Progressive Metal / Metal Related / Non-Metal • Netherlands
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Ayreon is the flagship musical project of Arjen Anthony Lucassen, a Dutch multi-instrumentalist, composer, and vocalist. Ayreon releases are usually rock-operas with an ongoing science fiction storyline, although there have been exceptions in the form of Actual Fantasy (not a rock opera) and The Human Equation (not science fiction, but still containing ties to the main storyline).

A common misconception is that the name "Ayreon" is derived from Arjen's own name, but this is purely coincidental: originally the minstrel from the first album The Final Experiment was called Aries, but when this didn't fit the meters for the songs (Arjen himself mispronounced it A-ri-es (Note: This is how the Dutch do pronounce it), it was changed to Ayreon to sound both old-fashioned (Ay) and futuristic (Eon).
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AYREON Discography

AYREON albums / top albums

AYREON The Final Experiment album cover 3.76 | 43 ratings
The Final Experiment
Progressive Metal 1995
AYREON Actual Fantasy album cover 3.61 | 33 ratings
Actual Fantasy
Progressive Metal 1996
AYREON Into the Electric Castle album cover 4.10 | 66 ratings
Into the Electric Castle
Progressive Metal 1998
AYREON Universal Migrator, Part 1: The Dream Sequencer album cover 3.58 | 47 ratings
Universal Migrator, Part 1: The Dream Sequencer
Metal Related 2000
AYREON Universal Migrator, Part 2: Flight of the Migrator album cover 3.77 | 47 ratings
Universal Migrator, Part 2: Flight of the Migrator
Progressive Metal 2000
AYREON The Human Equation album cover 4.35 | 97 ratings
The Human Equation
Progressive Metal 2004
AYREON Actual Fantasy Revisited album cover 3.67 | 6 ratings
Actual Fantasy Revisited
Progressive Metal 2004
AYREON 01011001 album cover 4.23 | 75 ratings
Progressive Metal 2008
AYREON The Theory of Everything album cover 4.30 | 44 ratings
The Theory of Everything
Metal Related 2013
AYREON The Source album cover 4.42 | 26 ratings
The Source
Progressive Metal 2017
AYREON Transitus album cover 4.22 | 9 ratings
Progressive Metal 2020

AYREON EPs & splits

AYREON Elected album cover 3.07 | 13 ratings
Progressive Metal 2008

AYREON live albums

AYREON Ayreon Universe - Best of Ayreon Live album cover 4.75 | 2 ratings
Ayreon Universe - Best of Ayreon Live
Progressive Metal 2018
AYREON Electric Castle Live and Other Tales album cover 4.75 | 2 ratings
Electric Castle Live and Other Tales
Progressive Metal 2020

AYREON demos, promos, fans club and other releases (no bootlegs)

AYREON re-issues & compilations

AYREON Ayreonauts Only album cover 2.64 | 8 ratings
Ayreonauts Only
Progressive Metal 2000
AYREON Timeline album cover 4.14 | 9 ratings
Progressive Metal 2008

AYREON singles (7)

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0.00 | 0 ratings
Sail Away to Avalon
Progressive Metal 1995
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0.00 | 0 ratings
The Stranger From Within
Progressive Metal 1996
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0.00 | 0 ratings
Temple of the Cat (Acoustic Version)
Non-Metal 2000
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0.00 | 0 ratings
Temple of the Cat
Metal Related 2000
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4.00 | 1 ratings
Day Eleven: Love
Progressive Metal 2004
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4.00 | 1 ratings
Progressive Metal 2004
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3.00 | 1 ratings
Come Back to Me
Progressive Metal 2005

AYREON movies (DVD, Blu-Ray or VHS)

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4.83 | 3 ratings
The Theater Equation
Progressive Metal 2016
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5.00 | 4 ratings
Ayreon Universe - Best of Ayreon Live
Progressive Metal 2018
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5.00 | 3 ratings
Electric Castle Live and Other Tales
Progressive Metal 2020

AYREON Reviews

AYREON Transitus

Album · 2020 · Progressive Metal
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Transitus (2020) is the tenth full-length studio album by Dutch progressive rock/metal project Ayreon. The follow-up to The Source (2017), Transitus wasn't originally convinced as an Ayreon album, which may explain why Arjen Anthony Lucassen has released two Ayreon studio albums in a row without working on another project between them, as is the normal process for him. Because of its origins Transitus is also the first Ayreon album since The Dream Sequencer (2000) to not feature Ed Warby on drums. They are instead played by Juan van Emmerloot. Other regular guest musicians like Joost van den Broek (keyboards) and Ben Mathot (violin) are still featured however. Guest guitar solos on this album are performed by Joe Satriani and Marty Friedman. Transitus was released with an accompanying comic book that tells its story, to be read along with the music, with all the characters designed to look like their vocalists.

Transitus is primarily the story of Daniel, played by Tommy Karevik (Kamelot / Seventh Wonder) and Abby, played by Cammie Gilbert (Oceans of Slumber). Daniel and Abby are a mixed race couple living in 1884 (200 years before the human race destroys itself in the main Ayreon storyline). If we were to talk of Transitus in terms of movie or literacy genres, then we'd primarily call it a romance as the starstruck couple face social prejudice related to their respective stations: Daniel's the son of the lord of the manner (Twisted Sister legend Dee Snider), while Abby is a mere servant. But this is Ayreon, so there are going to be twists of an otherworldly nature, so in fact Transitus is perhaps more than just a romance, but a ghost story. Spoiler alert, Daniel dies in track one. He ends up in a mysterious place between this world and next: Transitus!

Transitus is narrated by Tom Baker (TV's Fourth Doctor in Doctor Who), who adds a dramatic flair to his narration that's sure to get anyone's inner geek bouncing off the walls. Narration is something that for me that can ultimately harm a very good album if done too excessively, but Baker makes this a real treat, conjuring some real gothic horror vibes at times, which fits the music perfectly. Though not a singer, Baker is the only member of the cast in his role as The Storyteller to appear on every song on the album. Tommy Karevik's Daniel, despite his death right at the start of the story, appears the most often of the actual vocalists, but Transitus isn't designed to give everyone even close to equal singing time, so while Daniel is the tale's protagonist his role is primarily featured on the first disc of the album, where he appears on all but two songs. His appearances are reduced on the second disc, as the still living characters' parts in the story are told. Cammie Gilbert's Abby is the second most appearing character, followed by Lavinia, her stepmother, played by Amanda Somerville (Trillium). Lavinia, a medium, becomes haunted by the ghost of Daniel right at the start of the story, but her vocals are only featured on the second disc of the album, where she effectively becomes the lead character, neither hero nor true villain, just misguided.

The remainder of the album's diverse vocal cast are supporting characters. The most important of these is Henry, Daniel's brother, played by Paul Manzi (ex-Arena), who while only appearing as a singer on four songs, is the story's antagonist. He is most vehemently against the union between Daniel and Abby and after Daniel's death is determined to see that Abby pays for it, in which he conspires with Lavinia, who mistakenly believes that Abby killed Daniel, when in fact his death was a tragic accident. Also key on the supernatural side of things is The Angel of Death, played by Simone Simons (Epica), whom Daniel meets in Transitus along with her henchwomen The Furies (Marcela Bovio (ex-Stream of Passion) and Caroline Westendorp (The Charm The Fury)) – though the pair also play the servants of the manor and two of the villagers. Daniel is able to appeal to the Angel's better nature and after some wibbly wobbly, timey whimey stuff revealing the backstory between Daniel, Abby, Henry and Daniel's Father, gives Daniel seven days and seven nights to try to save Abby from the fate Henry has prescribed for her.

Also a part of this tale is Abraham, Abby's father, played by Johanne James (Threshold (drums) / Kyrbgrinder). While his role is much more minor than many of the cast on Transitus, appearing on just three songs, Abraham represents the quintessential 'good man' of the tale, devoted to his daughter and spending his appearances just trying to save the life of first Daniel and then Abby herself. Then there is The Statue, played by Mike Mills (Toehider), who makes a single song appearance, Dumb Piece of Rock, encouraging Daniel to choose Abby over status during the flashback, but whose role is probably all in Daniel's mind (but it is Ayreon so maybe not?). It's surprising to hear Mills regulated to a single song appearance given that he is basically one of Lucassen's favourite collaborators right now, this being his third consecutive Ayreon album (as it also is Karevik's). Dee Snider also appears on a single song, Get Out! Now! as part of the same flashback sequence.

