- Exceeded High Expectations
It’s been five years since the release of the last Ayreon album, 01011001, although Arjen Lucassen certainly didn’t slow down after that. Even though there has been hot debate by our Progulator staff as to whether his solo album Lost in the New Real was actually an Ayreon record or not, I suppose the recent release of The Theory of Everything might settle that battle with it’s return to full on Ayreon glory, replete with huge numbers of guests despite the fact that Arjen has stated that he was scaling down; and indeed he has, going from around 17 singers on his 2008 album to only (ONLY) ten on this one. For a man such as Arjen Anthony Lucassen, it seems that the bar is always set high, and Mr. L definitely set out to one-up himself on his latest effort. If an Ayreon record was ever over the top, The Theory of Everything certainly is that album.
Arjen’s latest record sets off to do rock opera differently than ever before, focusing musically on the big picture, making long-form musical statements from small interconnected movements that present the development of scenes and set the stage for vocalist interactions rather than focusing on the traditional method of verse/chorus; in fact, there is hardly any verse/chorus here at all, which may make it difficult for the more pop-prog oriented fans at first, but in the end provides a more confident seat from which to view the work as a whole. Some may disagree, but in my opinion, while Arjen has always made fantastic rock operas, The Theory of Everything feels like Ayreon’s first true rock opera (with the possible exception of Into the Electric Castle) whereas most of Arjen’s albums, although presenting an interconnected story, felt more like concept records with songs that could could easily be taken out of their environment and stand on their own. On The Theory of Everything we essentially get four songs of 20+ minutes each, a true prog lover’s dream come true.
What caught my attention, however, is the manner in which the pieces unfold; while each track feels contained to a certain extent and presents musical ideas in its own way, there is a strong sense of continuity and non-interruption between songs that makes it very easy to visualize singers moving seamlessly on and off stage and interacting as the story progresses. The bigger gaps between the four pieces give a strong sense of set-changes on stage, the change of discs occurs in the perfect spot in the story for an ‘intermission’ between acts, while the use of leitmotif within each longer piece and across all four songs is the glue that holds it all together. Although this is very different than what Arjen has done in the past, he pulls off the format nicely; in fact, I would go as far as to say that this sort of format is allowing Arjen to show the most mature compositional abilities of his career, and that is saying quite a lot indeed.
As for the guest singers, what can I say? They’re amazing. We see Cristina Scabbia and Marco Hietala offering what I would consider the best performances of their careers; Arjen certainly has a knack for sucking out every ounce of wonderfulness out of these vocalists. Take Marco’s performance on “The Rival’s Dilemma” for example, where we hear the wonderful low range of the Finnish vocalist’s voice that is seldom heard in his other projects, as well as his level of theatricality and expression taken to new heights, which is further exemplified in “Quid Pro Quo,” one of the major turning points of the story. Song like “Side Effects” and “The Consultation” feature brilliant performances by John Wetton (ex-King Crimson, UK) where John capitalizes on restraint matched with dynamism, perfectly exemplifying the professionalism required of the role of psychologist, making him the most convincing of all the character roles. And of course, what more can we say about Tommy Karevik (Kamelot, Seventh Wonder)? Like always, his performances range from virtuosic in his use of ad libs on “The Prodigy’s World” to heart melting passion as he reject’s his father on “Frequency” and later embraces their relationship just before death on “The Note.” To put in a plug on the latter piece, Arjen’s choice of gritty Hammond with expert control of undulating Leslie rotors makes for a simple, intimate, and powerful choice of instrumentation to back up Tommy’s perfect voice.
On the instrumental side we see some huge waves as well. As always, Arjen shows himself as a compositional master on all instruments prog, as well as a formidable player with the ability to always find the perfect note, whether that’s on his Gilmour-esque guitar solos or methodical keyboard work, always knowing when the perfect moment to bring in Hammonds, old school string machines, or diverse uses of the Minimoog; while you can always tell where the influences are, the way he incorporates, mixes, matches, and blends a plethora of styles is always distinctively Arjen in the best of ways. Of course, for many fans, particularly those of classic prog, the appearance of legendary icons such as Steve Hackett, Keith Emerson, and Rick Wakeman is the icing on the cake. In most regards, I’d say they lived up to their fame, although I felt that Emerson’s solo on “Progressive Waves” could have been so much more. On the other hand, Rick Wakeman’s classic Minimoog performances on “Diagnosis” and “Surface Tension” displayed the perfect balance between free soloing and a committed musicality which the piece demands. Hackett’s modal soloing on “The Parting” also doesn’t disappoint, showing a delicate but improvised sense of phrasing that is recognizeable from the definitive Genesis guitarist. Of course the individual performances are well done, how could they not be when you bring in this caliber of musicians? That said, it isn’t the appearance of big names that makes this album great. Their appearance is a nice touch, a sort of linking chain in the history of prog, uniting the past with the present, but it is Lucassen’s music and direction that drive The Theory of Everything.
As an entire rock opera, the flow is a rollercoaster of styles, moods and dynamics. Arjen delivers everything here, starting from his Jethro Tull-esque introduction of the main theme, employing doubled Hammond and flute, to it’s powerful strings repetition of this theme in the closer, “The Theory of Everything part 3.” Hang on to your seat belts, because in between there’s about everything under the sun. We witness the John Wetton pieces being heavily dominated by electronics and arpeggiators, while “Alive!” gives us some 80’s pop rock to the tune of Michael Mill’s vocals soaring into orbit. “Magnetism” nails down that strong Celtic vibe, masterfully augmented by the playing of Troy Donockley, and “The Breakthrough” gives us a sort of boogie with loads of vocal tradeoffs and the implemenation of some familiar themes from the work. Of course, there’s the heavy parts, such as “Quantum Chaos,” with its POWERFUL chugging guitars behind arpeggiators and sandwiching sections of sci-fi film-score-like melodic moments. And if there’s anything Arjen uses to perfection, it’s that Hammond, just about everywhere on the record.
Coming in late in the year, it’s hard to ask myself how does The Theory of Everything hold up against the best records of the year. Well, it’s a bit to early to be making decisions for the 2014 Proggies, but I most certainly have no reservations when I say that Ayreon has delivered a record that is hard to match in quality and scope. In 2013 there are very few artists that are attempting to do something this ambitious; I must say that in that way this record serves as a sort of generational benchmark, a reminder that 1973 isn’t the only place where we can look for rock albums that are over the top, nerdy, and most importantly, enjoyable.