Issue 2004-030: Ayreon Special
Round Table Review
Ayreon - The Human Equation
Disc 1 [50:47]: Day One: Vigil (1:33), Day Two: Isolation (8:42), Day Three: Pain (4:58), Day Four: Mystery (5:37), Day Five: Voices (7:09), Day Six: Childhood (5:05), Day Seven: Hope (2:47), Day Eight: School (4:22), Day Nine: Playground (2:15), Day Ten: Memories (3:57), Day Eleven: Love (4:18)
Disc 2 [51:34]: Day Twelve: Trauma (8:59), Day Thirteen: Sign (4:47), Day Fourteen: Pride (4:42), Day Fifteen: Betrayal (5:24), Day Sixteen: Loser (04:46), Day Seventeen: Accident (05:42), Day Eighteen: Realization (04:31), Day Nineteen: Disclosure (04:42), Day Twenty: Confrontation (07:03)
DVD [65:23]: Inside [Behind The Scenes] (45:27), Concept [The Concept Of The Human Equation] (3:05), Ayreon [The Story Of Ayreon](4:26), Drums [Ed Warby's Drums] (3:32), Video [Day 11: Love video] (3:49), Teaser [Teaser-trailer] (1:28)
Note: DVD comes with Special and Limited Editions only!
What's that, did someone just yell: "best album of the year!". Must be so because I think Mister Arjen Lucassen has pulled it off. His The Human Equation is without any doubt the best of his work so far and we are probably witness to the release of a real prog/prog metal classic. Even after weeks of intensive listening and playing it over and over again my amazement has not settled down. Boy, this Ayreon album is good!
At the time Into The Electric Castle was released I was a huge Fish fan. So because Derek William Dick was featured on ITEC, I bought this album. After that I just had to buy Flight Of The Migrator and The Dream Sequencer. Ayreon had made it to my list of preferred artists so I also bought Star One without any hesitation. And that was some kind of a disappointment: let me say that that is not his best album, but from time to time I play some of his previous work.
So when we at DPRP were invited to Arjen's studio, I was very happy to be one of that team. A hospitable Arjen showed us the artwork to this upcoming album, showed his studio and more important: played us parts of The Human Equation. What also struck me at the time was that Arjen is a real prog lover and we had a lot of matches in our respective CD collections. It was like visiting a friend with the same musical preferences - watching parts of DVD's, etc.
Some critics found his previous records too polished and much of the same. If someone should say that of this album, in my opinion he knows not what he speaks of. Oh yes Ayreon's style can be found throughout the album but this is not a copy of any of the previous work. Most striking feature of this album: it's intensity. The heavier parts are rough and powerful, the folk parts are sweet and lovely, the clean progressive parts are inventive and complicated. Never a dull moment. This album is such a potpourri of styles and instruments that almost everyone will find an appealing piece of music in it. And still it is a very coherent piece of work. Screaming guitars, heavy distorted guitars, flute, violin, didgeridoo, bassoon, (not so paarpy) keyboards, cello, Hammond, mandolin and still I have not listed them all. It's like a show case of modern music but it never sounds like show-off instrument wizardry: the music is more important, always backing-up the story and atmosphere.
Maybe the best illustrations to the mix of styles is: Day Five: Voices , dark heavy guitars, violins cello and flutes in one song. And also: the first three days on the second CD: Day 12: Trauma, Day 13: Sign and Day 14: Pride. Trauma starts of as a progressive rock song after which heavier guitars and grunts(!) come in, the next part is not as heavy with nice vocal harmonies, Irene Janssen's soprano voice does the chorus. The dark voice of Eric Clayton accompanied by dark sounding music is a prelude to heavier guitars again. This song is full of contrasts in itself but an even larger contrast exists with the following track: Day 13: Sign. This track is a folk like song with a flute and the lovely voice of Heather Findlay (Mostly Autumn). Day 14: Pride is yet another style distorted guitar, radio sounds, maybe a bit like a Dream Theater song. If you set Day Seven: Hope next to that, a happy song that is on the edge of 'hilarious' you might understand what I mean.
Although Arjen Lucassen is the mastermind of this delicious treat, it is his choice of vocalist that makes it even better. All have a distinct feature to their voice, no two voices sound the same, which make it easier to follow the story-line. A number of well-known musicians also do their part.
