Ayreon - Universal Migrator - Round Table Review
The Dream Sequencer has the darker undertones of a man trying to escape the reality of his own death, but the separate songs each tell a story all their own. Lucassen has managed to include references to all his previous Ayreon albums.
In Carried by the Wind the colonist inhabits the body of the blind minstrel Ayreon, with whom the saga started. As the insiders know Ayreon foretold mankind's future in which the colonist finds himself. The machine that is central to these CD has also been foreshadowed on the second Ayreon album Actual Fantasy in the song Back on Planet Earth.
And on the second CD we visit the planet of an old friend (or foe?) from Into The Electric Castle. Lucassen is starting to create a universe all his own, inviting us to join in the fun.
Part 1: The Dream Sequencer
Right at the start of this review, I should point out that I've been of a fan of Arjen Lucassen's Ayreon projects from the first CD in 1995. I consider his previous album, Into The Electric Castle the best CD of 1998 and would include it in any top ten list. So consider yourself warned about me being a little biased in favour of Mr. Lucassen's work. Having said that I should also point out that I've had some doubts about the idea of releasing two Ayreon CDs on which the quieter, atmospheric songs would be crammed on one CD and the rougher tracks on another. I've always felt it was the diversity between songs that made the Ayreon CDs outstanding. So let's see if Lucassen and collaborator Oscar Holleman have got away with it.
The first CD opens with The Dream Sequencer, a very good instrumental track, mixing elements of Alan Parsons with Gilmoresque guitar-style, before the typical Ayreon synths are mixed in.
Whether or not you will truly like My House On Mars depends for a very large part on your appreciation of the vocals of Johan Edlund (Tiamat). Though his style fits the melancholy mood of the song, I can't say this is the case for me. The instrumental section is quite good, though.
The comments concerning vocals on the previous track fit 2084 as well. To put it bluntly, I fail to be impressed by Lana Lane until the very last part of the track, where she manages to add some emotion to her performance. Great to have Clive Nolan back on an Ayreon CD, but his contribution is limited here, as is his appearance on the second CD. This is not a bad track, but it doesn't stand out either. Again the instrumentalists come off best.
The intro of One Small Step reminded me instantly of the Alan Parsons's Apollo, which is of course all the more striking, seeing as both pieces have the same subject matter. Edward Reekers has been my favourite Ayreon vocalist since The Final Experiment and it's only fitting that Lucassen has included him in the line up for this latest project. This track retains a subtle quiet throughout, until its climax.
The vocals of Mouse (Tuesday Child) on The Shooting Company Of Captain Francis B. Cocq sound eerily like Lucassen's own on previous Ayreon album, somewhat distorted, but very fitting in the overall Ayreon stable. Not a complex track, but I found it had immediate appeal. Maybe it's the subject matter...
Lana Lane is the only vocalist with a second track as lead singer. Dragon On The Sea is perhaps the better of her two songs, but I found myself still somewhat uncomfortable with her vocals. The easy going acoustic guitar fits perfectly with synths and keyboards. Drums are conspicuously absent and might have added a bit more edge to this track.
The choice of Temple Of The Cat for release as a single seems somewhat strange to me. Jacqueline Govaert's perfomance (Krezip) is in my view the best female appearance on the Universal Migrator project in this relaxed song. But the second CD does appear to have some tracks that would seem to have far greater commercial potential, even when they would obviously have to be edited for airplay. The most obvious choice would have to be Into The Black Hole with Bruce Dickinson, my overall favourite song from these CDs anyway.
Lucassen has only one song as lead singer on the Universal Migrator CDs in Carried By The Wind and it is striking that this time he hasn't distorted his own vocals in production as much as on other CDs. I've heard some derogatory remarks from friends about his earlier vocal performances (especially on Into The Electric Castle), but I've always enjoyed him in this role. This performance should silence those who felt that he couldn't sing.
