Tomorrow sees the release of the tenth album under the Ayreon banner. With record-breaking pre-sales, almost a half-a-million views of the first video, and a sell-out series of concerts to be held in The Netherlands later this year, the man behind the project has much to be happy with.
Here Arjen Lucassen talks to Andy Read about the creation of his new concept album, The Source, why he decided it would be much more of a masculine record this time, his hopes for an atmospheric solo album and whether he has any plans to bring the Ayreon live show to other countries.
Following the interview we offer one of our popular Round Table Reviews of The Source.
Questions by Andy Read
Photos courtesy: Arjen Lucassen
[Andy] I’ve read that pre-sales for The Source are the biggest ever for an Ayreon album. What do you put that down to?
[Arjen] Good question, I’m not sure! I’m amazed myself! Hmm... well I think this album is more accessible and catchy than my previous Ayreon album. It’s also more guitar-oriented, which I think most listeners prefer. And I guess we hyped it really well with the ‘guess the musician’ games on Facebook and the video clips on YouTube! Mascot Label Group are doing an amazing job too, I’m sure that helps.
It was interesting to see that you released a 13-minute track as the first single/sampler. What was the thinking behind your overall marketing approach?
My main reason was that this track is totally representative of the album, and it features all the singers. If you like this track, my guess is you will like the whole album. I was afraid that it would be way too long, but it already has almost half a million views! And the reactions are heart-warmingly good.
In previous interviews you have said that when you started Ayreon you wanted to control everything. Have you become less of a « control freak » in that respect?
Totally! After working with amazing singers like Fish, Bruce Dickinson and Devin Townsend, I found the result is much better if you allow the musicians a lot of freedom. I really had to learn to let go of my original ideas.
In particular I am interested in how you work with each of your guest singers and musicians. Do you give them the words and the melodies/notes and say: “Just sing/play this for me”, or is there more of a working together on ideas. In other words how much of their contribution is them, and how much is you?
It’s different with each singer. I always record guide vocals (either myself, or with other singers) and send it to the singers. Some singers need guidance and follow it exactly, others will completely change it. But I always tell them not to copy the guide vocals and do it completely in their own special way. That’s why I ask them to be involved, because of their voice and their style.
Did you start off by thinking that you would create a double album or did the music or the story simply keep growing?
When I start, I don’t even know what project it will be! I just keep gathering little musical ideas that I record on a cassette player, until I think I have enough, or until the inspiration runs out. Then I select the best parts and work them out in the studio. At that point I have no idea how long the album will be. Usually it’s too much, and I have to delete stuff. It always hurts!
Your last project was The Gentle Storm with Anneke van Giersbergen. A very feminine project. Would it be fair to say that this is much more of a masculine project.
Absolutely! The Source was definitely a reaction to the Gentle Storm album. Also lyrically, going from a love story to the brutal annihilation of an entire world!
The 70s would probably have been your formative years musically? There is certainly a lot of the 70s rock sounds on The Source. Which three albums from that period would you say have influenced you the most in writing this new album?
Yes, that’s right. That would be Rainbow Rising, JC Superstar and as always, Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. There is also some of the folky Jethro Tull stuff as always, and ELP is never far away.
I think it is fair to say that the Ayreon live shows [the ‘Ayreon Universe’ event 15, 16, 17 November in Tilburg, NL] have been very popular, selling 9,000 tickets in one day. Do you think this or a similar Ayreon show could be held in other countries or even at some of the bigger festivals?
I don’t think doing this in another country is an option, the whole world is coming to these shows. I would have to think about a festival appearance. We sure would have to scale the show down for that though! Of course that wouldn’t be possible with 16 singers. Myself, I will definitely not be touring.
What do you see the next three years holding for Arjen Lucassen? What projects will follow next, and is there anything away from music that you want to achieve or experience.
I have no idea, really! I very much live in the present. I don’t like to ponder about the past or plan for the future. I just let the ideas come to me very naturally and wait to see what will happen. And no, for me there’s only music. Every new project that I do, is my dream at that moment. I’d love to do an atmospheric solo album, but I’ve been trying that for years and I keep changing my mind.
