Review Summary: An album as subtle as it is brief."Brevity is the soul of wit."
With such a voluminous, varied, and overall successful career, you might expect Arjen Lucassen to understand this parable, proverb, and potentially most important principle of artistic production that the immortal bard penned centuries ago. Yet, here we are, faced with The Theory of Everything
- an album as subtle as it is brief. And the problem with The Theory of Everything
lies entirely in its defiance of Shakespeare's advice.
It's easy enough to simply say that a 42 track album that clocks in at just under an hour and a half is too long and too subdivided, but when acclaimed and genuinely good albums like Into The Electric Castle
and The Human Equation
clock in with even longer run times, the problem becomes more complex. More than mere time, the issue with The Theory of Everything
lies in an underdevelopment of musical structure and an overreliance on an operatic vocal format that knows no brevity.
Allow me to truly begin by stating that many instrumental sections on The Theory of Everything
are dazzling and intriguing and that the instrumental portion of the album is incredibly well-arranged. Talented solos and arrangements from the project's mastermind and guests the likes of Rick Wakeman, Keith Emerson, and Jordan Rudess are easily the album's highlights with tracks like "Surface Tension" and "Progressive Waves" presenting themselves as easy standouts.
The unfortunate thing is that the real focus of The Theory of Everything
is the vocal delivery. While there are few Ayreon albums that cannot be called rock operas (mostly the coupled Universal Migrator
albums), the last two have focused so much on the opera portion of the experience that they've missed the point expertly captured on The Human Equation
- emotion through storytelling and personal reflection.
And, for as much as The Theory of Everything
tries to recapture the glory of The Human Equation
, it's unfortunate how far off it veers. From a storytelling and lyrical point of view, The Theory of Everything
fails to focus on the introspective and emotional dialog the way The Human Equation
did. Instead of focusing on raging emotions and relatable event-based storytelling that forged a real connection between listener and core character, The Human Equation
presents a cold corps of mathematicians and scientists with a noble goal and sentiments that don't seem relatable. The lyrics are stunted by their own complexity and an all too frequently awkward rhyme scheme, which makes the vocals feel out of place even among powerful instrumentation.
The second issue with the veering path of The Theory of Everything
is in the cast of characters and their delivery. Most of the singing on the album rarely surpasses the realm of unemotive "sing-talking." Christina Scabbia is one of the few distinct and powerful voices, though most of her identity comes from being the sole female vocalist for a time, and things become much more muddled with the addition of Sara Squadrani, who plays the very odd role of a girl who wants to pursue a relationship with the autistic protagonist. Most male voices become frustratingly similar - a frustration that compounds with the knowledge that primary vocalists like Tommy Karevik have a much more expansive range not utilized on this album. The most curious thing, however, is that Arjen's own very distinct voice (which has appeared on most other Ayreon releases) is absent from The Theory of Everything
. Unsurprisingly, the album is worse off for it.
To be entirely honest, previous albums have flourished with a certain dialog and a certain cast - The Human Equation
functioned by putting innerspace under the microscope with a varied and vocally distinct cast of pointed players filling emotional and relatable roles, where Into the Electric Castle
was a triumph for exploring an ultimate mash-up of distinct character stereotypes backed by the crew of vocally unique artists needed to give them all life and conflict. And while the instrumental portions of this album are certainly magnificent, it's the ultimate lack of brevity in topic and and a proper cast of players to put on the show that prevents The Theory of Everything
from soaring as high as its creator's dreams.