And The Druids Turn To Stone is another favourite track on The Dream Sequencer, thanks in large part to Damian Wilson, one of the best singers around, who with Threshold got me interested again in progressive music with Psychedelicatessen back in '94, when I'd all but despaired at the entire genre. Maybe the track could have profited from some added energy.
The final song The First Man On Earth is perhaps the best on this album. Neal Morse's involvement is sure to attract new audiences to the Ayreon project, especially as he gives a convincing performance. In a way this track provides an ideal bridge to the second CD as it has an added harshness, absent from the previous material on this first album, with good electric guitar and drums.
The Dream Sequencer is not the best of the Universal Migrator CDs. It has some very good tracks, but lacks the cohesiveness of the second CD by letting most songs tell a story all of their own. In this way it's closer to Actual Fantasy than to Lucassen's previous concept albums. Most of the best songs are saved for last on this album, with Wilson and, especially, Morse giving good performances. I do feel justified in my initial unease about the division of melodic, atmospheric tracks and harsher material on two CDs. It backfires somewhat on The Dream Sequencer as it never reaches a real climax. The admittedly very good material here might have benefited from some powerhousing, even if only as instrumental parts. On the other hand, you have to applaud Lucassen for having the guts to go at it this way. I hope it works out for him.
There's really no reason not to recommend this album. Instrumentally it lives up to the quality I've come to expect on an Ayreon project. If some of the singers can't really make impress me, this is counterweighted by the good performances of others. The production value is high and sound quality is very good. There is just one "but" to add to this recommendation, though... Flight Of The Migrator is better.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10.
Dream Sequencer: The first of two albums, The Dream Sequencer opens with the title track, a tremendously Floydian opener of the likes of Shine On, Marooned, or even the opening track of Water's Amused To Death, The Ballad of Bill Hubbart. You know the style: keyboards hitting chords and a crystal clear electric guitar over it.
My Home On Mars: This track could have come directly from the Electric Castle. Don't believe the marketing texts claiming Lucassen has written something completely different, since almost all tracks on both albums could have been on the Electric Castle as well. The good vocal interplays between the male and female voice of After Forever's Floor Jansen, combined with the well-known bombastic keyboards (mainly trying to imitate horns etc. and of course containing the obligatory portamento/pitchwheel effects that drag the melody up and down) make this a good track.
2084: A fantastic track, mysterious and dark, with the excellent voice of Lana Lane, Nolan on keyboards and a really "sympho" rhythm. However, now Lucassen's mistake of putting the atmospheric pieces on one CD and the heavier ones on the other becomes painfully apparent: this track would have been much more powerful when preceded by a more forceful rock piece.
One Small Step: One Small Step featuring Edward Reekers of Kayak-fame describes the first moon landing. The main melody is a bit "I heard this all before in the eighties", but sticks to mind, even including the Floydian background chicks and guitar solo. The short synth solo that follows reveals the hand of Eric Norlander, who, as Rocket Scientists, recently has produced an album with massive keyboard work.
The Shooting Compagny of Captain Frans B. Coco: The opening could have come from Alan Parsons but quickly dissolves into one of these typical Ayreon tracks. The middle section sounds stolen from one of the composing sessions of Floyd's Echoes. There's no denying it: if you love the Floyd, you'll love these tracks!
Dragon of the Sea: OK, where's the action ?! Yet another dreamy piece with a lot of electronic noises and Rocket Scientists keyboard work. Definitely not one of the strongest tracks on the album. The end melody rememinded me even of ABBA, and that is not a recommendation.
Temple of the Cat: Temple of the Cat is a short piece and featured as a single, a curious little composition. Different melody lines tumble over eachother. No drums, very much focussed on melody, almost like a classical string quartet.
Carried by the Wind: Sung by Lucassen himself, his has a folky tune. Funny how the use of lots of electronic instruments almost cover up the traditional melody.