Some other vocalists are also featured on Transitus in small roles as the Villagers, basically cameos, while Dianne van Giersbergen (ex-Xandria / Ex Libris) also appears on the album but isn't playing a role, just providing her soprano voice for a haunting eerie effect. As a vocalist cast it feels much more restrained than some Ayreon albums, especially The Source, with just seven recurring characters appearing on anything from three to eleven tracks each (out of twenty-two), two one off characters, a narrator and Bovio/Westendorp playing multiple characters in a backing capacity, with six additional villagers.

It is a good cast and I like that Lucassen has highlighted rising progressive metal star Cammie Gilbert along with his regular collaborators, as well as Johanne James, who is better known as a drummer than a singer, but I also feel like he may have missed a few tricks with this one. Both Bovio and Westendorp are surprisingly underused despite handling multiple roles and I feel like the story could possible have seen the role of the Furies expanded upon, perhaps with one in support of The Angel of Death's aiding Daniel and one against. I have this image of Bovio's Fury supporting the Angel and Westendorp's rebelling, using her growling voice to full effect instead of the few bits we do hear in the background. There was certainly plenty of running time that could have been used for such a subplot, or any subplot that saw their characters developed more, since as a double CD Ayreon album Transitus is only just of a length that requires that distinction at 80:49 long, making it the shortest Ayreon 2CD. But alas, that was not to be. Additionally Dianne van Giersbergen is such a good singer that her not even playing a role seems almost criminal. And finally the biggest gripe: I can't be the only Ayreon fan who is waiting for the day that Lucassen allows his own voice to grace an album again. Come on Arjen, it's been three albums now!

Just how much this story fits into the greater Ayreon universe is debatable. There are lyrical references in This Human Equation, which not only references The Human Equation (2004) but also the Universal Migrator (2000) albums, but mostly Transitus seems to be very stand-alone. The music itself has some familiarity to it – the guitar riffs are metallic, but overall this isn't as heavy an album as its predecessor The Source and the writing structure is very different, aiming for shorter songs in general, although not to the extremes of The Theory of Everything (2013) and its four long twenty-plus minute suites. But one should expect many tracks that are under three minutes long, doing their job to advance the story between more traditionally structured tracks. The only epic of sorts is the opener Fatum Horrificum, which is in some ways like a very long intro into the story about to unfold. There are other elements of genres heard like symphonic elements and some Celtic folk on Talk of the Town. Much like The Theory of Everything though, it's album that works best when listened to as a whole, considering each disc an separate act.

As such it often feels like the individual highlights are lacking on Transitus. They are here, but with the exception of the Mike Mills sung Dumb Piece of Rock fans should perhaps expect the album's singles to be the most individually memorable tracks, like the Dee Snider led Get Out! Now!, the soft duet between Tommy Karevik and Cammie Gilbert Hopelessly Slipping Away, along with the Simone Simons led This Human Equation and of course Talk of the Town, which features Paul Manzi as the lead singer with support from Karevik and Gilbert. That's not to say that the rest of Transitus isn't excellent, but it is fair to say that it's the Ayreon album that is closest to being an actual musical that you need to experience everything in sequence, narration included, in order to appreciate everything that Arjen Lucassen has created.

While I don't imagine ever ranking Transitus alongside my favourite Ayreon albums like Into the Electric Castle (1998) – my favourite album of all time – The Human Equation, 01011001 (2008) or The Source, I find myself very satisfied with it. It's very easy to get into, immerse yourself in its story (which I hope I didn't spoil too much) and if we can ever get out of these worldwide restrictions because of Covid-19 I can well imagine this getting the full stage show works like Into the Electric Castle and The Human Equation have done. It's very good work from everyone's favourite Hippie once again and dare I say...nice!

AYREON The Source

Album · 2017 · Progressive Metal
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Metal’s artisan of ambitiousness Arjen Anthony Lucassen returns with his project AYREON taking time off from his other musical projects Star One, Guilt Machine and The Gentle Storm to embark on yet another sonic journey into the world of science fiction, where he unleashes yet another concept album that is a prequel to 2008’s “01011001” laid out in his usual monstrosity of a double album with an army of guest vocalists and musicians to play the proper roles in his larger than life metal operas. As a prequel, THE SOURCE tells the origins of the Forever which is an alien race that is a key force in the overall storyline. The two discs are separated into four Chronicles with each telling different timelines in the story. The are broken down into - Chronicle 1: The Frame, Chronicle 2: The Aligning Of The Ten, Chronicle 3: The Transmigration and Chronicle 4: The Rebirth and the album is graced with beautiful artwork, extensive liner notes and an overall packaging that goes above and beyond the call of duty for any dedicated artist. Lucassen has really been upping the bar with each and every release and shows no signs of releasing his feet from the gas pedal. His passions are ablaze and THE SOURCE displays it all in full regalia.

While AYREON is accustomed to mostly new cast members changing things up on any given album, THE SOURCE makes use of plenty of returning performers which include James LaBrie (Dream Theater), Simone Simons (Epica), Floor Jansen (Nightwish), Hansi Kürsch (Blind Guardian), Tobias Sammet (Edguy, Avantasia), Tommy Karevik (Kamelot, Seventh Wonder), and Russell Allen (Symphony X), together with newcomers such as Tommy Rogers (Between the Buried and Me), which makes a whopping total of eleven main vocalists. Add to that the extraordinary musicians involved which include Joost van den Broek (ex-After Forever) – grand piano and electric piano Mark Kelly (Marillion) – synthesizer solo on "The Dream Dissolves"Maaike Peterse (Kingfisher Sky) – cello, Paul Gilbert (Mr. Big, Racer X) – guitar solo on "Star of Sirrah,” Guthrie Govan (The Aristocrats, ex-Asia) – guitar solo on "Planet Y Is Alive!,”Marcel Coenen (Sun Caged) – guitar solo on "The Dream Dissolves,” Ed Warby – drums, Ben Mathot – violin, Jeroen Goossens (ex-Pater Moeskroen) – flute, wind instruments, and of course, Arjen Anthony Lucassen himself on electric and acoustic guitars, mandolin, synthesizers, Hammond, Solina Strings, all other instruments. I just had to list all these performers to let it sink in, the monstrosity that this beautiful album is!

THE SOURCE incorporates more aspects of the metal world than the usual AYREON project. While most indulge in heavy doses of folk rotation with the same recurring female vocalist, an aspect that has left me a little cold in the past, this album on the other hand keeps the musical jukebox flowing and never lets one style dominate for too long. While the folk influences are ever present, the retrospective styles of the performers are in full effect with much emphasis on progressive, power and classic metal with even some excellent to Queen harmonies and some extreme metal touches as well in the excellent “Everybody Dies” that is straight out of the progressive rock playbook with classic 70s Wakeman-esque keyboards, Freddie Mercury spots and time signature breakouts run amok (amongst tons of other styles and influences). It really seems like every little detail was cogitated upon before the final release was allowed to see the light of day. The only complaint i have about this fine album is that some of the tracks on the second track outstay their welcome a however it’s a minor quibble indeed. THE SOURCE is one to be experienced as words cannot convey the sheer magnitude of its accomplishments. The works are not only a rock and metal encyclopedia in scope and style but a testament to how to write, arrange and produce an album.

It seems that Lucassen’s talents caught up to his grandiose ambitions starting with “01011001” and progressively have been becoming more refined ever since. THE SOURCE not only displays the AYREON project having tightened up all the loose ends that have always bugged me but shows a maturing and steps away from the more progressive rock world and ups the energy level by keeping the album more in heavy rock mode. THE SOURCE is the first AYREON album on the Mascot Label Group and the digital release of the albums will follow. THE SOURCE is yet another modern day AYREON album that clearly demonstrates what made the early albums so weak in comparison as one track is crafted into the next and all cast members roles are cleverly placed in the perfect sequence of things. It’s no wonder the such staunch fans are as excited for a new AYREON release as are fans foaming at the mouth for a new season of Game Of Thrones! THE SOURCE is truly a brilliantly complex yet completely accessible metal opera that eschews the long drawn out filler pieces of the band’s earlier moments. At this stage i have been indoctrinated into the AYREON fan club and look forward to the next chapter of metal sci-fi digest - AYREON style!

AYREON The Source

Album · 2017 · Progressive Metal
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There are many metal bands out there for whom a new release is widely considered a 'big deal'. They come from your Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Metallica and Black Sabbath types: the pillars of the metal community in other words. One not so household name that has the same effect (and perhaps even more so) for me though is Dutch musician Arjen Anthony Lucassen. The man has several projects to his name such as Star One, Guilt Machine and most recent offering The Gentle Storm, but the most important of these projects is his flagship, Ayreon. The Source (2017) is the ninth full-length album to be released under this moniker. Like most of the project's work, it is a science fiction conceptual metal opera spread across a two disc release.