CD1 Chronicle 1: The Frame, The Day That The World Breaks Down (12:32), Sea Of Machines (5:08), Everybody Dies (4:42), Chronicle 2: The Aligning Of The Ten, Star Of Sirrah (7:03), All That Was (3:36), Run! Apocalypse! Run! (4:52), Condemned To Live (6:14)
CD2 Chronicle 3: The Transmigration, Aquatic Race (6:46), The Dream Dissolves (6:11), Deathcry Of A Race (4:43), Into The Ocean (4:53), Chronicle 4: The Rebirth, Bay Of Dreams (4:24), Planet Y Is Alive! (6:02), The Source Will Flow" (4:13), Journey To Forever (3:19), The Human Compulsion (2:15), March Of The Machines (1:40)
Patrick McAfee's Review
I am always interested to hear any new Ayreon release from the multi-talented Arjen Anthony Lucassen. The albums are a testament to his skills, as well as those of the gifted vocalists and musicians who guest on each project. He is an artist who seems to strive for perfection and that is to be respected. The albums are often enjoyable, though the results can almost be too perfect at times. Somewhat like a beautifully made film that doesn't quite resonate on an emotional level. That said, I go into each album with a level of curiosity and anticipation. Mainly, because Arjen is undoubtedly capable of producing great material, and has done so in the past.
The Source is the first Ayreon album in over three years and it acts as a prequel of sorts to the 2007 album, 01011001. It also returns Arjen to the world of science fiction concepts. As is tradition, each character is played by an array of guest vocalists. One unusual aspect of this album is that it utilises a mostly returning set of singers, rather than his usual process of new recruits for each album. That hardly matters though, as they are a very talented group of performers.
Included on this project are James LaBrie (Dream Theater), Floor Jansen (Nightwish), Hansi Kürsch (Blind Guardian), Simone Simons (Epica), Tobias Sammet (Avantasia), Tommy Karevik (Kamelot), Russell Allen (Symphony X) and Tommy Rogers (Between the Buried and Me). As would be expected, they all do fine work. Mark Kelly (Marillion), Paul Gilbert (Mr. Big) and Guthrie Govan (The Aristocrats) are a few of the musicians along-for-the-ride as well.
As with every Ayreon album, a lot of musical styles are covered. This is apparent right from the impressive opening track, The Day That The World Breaks Down. Utilising all of the "characters", this epic is like four songs in one, and is a good example of what Arjen does best.
In many ways, Ayreon albums are like musical theatre. Their ultimate success relies heavily on the quality of the songwriting, the performances, the production AND the story. The effort that went into The Source is obvious and the results are mostly strong. Though it seems that there is a bit more focus on metal this time around, the variety contained on the album is still its greatest strength.
All That Was captures this musical mix and is also an excellent example of how well Arjen writes and produces for female vocalists. Everybody Dies is a dazzler and a sonic roller coaster ride of a song. Other highlights include the dramatic The Dream Dissolves, Bay of Dreams, with its electronic base, and the Alan Parsons-ish, The Source Will Flow.
Ultimately though, this is an album that has to be judged as a complete work. Observed from that point of view, The Source is certainly impressive. Filled with great performances and captivating musical moments, this is a fine addition to the Ayreon discography. I would still say that like some previous works, it is more sheen than substance, but that's OK. That may be exactly what Arjen is aiming for. If the goal was to create an impeccably produced and enjoyable listen, he has certainly accomplished that objective.
Bryan Morey's Review
I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that Arjen Anthony Lucassen is the greatest story teller in rock. No one comes close. Many try, yet most fail. Lucassen and his Ayreon project are altogether unequalled on so many levels. When it comes to dystopic and science fiction-based progressive metal rock operas, you might as well ignore everybody else and just listen to Ayreon.
Admittedly, I'm pretty new to Ayreon, having been introduced to the project via 2013's The Theory of Everything. I discovered The Human Equation in October of 2015, and I was absolutely blown away. While I am no Ayreon expert, I know what I like and I like The Source. From the musicianship and the vocalists, to the sprawling story, this album is one of the best I have heard in a while. This is also probably the heaviest Ayreon album to date.