And the Druids Turned To Stone: Like stung by a bee I jumped up when I first listened to this song, went to the stereo and cranked it up until it almost exploded: it was Damion Wilson with his Holy Voice lifting this otherwise average track to the sky! I really adore his voice when he is able to use it well (which I think was not the case on The Electric Castle). The track itself is forcibly kept calm, each time you think it should explode, it collapses again :-(. Some Vangelis-like keyboards top the track off.
The First Man on Earth: A bit Beatlesque track (what else do you expect with Neil Morse on vocals), relatively uptempo compared to the other tracks and an easy-to-remember chorus. The powerful guitar solo in the middle is quite cool.
Dream Sequencer Reprise: Well, ehhh, a reprise. Smells like Floyd, tastes like Floyd, sounds like Floyd. WHERE'S GILMOUR?
The individual tracks are all good, some even excellent, but putting them on one album just doesn't work. After three tracks you wonder when it's going to start, in the middle it starts to get annoying and at the end you realise it never took off. Based on the high quality of the compositions, performance of the different artists and production it gets a 9, but due to the general impression the overall grade will be lower. Tip: buy both albums and make two CD's out of them yourself by mixing the two albums, this will improve both. Unless you're a story-line freak of course.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10.
When you look at the stunningly beautiful cover of this CD, you can see the landscape, in which the main character is walking: from his house in the back, all the way through the tunnel, into the windy open and the into.... The Dream Sequencer.
He is welcomed by Lana Lane, who fortunately only introduces the story and leaves the rest open to the listener (unlike Peter Daltrey, narrator on Electric Castle). Immediately the musical connection with Ayreon's favourite album, Wish You Were Here, becomes obvious: sweeping guitars and atmospheric 'synth-scapes', with a lovely key-solo to finish it off. Great start of this adventure.
Floor Jansen and Johan Edlund share the vocals in My House On Mars. Floor's vocals remind me very much of the Egyptian on Electric Castle. Regrettably, this song takes almost three minutes to really take off. It sounds great, but for me, it lacks a bit of excitement.
Lana Lane returns on 2084, which starts very dark. Because of this, and the female vocals, The Gathering comes to mind. Fans of this band will be pleased by this gothic track, with it's beautiful synth-solo by Clive Nolan. Again, this is a very nice, but quiet track and I am still waiting for the 'breakthrough' on this CD.
Former Kayak-singer Edward Reekers is featured on One Small Step. He's singing, on top of a combination of synths and acoustic guitars, in a great way. This man deserves to make an album all by himself, since he proves to be one of Hollands greatest singers. Compared to the Kayak-days he gained a lot more power.
The Shooting Company of Captain Frans B.Cocq is, despite the lovely mellotron middle part, not one of the best tracks of the album. I don't like the (sometimes distorted) vocals that much and it takes a long while to become really interesting. The instrumental, middle part is definitely the most interesting.
The second return of Lane Lane is a bit more adventurous than the first time. Dragon On The See is built around an ongoing computer-loop, with orchestral arrangements and acoustic guitars on top of it. Highlights of the track are the multi-vocal choruses.
Temple of the Cat has been chosen as a single, and I think it is a right choice. With it's wonderful, Beatle-ish arrangements it will immediately attract the attention of radio-listeners. The somewhat lighter attitude of this track is a pleasant surprise in the midst of this overall moody atmosphere. It is great to hear that Ayreon's music can be this fragile as well, contrary to the usual bombast. Lucassen has created his own Eleanor Rigby with this track!
Lucassen himself takes care of the lead in Carried By The Wind. Although he's not a great singer, I like his voice much better that the distorted Hippy's voice on Electric Castle. The melody-line is very attractive as well, adding to the light sound of the music.
Damian Wilson fills the spotlight in And The Druids Turn To Stone. This song is literally 'carried' by Wilson. Although the musical surroundings (including all sorts of synths and organs) are very atmospheric, he is the real centerpoint of this track. Early Landmarq comes to mind.