I have left out many things - how superb James LaBrie's voice is, if he's not doing high pitched screams; how astonishing the new discovery Marcela Bovio is; the mind blowing instrumental part of Day Six: Childhood; my favourite tracks (scattered over both CD's equally); the odd build up of Day 16: Loser and the marvellous artwork of Mattias Norén. But then it would appear that I like those two vocalists above the others (which isn't true); then it would appear that only Childhood has a nice instrumental part (which isn't true); then it would appear Loser is they only original song on the album (which isn't true); then it would appear I don't like the cover artwork by Jef Bertels (which isn't true).
Saying an album is a perfect 10 is a pretty clear statement. It should not be given lightly, therefore I was not planning to give it this rating. I desperately tried to find a reasons why it did not to deserve this rating. But after two weeks of listening, putting it away for a week (did another review) and listening again for a couple of days, I cannot find anything wrong with it: this is a perfect 10. Pretty clear to me.
Rock operas have always appealed to me, right from the start and the very first beginning. I still remember when I bought my first rock opera - Tommy by The Who - which was released in 1969! A year later Rice and Webber came up with the ultimate hippie rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar and that album still sets standards for modern rock operas. Arjen Lucassen wanted to revive the concept of the rock opera and so he created Ayreon. In 1995 the first Ayreon rock opera called The Final Experiment was born. That album swept me of my feet and it became one of my favourite rock albums ever. Till this day Ayreon made five other great albums of which Into The Electric Castle can be considered as his masterpiece. Other musicians also started to create rock operas, like e.g. Nikolo Kotzev (Nostradamus), Trent Gardner (Leonardo), Daniele Liverani (Genius) and last but not least The Aina rock opera; so that genre became rather popular again. It is already four years ago since Arjen came up with new Ayreon material, but now The Human Equation will finally hit the stores.
The cast of the voices on this double album is rather impressive, or should I say overwhelming, with names like: James LaBrie (Dream Theater), Mikael Åkerfeldt (Opeth), Eric Clayton (Saviour Machine), Devon Graves (Dead Soul Tribe), Devin Townsend, Marcela Bovio (Elfonia), Heather Findlay (Mostly Autumn), Mike Baker (Shadow Gallery), Irene Jansen and Magnus Ekwall (The Quill). Musically the songs on this album are more rock oriented and accessible, however with those typical Ayreon trademarks. Although Arjen also experiments with violin, cello and flute played by several seasoned musicians. Lyrically the story to this concept album is rather down to earth (a scrupulous businessman - LaBrie - ends up in a coma after an accident and he finds himself trapped in a couple of dreams, states of mind, where he has to confront his emotions and problems, which will lead him out of his coma and "fix" his life.), but extremely complex and detailed.
For me CD 1 is far superior to CD 2 because five highlights of this magnum opus are on the first CD. Isolation is filled with excellent guitar riffs and melodies; an amazing keys solo by Joost van den Broek, whereas the vocals of James and Irene are of heavenly beauty. Voices is the second highlight, packed with strings, violin and check out the rocky part which starts with the fantastic voice of Eric Clayton and later on other different voices and emotions really "spice up" this track. Childhood is the first real ballad and this song is rather spacey and mysterious and here Arjen plays one of his breathtaking guitar solos. School is again dominated by great singing and marvellous choruses, while the guitar theme (folk/Celtic) in the instrumental song Playground reminds me of the English AOR band Ten. The last song of the first CD is the already well-known single Love, a track with a nice melody and great vocals by James, which could do rather well on the radio.
CD2 features "only" two superb songs, three good tracks and four rather weak and mediocre ones. The lack of musical depth and the shortage of excellent compositions is obvious on this second CD. Especially the bitter sweet vocal lines and choruses in tracks like Betrayal, Accident? and Realization sound like typical romantic musical stuff. Even the Hammond Uriah Heep solo by Ken Hensley and the dreamy synth solo by Oliver Wakeman cannot "save" tracks like Day 16 and Day 17. Fortunately the great epic songs Trauma and Confrontation almost make up for the four "misses". Especially the emotional singing and the ferocious grunting by Mikael Åkerfeldt make Day Twelve: Trauma a mini rock opera in itself. And as for the last song I can only say, check out the twist at the end of the story.
