Adam Gardiner
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2760 reviews/ratings
WINTERHORDE - Underwatermoon Melodic Black Metal | review permalink
SONIC PULSAR - Playing the Universe Progressive Metal | review permalink
STAR ONE - Victims of the Modern Age Progressive Metal | review permalink
IRON MAIDEN - The Number Of The Beast NWoBHM | review permalink
DREAM THEATER - Images and Words Progressive Metal | review permalink
REBELLION - Miklagard - The History of the Vikings Volume II Power Metal | review permalink
BEYOND TWILIGHT - Section X Progressive Metal | review permalink
IMMORTAL - At the Heart of Winter Black Metal | review permalink
DARKOLOGY - Altered Reflections Progressive Metal | review permalink
CRUACHAN - Folk-Lore Folk Metal | review permalink
ALICE IN CHAINS - Black Gives Way To Blue Alternative Metal | review permalink
AYREON - The Final Experiment Progressive Metal | review permalink
BLIND GUARDIAN - Imaginations From the Other Side Power Metal | review permalink
EPICA - The Divine Conspiracy Symphonic Metal | review permalink
AYREON - The Human Equation Progressive Metal | review permalink
EPICA - Design Your Universe Symphonic Metal | review permalink
ASTARTE - Quod Superius Sicut Inferius Melodic Black Metal
AVANTASIA - The Metal Opera Power Metal
AYREON - 01011001 Progressive Metal | review permalink
REBELLION - Arise: From Ginnungagap to Ragnarök - The History of the Vikings Volume III Power Metal | review permalink

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Metal Genre Nb. Rated Avg. rating
1 Power Metal 364 4.15
2 Progressive Metal 283 4.16
3 Heavy Metal 217 3.88
4 Atmospheric Black Metal 190 4.09
5 US Power Metal 152 4.21
6 Black Metal 145 3.84
7 Folk Metal 106 3.97
8 Symphonic Metal 104 3.79
9 Thrash Metal 96 4.05
10 Non-Metal 87 3.79
11 Death Metal 83 3.93
12 Technical Death Metal 77 4.21
13 Metal Related 73 4.12
14 Gothic Metal 62 3.85
15 Doom Metal 54 4.03
16 Hard Rock 54 3.90
17 Melodic Black Metal 51 4.15
18 Melodic Death Metal 51 3.90
19 Speed Metal 41 3.88
20 Stoner Metal 40 4.15
21 Alternative Metal 37 3.45
22 Symphonic Black Metal 28 4.09
23 Atmospheric Sludge Metal 26 4.15
24 Death-Doom Metal 26 4.15
25 Groove Metal 24 3.63
26 Pagan Black Metal 23 3.89
27 Heavy Psych 23 4.33
28 Viking Metal 23 4.11
29 Heavy Alternative Rock 22 3.27
30 Avant-garde Metal 20 3.88
31 NWoBHM 18 4.42
32 Traditional Doom Metal 18 4.33
33 Depressive Black Metal 17 3.82
34 Stoner Rock 15 3.97
35 Sludge Metal 15 4.10
36 Technical Thrash Metal 14 4.14
37 Funeral Doom Metal 14 4.11
38 Brutal Death Metal 12 3.25
39 Melodic Metalcore 12 3.38
40 War Metal 11 4.09
41 Metalcore 7 2.57
42 Proto-Metal 7 4.14
43 Industrial Metal 5 3.80
44 Neoclassical metal 3 3.83
45 Drone Metal 3 3.50
46 Deathcore 2 1.75
47 Death 'n' Roll 2 3.00
48 Crossover Thrash 1 3.50
49 Crust Punk 1 4.00
50 Trance Metal 1 0.50

Latest Albums 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 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.

NEAL MORSE Sola Gratia

Album · 2020 · Metal Related
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Sola Gratia (2020) is a progressive rock solo release by US musician Neal Morse. Believe it or not this album marks Morse's first normal progressive rock based solo album since Momentum (2012), as all progressive releases between the two have been either with The Neal Morse Band entity, which uses a different song-writing approach to a Neal Morse solo album, or was the rock opera Jesus Christ the Exorcist (2019), which I can't really consider a normal Neal Morse solo album by its very nature which also saw him giving the lead vocal role to someone other than himself. Of course though Morse has used his regular collaborators, the entirety of The Neal Morse Band, as his supporting musicians on Sola Gratia – Mike Portnoy on drums (except for the song Building a Wall where Morse plays them himself), Randy George on bass, Bill Hubauer on piano and Eric Gillette on guest guitar.

Sola Gratia no doubt immediately brings to mind Morse's earlier album Sola Scriptura (2007) with its title and that relationship is further brought into evidence throughout the release with many throwbacks to both that album's music and lyrics, effectively making this a companion album. As anyone who is familiar with Neal's music knows, he is a Christian artist and this concept album explores the story of Paul the Apostle. Compared to some of his work Sola Gratia does come across as being somewhat more overt on the Jesus theme, but as a concept album it doesn't come over as excessively preachy for the sake of being preachy, which can be off-putting to all but the most devote of listeners. And as always the music is fantastic, though more of a slow burn next to albums like Sola Scriptura, One (2004), or The Neal Morse Band's The Similitude of a Dream (2016), which is the main thing.