First Man On Earth is the absolute highlight of this album. That is, if you're a Beatles-fan. This one has written "Beatles" all over it. Neal Morse does a great job on this excellent track. Only minor (if any) complaint: why not used a real trumpet? Put that aside: a song to repeat over and over again..
The end of the song leads into the reprise of The Dream Sequencer. Together these two tracks from an excellent package deal of Pink Floyd and Beatles ingredients.
Conclusion: This album is a 'grower': you have to hear it several times. But, if you're in the right mood, there's much to enjoy. Dream Sequencer is a very atmospheric album, with beautiful Floydian guitars and two great Beatles-inspired songs. Great production.
Personally, I like the second half of the album better than the first one. It's lighter and a bit more adventurous. After opening, I find myself waiting for the real take-off, which isn't to arrive. The addition of some musical excitement, could have made this atmospheric album a bit more captivating.
Conclusion: 8- out of 10.
Part 2: Flight Of The Migrator
Chaos sets the pace for the album. More speed, fireworks on guitar, fast keyboards and synths and far more energetic drums than on The Dream Sequencer.
Russel Allen (Symphony X) provides superb vocals for Dawn Of A Million Souls. Strings (Pieter Siedlach) add a resting point and Michael Romeo, Allen's colleague from Symphony X gives a great guitar solo. All in all, it's clear from the start that we're in whole new territory here, compared to the first Universal Migrator CD. A gripping track, vocally and instrumentally.
There are more strings in the intro of Journey On The Waves Of Time. (Remember the Actual Fantasy song Back On Planet Earth? Its lyrics: "Riding on the Waves of Time"... Another fine vocal outing, this time by Ralf Scheepers (Primal Fear), and Ed Warby (Gorefest) is obviously enjoying himself at the drum kit. Keys provide brass imitations, familiar from The Final Experiment and Erik Norlander goes solo on the Hammond organ.
To The Quasar eases the pace with acoustic guitar in its first part The Taurus Pulsar. Andi Deris (Helloween) gets the familiar Ayreon 'vocal distortion treatment'. Then Lucassen shifts to electric guitar and riffing as we are taken into the second half of the track, Quasar 3c273. Deris sounds more familiar in this part as the tempo is upgraded. Heavy guitar and synth solos by Norlander and Rene Merkelbach add a sharper edge to this track. At this point it's becoming obvious that the most notable feature of this album is it's constant quality.
And so we come to the song I've been looking forward to most. Lucassen in collaboration with Bruce Dickinson; it sounds like a musical dream come true. Well, you won't be disappointed with Into The Black Hole. In this bombastic song Bruce is at the top of his game and the instrumentalist perform no less splendidly. Besides Norlander, Clive Nolan has another solo, while Lucassen takes care of solos and riffing on guitar. This compact trilogy is by far the best song Ayreon brings us this time and has to be reckoned a strong contender for 'best song of the year'.
From the bombastic sound of Into The Black Hole Lucassen takes us into the fast rock of Through The Wormhole with Fabio Lione (Rhapsody) ideal on vocals. Fiery work on drums by Warby, while the apparently multi talented Gary Wehrkamp (Shadow Gallery) adds both a guitar and synth solo.
Out Of The White Hole is another mini trilogy in which Lucassen treats us to a reacquaintance with 'Forever', the alien being from Into The Electric Castle. Shifting from rock to rough-edged metal, with some bombastic passages thrown in, this track features the vocals of Timo Kotipelto (Stratovarius). Fine work by Norlander on synths and Hammond.
As the colonist approaches planet Earth with the Universal Migrator we hear the familiar vocals of Robert Soeterbeek, who returns to the fold after a leave of absence on Into The Electric Castle. One of the more relaxed track on the album but with a short, biting guitar solo.
It seems fitting that Lucassen reserved the very last track for his old bandmate Ian Parry (Vengeance). The quiet first part of Sleeper Awake leads up to the speed of the vocal section, with Keiki Kumagai (Ars Nova) on guitar solo. The best work is delivered, again, by Ed Warby, who is consistent throughout the album. This song ends almost religiously, with choir and organ.
