The review you're about to read is perhaps best described as an edited version of my second review for Ayreon's 2004 album The Human Equation. I originally reviewed this album I think about two years ago at the the time of writing this and said some things about it that mere months later, no longer stood true for me. The first time I said that it wasn’t Ayreon’s best by far, and while I still agree with that, this album grew on me a lot since I wrote my original review, and I couldn't justify to myself leaving it in its current state any longer. So what your're about to read now is hopefully that second review, but with some better reviewing skills I've learned through a couple of years of doing this.
Before we begin proper, I'm just going to give you readers a one paragraph summary of the original review, so that this new one may be taken in context. You might think from reading this that I was negative about The Human Equation originally. This was not so, I actually have the album 79% on the site that hosted the review's scoring system. But 79% does not do The Human Equation justice at all. I called it overrated in terms of Ayreon albums (it is often hailed as the best Ayreon album), and in a way I still stand by that claim, but then again Ayreon has one of the most solid discographies of any artist that I listen to, so when using the term 'overrated' it must be taken in context, with a strong discography even an overrated album may be awarded a high or even perfect score. I also said in my original review that it took me several listens to get into The Human Equation properly and it came clear it me later than I still hadn't given it enough time, since I felt the need to redo my review from scratch. So to close this overly long introduction, I want to stress this one important thing:
Don’t judge this album by your first, or even your first few listens.
Now onto the review proper.
There are twenty songs on The Human Equation, with each title prefixed with Day + an incrementing number. This is in reference to the album's concept, which takes place over twenty days. None of the songs are exactly filler interludes either, so there is plenty of material on offer with the album and in typical Ayreon style, Arjen Lucassen has drawn influence from many different genres of music aside from metal, including folk, classical and psychedelic to name a few of them.
There’s also many different vocalists on the album, each with a different amount of parts. Dream Theater’s James LaBrie dominates the album since he is portraying the lead role in the story of The Human Equation, but others have very little parts. Devin Townsend only features on three of the twenty songs and the late Mike Baker only on one. What’s quite surprising about The Human Equation is the amount of vocals handled by Arjen Lucassen himself. For a man who says he can’t sing, he’s given himself quite a few vocal parts in his role as The Best Friend. Well in my opinion that's actually a good thing because I'm of the opinion that Lucassen is actually a very good singer, okay, he's not in the standards of James Labrie, but he has a very pleasant voice which he uses to great effect in his music, especially on this album.
This is not the greatest vocal cast that Lucassen has ever had on one of his albums but it is a very good one all the same. Not only does he have James LaBrie but also Mikeal Akerfeldt of Opeth. Having one well respected progressive metal vocalist on your album is good, two is outstanding. But it doesn’t end there. Singing in a more classic rock style voice is Magnus Ekwall of The Quill, who actually fights off LaBrie and Akerfeldt and gives the performance of the whole album. For female singers we have Heather Findlay, now formerly of progressive rock band Mostly Autumn, who handles many of the softer sections of the album. In stark contrast to Heather, Irene Jansen (sister of the more well known Floor Jansen) is very much a metal vocalist and her voice is really suited to both heavy sections and soft sections of the album. Marcela Bovio also provides a flawless performance as do Devin Townsend, and Mike Baker. Another singer on the album is Devon Graves, who is the most varied vocalist here because he sounds different on every song he appears on. I still to this day have to double check with the CD booklet to make sure its him singing.
But one of the main reasons why I'm not so keen on The Human Equation is the voice of one of its final singer that I didn't mention in the above paragraph, namely Eric Clayton of Saviour Machine. While I will never be a fan of his voice, he eventually grew on me enough to enjoy the parts of the album that he sings on. He is actually a very good vocalist and very varied with his range of tones, his voice is just not really for me. It's a personal preference thing. But the music that he is singing is spectacular, and deserves more credit than I originally gave it.
Now onto the actual music. Each Day of The Human Equation is vastly different to the last. On Day 1 we begin in a hospital scene. ‘Me’ (LaBrie) is comatose after some sort of accident so we get music that is gentle, while ‘Best Friend’ (Lucassen) and ‘Wife’ (Bovio) sit at his vigil. This song serves as the album’s introduction, the second Day, Isolation is much more of a song. Day one is one of the best ‘intro’ tracks around because it actually has meaning. For a time we stick to light music and then after a brief pause the metal begins, and it can be heard at once that The Human Equation is a much heavier album that many of the previous works, even the supposed definitive metal Ayreon album, Flight of the Migrator.
The Human Equation is also the Ayreon album that uses growled vocals the most. Normally Lucassen would feature growls in one song at maximum but this time we hear growls in Pain, Trauma, Loser, Confrontation and faintly in the background of School. They are either provided by Akerfeldt or Townsend. Due to the heavier nature of the music the growls fit in very well, but it’s the clean vocal performances that make this album vocally worthwhile.
Pain (Day 3) is one of the albums best songs because of the varied vocalists and a very good acoustic section that suddenly turns up in the middle of the song and true to form of progressive metal, its almost as if it came out of nowhere. It’s almost impossible to get bored once you connect with The Human Equation as you’ll always have a different musical direction thrown at you from track to track. This is a very demanding listen, don’t get me wrong, but it’s rewards are sweet. If you lack concentration however this is not the album for you.
The fifth Day, Voices is also another of the highlights mainly due to the vocals of Magnus Ekwall. At times he brings mind to Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant. The music starts folksy but later turns into something very heavy. The vocal trade offs are always good and well thought out. This album is like something that could be performed in theatre.
Other highlights from the first of the two discs are Day six: Childhood, and Day ten: Memories. The former is quite a sad sounding sound but the way its so emotional sung is fantastic. The latter features some of the best lead guitar on the album. Both are mostly lighter music though.
The second disc, while containing some very strong material is actually lacking in album highlights. The only one that really sticks out here is the folk metal song Day sixteen: Loser, which is actually pretty daft, especially with its lyrics. “If you had any balls at all you’d grab me by the throat.” It does a good job of portraying the scene of the mocking father, and it is all because of these lyrics, although God knows what Devin Townsend is going on about at the end in the section that he wrote for the song.
Overall this album is very strong, just not the strongest of the Ayreon albums. Neither is it the weakest of albums that have so far been released. And it does need a lot of time to grow on you (I cannot stress that enough). I recommend it to fans of progressive music only, or if you're not a total prog head, and are still interested in what you've been reading, then not as your first Ayreon album. There are three Ayreon albums that I find superior to this one (The Final Experiment, Into the Electric Castle & 01011001), but if you're coming at this from the view of a metal fan, I'd say listen to Flight of the Migrator first then if you're still interested think about trying The Human Equation out.
(Review originally written for Heavy Metal Haven)