Speaking of the instrumental work, Sola Gratia is both somewhat familiar territory for Morse, but it also has a fresh feel to it. Despite the relationship and throwbacks this isn't really Sola Scriptura 2.0, as that album was one of the most metal influenced albums that Neal Morse has made, along with The Neal Morse Band's The Great Adventure (2019). This album I would say has some metal on it, and is certainly one of the heavier (though varied) Neal Morse solo albums, but some of that heaviness seems like Morse was as much influenced by classic hard rock as heavy metal. I would say he also relies far less on symphonic prog ideas that he has sometimes in the past and with other ventures like Transatlantic. The result is a rather varied album.

I said earlier than Sola Gratis was more of a slow burn than some Neal Morse work and that's been true for me ever since the first single In the Name of the Lord was released. But that track shows off how my perception of the whole album has been: getting better every time I hear it. I do after several listens find it an album that mostly works as one continuous piece and since the songs segue into each other it sounds like that was Morse's intention, though perhaps not to the extent of the 'it's really one long song' albums like ? (2005) or Transatlantic's The Whirlwind (2009). There are a few standouts though and I think Morse choose his singles from this well, since those are the songs I'm going to primarily name here: In the Name of the Lord, a very hard and heavy track, Building a Wall, a rather catchy memorable number (though I do wonder if Morse has been listening to a lot of Another Brick in the Wall when he came up with this one) and finally Seemingly Sincere. Seemingly Sincere, the album's longest track at 9:34 and the closest that Morse has come to an individual lengthy epic since The Neal Morse Band's debut album The Grand Experiment (2015), is basically a masterpiece unto itself.

With Sola Gratia Neal Morse has proven once again why he is one of the greatest musicians in progressive music today. I would go so far as to say that due to its varied sound and ideas the album is the strongest solo album he's made for over a decade, also right up there with the trio of excellent The Neal Morse Band releases. A strong start to a new decade for Neal Morse.

NEAL MORSE Morsefest! 5015

Movie · 2017 · Metal Related
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Morsefest! 2015 is a live release by US musician Neal Morse. Morsefest! shows are without a doubt the most special Neal Morse shows that a fan could attend – a two day event with a different Neal Morse set each night. Morsefest! 2015 was released on either a 2x blu-ray or 4 x CD/2x DVD package in 2017. Strictly speaking it is The Neal Morse Band playing on the release – Neal Morse, Mike Portnoy, Randy George, Eric Gillette & Bill Hubauer – but Morsefest! 2015 was released under just Neal Morse's name likely due to the event's focus on his albums ? (2005) and Sola Scriptura (2007).

While the focus is indeed on those albums, with ? played in full on night one and Sola Scriptura in full on night two, the set is varied with various extra tracks. The Neal Morse Band had released their debut album The Grand Experiment earlier in 2015 and that album also gets a fair airing across the two nights, particularly in the first half of night one with The Call, the title track and the limited edition bonus track New Jerusalem gets played, while Waterfall was featured on night two complete with some instrument changes for various band members. Three Spock's Beard songs are also brought out, Go the Way You Go on night one and At the End of the Day and Wind at My Back on night two, the latter two featuring Nick D'Virgilio first on drums then co-lead vocals. An edited version of Transatlantic's near eighty minute whole album epic The Whirlwind closes the second night, with further guest vocals by D'Virgilio and guitar by Phil Keaggy, who also makes an appearance on night one and was the support act for the event. Finally the band brings to the live stage for the first time a lesser known Neal Morse epic called A Whole Nother Trip, which appeared on his first solo album while still a member of Spock's Beard amongst what was otherwise a bunch of pop songs. There is also a cover of the song MacArthur Park, originally released by Richard Harris, which has been given the prog treatment by Bill Hubauer on challenge from Mike Portnoy. Neal Morse hates the song apparently and always swore he'd never cover it, but there you go. Hubauer sings lead on it.

The main draw to the Morsefest! 2015 live release is of course the full performance of two of Neal Morse's best known albums. ? is basically one long song in and of itself and is treated like the crowning piece of what Morse describes as a night of epics – a fair description when the shortest song is about seven and a half minutes long. For me personally the performance of Sola Scriptura is the key focal point of the two night show though. That's my personal favourite Neal Morse album, not to mention the one that really got me into his music. It's also one of his heaviest and most metal works which along with various parts of The Neal Morse Band's music gives a metallic edge to those otherwise symphonic progressive rock fuelled double concert.

Morsefest! 2015 is one heck of a show if you're into progressive rock. The scope is tremendous not just through the double show but each night's set is over two hours a pop as well. The amount of musicians on stage at one time goes far beyond the core band – far too many to recite in a review. Suffice to say there's a lot of people involved to pull this off. The sound and picture quality of the blu-ray release is excellent and you certainly get a lot of music for your money. The only fault with the set is that one listed bonus feature called Prog Jeopardy is completely missing from the release. Not sure what the story is there, perhaps it was planned and had to be cut for some reason and they forget to change the inserts before going to the press, who knows? But you weren't buying this for the bonus features anyway right?

There are several of the Morsefest shows released by the time of writing this review in September 2020 so which one holds the most appeal to each fan will of course be different. 2015 was a no brainer for me due to my particular love of Sola Scriptura. Someone else may think 2014's focus on Testimony (2003) and One (2004) or 2017's Testimony 2 (2011) and The Similitude of a Dream (2016) to be better options for them. Regardless any Neal Morse fan owns it to themselves to pick up at least one of these releases for his most special and exclusive concerts.

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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