As is usual for an Ayreon album, there is a whole cast of vocalists, each playing a different character in the story. There are been some very impressive casts of vocal talent on previous Ayreon releases, but, especially for the direction of the music has gone on The Source, we may have been served the strongest cast to date. It's basically like an all-stars session for the progressive, power and symphonic metal genres.

Lucassen has worked with a few of these singers before, including two returnees from the previous Ayreon album The Theory of Everything (2013), Tommy Karevik (Kamelot/Seventh Wonder) and Michael Mills (Toehider). Russell Allen (Symphony X) and Floor Jansen (Nightwish), who both have sang on Ayreon releases before as well as being two of the four core lead singers of Lucassen's Star One project, are also present, as is James LaBrie (Dream Theater), who playing the lead character on The Human Equation (2004) and returns here for another key role in the Ayreon saga, effectively serving as a narrator due to the album's liner notes being credited to his character, The Historian. Big draws for power metal fans will of course be Hansi Kürsch (Blind Guardian) and Tobias Sammet (Edguy/Avantasia). Simone Simons (Epica) gets a more substantial role following a one song appearance on 01011001 (2008).

As always though, there are a few new collaborators making their Ayreon debut on The Source: Michael Eriksen (Circus Maximus), Nils K. Rue (Pagan's Mind), Tommy Rogers (Between the Buried and Me) and for just one song, Zaher Zorgati (Myrath). Arjen Lucassen himself does not sing on the album, for the second Ayreon album in a row. I actually expected (before having heard the album) him to take a role here after sitting The Theory of Everything out, but I can hear why. Lucassen (who is nowhere near as bad a singer as he makes himself out to be, as his solo album Lost in the New Real (2012) shows), has a voice more suited for the softer songs in his repertoire and The Source is, generally speaking, one of the heaviest and most dominantly metal based Ayreon albums, and the vocalists he's chosen are all basically singing powerhouses.

Conceptually The Source adds a new chapter to the Ayreon Saga, also being the earliest point in its timeline. It has strong ties to 01011001, acting as a direct prequel. Previously I thought it had been stated that 01011001 marked the end of the Ayreon Saga, which was supported by The Theory of Everything being its own thing entirely, but it seems that meant the door was always open for albums placed earlier in the timeline like The Source. I don't actually want to go into the album's concept too much to avoid spoilers for fans who want to experience and discover it for themselves, so I'll settle for saying that it's ties to 01011001 are very strong, both musically and lyrically. The two are very good companion albums.

Unlike 01011001 though, The Source flows through it's plot consecutively, with no side story songs not featuring the main vocal cast. It's broken down into four parts, referred to as Chronicles. The first of these is The 'Frame, comprising of three songs starting with The Day That the World Breaks Down, which was also the first full song revealed. It's the longest song on the album and introduces all eleven of the main characters. As an opener it not only sets the scene for the album's storyline, which heavily builds upon what has come before in other Ayreon albums, but also the musical journey that will unfold over the next 88:33 minutes. The Historian (LaBrie), opens the song and handles the introduction before things get under way proper, which is when the album's heavy, guitar driven nature is revealed. Like a true progressive metal epic though it moves around with it's moods a lot, including a quite bluesy sounding section sung by The President (Allen), which brings mind to the first part of Amazing Flight from Into the Electric Castle (1998), another Ayreon album with key conceptual ties to this one. A more obvious reference to another album though is the binary code lines from TH-1 (Mills), an android character, which reference the We Are Forever section of 01011001's opener, Age of Shadows.

The next two songs of the first Chronicle are Sea of Machines and Everybody Dies, which then move onto the usual format of an Ayreon album where not every singer is featured in the same track, which is a system that continues throughout the rest of the release, with the close exception of The Human Compulsion, the penultimate track, which features all the main characters aside from TH-1. Sea of Machines is rife with lyrical reference to other Ayreon albums/songs in The Prophet's (Rue) lines, while Everybody Dies is notable for being the only extreme edged song on the album, with The Chemist (Rogers) providing a few growls along with clean vocals. It's Mills' TH-1 that shines on that song though, being the ones he's most dominant on aside from the very last track of the album, March of the Machines, where he's the sole vocalist, making up for his absence on the prior The Human Compulsion.

As the album moves into its second Chronicle, The Aligning of the Ten, the lyrics take time for some emotional, reflective work dealing with dark themes such as the end of the world and leaving loved ones behind to die, and the survivor's guilt that results from that. While it's impossible not to mention Star of Sirrah as an album highlight from this part of the album, it's the following track All That Was that really adds some new dimensions to The Source, since it's quite a folk dominant piece of music and one where the albums two female characters The Counselor (Simons) and The Biologist (Jansen) get a chance to shine together, though LaBrie's Historian and The Diplomat (Eriksen) also make an appearance in the track. At the opposite end of the Ayreon spectrum is Run! Apocalypse! Run! Fast, heavy and somewhat frantic, it's one that's going to really appeal to the power metal fans with both the music and the vocals from The Astronomer (Kürsch), The Captain (Sammet) and The Opposition Leader (Karevik) among others.

Disc two and Chronicle three, The Transmigration and the story starts to tie up with the established lore of the Ayreon universe a lot more. The Preacher (Zorgati), puts in his sole appearance during Deathcry of a Race, laying down Arabic lines. I'm not entirely sure how this character is supposed to fit into the story presented by The Source, whether he is with the main characters and silent up until this point or in a flashback to events the main characters escaped from. I'd have liked to heard more from Zorgati on the album than this and hope that like with Simone Simons Arjen Lucassen will work with him again in greater depth on a future release. Speaking of Simons, it's in this song that she delivers some of her best lines, with both her and Floor Jansen making use of their full operatic vocal ranges in harmony. That combined with Zorgati's lines makes for a pretty epic section of music.

Final Chronicle The Rebirth contains the most individual tracks, with six, but the last three are more connected together than any of the others and are more like a mini-suite where Journey to Forever fills the role of the main song, The Human Compulsion the epic build up to the conclusion as has been done on other Ayreon albums such as The Human Equation, and March of the Machines as a final epilogue. Before all this though is one of my personal favourites from the album, Planet Y is Alive! Fans will of course know of Planet Y from previous Ayreon albums. The song is, like Run! Apocalypse! Run! earlier in the album, a quite fast, power metal influenced track so it shouldn't be any surprise to hear voices like those of Kürsch, Allen, and Jansen singing on it.

And as March of the Machines closes, we hear a final lyric: The Age of Shadows will begin, along with the sound of machines, prompting listeners to go back and immediately give 01011001 a spin as well (as if we needed an excuse).

In summary, The Source is one of the Ayreon albums really geared towards the metalheads in the audience like 01011001 and Flight of the Migrator (2000) before it and it may just be the one that does it the best thanks to its stellar cast of vocalists who all really complement each other. As previously stated I would have liked to have heard Zaher Zorgati in more than just the one song, but it's a small issue in the greater scheme of things when you have a progressive metal album that flows from track to track as well as The Source does, with some great vocal interplay between the other vocalists. It results in a very easy album to listen to, one that seems to fly by much faster than it's 88:33 duration would suggest, making repeat listens very tempting. I'd definitely also recommend a listen where you go straight onto 01011001 as the album's final moments prompt, as that makes for a doubly epic journey.

Albums like this are the reason why Arjen Anthony Lucassen is one of my 'big deal' artists when it comes to new releases. He rarely disappoints. Between multiple projects and diverse influences you're almost guaranteed that his next album will be a different beast from the last and The Source is no exception to that as both a follow-up to the more progressive rock based The Theory of Everything and The Gentle Storm's The Diary (2015) where Lucassen recorded the same album in two very different styles. Superb work, once again.

AYREON The Source

Album · 2017 · Progressive Metal
Cover art Buy this album from MMA partners
All music fans have certain bands or certain musicians, who whenever they announce a new release, they’re instantly excited and immediately consider hearing it as soon as it’s available their top priority. For me, that musician is Arjen Lucassen, and especially his Ayreon project, which first blew me away with the 2004 release The Human Equation, my all time favorite album, and has yet to let me down ever since. I’ll admit, after the rather lengthy break and several side projects Arjen made in between 01011001 and The Theory of Everything, I was actually a bit surprised when he announced the eighth Ayreon album, The Source, less than three years after the release of its predecessor, with the release coming roughly three and a half years after that one, only doing one side project in between. I can’t complain, though, because while I have enjoyed all of Arjen’s other works in the past, I find I prefer him when he’s at his most dynamic and using the widest range of sounds he can, which is exactly what he does with Ayreon. After The Theory of Everything ended up being one of my all time favorite releases, I was excited to see if The Source would be yet another masterpiece, and suffice to say, it is!