It really is a shame that the second CD does not have quite the same musical level as the first one, otherwise The Human Equation would be a perfect candidate for the best rock album of the year. But if you have enjoyed Ayreon in the past, like me, then you should of course buy this album. If you do, then you should try to obtain the Limited Edition version, which is packed in a beautiful coverage with all the lyrics and beautiful atmospheric photographs. Furthermore this limited edition offers a DVD with really worthwhile stuff!!
I first heard a large chunk off this album when Arjen Lucassen had invited Dries and myself to his studio a few months back and I immediately knew that he had created a winner.
Lucassen clearly harks back to the days of Into The Electric Castle, featuring opera/musical style dialogue vocals on most tracks, rather than the song-based format of The Universal Migrator. The album is once again graced with a beautiful cover by Belgian painter Jeff Bertels and comes in three different formats: The regular edition, with 2CDs of music and a 20-page booklet with the beautiful Mattías Norén's artwork, then there is the special edition which comes in a carton box and features the CD as in the regular edition, as well as a bonus DVD. The Limited edition features all that and more, as it comes in a large DVD case sized hardcover book, which holds the two CDs and the DVD, as well as a 36 page booklet with additional artwork and interviews with Arjen Lucassen on all of the collaborators on the album.
The Special Edition costs only € 4 more than the regular edition, so it's not really a difficult choice, as the DVD definitely adds to the enjoyment. However, if you really want to spoil yourself, the Limited Edition is definitely the one to go for, though you must be quick, because apparently the album is strictly limited and will not be re-pressed once sold out.
As I'm sure my colleagues will have already have given an elaborate description of the music of the album above, I will focus this review on the bonus DVD that comes with the special and limited editions.
The DVD features a 45-minute documentary on the recording of the album. Lucassen gives an insightful and detailed description on the writing and recording process and it features lots footage from the work in the studio with the various artists. It seems as if pretty much every second of studio-work has been filmed and a lot of it appears in this well-edited documentary. The only minus is that the studio footage focuses a bit too much on the recording, with the occasional blooper, giggle or exclamation by the singers. I for one would have liked to see more of Arjen's direction during the recordings, and the conversations he had with the artists in between the takes.
Nonetheless it is very nice to watch the documentary and it gives you a good view on the immense undertaking that is an Ayreon album. If only more artists would include bonus DVDs with their albums.
The Concept documentary on the DVD is about the concept of the album, in which Arjen explains the concept of the album and details of the story - almost giving away the surprise ending. This documentary also features a nice
Easter egg which is a kind of 'blooper reel' with outtakes from the recordings where the vocalists miss their cues, lose their lines or screw up completely. Unfortunately for us, but I assume very fortunate for the artists, this is a soundtrack only, with a black screen rather than actual footage of the singers failing.
The Ayreon documentary focuses on Arjen Lucassen's career with some very vintage footage Arjen onstage with Vengeance and a video-clip from his first solo album Anthony. Very nice to see this footage and I would have loved to have seen more from this footage.
Ed Warby hosts the Drums feature, which -as the name suggests- is about the recording of the drums for The Human Equation.
The video clip for the single Day Eleven: Love is, well, frankly, uhm, an rather forgettable affair. Though it is shot more like a trailer for the album, I can't really see this video being played at MTV, and, well, it hasn't. The only minor point on the DVD. An added bonus though is that this track is mixed in 5.1 surround sound.
Finally the internet-only teaser-trailer for the album is also present on the DVD. For some reason the far superior full trailer that appeared on the Ayreon website a few months later is not featured. Probably because that trailer was made after the mastering for the DVD had already been finished.
As for the album itself, as I mentioned at the start - Lucassen has created another winner and I rate this album on par with Into The Electric Castle. It features too much to mention here, in fact, it is actually one of those albums which can't be described but has to be experienced.
Roaring heavy metal parts, dreamy ambient spacey parts, folky parts (lots of folky parts I must add), sugary sweet poppy parts and really proggy vintage keyboard parts... References for the album would include the entire spectrum of prog, rock, metal and more: Floyd, Genesis, Yes, Tull, Gentle Giant, Camel, Focus, Dream Theater... but also Iron Maiden, Sepultura, The Beatles, Flairck, Stravinsky and Beethoven, all mixed in a blender and hurdled towards you.
