- Maximum Nerdiness!
- Song Format
- Arjen's Vocals
AN ARYEON…ERR…ARJEN SOLO ALBUM? – by Tyson Nordgren:
Every few years, Arjen Lucassen releases a new album, and this few years is no exception. But this comes with a twist…Arjen is releasing a solo album! That’s right! His very own, self-written, self-produced, self-mixed, self-wait a minute…does this sound familiar to you too? For those of you who aren’t familiar with him, Arjen is music’s most extreme libertarian. He writes, mixes, records, and produces all of his albums, usually hiring an ungodly number of guest vocalists to sing his musical vision, and creating a new “side project” for any new “artistic direction” he wants to take. But if he self-does everything normally, how is this album any different? That’s a good question. Usually, the release of a solo album of a favorite artist is a scary time for fans. Much of the time, especially, it seems, with vocalists and drummers, a solo album leaves a lot wanting. But with Arjen, all of his albums are basically solo albums, so longtime fans need not fear anything. Why? He follows the same basic patented “ArjenFormula for Stupendous Albums:”
- Artistic Vision
- Vocalists to fit artistic vision (usually at least 10)
Hoursmonths tinkering to find the perfect guitar sound
- Ed Warby playing the drums
- Lots of awesome analog synth goodness
If any other musician did this, it would be considered a solo album right? I mean, a solo album is usually a member of a band wanting to create something that is completely theirs, self produced, written, etc. But That’s not quite enough for Arjen. His new “solo album,” if you can even call it that, fits the Arjen formula, except this time he’s not hiring as many vocalists, and he’s doing most of the singing himself. I guess that makes it a little different. Such a small difference, but unless he can go all Devin Townsend and actually do everything himself, I refuse to call this a “solo album.”
MR. LUCASSEN IS FOUND IN THE NEW REAL!! – by Matt Di Giordano
As my colleague and partner in crime Mr. Norgren has already opened up this lengthy article with a sizeable introduction, I will dive straight into Arjen’s latest work: Lost in the New Real.
Lost in the New Real was quite the surprise when it comes to the music. What perhaps strikes the listener most significantly as different is not so much the arrangements of the instruments (which are very typical Ayreon), but the format of the songs themselves. Mr. Luccassen essentially decided to almost exclusively write in a pop format this time around. I don’t say this in order to criticize, as if the word ‘pop’ were a vulgarity (as it indeed is in the prog world at times), but I honestly think it is the best way to describe many of the songs, at least on the surface level. With the exception of “Lost in the New Real,” the songs hold to a verse/chorus format fairly strictly, and the track times are fairly indicative of this phenomenon, with ten out of the fifteen original tracks clocking in between two and a half and four and a half minutes. The majority of the others stretch far outside of those time limits.
On the melodic side, Arjen takes advantage of this to make each track essentially focus on a really catchy chorus. I think out of all the albums I have listened to, this is one of the few good albums where pretty much after one listen virtually every single chorus got stuck in my head. I remember going to bed not being able to sleep because my cranium had “Pink Beatles in a Purple Zeppelin” on an infinite loop. This is both a blessing and a curse, since most of the choruses are extremely happy, bubbly, and silly. Beyond “Pink Beatles” you are sure to note a similar effect from songs such as “Dr. Slumber’s Eternity Home.” Even the choruses that aren’t quite so bubbly are still at the highest level of catchiness and are quite effective. I’m not saying that they are my favorite of Arjen’s career, but they are catchy, whimsical, and contain a lot of overall fun.
While the choruses are fun and mostly silly, I would say that I really enjoyed the verses. The melodies are solid and Arjen’s voice is wonderful in its own right. For all those Ayreon fans who were missing the superstar singer line-up, I for one thoroughly enjoyed listening to the voice of Mr. L (Mr. Lucassen!) for the entire album. Sure, he’s not a tenor, but that doesn’t mean he’s not good. There’s something magical about his singing and it goes perfect with this kind of music, actually much better than would many potential guest vocalists. In fact, rather than going to one singer projects Guilt Machine or Stream of Passion, as he has in the past, I’d like to see him keep going back to himself as a singer. This doesn’t mean that I don’t want to see another Ayreon album in all of its multiple singer glory, because I eat that up, but Arjen has a very enjoyable and personable sound that goes great, especially with his synth-driven melodic prog like “Lost in the New Real.” The true surprise, however, vocally speaking, was “Yellowstone Memorial Day.” Wow! I couldn’t believe how phenomenal/manly Arjen sounds when he sings low and menacingly like he does on the verses! To sum up my feelings on his singing, I’m glad he took the time to deliver us one album which was full of himself.