As always with Ayreon, I’ll talk a bit about the concept of this release first, before going into the music. I find lately Arjen has fallen into a bit of a pattern, where one release will be focused on the overarching Sci-Fi concept he has going on, while the next album will be more of a side story. For example, The Human Equation was totally it’s own thing, then 01011001 ended up feeling like the end of the main Forever/Planet Y arc, which led me to think all future Ayreon releases would have to either side stories or a whole new story, and indeed The Theory of Everything was another side story, but to my surprise he has actually gone back to the main story this time around, with The Source being a prequel to 01011001.

As always, there’s a lot going on here, but the basic gist of the plot is that a planet called Alpha has been overtaken by machines, with the main beings of the planet, ancestors to humanity, losing control to the point where a group of them (the main characters of the album) make the decision to leave on a spaceship, to seek out life on another planet. This, of course, leads to the beginnings of Planet Y, which longtime Ayreon fans should be very familiar with by now. While the album still has its fun moments, including several references to various prior Ayreon releases, I find the tone to be a bit darker than usual, as many tracks talk about the guilt the characters feel over having to leave the rest of their people behind on a dying planet while they survive somewhere else. It’s a compelling tale as always, and of course there’s some great back and forth exchanges, most notably between Russell Allen’s “The President”, who made a mistake which led to the machines taking control, and Tommy Karevik’s “The Opposition Leader”, who claims to have been against the machines from the start. Though overall, I find the characters don’t conflict with each other as much as on previous releases, probably because there’s a common goal for all of them this time around.

Speaking of which, while previous Ayreon albums have had some impressive casts, this has to be the best one yet! There’s some great returning singers here, such as James Labrie (Dream Theater), Tommy Karevik (Kamelot), Simone Simons (Epica), Hansi Kürsch (Blind Guardian), Michael Mills (Toehider), Russell Allen (Symphony X) and Floor Jansen (Nightwish), with all of the above having prominent roles and being given a ton of room to work with. Simone Simons, in particular, has a much larger role than she had on 01011001, which is great as I had thought she was underused there, where on this album she gets to showcase her voice a ton more, including some operatic vocals on “Deathcry of a Race”. The real show stealer may be Michael Mills, though, as he plays the machine “TH-1”, which allows him to show off his crazy vocal range in some impressive ways, and he’s often used for some background effects which is also pretty cool. Moving on to newcomers, we have Tommy Rogers (Between the Buried and Me”), which at first glance may not be a choice some folks would expect, but he actually has a very clear, soft singing voice which works great for an Ayreon album and he sounds great here, especially on “The Source Will Flow”. Less shocking choices include Nils K. Rue (Pagan’s Mind), who has a very deep and powerful voice that fits his part well, especially shining during the chorus of “Sea of Machines”, where he really gets to show off his power, Michael Eriksen (Circus Maximus), who has a very emotional delivery that fits his character perfectly, and has his shining moments on the opening track and “Into the Ocean” and Zaher Zorgati (Myrath), who only has a very brief part on “Deathcry of a Race”, though he does a very good job on that part.

Perhaps the most shocking of all, though, has to be Tobias Sammet, and there’s an actually a bit of a story there as in the past some people assumed there was some kind of rivalry between the two because they were both doing rock opera projects, but it turns out they actually enjoyed each other’s music a lot and even did a cover of Alice Cooper’s “Elected” together in 2008, then Arjen contributed some guitar work to the 2013 Avantasia release “The Mystery of Time” and now Tobias has been given a fairly prominent role on this album. I was excited when heard about this as I’ve long been a fan of both men and their projects, so seeing them work together feels very satisfying, and the result is as great as I would have hoped for.

Musically, The Source is a diverse album as fans would expect, though I find in comparison to The Theory of Everything it’s definitely a much more metal oriented album, with a lot of more guitar-driven sections and some of the heavier sections remind me of the Star One album Victims of the Modern Age, with some of the chunky, groovier guitar sections. There’s also some a couple surprisingly speedy tracks, with small traces of power metal on one track in particular. Obviously, though, this is still an Ayreon release, and so fans can still expect tons of synth effects, as well as unusual metal instruments like violin, cello, and various wind instruments, and there are certainly some nice softer sections and some more prog rock moments as always. Where the last Ayreon release was a departure in terms of structure, this one feels more traditional, in that while it can still be divided into four different phases, there’s a much greater focus on individual tracks here, and the songwriting is more fun and catchy, while still giving room for the plot to develop. If anything, I’d say the release feels like a more focused version of 01011001 and is basically what that album would have been if it didn’t take any weird detours, seemingly to fit in as many side roles as possible, but instead focused entirely on the main plot. Basically, it has a slightly smaller cast, but I find everyone has an important role and no one feels underused, aside from the one exception I noticed, and Arjen has stated he’d like to give that person a larger role sometime in the future, which would be great.

Moving onto songwriting, and that’s an area where Arjen has never been anything short of brilliant, with The Source being especially impressive even by his standards. First up, man is “The Day That the World Breaks Down” ever an impressive opener! Like, you could pretty much consider that track its own EP or mini album, it has that much going on! The track opens up with some calm but somber sounding synth effects before James Labrie introduces us to the concept of the album, and from there the violin, cello, and flute all kick in, before the guitars eventually take over we get some pretty killer riffs early on. From there, the track feels like highlight after highlight, with both Tommy’s and Simone Simons getting into a great vocal section early on, then Nils K. Rue appears to steal the show for a bit, and after that we get one of the best parts of the track, where heavy guitars collide head on with a hammond for an incredibly epic sound!

After this, we get a bass-heavy section where Tobias Sammet makes his first appearance and does a great job, then Michael Mills adds in some vocal effects, in his first appearance before he reappears a bit later on and sings the binary code for “trust TH1”, but he uses his own creative vocal melodies, adding in an epic deep voice at the end, and he shows some incredible vocal abilities on just this one section. In between that, Hansi Kürsch shows up for a bit, sounding awesome as always. Early on in the track is a beautiful violin solo, which Arjen later recreates on his guitar, to amazing effect. Moving along, past the epic Michael Mills section, we get a bluesy section, where Russell Allen makes his first appearance, Fans of later Symphony X may be in for a shock, as on this album Russell mostly uses a more soulful, kind of bluesy hard rock approach to his vocals, which is actually refreshing as he sounds more like he did on older albums and does a great job. This section is mixed in with a softer section where Michael Eriksen sings beautifully, and then after that, we get one of the most gorgeous sounding guitar solos I’ve ever heard, performed by Arjen himself, and then finally a return to a heavier section where Floor Jansen appears and knocks it out of the park. She’s another singer who seems to be given more to work with every time she works with Arjen, and on this album, she really gets to showcase her power on some tracks and does an incredible job.

After that track, “Sea of Machines” starts off quietly, before picking up once the chorus kicks in, and it’s a pretty awesome one, then, later on, we get a section that starts off calmly before building up intensity, and turns into one of the better vocal sections, as well as the foundation for a later track. The next big standout track is “Everybody Dies”, where Michael Mills shows his insane range for the first minute, with everything from the usual effects, to epic high notes and some incredibly menacing deep vocals, then both Tommy’s show up and we get to the foundation of the track, which is to say some verses that are seriously catchier than most choruses on some albums, though the actual chorus is also amazing, performed first by Russell, then Hansi and then finally Floor right near the end. An epic, incredibly catchy track that alternates between fun and cheesy with the keyboards, to some pretty heavy riffs. An instant prog classic, for sure. We have a couple slower tracks after that, with “Star of Sirrah” starting off quiet before picking up the intensity after a bit and getting pretty heavy later on, reminding me of a Star One track, then later on it has an impressive guitar solo by Paul Gilbert. Meanwhile, “All That Was” is a calmer track with some slight folk elements. It has some impressive instrumental sections in the second half, while early on Simone Simons is given a chance to show off her always beautiful voice.

We then get into another big standout in “Run! Apocalypse! Run!”, probably the speediest track on the album and one that has some clear power metal elements, though the way the synths are used still give it a prog feel, and it certainly has the same addictive quality as the rest of the album. Tobias provides some great vocals during the chorus, and it’s a really fun track overall. Closing out disc 1, we have “Condemned to Live”, a darker track filled plenty of epic vocal sections, most notably from Tommy Rogers and James Labrie, though Tommy Karevik and Floor Jansen also get some great moments right near the end, and the instrumental part at the end is epic. Disc 2 gets off to a theatrical start, with some epic vocals from Michael Mills out of the gate on “Aquatic Race”, and then the track gets heavier and darker, again bringing Star One to mind. It’s actually a fairly calm track overall, though, and Michael Eriksen and Russell Allen have some great vocals in the middle, then Tommy Rogers takes over later on. Next we have a couple more ballad type tracks, first with “The Dream Dissolves”, where the beginning parts give us a nice duet between Simone Simons and Floor Jansen, as well as nice folk music, then later one we get two great solos, first a nice synth solo from Mark Kelly and a great guitar solo from Marcel Coenen. I already mentioned the two big moments on the next track, so after that, we have “Into the Ocean”, more of a hard rocking track where Michael Eriksen gets some big moments and Hansi Kürsch delivers big time on the chorus. Later in the track, Tobias Sammet and Nils K. Rue both get big moments and the instruments pick up big time, turning into a pretty epic prog track, with some huge vocal melodies. Next is “Bay of Dreams”, another ballad with some great synth sounds and great vocals from Tommy Rogers and James Labrie, before the track eventually gets heavier later on and Nils K, Rue delivers some epic vocals.

