Ayreon's "The Theory of Everything" is the eighth studio album Dutch songwriter, producer, singer, and multi-instrumentalist Arjen Anthony Lucassen. This concept album features as always a cast of many prog legends portraying enigmatic characters that tell a captivating story. This Ayreon project begins a new saga that disregards the science fiction theme of previous albums to embrace a new concept based on a realistic world. According to Lucassen "The Theory of Everything" is "four long tracks divided into various segments", culminating in just under an hour and a half or prog opera theatrics. The segments add up to 42 in total, with Lucassen paying obvious tribute to Douglas Adams' 'Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything' in "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" saga.
There are many guest artists to revel in on this album; the vocalists include JB from Grand Magus as The Teacher, Sara Squadrani from Ancient Bards as The Girl, Michael Mills from Toehider as The Father, Cristina Scabbia from Lacuna Coil as The Mother, Tommy Karevik from Kamelot, and Seventh Wonder as The Prodigy, Marco Hietala from Nightwish, and Tarot as The Rival, John Wetton from Asia, UK, King Crimson, Family, and Roxy Music as The Psychiatrist, and Wilmer Waarbroek on backing vocals. The musicians are incredible on this project consisting of the incomparable keyboardists Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson in a powerhouse performance with Jordan Rudess. Genesis guitarist extraordinaire guitarist Steve Hackett makes an appearance. Also on show are Arjen Anthony Lucassen on electric and acoustic guitars, bass guitar, mandolin, analog synthesizers, Hammond, Solina Strings. He is joined by talented masters Ed Warby on percussion, Troy Donockley from Nightwish on uilleann pipes, whistles, Ben Mathot on violin, Maaike Peterse on cello, Jeroen Goossens on flutes, piccolo, bamboo flute, contrabass flute, Siddharta Barnhoorn on orchestrations and Michael Mills on Irish bouzouki.
Now for the actual contents. It opens with 'Singularity' beginning with soft, minimalist flute and acoustics. A pulsating bassline pumps ominously and then the voices begin. The gorgeous vocals of Cristina Scabbia resonates like an angel; as the Mother she infuses her performance with passion and fire. The Prodigy is the main protagonist, an amazing vocal from Karavik, and Michael Mills is superb as The Father. After a huge conversation about the genius becoming manipulated into a world changing, mind altering mathematical experiment of scientific significance, the music builds into a tense metal riff and soaring synths. At 8:35 there is a violin concerto waltz and this builds to a fantastic guitar solo with delay reverb. There is an atmospheric grinding organ sound and some mechanised effects. The Father sings "down here on my knees, feeling the weight of shame, how could I have done this to you my son, why should I forgive you after all you've done." The Prodigy answers "I was driven and blind, we can still work together if you allow me". The Father retorts "why should I give you a chance why should I trust you now?" The Prodigy replies "if we join our minds then together we can do this, we both want to be the first, we both want to change the world, we can work all night, we can solve this mystery be a part of history".
The chemistry is signified by chemical synth effects. The experiment begins with scientific gobbledygook spouting out like some bad chemistry effect "isolate the gravity, symmetry". 'Progressive Waves' has to be given special mention as it is a huge keyboard solo between Emerson and Rudess; a simply gobsmacking moment of the album. Emerson is brilliant of course and I love to hear his unmistakeable trademark staccato Hammond sound. Rudess on the Continuum is a master in his own right and gets some amazing sounds out of that weird contraption of his. There is a mood change then as the Teacher sings emotionally, "dear friend, my work as done, science had to survive, thank you for your faith." A nice little segment of keyboard The Psychiatrist sings "His mind took flight and his eyes have lost their light, all we have to go on is a note, he changed the world last night working together side by side, his father is the only one who knows". The Mother sings passionately and then an emotive lead guitar break signifies the gravity of the situation as the experiment has gone wrong, entering the eleventh dimension. Some sad violin strains echo the dramatis and then very strong guitar and keyboard melodies join the soundscape. The Girl and The Mother have a duet as they wail over the plight of the Prodigy. A heartbeat bass draws the track to a close and the words "will we ever understand how two different hands styles came to grace this blackboard."
The second epic is 'Symmetry' opening with grand guitar and ethereal pipes until a throbbing synth locks in and some wonderful phased lead guitar motifs. This one has the foreign sound of 'Loser' from "The Human Equation". The deep resonating lyrics tell the tale, "I don't mean to interfere but I see quite a change in you". The tale unfolds where the Teacher implores "We can play a part changing history, our time is near" This is followed by the observations of The Psychiatrist "I have to say it's unusual, such a transformation overnight, I wouldn't have thought it was possible, I don't want to scare you but it can't be right" and the Son replies "A world of endless wonder lies ahead." The synth solo to follow is wonderful sounding very retro and 80s, then an ascending riff of distorted power crunches along till it moves to a fast tempo chugging metal riff. I love this section at 5:10 and the Hammond underneath is nicely placed. A lead guitar solo and Rick Wakeman's keyboard workout follows with grinding organ a constant presence. The aggressive vocals that trade off are so well executed "if you are such a genius it didn't get you very far".
