Ayreon – The Theory of Everything (Music Review)

 

Ayreon - The Theory of Everything (Music Review)

Artist: Ayreon
Title: The Theory of Everything
Release date: October 29, 2013
D. Mac rating: 5 / 5

WARNING!

The following review is heavily biased. Arjen Anthony Lucassen (or, more specifically, his Ayreon project) is my third favorite musical artist of all time, behind Iron Maiden and Queen. His exploits are the only ones of which I have made significant attempts to accumulate some sort of fan-boy collection, though my searches slowed years ago. The themes introduced on The Human Equation gave my college career its direction toward psychology early on and this new album has come at a time when I have finally managed to complete my studies. It is that personal connection which allows this and previous Ayreon albums to hold greater favor with me.

This review is also being completed four months later than intended. I apologize to my RGN contacts for my absence.

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Arjen Lucassen has come a long way since the do-or-die atmosphere surrounding Ayreon: The Final Experiment. Nearly two decades of increasingly successful outings have curtailed the initial desperation and left an uncanny amount of clout in its wake. Few others, if any, match Lucassen’s propensity for writing captivating metal operas, especially when those operas often prove to be a big “who’s who” of names in music, largely from progressive rock and metal acts past and present. With the alleged completion of the “Planet Y” story line with 2008’s 01011001 and the subsequent epilogue on the Timeline compilation, the Ayreon project seemed at its end. So, it is with some surprise that I find myself reviewing a new Ayreon album, though I could never have expected its creator to wholly abandon his most successful and most creative project. On The Theory of Everything, Lucassen recapitulates his career by offering one of his best and most accessible albums to date.

When discussing Ayreon, it is difficult to decide what points to hit first as there are several elements synonymous with the project and with Lucassen himself; however, a general analysis is best suited to start things off. The Theory of Everything is comprised of four 20+ minute songs that have been split into 42 tracks ranging from 45 seconds to just shy of four minutes. The choice to have the album play out as such (though Lucassen states it happened naturally) is the first of a number of differences and proves to be one of its strong points. Without gaps between every song, the music simply flows, keeping the listener thoroughly engaged and often allowing the music to speak more words than the dialogue. While there are some great standalone moments, this album was made to be enjoyed as a whole rather than in segments. Coupling this with the fact that it runs at least 10 minutes less than the typical Ayreon metal opera, no second is wasted and no parts are particularly drawn out.

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One will find that the story on The Theory of Everything is significantly more streamlined than its predecessors, largely because it, as of now, appears self-contained, or at least not overtly connected to the allegedly completed plot of old. As such, it requires no knowledge of earlier albums and there is no need to reestablish previously explored concepts. Unlike past albums where one name was used for several characters (01011001), the same characters were voiced by different people depending on the song (The Final Experiment / Universal Migrator Pts. I & II) or character behavior and motivation were based on assumptions and stereotypes (Into the Electric Castle), the characters here are much more fleshed out. The plot points, the role of each character and their motivations can, at the very least, be loosely assessed by listening to the dialogue, foregoing the need for additional narration or examination of the liner notes.

While the story does revolve around solving the actual theory of everything1, the struggles of a young autistic2 savant (known to the listener at “The Prodigy”) are the focal point. It is the more secular story that makes the album so engaging: less focus on space, time travel and even the actual scientific theory to which the album’s plot owes its purpose allows the very realistic interpersonal conflicts to be the crux. This shift in storytelling is familiar ground for the Ayreon project as the The Human Equation is similarly divergent; however, The Theory of Everything takes these previously employed elements and pushes them further, benefiting greatly from the tangibility of its characters as well as the more developed relationships and conflicts that drive the narrative.

Musically, this album offers nothing atypical, which is arguably good and bad. While predictability might disappoint some, the music here does not stray from a tried-and-true formula featuring many little bits that are staples for Ayreon. When the heavier songs aren’t employing a staccato “freight train” chug (e.g. Collision), they’re giving prominence to a pulsating bass and skilled keyboard strokes (e.g. Progressive Waves) and allowing drummer Ed Warby to either subdue the accompanying instrumentation (e.g. Fortune?) or lead the assault (e.g. The Breakthrough). Soft, wistful melodies accompanied by acoustic guitar and various string and woodwind instruments (e.g. The Mirror of Dreams) set the contrast with the more upbeat (e.g. Potential) and atmospheric songs (e.g. Love and Envy and The Visitiation) shading the softer end of the extremes.

