still be loving it, but musically the diverse flourishes in between songs are only helping a little in keeping the musical interest. I still like it but by now it's getting to background music. Well, I mean, come on, this album's fockin' long.
11. Day Eleven: Love
Now, this one, the last track on Disc One, is a prog tour-de-force. Once again, we get another almost amusing progression following metal brutality in true quirky prog fashion. Wonderful vocals abound. Great, great song.
12. Day Twelve: Trauma
After a whole lot of tracks of quick samples from the other songs, we get a neat bassline and a synth passage. Great vocal passages, adding a lot of cool drama to the proceedings. Mikael finally does a scream, and the music continues to go into a cool new direction. Lots of amazing synth ambiences abound throughout this long track. Awesome stuff.
13. Day Thirteen: Sign
More folky passages with great Celtic/'60s folk ambiences come through here, calling up images of early-Seventies Renaissance. This whole song is chock full of great ways to use folk instruments.
14. Day Fourteen: Pride
Yikes. This is the heaviest we've gotten so far, easily. This is very much along the lines of LaBrie's work with Dream Theater and so his voice sounds particularly at home. Great guitar solos and heavy riffs make a good prog-metal song. Good stuff, again.
15. Day Fifteen: Betrayal
Excellent vocals by Mikael and synths. Another typically moody song with crescendos galore thanks to the synths and added classical and folk instrumentations. Excellent.
16. Day Sixteen: Loser
This intro certainly is neat, conjuring up images of distant lands in East, which is nice as we've mostly remained in Celtic folk territory for the whole time. Oh wait, but then the acoustics come in and we're back there again. But not to worry, it's awesome, so never mind. Heavy, heavy guitars enter not long after, with the Celtic melody played by fantastic guitars. Amazing amazing amazing. I'm a sucker for this kind of stuff. There's a fantastic instrumental interlude here. Great screeching by Devin Townsend here.
17. Day Seventeen: Accident
More great synths and guitar stuff. Wow. I love the ambiences Lucassen is constantly creating with these wonderful electronic keyboards. This is the final recounting of the accident that caused the coma, which means LaBrie is going to do his best to get out of it soon. Ethereal vocals abound. LaBrie has some very emotional vocals.
18. Day Eighteen: Realization
Man, I love the Celtic focus here. Then we get a positively Yes-like passage and another hilarious tinwhistle solo. I love this stuff. Great. The song is almost all instrumental, with great interplay and time changes in true prog-metal fashion. Lucassen has managed here to create an album that takes liberally from all facets of prog since its inception and combine it to create a magnificant triumph of everything prog values. Excellent work.
19. Day Nineteen: Disclosure
We're definitely clearly building up to the end here, with repeats from nearly all themes established throughout the album. The highlight however is just coming. Best friend and wife reveal that they have been using each other as "support" as "Me" was in a coma. Heavy.
20. Day Twenty: Confrontation
"Me" confronts all of his emotions in this one, which features the subordination of the forces of Fear and Pain to those of Love, Pride, Reason, and Passion. This is very Yes-like in spots, with the dynamics and instrumentation achieving prog nirvana. The obvious highlights are Mikael's vocals: as Fear, he continues to prod LaBrie with notions that he may not be ready to go back to his life, and as LaBrie conquers him with the assistance of his friends and his better emotions, Fear, aka Akerfeldt, unleashes the most brutal death growl of the album as his character is conquered: the rest of the voices enter one after another, growing in power and force and tempo as the album crescendos and orgasms and breaks loose more and more: until:
"The Human Equation program aborted. Have a nice day."
Oh boy, we're back to sci-fi land now. Awesome.
All told, an exhausting, bloated, long, exhausting, pompous, pretentious, bloated, long, long, long album of true prog genius. This is everything prog is, right here: that said, the fanbase for this will probably be extremely selective. Nevertheless, it is one of the ultimate expressions of everything prog values, and for that it deserves among the highest acclaim.