Then the track segues to a droning buzz synth and a slow measured cadence at 7:50. This has a cool spacey sound and then moves into a melodic synth phrase and deep piano tones. The story continues with the regret of the characters shining through "I'm afraid we've got a problem, the side effects have been confirmed, psychosis and delusions, we have to stop the trial today, It's too dangerous, the boy deserves to know what's going on, what have we done?" This section reminds me of another Ayreon project in melody. The lead guitar break is brilliant, followed by more storyline from the Father, an incredible performance by Michael Mills, "I've been giving you a drug, I was convinced that it would help you, can you forgive me what I've done?" There is a nice synth section here that is captivating. Later, the metal riffs thrash along and kick the song up another gear. The Uilleann pipes enter and have a beautiful sound as the Prodigy and The Girl converse about him being able to stay with her. The Mother tries to warn her son with the Father and trade off a segment of arguing about the Prodigy; "He will deceive you, you're being used, don't let him play you, all he wants to do, he wants to be with you". I like the Irish sounding pipes throughout lending a very Celtic vibe and the song transcends into tranquil ambience. At about 17 minutes the music changes gears and the Teacher offers to make a deal, "I am a brilliant chemist, I can replicate your drug but my offer has a price you have to help me," sings Wetton. The Prodigy says count me in, "what do you need from me?" The Teacher explains what he wants. The Hammond grows in intensity as the Mother sings of her pain, pleading for her son to be cautious. An orchestrated passage signifies that the tale is getting darker, and there is a heavy rock guitar-driven section to follow, and the Girl sings "I won't be part of this nightmare, you're out on your own." The Prodigy is left to ponder "what have I done? Now she's gone."
The third multi-movement suite is 'Entanglement', opening with spacey synths, and a deep baritone voice; "do you struggle to adapt, do you feel detached?" The Prodigy answers he feels "like some alien machine, knowing what to feel or what is real". The Girl answers with her beautiful heartfelt tones and the conversation continues with the Psychiatrist; "let's talk about your dreams, can you describe what you feel, do you feel anything at all?" The Prodigy says "I see things that don't belong, there is so much more beyond." A lot of storyline is conveyed by the next sequence; the Mother screams, "I won't let you endanger my child". A cool retro synth workout takes over as a heavy riff cranks along. Michael Mills reaches some incredible high register octaves and then a gorgeous flute solo drifts in. The song becomes very melancholy as the Father whispers hoarsely, "ever since I was a child it all came so easy I never had to try." The violin adds a tone of sadness as the Prodigy pleads to continue with the experiment despite the warnings from his loved ones. The time signature changes to a funky bass and some techno keys that cascade up and down the scale. The lead guitar break is excellent at about 10 minutes and then a heavy rock beat with fast drums and a galloping metal guitar blasts through. Mills screams out as high as he can and then a violin solos over a synth pulse; one of the ambient moments on the album. The poignant lyrics are searching for answers; "Where am I going? How did this happen? My life is unfolding, depressingly average."
I like the time sig and choppy fractured riff as the gorgeous voice of Sara Squadrani chimes in. Some oddly placed violins over a very heavy riff enter and then another techno synth mix like a sequencer is heard, followed by distorted chopped riff and a grand crystal clear synth melody. At 15:30 there is an acoustic sound and this is broken by ultra heavy guitar riffing, an excellent sound, and soon staccato keyboards join. The story continues with "I know why you're here, you're a fellow man of science, our point of view is very much alive." The Prodigy asks to keep it between themselves, as "no one needs to know". The plot thickens and so does the music with layers of guitars and a pulsating synth locks in at 18 minutes. Some wonderful vocals sing "I am so close to the answer but I need your brilliant mind". The track builds to a crescendo as we near the end with grandiose keys, powerful melodies and shimmering Hammond then a final guitar motif. This is a fantastic song full of vibrant energy and incredible vocal performances with accomplished guitar and synth workouts.
The 4th phase opens with waves crashing on a beach and then the deep vocal sings "will we ever get this close again uniting the forces of our universe?" He is answered by Cristina's crystalline tones "it's been too long, I think he's gone." At this point the Hammond enters with a powerful fanfare, and then some delightful electric organ and a grand piano segment. The tale continues as the Prodigy is being immersed in the grand experiment; "Unification of the great and small". The Prodigy says "I just need some more time as the answer is blindingly near." The Girl is worried for his safety and pleads for him to stop. The Son is now confused and is losing touch with reality. An Egyptian sounding melody enters, with some wonderful flourishes on keyboard and Steve Hackett's guitar. Acoustics chime in and the Father's lyrics "is this your work, be honest now, how did you do it, I'm not angry boy, but I really need to know." The Prodigy is sorry but his Rival says he has always been the genius and "he just wants to be like me." This storyline reminds me of the rivalry between those who steal ideas and claim it for themselves seen in many movies.
I like the next section and how the Girl sings "what have you got against him, what did he ever do to you?" The Rival retorts with "I can't believe you're falling for this loser". He says that they should be together and is obviously jealous. At 18 minutes the song culminates in a fiery argument between the main protagonists. The music has reached a crescendo and is nearing the end. A dreamy flute solo and violin serrations are joined by piccolo; some of the most sublime music you are likely to hear. At the end of this I am left just shaking my head in absolute awe at the majesty and beauty of such music; it captures the soul and lifts the spirits.
Overall, this new Ayreon project is a stunning achievement with some unbelievably transcendent musicianship. The vocals are flawless throughout especially Mills, Scabbia and Wetton. It is hard to pick a favourite song as they complete the whole and are inseparable, though CD 2 absolutely shines through as some of the best Ayreon I have heard. To listen to this album in one sitting is one of the more pleasurable musical experiences over recent years. I have loved so much of Ayreon's work over Arjen's long career, and string of masterpieces, and this album is no exception; a masterful musical triumph without a doubt. It grows on my ears on subsequent listens, and especially noticeable are the flute, Uilleann pipes and the keyboard flourishes. The melodies are infectious and begin to grow familiar over a few listens. The storyline is perfect for this project and not as complex as other Ayreon tales. I thoroughly recommend this for all prog addicts; not too heavy, not too light, but perfectly balanced virtuoso musicianship and outstanding vocal performances.