Following that, we get to perhaps my favorite sequence of the album, which brings us to the end. First up, “Planet Y is Alive” is another speedier track, which features a great exchange between Russell Allen and Tommy Karevik early on, as well as an epic chorus, though I prefer the later version of it when Floor Jansen takes over. In the middle, we get a calmer section with the last big guitar solo of the album, performed by Guthrie Govan. After that, “The Source Will Flow” is another ballad, starting with great vocals from Tommy Rogers and James Labrie before it picks up a bit of steam later on and Simone Simons gives us some of her best vocals on the album. The last full song on the album is “Journey to Forever”, an upbeat track which alternates between softer parts and a fast paced, epic chorus, starting off performed by Michael Mills, then later on performed by a group of singers. It’s definitely refreshing to hear such an upbeat and happy track on an album that can be very bleak at times, and it’s a very fun track that certainly stands out as a favorite. After that, we get “The Human Compulsion”, which takes a section from “Sea of Machines” and using it as the building block for the kind of section Arjen always loves to include, where all the main singers get one last chance to shine with some epic vocal moments. The song starts off calm before gradually picking up the intensity with each vocal line, and Floor Jansen’s final line is simply stunning. After that brief but awesome track, the album ends with “March of the Machines”, an outro track which uses some heavy synth effects and robot sounding voiceovers, as well as some more binary code in the background, before Michael Mills takes delivers some epic vocals near the end and closes the album with a big reference, sure to excite fans of a certain Ayreon album, and it makes this album’s place in the story all the more obvious.

I’ve said a lot already, so I’ll cut make this conclusion short: The Source is yet another outstanding rock opera that once again proves Arjen Lucassen’s ability to tell a compelling story, while still giving his fans memorable songs and some excellent instrumental work, to go along with a truly impressive cast of singers. It falls on the heavier side of Ayreon, while lining itself up well with past albums in the story, and is certainly up there with some of Arjen’s best work to date. Easily my 2017 album of the year so far, and highly recommended for all Ayreon fans and prog fans in general.

originally written for myglobalmind.com: http://myglobalmind.com/2017/04/11/ayreon-source-review/

AYREON Into the Electric Castle

Album · 1998 · Progressive Metal
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Into the Electric Castle (1998) is the third full-length album by Dutch progressive rock/metal act Ayreon. Ayreon is basically the flagship project of multi-instrumentalist and occasional vocalist Arjen Anthony Lucassen. Other projects of his include Star One, Guilt Machine and most recently as of 2015, The Gentle Storm. Though he already had a couple of Ayreon albums under his belt at this point Into the Electric Castle was the release that introduced some of the key concepts of the project, as well as beginning Arjen's collaboration with drummer Ed Warby. It's a double disc effort, something that would be repeated with several of the later records. It builds on the rock opera format used on the debut album The Final Experiment (1995) by casting each of the album's vocalists in a specific role (The Final Experiment had many vocalists sharing a small cast of characters). Conceptually it also builds on the themes of The Final Experiment and introduces the alien race known as the Forever. The Forever would also play a prominent role in the seventh Ayreon album 01011001 (2008) and minor roles in a couple of other releases. Though the albums Actual Fantasy (1996) and The Theory of Everything (2013) are disconnected from the Ayreon storyline, all other albums are tied together into one large multiple plot science fiction story. In the case of Into the Electric Castle it tells of the Forever race's interference and experimenting with humanity.

I should probably put a warning disclaimer in here now that, as this is going to be a very long and in depth review of all aspects of the album not only musically but also conceptually, that there will be plot spoilers aplenty herein.

To be more precise, the story begins thusly: a lone individual of the Forever race, known as Forever of the Stars on the album and played by Peter Daltrey (Kaleidoscope/Fairfield Parlour), plucks eight humans from different points in time and of varied cultural backgrounds and places them in 'a place of no-time and no-space'. Their goal is to reach the titular Electric Castle, however the mysterious voice guiding them (Forever of the Stars remains unnamed until near the end of the album) warns early on that some of them may die, and indeed, the cast of characters does thin out to half its original size by the time of the album's conclusion.

The cast of the album are as follows, in order of appearance:

Fish (ex-Marillion) portrays the Highlander. Fish was, at the time of the album's release, probably the only real high profile vocalist featured on the album though a couple of others have since gained larger followings. His character however is the first to be killed off during the course of the album, during the song Tunnel of Light, the sixth on the first disc. His accented singing is perfect for his role though.

Sharon den Adel (Within Temptation) portrays the Indian. I've always presumed that the use of Indian here refers to Native American rather than someone from India, but I don't believe it's ever specifically stated anywhere. She's one of only two female characters in the story. At the time Within Temptation only had the one album out, Enter (1997), which is far removed from what they're playing now. She's one of the singers that has since become quite high profile. Her vocals on the album seem a bit few are far between but she shines on the eerie Cosmic Fusion, however this is also the point where her character is killed off.

Damian Wilson (Threshold/Headspace) portrays the Knight. The Knight was in service to King Arthur and is also aware of the sorcerer Merlin, who played a role in The Final Experiment's storyline. I personally like to think that maybe this individual was present for the events of that album, but it's pure speculation on my part, though I wouldn't be surprised to learn that I'm right due to the way Lucassen weaves his plot strands together. Wilson is a great singer who's come to prominence within the progressive metal scene, particularly in recent years. The Knight survives the album. Damian Wilson also appears on Ayreon's The Dream Sequencer (2000) and Flight of the Migrator (2000) albums, though only doing backing vocals on the latter. He can also be heard on Lucassen's Star One project.

Edwin Balogh (Tamás Szekeres/Omega) portrays the Roman. He is one of the singers here that I remain largely unfamiliar with but his great rocking voice is a credit to the album. The Roman also survives the album.

Anneke van Giersbergen (ex-The Gathering) portrays the Egyptian. Anneke van Giersbergen needs no introduction really with her high profile CV of different releases with different acts and styles, including Lucassen's own most recent project The Gentle Storm. If you discount's the spoken word performances from Peter Daltrey that make up the whole of Welcome to the New Dimension and Forever of the Stars, Anneke van Giersbergen is one of only two of the Into the Electric Castle cast that gets to sing one of the tracks completely on their own, namely Valley of the Queens. It's a swansong performance though, as the Egyptian dies at this point. Evil Devolution is the other single vocalist song, but it does have Daltrey's narration leading it off, whereas Valley of the Queens does not. Anneke van Giersbergen also appears on 01011001.

Jay van Feggelen (ex-Bodine) portrays the Barbarian. Bodine was a band that also featured Arjen Lucassen in his pre-Ayreon days, though at different times to Jay van Feggelen. He brings a quite bluesy, yet powerful, voice to the album. His character is the final fatality, effectively falling at the final hurdle during The Two Gates. Jay van Feggelen also appeared on The Final Experiment.

Arjen Anthony Lucassen portrays the Hippie. This role was originally going to belong to a singer known as Mouse, who eventually appeared on the next Ayreon album The Dream Sequencer, but I'm personally glad Arjen took the role in the end. Arjen is his own biggest critic as a vocalist, but I happen to like his voice. He could never be considered one of the greats but for the role of the Hippie he is perfect. The Hippie, naturally, gets some of the wackiest lyrics on the album to sing. He survives the events of the album and possibly reappears briefly during The Dream Sequencer's One Small Step and 01011001's The Truth is in Here, if you connect the dots in a certain manner. Again, probably just speculation on my part, but it would make a lot of sense.

Edward Reekers (ex-Kayak) portrays the Futureman. Reekers was pretty much a staple of the early Ayreon releases, appearing on every album up until The Dream Sequencer. His is a very pure sounding singing voice. The character survives the album and goes onto became the main character of the next pair of albums, The Dream Sequencer and Flight of the Migrator, though the different structure of those releases has him portrayed by multiple vocalists, including Reekers. Connecting those dots again, since The Dream Sequencer deals with this character pre-incarnating, providing I'm correct in the assumption, the Futureman and the Hippie may actually be two incarnations of the same immortal soul (who are in turn incarnations of the character of Ayreon from The Final Experiment).

