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.