Review Summary: Progressive music that emphasizes 'fun' over pretense, despite its dramatic flair and huge scope.
I've never cared for double LPs. In general, I've found them to be bloated, lacking in direction, and prone to excessive filler. This is true for even some of most revered entrees, including Physical Graffiti and The Wall. For every "Kashmir" or "Comfortably Numb", there's a track or two that simply don't measure up, and threaten to sap the life out of the record. Ayreon is among the treasured few who have managed to pull off the trick of compelling me throughout the entire experience of a double album not once, but twice before, and now, with The Theory of Everything, a third time.
Summarizing any recording in the Ayreon discography is difficult, given their general scope. Take any average band - hell, take two - and there are probably more ideas in any one Ayreon release than their entire discographies combined. The project's ambitions are ludicrous both on paper and in practice, and yet somehow mastermind Arjen Lucassen pulls each individual element together to form a coherent whole in spite of their disparities. From classic metal/rock riffage, gentle Celtic folk, string sections, and Vangelis-inspired analogue synths, The Theory of Everything offers an eclectic musical buffet for listeners, all the while carrying dramatic vocal performances that tell a complex story in the rock opera format.
To the initiated, none of the aforementioned elements should come as a surprise, but what is surprising is how fresh it all sounds despite being grounded in traditions that stretch back several decades, at least. In addition to being more instrumentally driven than past efforts, the biggest and most controversial departure is with the songwriting, especially structurally. Whereas previous albums favored tracks in the five to ten minute range, this double album features four 20 minute suites, called "Phases", which are broken up into 42 "segments" for listeners' convenience. This means that one can skip to their favorite riff or duet without delay, but it also means that this album is an iPod junkie's nightmare, and is not shuffle friendly in the least. The Theory of Everything needs to be listened to from beginning to end, without interruption, and preferably on CD or vinyl as there have been reports of the MP3s having pauses between tracks, effectively destroying their flow (this is a review of the 2CD Special Edition, which has no such breaks).
There are very few, if any sections that follow the verse-chorus form. In less capable hands, this could have easily resulted in a pretentious mess; a patchwork of half-baked ideas. Thankfully, that's simply not the case, as this double LP flows gracefully from one melody to the next, with various motifs that reappear at key points, often mutated to fit a given mood as dictated by the story. This near-constant sense of forward momentum drives the album, and in turn the listener, to each disc's ultimate conclusion. The fact that Arjen has a knack for memorable hooks doesn't hurt either.
The performances here are exceptional, both instrumentally and vocally, and sound natural despite the host of guests at Arjen's disposal. Diehard prog fans will relish the back-to-back synth solos on the track "Progressive Waves", which features Keith Emerson and Jordan Rudess lending their immense talents. Vocally, Kamelot's Tommy Karevik sounds right at home as The Prodigy, as does ex-King Crimson bassist John Wetton as The Psychiatrist, but the duet on "Mirror of Dreams" stands out for the warm deliveries of Ancient Bards' Sara Squadrani and Lacuna Coil's Cristina Scabbia (as The Girl and The Mother, respectively).
Meanwhile, the lyrics tell the story of a young, troubled mathematical genius with a clarity seldom seen, but their transparency, combined with the exaggerated enunciation in which the vocalists deliver them (a necessity given how the story is integral to the experience, and not merely contextual scenery), may be off-putting to listeners unaccustomed to Lucassen's work, or even musicals for that matter. In an age where lyrical greatness is often associated with opaque, minimalist odes about philosophical and socio-political conundrums, the lyrics presented here may come off as naive, but it's actually their genuine innocence and frankness that only adds to this album's charm.
With The Theory of Everything, Lucassen has further cemented himself as a force to be reckoned with in the progressive metal and rock scene, but has also given us what may be his most accomplished work yet. While not necessarily groundbreaking, it's exceptionally refined given how big its ambitions are, and it boasts some impressive production values. If nothing else, 'Theory stands tall next to the classics Into the Electric Castle and The Human Equation, offering a work that balances instrumental and vocal performances more equally than before. It also manages to have just the right amount of camp and compelling drama, making it perhaps the most 'fun' metal/rock album of 2013.