In addition to this main cast, there is the additional character of Death, who only appears during Cosmic Fusion and is the only character portrayed by two vocalists simultaneously; Robert Westerholt (Within Temptation) and George Oosthoek (ex- Orphanage). Aptly, both use death growling.

Now that I've introduced the cast let's move onto what Into the Electric Castle actually sounds like. Ayreon's music is not known for sticking to any one genre for long stretches, The Dream Sequencer/Flight of the Migrator pairing being a noted exception where Arjen instead separated his progressive rock and metal sides onto an album each. On Into the Electric Castle though Lucassen presents what I consider to be the classic blend of Ayreon styles. You can never really know what Lucassen is going to put into his music and while it's simplest to call Into the Electric Castle a progressive rock/metal album, it's also so much more than that. Folk music is a massive influence here, especially during guest slots by Focus' Thijs van Leer in tracks such as Amazing Flight and the Castle Hall. I don't normally do this, as I like my reviews to read universally rather than the audience of a single website, but it's really mind-boggling how people on the Rate Your Music website totally miss or dismiss the presence of folk music on Into the Electric Castle. It really couldn't be more obvious if it reared up and bit you on the arse.

There are other genres here to a lesser extent. The start of Amazing Flight is quite heavily influenced by blues rock which suits the Barbarian's introduction perfectly. This is one of my absolute favourite Ayreon tracks, not because I'm much of a blues fan (I'm not at all, really) but for the way it's different styles contrast and the dialogue exchange between Jay van Feggelen's Barbarian and Arjen Anthony Lucassen's Hippie. You couldn't really put two more different characters together. There's the Barbarian boosting about himself and the Hippie is basically just like 'hey dude, you're so uncool'. After the vocal exchange the track moves forward while Sharon den Adel's Indian chants, which is basically her voice being used as an extra instrument before the song concludes with one of the most epic instrumental sections I've ever heard on a progressive album. Along with Thijs van Leer's flute, Arena/Pendragon keyboardist Clive Nolan also adds a solo to the proceedings.

From the metal point of view, Into the Electric Castle isn't always the most metal album going, as it equally is as much a progressive rock release, but when it is metal, it can be really damn heavy. I'm especially thinking of tracks like Across the Rainbow Bridge and The Garden of Emotions, but there are metal riffs all over the place on the album. I can't mention Across the Rainbow Bridge and not talk about it; it's another favourite of mine on the album, and Lucassen's Hippie plays a big part of that, with some of the silliest lyrics on the album: 'Scarlet crimson rosy red, I must be dead, or stoned out of my head' is just the beginning of this scene. The Garden of Emotions isn't the longest track on the album, that goes to second song Isis and Osiris (a good track that serves to introduce most of the characters, but it's never been a favourite of mine with so much else on offer), but after Amazing Flight it's the one most deserving of the 'epic' branding that long songs get from rock and metal fans. Aside from those heavy riffs there is a lot of vocal interplay between the now Highlander-less cast, and strong symphonic prog elements.

Following this is Valley of the Queens, which as I mentioned above is the one of the only tracks to feature just a single vocalist, Anneke van Giersbergen's Egyptian. It's one of the shorter songs perhaps because of that, but a very effective deviation from the usual formula of the album. But it's back to business as usual after that when The Castle Hall starts. Another very powerful song with changing styles from metal to folk while the Barbarian and Knight duet. After that it's the Futureman and Hippie's turn during Tower of Hope and after that Cosmic Fusion starts up and we get to hear from Sharon den Adel's Indian again, after a period of silence. This is another multiple part track in the vein of Amazing Flight. Starting off light and eerie, den Adel delivers her characters final lines. The Roman and Futureman attempt to save her, but it is in vain, which leads into the movement called Death's Grunt, the only place in the album to use growling vocals. With a final scream the Indian is dead and the song launches into another of those epic instrumental sections that Arjen Lucassen is clearly the master of crafting.

In fact, I could probably give a detailed paragraph in this review to every single song not just for its plot but also style. With all the different genres cropping up in the album and the multitude of ways that Lucassen mixes them together every single one has its own identity. Even when songs appear to present a similar structure like Amazing Flight and Cosmic Fusion do (each has three parts and ends with an instrumental section), they are totally different in terms of composition. I've heard a lot of music since I first discovered Ayreon, but I don't think I've ever found anything else that really come close to what Arjen Lucassen does here and listening to it again to put this review together has me feeling very nostalgic, as I have realised that nothing I've heard since has blown me away the same way this album did, nothing that made the same lasting impact. I don't like to repeat myself but I will say it again: Arjen is a master of his craft and has many albums that deserve high levels of recognition (not just by Ayreon) but for me they all pale in comparison to Into the Electric Castle.

That's why this most recent revisit to the album has only reaffirmed something that I was saying back at the time but for a while become unsure about as I discovered more music in many different styles of metal (and some non metal genre too): Into the Electric Castle is the greatest album ever made. It's well played with its mix of influences put together seamlessly, has great production and also, it's clever. I guess the plot does sound a bit cheesy, when you think about it, especially if you're not a sci-fi fan , but it works. And really, this is about the characters as much as, if not more than their actual goal of reaching the Electric Castle. A few could have used more time to come into their own, the Highlander in particular, but it makes the death's felt in the same way a good book or film would this way. I'm not sure I know of any other concept album/rock opera that does that. In fact this could probably even be made into a decent film, provided one could find the right cast to pull it off.

This album even does things that I usually don't like in music, namely the excessive narration. But here it not only works, but actually enhances the music. Daltrey's voice doesn't appear in every song, but when it does, it adds a genuine feeling of threat even when his words are actually quite amicable. In the track Forever of the Stars the voice becomes electronic and computerised and at last the mysterious alien reveals its identity and what it was all about (setting up further threads of the Ayreon story), before wiping the minds of the four survivors, who are then returned to their own times for the final and pretty damn epic concluding track Another Time, Another Space.

The album has a total running time of just shy of one hour, forty-five minutes and not a second is wasted. It never drags, actually seeming to be over quicker than it really is to me as I'm that immersed in it. During my years of focussing a lot of reviewing new releases I ended up taking an excessively long break from the album without meaning to, but that's actually proved an unexpected boon to me: hearing the album again after all that time allowed me to be blown away by it a second time. I don't think I've ever felt this emotional when listening to an album before, it's that powerful. If I could only ever hand out a single five star rating to a release, I do believe I would have to give it to Into the Electric Castle. Even though I don't intend to limit myself in such a way, I still wish I could somehow give this one six stars just to differentiate it from everything else out there. Again, for me, Into the Electric Castle is the best album ever made. If just saying it isn't convincing enough, then consider how long this review turned out. I have never written any review this long before, for anything. Hopefully it isn't too long and people take the time to read it, because this is that rare album that deserved such a devoted write up. It's funny isn't it? Because it's such a long review I actually don't know how to end it, because no matter how much I do write there will always be that nagging feeling that despite my best efforts, I'll never be able to do Into the Electric Castle justice with mere words. I think the best way to end then is just to say: don't hesitate, just go and buy it.

AYREON Movies Reviews

AYREON Electric Castle Live and Other Tales

Movie · 2020 · Progressive Metal
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Electric Castle Live and Other Tales (2020) is a live release by Dutch progressive rock/metal project Ayreon. It is a documentation of the second run of official live Ayreon shows following the Ayreon Universe shows and was recorded in Tilburg in September 2019. While the prior Ayreon Universe was a retrospective show, Electric Castle live is a stage version of Ayreon's breakthrough album Into the Electric Castle (1998) with an assortment of songs from other Arjen Anthony Lucassen projects and one cover song.

Like with Ayreon Universe Arjen Lucassen isn't performing himself as part of the live band, but he does reprise his original vocalist role as the Hippie from Into the Electric Castle so is generally on stage more often on this live release than he was on the former. Speaking of the cast most of the vocalists from the original album have returned to their roles on Electric Castle Live; Fish (ex-Marillion) as the Highlander, Damian Wilson (ex-Threshold, Headspace) as the Knight, Anneke van Giersbergen (ex-The Gathering, Vuur) as the Egyptian, Edward Reekers (ex-Kayak) as the Futureman, Edwin Balogh (ex-Tamás Szekeres) as the Roman and George Oosthoek (ex-Orphanage, MaYaN) as one of the voices of Death. Replacement cast members for unavailable vocalists are Simon Simons (Epica) as the Indian (replacing Sharon den Adel (Within Temptation)), John 'Jaycee' Cuijpers (Praying Mantis) as the Barbarian (replacing Jay van Feggelen (ex-Bodine)) and Mark Jansen (Epica, MaYaN) as the other voice of Death (replacing Robert Westerholt (Within Temptation)). The vocalists replacements are well chosen and you'd be forgiven for mistaking them for those who original sang their parts. Of course there is one person I have no mentioned yet, the most notable of the re-casts: actor John de Lancie (best known as Q in Star Trek: The Next Generation) replacing Peter Daltrey as 'Forever' of the Stars, complete with new narration. Marcela Bovio (ex-Stream of Passion), Jan Willem Ketelaers (Knight Are) and Dianne van Giersbergen (ex-Xandria) make up a trio of backing vocalists.