Probably the best example of the above would be Day Fourteen: Pride, which starts as a genuine Dream Theater song, Awake era (with LaBrie singing in his typical screamy-style - the only time he does so on the album) and it then switched 180 degrees into a very Jethro Tull like flute part, only to go back to Dream Theater again, complete with the typical samples of news broadcasts that often graces their tracks. But pretty much each and every song on the album features a variety of styles within the time span of the song.
The vocal performances are top-notch, with the highlight being James LaBrie who once again makes me wonder just why he always feels like screaming on Dream Theater albums - as he just sings so much better when he sings more subdued.
The other vocalist that stands out to me is Saviour Machine's Eric Clayton, whose warm voice come eerily close to David Bowie at times and really livens up each song he sings on. The highpoint of the whole album is probably the duet Clayton and LaBrie do on Day Two: Isolation.
Special mention must also go to Shadow Gallery's Mike Baker who does a menacing Alice Cooper impersonation on the track Day Sixteen: Loser. Speaking of which, Loser may well be my favourite track on the album as it sounds unlike anything I've heard before. It features didgeridoo, a folky tune played in heavy metal guitar mode, insightful lyrics, a really freaky solo by Ken 'Uriah Heep' Hensley, and an ending with a screaming Devin Townsend which pierces you to the very marrow.
My favourite tracks of the album are aforementioned Day Sixteen: Loser, Day Two: Isolation, Day Three: Pain, Day Five: Voices, Day Thirteen: Sign, Day Twenty: Confrontation - oh well, pretty much the whole album, really.
A nice touch of the album is that the first track on the second CD, Day Twelve: Trauma, actually consists of twelve tracks (eleven short 4-second tracks for the intro and the song itself). By doing so all the index tracks on both CDs actually correspond with the Day number on the album.
People with a particular dislike for Arjen Lucassen's music, don't really need to bother with The Human Equation, as it features all his trademarks that people have come to either love or hate over the years. There's his trademark changes in style, where a rock song can turn into a folk tune just like that. His love for high-pitched analogue synthesisers is over-evident on this album, with pretty much every song on the album gracing a synth solo. And there is also his love for sequencers, the album is sequencer galore, more even than his previous albums.
Though his lyrics aren't about aliens and parallel universes this time, they still have that certain 'Hollywood' style. And the singing is mostly dialogue vocals on this album, with a lot of question-answer style duets and many, many vocal effects.
And finally, the production is incredibly dense, with very little room to breathe left in the production. The music definitely won't bore you, but it will exhaust some of you. It is a lot to listen to in one go.
But for the people who love all that stuff, and judging from Ayreon's growing popularity that is a majority, this is one heck of an album and a very strong contender for "Best Album of the Year".
Ayreon - Day 11: Love
Tracklist: Day Eleven: Love (radio edit) (3:41), Day Two: Isolation (8:46), No Quarter (3:41), Space Oddity (4:56)
Day Eleven: Love is probably the most commercial sounding song on the new Ayreon album The Human Equation, and therefore a wise
choice to release as a single.
Ah, if only they'd played it on the radio, then it could have been a hit. As it features a style not unlike that of highly popular gothic prog band Within Temptation, it should have been a hit really. But unfortunately Ayreon suffered from the same April 19th release date as Marillion's You're Gone, when the composition of the charts was changed to include airplay as well as sales - thus a couple of thousand sales in that first week of release going completely unnoticed.
As for B-sides on the single, I think it was a wise decision to put the best track off The Human Equation as a B-side on the single, as this would certainly have generated interest in the album had the single become successful.
The other two B-sides are very interesting for Ayreon collectors. The first is a nice Led Zeppelin cover No Quarter, performed by Devon Graves, Magnus Ekwall, Eric Clayton and James LaBrie.
The second non-album track is Bowie's Space Oddity, performed by Saviours Machine's Eric Clayton. Clayton, whose voice sound eerily similar to that of Bowie's in some songs on The Human Equation, does a very interesting and unexpected take on this song, which also appeared on the Star One bonus disc, then sung by Lucassen himself.
The single comes as a digipack and also features a special code which gives access to exclusive downloads on the Ayreon website. In all a very nice item for Ayreon collectors.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10