The first thing I noticed about the album was Dream Theater's James Labrie's earthy vocals at the beginning of the first song, The Day That The World Breaks Down. This song, at over 12 minutes in length, sets a high bar that, thankfully, the rest of the album manages to live up to. It is complete with catchy riffs and lyrics that dig into your ear and stay there for days. This song, like much of the album, contains a rotating cast of vocalists, which always adds to the depth of an Ayreon album. Just a few of the highlights of this album's singers (besides Labrie) include Symphony X's Russell Allen, Nightwish's Floor Jansen, and Epica's Simone Simons.
The story of The Source is as good as anything Lucassen has done in the past. The plot finds Ayreon returning to the science fiction storyline of pre- Theory of Everything albums, with this latest album acting as a prequel to 01011001. Indeed, that title makes an appearance in the lyrics of The Day That The World Breaks Down. The story takes place on the planet Alpha, far away in the Andromeda Galaxy, inhabited by Earth's mythical human ancestors. Essentially, computers are taking over, causing the planet to erupt in chaos. The story feels like it would have made a good episode of one of the many Star Trek series. The use of different vocalists for different characters, as Lucassen typically does for Ayreon albums, certainly brings the story to life.
Besides the story and epic metal musicality, I find James Labrie's vocals to be absolutely outstanding. He sings in a breathy tone that he hasn't really sung with since Dream Theater's Awake album. It brings a raw sense of emotion to the story, which juxtaposes nicely against the bombast of the guitars, bass and heavy drums.
The only real complaint I have with the album is the song, Deathcry of a Race. I know Ayreon often include seemingly disparate styles of music in songs, usually to great effect, but it doesn't really work in this one. The piece masterfully begins and ends with a wonderful flute solo that sounds just like Ian Anderson playing. (A.K.A. Jeroen Goossens - Ed).
After this, the song sounds quite like the rest of the album. However, about two and a half minutes in, the song moves into what sounds like an Islamic cleric crying or moaning, which sounds out of place. After that, it moves to full-blown operatic singing, which is common enough in prog metal, but it just sounds so weird when placed next to whatever it was that came before it. By having these different styles all mixed together in this song, I was taken out of the story and out of the music. Thankfully, this minor hiccup takes very little away from the overall experience, as one can see from the exceptional rating I'm giving the album.
In a brief summation: this album rocks hard. If you are already familiar with Ayreon, you will likely find much to enjoy in The Source. If you're new to Ayreon, but enjoy complex storytelling, intense metal and a variety of vocal styles, this album is well worth your time. The more you listen to this album, the more you will discover. Thus far, it sounds fresh with each listen. Indeed, The Source may very well be Ayreon's best yet.
Calum Gibson's Review
For those who don't know, Ayreon is Holland's answer to Avantasia, i.e. it is a musical group led by a single main composer (in this case Arjen Anthony Lucassen), with a seriously impressive list of guest musicians to handle vocals, guitars, keys and everything else.
Ayreon has attracted such guests as Andi Deris (Helloween), Guthrie Govan (The Aristocrats, Steven Wilson), Keith Emerson (ELP), Simone Simons (Epica) and indeed, rival composer Tobia Sammet, the mastermind behind Avantasia.
Having been listening to this project, and being thoroughly impressed with its other work, I was looking forward to this album. The anticipation only grew with each "guessing game" Arjen played on Facebook, playing clips of each guest (12 vocalists guest on this album alone) and asking fans to guess who the singer or instrumentalist was.
The opening track, The Day That The World Breaks Down, is a beauty, showcasing all the guest vocalists along with some stunning progressive metal musicianship. We have atmosphere, melody, riffs, harmonies and a bridge sung entirely in binary. A music video was released for this, showing each vocalist and giving details of the story, as well as behind-the-scenes information. It is a fantastic track that sums up the album.
The Source is just a wonderful collection of songs, all impeccably well written, and offering a brilliant addition to the story set out in 01011001. Every musician brings their own touch, and everyone delivers a fantastic performance. Guthrie Govan in particular delivers a stunning solo on The Dream Dissolves. The instrumental tracks provide some nice moments of relaxation in amongst the story. Overall this is simply 17 tracks of everything any fan of heavy progressive music could want.
Various styles are shown through the album, including a folky, almost Celtic sound on All That Was and the electronic drum and heavy guitar-driven Every Body Dies, thrown in with the "metal opera" sound.
The Source is a must for fans of Ayreon, Dream Theater, Avantasia, Kamelot and other such progressive metal bands.