Some of the stage musicians are the same as on Ayreon Universe but with some changes that were likely due to availability from their usual projects. Of course Ed Warby is there on drums and Joost van den Broek on keyboards, with a triple guitar setup of Ferry Duijsens (Vuur), Bob Wijtsma (Ex Libris) and Marcel Singor (Kayak), with Johan van Stratum on the bass. Ayreon regular Ben Mathot is on violin with cello performed by newcomer Jurriaan Westerveld. The most noted guest performer is of course Thijs van Leer of Focus, just as on the original album. He makes his entrance during Amazing Flight and continues to appear both through the album show and the Other Tales segment.

The narration change is the biggest difference that the live version of Into the Electric Castle has to the original. The songs themselves are faithfully performed, more so than much of the material on Ayreon Universe was, with minimal other changes to the flow of the album. Some other changes are the inclusion of a piano solo by guest musician Robby Valentine after Cosmic Fusion; some backing death growls on The Castle Hall and some vocal alternations to include Fish on the final song Another Time, Another Space. Nothing changed is out of place and makes the performance unique from the original. In some ways de Lancie's narration is faithful to Daltrey's original, but is a little jarring at first when you're like me and are so familiar with the original that anything else seems wrong to start with. By the time the show is over though, I've come to realise that the de Lancie narration is in some ways a improvement on the original, especially for the live environment.

The show isn't over with Into the Electric Castle though, as there is more to come. After a quick pre-recorded video introduction by Mike Mills (Toehinder) in character as Th-1 from The Source (2017), the other projects of Arjen Lucassen are worked through: The Gentle Storm and the heavy version of Shores of India (sung of course by original vocalist Anneke van Giersbergen), Stream of Passion's Out in the Real World (with Marcela Bovio on vocals), Ambeon's Ashes (with Simone Simons on vocals), Guilt Machine's Twisted Coil (with Damian Wilson on vocals), a cover of Marillion's Kayleigh (with Fish on vocals, of course), Arjen's solo album Lost in the New Real and after a speech by Lucassen and Joost van den Broek, Star One's Songs of the Ocean as an encore with Arjen on guitar and primary vocals by Robert Soeterboek (making his first and only appearance during the show), Dianne van Giersbergen, Marcela Bovio and Damian Wilson before everyone involved in the show comes out on stage for a climatic sing-alone finale. The extra songs allow some Lucassen work that wasn't featured on Ayreon Universe to also get an airing. The total show is over two and a half hours long, so there's a lot of value for money to be had here.

Where Ayreon Universe gave the overall better airing of the Ayreon catalogue in the live environment, a stage show of a complete album is where the project's music really comes to life. The main cast of singers are all dressed up as their characters, with Damian Wilson coming out in full knightly armour and wielding a sword being the best costume, while Oosthoek and Jansen don black metal style corpse paint in the role of Death. The stage is done up as a castle set, though sadly it doesn't look like the Electric Castle from the original album's cover, but that's probably for production reasons: the castle set is set up to its battlements can be used by the vocalists and musicians as well as the main stage.

So Ayreon Universe or Electric Castle Live? There's no easy answer to that question. Except perhaps to say, both. Once again this is an essential live release from the project that I once thought would never have true live releases. This is especially essential if you're as big a fan of Into the Electric Castle as I am (it's my favourite album of all time) and it's clear that more Ayreon albums deserve this kind of attention.

AYREON Ayreon Universe - Best of Ayreon Live

Movie · 2018 · Progressive Metal
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Ayreon Universe – Best of Ayreon Live (2018) is the second live release by Dutch progressive rock/metal project Ayreon. It follows The Theater Equation (2016), which was a stage adaptation of The Human Equation (2004) in full. Ayreon Universe is presented as more of a traditional live show, featuring a set list covering all of the Ayreon studio albums plus a couple of tracks from Star One's Space Metal (2002) album. There are many reasons why Ayreon has not been performed live until relatively recently (The Theater Equation wasn't even performed as Ayreon though it was released under the name), such as the nature of the project which meant that previously Ayreon songs were only performed on tours for other Arjen Lucassen projects, but there is also the fact that Arjen Lucassen himself isn't a big fan of playing live due to stage fright. He has done it as can be seen on live releases for both Star One and Stream of Passion, but it is something he has often avoided since those tours. So that leads us to the big catch with Ayreon Universe, which might be seen as a deal breaker for some: for the most part, he isn't on stage during this show.

Instead the release is performed by musicians and singers who we might consider the Ayreon extended family. Many of the musicians on stage have been Lucassen's go-to people for some time, mostly notable among these of course is Ed Warby on drums, who has been with Lucassen since Into the Electric Castle (1998), only not drumming on The Dream Sequencer (2000) – that album's Rob Snijders is also performing on Ayreon Universe for a couple of the lighter tracks – and the upcoming Transitus (2020). On keyboards is Joost van den Broek, who has a long history with Lucassen including performing on Star One's Live on Earth (2003) and a regular Ayreon guest since The Human Equation. On bass is Johan van Stratum, who was Lucassen's bandmate in Stream of Passion, while Peter Vink plays on Star One's Intergalactic Space Crusaders. The two guitarists are Marcel Coenen and Ferry Duijsens. Coenen performed a guest solo on The Source (2017) while Duijsens makes his Ayreon debut here, but previously worked on Lucassen's The Gentle Storm project. Elsewhere in the core band are a few names that Ayreon fans will recognise, regular collaborators Ben Mathot, Jeroen Goossens & Maaike Peterse on violin, flues/woodwinds and cello respectively.

Then there are the vocalists. As a project known for its often large casts of different singers on each album, it isn't going to be an Ayreon live show without a while host of talented vocalists getting on board with it. Some of the singers are the same as on album, but elsewhere changes have been made. But the live cast is as good as any studio cast: there are singers who were regulars in Ayreon's early days who may not be as well known in the metal scene in particular, but perhaps are the ones who most deserve to be part of this experience. There are also some of the biggest names in both prog and power metal performing under the Ayreon name on this show. I'm not going to mention them all here: there really are too many to list, so instead I'm going to form this review based around what's taken from each album, so let us go back to the dark ages and The Final Experiment (1995).

The debut Ayreon album is represented by three tracks on Ayreon Universe and fittingly it's the duo of Prologue and Dreamtime that kick off the event. Prologue is altered to instead be in the voice of The Source's TH-1, performed by Mike Mills of Toehider. Mills is a modern Ayreon regular having first appeared on The Theory of Everything (2013). Mills is a standout performer on Ayreon Universe. You can tell that this guy is just so fucking into it as he comes out on stage in full TH-1 costume, bringing a theatrical performance to the stage. We haven't even got into a proper song yet and the man has proved that he is a born entertainer.

Then we get Dreamtime and you can probably see that it's called that and not The Awareness which is what the song is on album. That's because it's edited down for the live show. That is unfortunately a trend with the track selection on the album. Honestly I think that does kinda suck because Ayreon is a prog act and prog is known for it's impressive instrumental work, something Ayreon is no exception to, but I can understand why they've taken this approach on the live show: they're maximising the time for vocalists to be on stage as well as the amount of songs that can get an airing: there is a lot of material that needs to be covered.

Singing Dreamtime is of course none other than Edward Reekers (ex-Kayak), the original vocalist who did the song. Reekers is one of those early Ayreon legends. It's been a long time since Lucassen used him on a studio album (come on you Hippie sort that out!), and this marks his return to the project. For long time fans of Ayreon Edward being here and singing this song must be like nostalgia overload. It certainly is for me and I only discovered Ayreon in 2007.

The other song from The Final Experiment is another classic one: Merlin's Will. On album this was sung by Leon Goewie, the vocalist of one of Lucassen's pre-Ayreon heavy metal bands: Vengeance. Leon is not among the vocalists performing on this show, so instead the song is performed by Floor Jansen (Nightwish), which makes it a unique version. Floor's sister Irene, part of a trio of backing vocalists on this show, previously sang an acoustic version of the song for the special edition of The Final Experiment, but this is the metal version. And Floor rocks on it.