Let’s talk a bit about the instrument performance and the song arrangements themselves. Honestly, while I was less a fan of the pop format of the songs overall as compared to standard Ayreon fare, I was totally blown away by the arrangements. I want to say that this is the best arranging he’s done since the Universal Migrator part 1, which is a huge compliment. The arrangements are exquisitely tasteful and meaningfully varied. Arjen majestically blends arpeggiators, chorusy clean guitars, string instruments, woodwinds, and gorgeous analog synths to produce a sonic tapestry that few are capable of (which shouldn’t be news to anyone). From the more synthesizer driven prog arrangements of “The New Real,” “Lost in the New Real” and “Don’t Switch Me Off” to the bardic strings of “Where Pigs Fly,” there’s a little bit for everyone (I couldn’t help but grin hugely at the woodwinds part following the lines “Jimi played the flute”). The true masterpiece of the album, in my humble opinion, would have to be “Lost in the New Real.” It is literally a song that has just about everything I could ever want from Mr. Lucassen: brilliant use of synthesizers and mood, ultra melodic and tasteful guitar solos, nice traditional instruments, great grooves in odd time signatures, beefy guitar tones, great vocals, and finally, a fantastic story and narrative that ends in the absolute coolest way. You all know what I mean. It’s that moment when Mr. L realizes that his consciousness is, for lack of better terms, disembodied, and at the moment Arjen’s voice itself becomes computerized. This track truly shows what a master Lucassen is at combining music with narrative.
To combine the idea of narrative and music, I would say that the catchy melodies aim at delivering the content of the story in the most transparent way. Herein lays the brilliance and mastery of this album: the ridunkulous, comedic, and unashamed way in which Arjen delivers some very cool sci-fi topics. He talks about a lot of really cool stuff. “Pink Beatles” gives us a fascinating glimpse at the future of things like Pandora radio, where it doesn’t just come up with playlists of songs you will probably enjoy based on what it has judged as your tastes, but it actually takes the elements of the varied styles you like, blends them in your brain, and produces real music that you will love. Treatments of many topics push the boundaries of silliness, like “When I’m a Hundred Sixty-Four,” which humorously discusses the future of extended life or “Dr. Slumber’s Eternity Home” touches on the topic of euthanasia in the most comedic of ways. The totally corny but simultaneously awesome multiple universes of “Where Pigs Fly” delivers some of the funniest and most memorable lyrics on the album, such as “Michael looked like Michael” and “Darth Vader had no son.” While not all is meant to be unashamedly cheesy (which I love), there are a few more serious tracks, such as the “New Real” songs and “Don’t Switch Me Off,” the latter hitting on a common sci-fi theme of machines gaining emotions. All in all, Arjen shows himself to be a king among nerds, a truly masterful GM of prog.
So, how about disc two, the covers, and the tracks that didn’t fit into the main storyline? I’m not going to go into very much detail, since I’ve written so much already. I will say that the covers were well executed, especially Zeppelin’s “Battle of Evermore” (although I was a little disappointed with the interpretation of Floyd’s “Welcome to the Machine”). As far as the originals, they were solid, just like on the previous disc, especially “Our Imperfect Race,” my personal favorite from the second disc. Honestly, they all fit into the story thematically, so they don’t just feel like extra. I’ll stop there though and let you all explore for yourself.
A quick note on the packaging: Arjen delivers the highest quality digi-books I’ve ever seen, following the same style as with Guilt Machine and the second Star One offering. In other words, not that garbage that Nuclear Blast puts out. These things are made of thick, solid materials and will last a long time. They are incredibly pleasing to look at and handle. Furthermore, the artwork is genius, the perfect mix of retro, modern, and of course, nerd. Check out the documentary on the artwork, which is pretty cool.
Finally, the experience of Arjen Lucassen’s latest “solo album” begs the question that has now been raised by three Progulator staff members; in other words, Mr. Cueva versus myself and Mr. Norgren, the former claiming that we are ignorant, while Mr. Norgren and myself continue to call this an Ayreon album. In Mr. Norgren’s own words, “it’s sad that Arjen doesn’t even realize that this is an Ayreon album.” If you look across the Aryeon discography, comparing albums like Actual Fantasy, The Human Equation, The Universal Migrator (Pt. 1), and The Final Experiment, you will see that Ayreon has never really had a particular format; everything goes. All of the influences and styles we see here have already been demonstrated on previous Ayreon works. I would argue that there isn’t a single song on here that would seem out of place on an Ayreon album. While certain influences have been highlighted here, and while the frecuency of short song format may be higher here than on other Ayreon albums, the instrumentation and style of the songs is not anything that’s not been done on previous Ayreon records. As always, Arjen is combining his various preferred styles in ways that are still fresh, just as he has done album after album. Even the storyline on some Ayreon albums has been far less Ayreon than this. Take The Human Equation, for example, which has a meager tie-in to the Aryeon story arc which is only briefly mentioned as the album closes. On the other hand, here we have a deep link to the story of Mr. L which thoroughly embeds Lost in the New Real thoroughly into the Ayreon universe.
The question of “Ayreon-ness” thus lies only in whether or not one considers the defining aspect of Ayreon to be the element of abundant singers. For some, this may be the issue. For myself, it’s not. The specific use of instrumentation, the textures, tones, and melodies are what defines Ayreon for me. This doesn’t sound like Star One, Guilt Machine, or Stream of Passion, each which have a distinct sense of texture, tone, instrumentation, and melody. However, this album contains all of those elements in the Ayreon style. This is not to Mr. Lucassen’s discredit; all the opposite. I looooooooooooove Ayreon and I would trade an Ayreon sounding album for any of his other bands any day of the week. And thus, my variation on the title would be, “Ayreon: Arjen Anthony Lucassen is Lost in the New Real.”