As I've mentioned in the review of The Dream Sequencer this second CD is a much stronger concept album, which leads us through a less diverse storyline, but actually gains added strength from the attention given to detail. This is one of those CDs best played as a single piece, without any interruptions.
Great compositions, a fine job done in engineering and solid performances all around. It's not as appealing as Into The Electric Castle when that album is taken in its totality, but as Lucassen's previous album did have some weak spots and this album hardly has any, I have no qualms about giving Flight Of The Migrator the same rating I'd have given the earlier CD.
Conclusion: 9.5 out of 10.
Chaos: Fast and heavy guitar work, a look-I-can-play-10000-notes-a-second piece. Just what we missed on the first album! For the rest nothing special.
Dawn of A Million Souls: Like Mahler's Fifth Symphony, a horn plays a melody after which the whole orchestra falls in. The whole track seems a metal version of an Alan Parsons track, although the chorus is typically Ayreon. Liked it!
Journey on the Waves Of Time: A good firm hardrock song, not unlike Iron Maiden during the Seventh Son era. The pitchwheel is again heavily used here. Some fine Hammond solo work by Norlander completes the track.
To The Quasar: Say What? I almost couldn't stop laughing when I saw the subtitles of this track. Holding a PhD in Astrophysics, 3C273 is an old friend of mine (b.t.w. the 3C273 means object 273 in the third Cambridge catalogue). Hearing one of the objects you studied put to heavy music is a new experience to me! The lyrics describing the astrophysical phenomena seem relatively accurate (within the limits of artistic freedom of course: using black holes as a means of transport is, apart from speculative, quite bad for one's health and should be warned against.) The heavy beating guitars describe the all-swallowing monstrous black hole quite well though. An extremely powerful track.
Into the Black Hole: Apparently it is not so violent once inside a black hole's event horizon, because the music, although bombastic though, quietens down to Star Trek level and Bruce Dickinson does his thing. I personally think this track is too slow for Bruce, he has to growl and howl his way through a song, not trying to perform an opera. The middle section gives him some more opportunity for that. The ending is quite metal again. A strong and very varied track, performed by another great vocalist, all in all.
Through the Wormhole: On The Run by Floyd in a metal version. Or maybe even The Needle Lies by Queensryche in terms of the driving rhythm. Not really my cup of tea this though. Average hardrock.
Out of the White Hole: Eighties hardrock in essence. No, this one didn't do it for me either, not quite spectacular.
To The Solar System: Opening with Welcome to the Machine-like sounds, this track could have been on the first album as well, minus the beating hardrock guitar of course. By now I'm getting tired of the portamento effects on the keyboards. This too, is merely an average track. The interesting guitar work halfway saves the day on this one.
The New Migrator: Deep monk-choir voices open the track. The whole thing is a bit Vangelis-like, with the massive classical orchestration, until we're back to metal again, and this time in fast forward! That's more like it! The album finishes like it started, in high gear, in particular in the Sleeper Awake chorus.
The quality of the tracks varied more as on the first album. Some super tracks (like the first five and the very last one) and then a couple where the inspiration seemed gone. Transmission claims that by putting the different types of tracks on two CD's you can see who like Ayreon best, the "sympho's" or the "harrockers". Not so. I think most people, including the "sympho's" would prefer the power of the first 5 songs over the first CD. Too bad the album collapses halfway. Again, I think mixing the two styles would have worked much better. So, OK, if you do that you'll have a copy of The Electric Castle. So?
Conclusion: 8 out of 10.
Regrettably 'Flight Of The Migrator' lacks the beautiful artwork by the Belgian painter Bertels, who was responsible for Dream Sequencer and The Electric Castle. According to Lucassen, it underlines the differences between both records.
And different they are: part 2 of this set kicks in from the first minute with fast guitars, keyboards and beating drums. Don't play this in your car, you will end up paying bills for driving too fast! Indeed this is pure, but structured Chaos.