The second Ayreon album Actual Fantasy (1996) is also represented by three songs. One of these is the short title track that on this show leads into Computer Eyes rather than Abbey of Synn, which is the other track performed from the album. Actual Fantasy is the oddball Ayreon album with only three lead vocalists, but two of them are present on the show. One of course is Edward Reekers again and the other is Robert Soeterboek (Wicked Sensation). The latter performs Abbey of Synn on his own and they duet on Computer Eyes. Because the album was structured that differently to most Ayreon albums and was disconnected from the overall concept that The Final Experiment begun, Actual Fantasy is probably the Ayreon album that gets most overlooked by fans, so its good to see that it gets a fair airing.

The third Ayreon album of course was Into the Electric Castle. Into the Electric Castle is my personal favourite album of all time. It would later get the full live show treatment which resulted in the next Ayreon live release Electric Castle Live (And Other Tales) (2020), but on Ayreon Universe it still gets a four track showing, in order of performance: Valley of the Queens, The Two Gates, The Castle Hall and Amazing Flight. The latter two performances are notable for being the two that Arjen Lucassen himself is playing guitar on and singing in the case of Amazing Flight. But first is Valley of the Queens. Initially sung solo by Anneke van Giersbergen (ex-The Gathering), this version is an alternative one for three voices, with Floor Jansen and Marcela Bovio (ex-Stream of Passion) joining her on stage. It's a really good and haunting rendition.

The Two Gates is used as an opportunity to introduce the musicians on stage with the song itself being sung by Damian Wilson (Headspace), returning to his role of the Knight with the Barbarian performed by John "Jaycee" Cuijpers (Praying Mantis). Cuijpers also went on the play the role on Electric Castle Live later on, but here he's an odd choice considering that the original vocalist Jay ven Feggelen (ex-Bodine, another band Lucassen was a part of though they were never on the same album) is actually there and sings the role later on during Amazing Flight. Neither does he sing the character's parts on The Castle Hall, there handled by Robert Soeterboek. Both men do the part well, but it really does beg the question over why when the man himself is present. Good versions though and rightly chosen as staples of the Ayreon discography.

Then we have The Dream Sequencer (2000) and what is the most under-represented album of the night with just one song played: And the Druids Turn to Stone. Damian Wilson sang it originally and of course performs it here too to perfection, actually raising the song in my personal estimations to be honest. There's really little else to say on that. I've have loved Lucassen to come out to do my personal favour Carried by the Wind though, or for perhaps other personal highlights My House on Mars or The First Man on Earth to be included. But I guess they took the Universal Migrator selection between the two albums, speaking of which...

...Flight of the Migrator (2000), the heavy counterpart to the Dream Sequencer, has two tracks featured and they are obvious choices: Dawn of a Million Souls and Into the Black Hole. However neither of their original vocalists are there on the night, Russell Allen and Bruce Dickinson respectively. Busy men, those guys. John "Jaycee" Cuijpers takes on Allen's song Dawn of a Million Souls and ends up being a highlight of the whole show though. I kid you not by the time the man had walked off stage again my first thought was precisely this: 'Damn, Russell Allen just got handed his arse!'.

Into the Black Hole is an Ayreon classic and not just because of who happened to sing it on the album originally. If anything the song is more known in the fan base these days because of Damian Wilson's renditions on the Star One and Stream of Passion live releases. So it comes as a surprise that he isn't the chosen singer for it on this show. Instead Tommy Karevik (Kamelot & Seventh Wonder) performs it for another good, though like many other tracks, edited down version.

Between Flight of the Migrator and the next Ayreon album The Human Equation came the first Star One album Space Metal. Two tracks are featured in the set list, Intergalactic Space Crusaders and The Eye of Ra. As they decided to feature Star One as well I do find it a shame that the second album Victims of the Modern Age (2010) was ignored, but I can't deny they picked a couple of good ones. As Russell Allen is absent, the former track becomes a vocal battle between Damian Wilson and Maggy Luyten (at that time still Nightmare's vocalist) and it's a damn good take with plenty of vocal interplay between the two. The Eye of Ra is the final song of the show and is used as a celebratory climax: with everyone singing it, including many singers I haven't even had the opportunity to mention yet! So moving on...

...The Human Equation is one of the most popular Ayreon albums so it may come as a surprise that it isn't that represented here, with only two songs, the singles Loser and Love, featured. Perhaps that's because The Theater Equation saw that album performed in full, I don't know. Loser is a highlight of the show. It starts with Jeroen Goossens bringing out a didgeridoo for the I dare say iconic intro before Mike Mills starts to sing. Once again you can tell he's really into this just by looking at him. The song is changed from it's original version by swapping Devin Townsend's original manic harsh screaming at the end for four the female vocalists coming down to stage to reject Mill's character Father. Mills draws out the last high note displaying his incredible vocal ability, before giving a shout out to the late Mike Baker, who originally sang the song, which is enough to get any fan of The Human Equation or Baker's band Shadow Gallery choked up.

The version of love features a number of vocalist changes from the original version. Dream Theater's James LaBrie is not here, so the role of Me is taken over by Edward Reekers. Heather Findlay's role as Love is converted to the voice of Wife (Marcela Bovio). Irene Jansen original appeared on the song and is able to step down from a backing vocalist role, as does Lisette van den Berg, a singer that Arjen hasn't really worked with outside of backing roles yet. Robert Soeterboek also takes part and taking over the lines of Fear, originally Mikael Åkerfeldt's part, is none other than Ed Warby in his first Ayreon vocalist role.

01011001 (2008) is the most represented Ayreon album on Ayreon Universe, with five songs, though very edited from their original versions, in order of performance: River of Time, Waking Dreams, Ride the Comet, Comatose and Age of Shadows. River of Time brings out Hansi Kürsch (Blind Guardian) with Marco Hietala (Nightwish) subbing for Bob Catley's role. It's a very good version, their voices work well together. Waking Dreams is as on album, with Katatonia's Jonas Renske with Anneke van Giersbergen, though edited to not feature notably the keyboard solo originally played by Tomas Bodin, which ends up being jarring to my ears and actually spoils that track a bit. The same vocal team also handled Comatose, again shortened. Jorn Lande originally sang the song and it is one of my favourite light Ayreon songs. This is a good version, but I do really wish Jorn could have been there to do it.

Ride the Comet originally had several singers delivering short lines in its verses, but here Renkse takes over with Floor Jansen for some reason sitting out her bits in favour of the trio of backing singers, while Maggy Luyten does her chorus. Age of Shadows is just that, not the We are Forever deviation, with the vocals shared between Kürsch, Hietala and Floor Jansen. An iconic more recent Ayreon track it's an obvious pick for the show, though I'd have rather seen in played in full, since the vocalists who did the We Are Forever part were Jonas Renkse and Anneke van Giersbergen, both featured elsewhere on this show.

The Theory of Everything (2013)'s tracks is where things get more theatrical and if there's any other Ayreon album apart from The Human Equation and Into the Electric Castle that could perhaps have the full performance stage show treatment it's that one, as the singers prove on the selection of four tracks featured here, with props used and the vocalists visibly acting the parts, a highly of which is the exchange between Tommy Karevik, Marco Hietala and Anneke van Giersbergen during Magnetism.

Finally we come to The Source, the then latest Ayreon album and surprisingly represented by just two songs: Star of Sirrah and Everybody Dies. You'd think the latest album would have more presence here but then maybe not, this isn't in support of that album and it certainly isn't a show from any kind of normal tour. These songs are all done by singers originally on that album with the addition of Luyten, but with some changes due to absences, notably James LaBrie again. Everybody Dies is a highlight, again seeing Mike Mills in his TH-1 regalia.

Arjen Lucassen himself shows up for the final song of the main set which was The Castle Hall and then gives an over ten minute speech about the event before the first encore. Although he talks about his fear of playing live and public speaking he does a pretty good job of it when he does perform on stage and delivers his speech well, a point he does reference himself as it goes on. On most shows I don't think audiences want a band member to speak for over ten minutes, but this is no normal show or normal musician. The audience is rapt and Lucassen's speech is amusing. He has always struck me as a musician to be a very down to Earth and humble man and it is obvious that he is overwhelmed by what has been done with his music for this show and how many people have turned out to see it performed.

In summary Ayreon Universe as a live release does have a few niggles like tracks being edited down, but ultimately it's a minor issues. The whole thing is damn impressive, especially when you consider how many major bands couldn't possibly have plans for the three nights these shows were performed due to their vocalists being occupied with it for ultimately very little time on stage each. It's a massive undertaking to put Ayreon on stage. It's testament to the quality of the music that Lucassen can get such talented people not just to appear on his albums but on stage as well. And despite it's niggles, Ayreon Universe is a damn entertaining show. It's very possibly the best live release I've seen to date.


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