The abundance of other instruments, including but not limited to cello, violin and various flutes and pipes, never proves superfluous as everything is used to great effect. The three guest keyboardists, when not being relied on to captivate the listener on their own (e.g. Rick Wakeman’s piano segment from The Theory of Everything, Pt. 1), provide greater flair to already densely “proggy” passages (e.g. Jordan Rudess’ and Keith Emerson’s solos on Progressive Waves) and guest guitarist Steve Hackett follows similarly on The Parting with a brief yet expressive guitar solo. Unlike past albums, the reprise of certain passages and vocal melodies, though infrequent (e.g The Theory of Everything Pts. 1-3), makes The Theory of Everything more cohesive, allowing pervasive threads to exist despite the rapidity of the album’s changes.

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While previous albums had more extensive, star-studded casts of singers (01011001 having had a most impressive line-up), The Theory of Everything relies more on carrying the story with its seven voices, surprisingly none of which are Lucassen himself. Personally, I was most excited for the involvement of Marco Hietala of Tarot and Nightwish fame, whose performance exudes the brash and pretentious resoluteness of his character, the Rival, begging the question “why not until now?” While having more popular and/or accomplished singers like Hietala, Cristina Scabbia (Lacuna Coil) and John Wetton (King Crimson / Asia) on the album roused initial interest, the surprise of Ayreon albums comes from the singers of which one has not yet been made aware which, for me, allows the immensely passionate Tommy Karevik, the versatile Michael Mills, the deeply soulful Janne “JB” Christoffersson and the soothing Sara Squadrani to have significantly greater presence overall. This limited cast allows The Theory of Everything to succeed where 01011001, in particular, failed, allowing each singer more time to demonstrate their abilities and contribute more to the depth of their character.

Since I feel I can not laud anything as a “perfect” product, the 5 out of 5 score denotes something CLOSE to perfection, though I do have some gripes with the album. The story has a few holes insofar that if you do not own a physical copy of the album, the listener is unsure how certain elements progress. For example, the story is supposed to span eleven years but there is nothing in the dialogue to overtly give that impression. Certain plot points are also dropped without warning and are not wrapped up in any way, even in the album’s liner notes (e.g. the Rival’s involvement is dropped suddenly toward the end of the third act).

People who are unaware of progressive rock/metal’s abundance of cheese may be turned off by some of the lyrics (e.g. Love and Envy) and while there is no bad performance, Cristina Scabbia’s performance as the Mother tends to be underwhelming and Michael Mills often comes across as too over-the-top for his role as the obsessive Father. Despite the latter, there were some moments during my initial listens where the voices of the Father and the Prodigy (Karevik) were difficult to discern from each other, especially on The Breakthrough where the two are singing in tandem. Featuring fewer singers allows each more time to impress but the album’s decreased length and greater emphasis on music leaves me wanting more of these voices. The lack of more big choruses like Diagnosis or more tandem vocal passages like The Breakthrough is palpable and if prog is known for its pomp, this could benefit from just a little more in the vocal department. Ultimately, what The Theory of Everything gains by changing is equivalent to what it loses with no significant sway in either direction.

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If you’re the type who prefers to own a physical copy of your music, Arjen Lucassen always obliges his audience with top-notch offerings. A few different editions of this album exist, the most basic of which solely contains the two-disc album. The version I purchased is the limited edition artbook, containing four discs of music (two standard discs and two instrumental discs) and a bonus DVD inside of a record-sized hardcover book. Not only does this edition give greater detail to the ever-exceptional cover artwork of long-time collaborator Jef Bertels, but also to the photography in the album’s booklet. The bonus DVD is the most extensive Lucassen has ever put together, featuring a “making of” documentary, 90 minute of interviews and time-lapsed recording session footage. This elaborate package is certainly more suitable for the hardcore fan, so the digital, basic or special edition (the last of which also containing the aforementioned DVD) is best for the casual fan.

m/ Dan Mac m/
A Lighter Shade of Black 008

1 Wikipedia: Theory of Everything

2 It is never actually said that the Prodigy character is autistic. I’ve made that assumption based on what is stated of the character

Be sure to tune in to The Shred Shack every Tuesday night from 7:00pm to 9:00pm EST for two hours of heavy metal.

If you like the music, support the artist and buy his stuff.
If you’d like to try before you buy, request it from your library.

Editor’s Note: RealGamerNewZ has moved web servers, some older posts can no longer be commented on and have been preserved without their images. Thank you for your understanding in this matter. This article was written by Daniel MacDonald on 20140225 and was last modified on 20140225 .