Dawn of a Million Souls is simply awesome. From the first tones of the Hammond-organ to the string-arrangements on top of it and the deep bass-line: excellent. I really love the high and powerful voice of Russel Allen. This song echoes the spirit of the Final Experiment, but Lucassen doesn't repeat himself at all. The orchestral interlude is right at the spot. This song is a definite candidate for 'best track of the year'.
An orchestral arrangement introduces Journey on the Waves of Time. This track could have been taken from 'Electric Castle': fast, haunting and bombastic. Beating drums accompany the vocals in the verses, the choruses consist of instrumental parts. Highlight in this track: Erik Norlander on Hammond.
Acoustic guitars and distorted vocals comes together in the first, quieter, part of To The Quasar. It contrasts in a great way with Quasar 3C273, the heavy, second part of the song. This second part starts with an almost Vangelis-like key-sound, but soon changes in to a real metal-riff. It becomes clear that Lucassen has a subscription to great singers, 'cause Andi Deris is another revelation to me. And the best is yet to come...
...because Into The Black Hole probably is the track everyone has been waiting for. And Bruce Dickinson doesn't leave you disappointed. Lucassen's challenge was to let Dickinson do something different. For this reason he didn't let him sing Through The Wormhole, which is a much more Maiden-ish track.
Into The Black Hole proves Bruce is still in top-condition. Lucassen assured me that the long 'univeeee-eeeerse' is no trick! The progressive nature of the track makes Dickinson almost sound like Queensryche's Geoff Tate at moments. Not only because of these extraordinary vocals, but also because of the intense middle part of the track, Into The Black Hole is the second highlight (in a field of heights) of the album to me.
Into The Wormhole has a great up-beat drive. As said, the chorus has a very Maiden-ish sound (Aces High come to mind). Shadow Gallery's Gary Wehrkamp provides both guitar and keyboard-solo's. Fabio Lione has the ungrateful task to sing right after Dickinson. Although Lione has a great voice (no bad singers on this album!), I think he sounds a bit 'flat' at moments.
The excellent sound of a rough Hammond starts Out The White Hole. Despite the fun repeating riff, it's not very clear where this track is going to. For the length of this song, it lacks enough creativity to catch attention all 7 minutes. However, it gives room for another great voice: Timo Kotipelto. Erik Norlander shines again, soling in the middle part of the track.
To The Solar System starts as if Lucassen is holding back a wild horse. After a few minutes, the wild guitars break loose. On top of the riffs (played on a Gibson), Lucassen can be found soloing (on a Fender). One should almost forget that he's a great guitar-player as well.
Vengeance-mate Ian Parry has the honourable duty to close the chapter called 'Universal Migrator'. Drums and deep, dark sounds (voices?) lead to the orchestral part of The New Migrator. Right after this 'Methamorphosis' the opening theme of the album kicks in once more. 'Sleeper Awake' is the very apt title for this fast part, because -even if you managed to fall asleep- you will be woken up immediately at this point. Fortunately, this musical journey is no dream at all... it's the reality of your CD-player.
Conclusion: Although I consider myself a 'progger' much more than a 'rocker', I like the second CD much more than the first one. It's much more adventurous, especially the first 6 tracks, which feature many musical twists and turns. But I should warn you as well: where 'Dream Sequencer' requires some patience, 'Flight of the Migrator' requires some strong nerves and a good condition. Personally, I wouldn't mind a resting point on this album after half an hour. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it thoroughly.
Lucassen has taken a risk by 'splitting' his hard and soft side. By replacing (for example!) track 7 and 8 of the second album by tracks 7, 9, 10 and 11 of the first (and changing the order) the album would have had a bit more balance. At least it would result in my collection of favourite tracks ;-).
However, Lucassen shows with these two albums that he's a very versatile composer. Both albums contain elements for everyone, 'proggers' and 'rockers' alike.
Conclusion: 9 out of 10