Progressive Metal

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Progressive metal, more commonly know as prog metal, is characterized by genre transgression and instrumental virtuosity. Its signature features are guitar driven songs that have complex time signatures and very intricate playing.

Progressive metal as a genre is associated with acts such as Dream Theater, Fates Warning and Queensrÿche, who had their heyday in the early 1990s, but progressive elements have been fused into metal virtually since the inception of metal. For instance, on their early releases, Black Sabbath would incorporate jazzy passages into their compositions, while also drawing on other genres, and many proto-metal acts also had backgrounds in progressive rock and heavy psychedelic rock. In the early to mid 1980s, some NWoBHM groups, such as Iron Maiden would find direct inspiration in progressive rock acts like Genesis, Yes, and King Crimson and incorporate progressive elements, such as complex song structures, twin guitars and changes in time and tempo into their style, while the cult band Mercyful Fate were known for blatantly disregarding the conventions of composition in popular music, opting for complex and unusual song structures.

So, progressiveness was a part of metal since the inception of the genre, but it was not until the late 1980s and mid 1990s as bands like Watchtower, Fates Warning, Queensrÿche, Psychotic Waltz, and Dream Theater that progressive metal became established as an independent subgenre. These bands would draw both on previously established metal genres, like NWOBHM, and progressive rock acts of the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Especially Dream Theater would become iconic of the genre, and their instrumentation, which includes prominent keyboards, became the blueprint for many progressive metal bands to follow. The music that came out was very diverse and even symphonic at times. Not all of it was overly technical, though some bands such as Dream Theater were very technical, while others, like Fates Warning and Watchtower emphasized odd time signature. Psychotic Waltz incorporated psychedelia into their sound, and Queensrÿche began to operate with complex lyrical themes.

After progressive metal had been somewhat popular for some time, it began to take on more extreme forms such as progressive death metal, and so on. Bands such as Edge of Sanity and Atheist took prog metal to greater heights with their infusion of prog and death metal. Atheist also added a jazz/fusion sound to their music to make it true progressive death metal, as did Pestilence on their jazz-influenced Spheres. Also during this time, bands such as Opeth and Voivod changed their style to a more progressive sound. While Voivod changed in the early 1990’s, Opeth became a more progressive metal band in the late 1990’s which was probably an effect of the progressive metal movement that was going on at the time. Some already established metal acts in other genres would similarly cross over into progressive metal territory, such as Savatage, who - although having a background in traditional metal and power metal - released several progressive metal albums. In parallel with the development of progressive extreme metal genres, many power metal acts would take their music in a more progressive direction, resulting in the subgenre of progressive power metal (which is included under power metal here at the MMA) some of which, like Kamelot and Savatage, would eventually become fully fledged progressive metal acts.

Most bands in the progressive metal genre have their own unique style; whether it is more spacey, more symphonic, or more technical while others follow the Dream Theater configuration to a smaller or greater extent (these are sometimes referred to as 'traditional progressive metal' bands), but they all have an equal balance between the influences. Over the years progressive metal has gained the title of having longer songs then regular metal, and while this is mostly true, it isn’t always.

These bands are here because they are different, in a sense, than regular metal bands because they not only include metal but different genres as well, such as jazz/fusion, prog rock, and classical music, and put them all together to make an enjoyable sound. Bands and releases who include progressive elements in their music, but whose central sound is more firmly anchored in another genre are placed in that genre - for instance, Enslaved, whose style is progressive and experimental but still quite firmly based in their black metal roots, are placed in the black metal category, while mathcore and progressive metalcore bands are placed in metalcore.

Sub-genre collaborators (shared with Avant-Garde Metal):
  • siLLy puPPy
  • DippoMagoo
  • Sisslith
  • adg211288

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BORKNAGAR Empiricism

Album · 2001 · Progressive Metal
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lukretion
Released in 2001, Empiricism marks a fine return to form for Borknagar after two albums (The Archaic Course and Quintessence) that were far from the level of quality the Norwegians had reached on the splendid The Olden Domain. After Quintessence, ICS Vortex, who had sung on both previous albums and played bass on Quintessence, left the band to concentrate on Dimmu Borgir and was replaced by the talented Vintersorg on vocals and Tyr (who had played live with Emperor and Satyricon) on bass. The change of line-up was very beneficial for Borknagar, not because ICS Vortex is a bad vocalist (to the contrary, he’s excellent), but because Vintersorg seems to fit much better the sonic masterplan of band leader Øystein G. Brun. His singing is more epic and less extravagant than ICS Vortex’s, which is a better match for Borknagar’s progressive/folk blend of extreme metal. Tyr’s performance is also very notable, with some excellent parts on bass and fretless bass, including a few solos. The rest of the line-up for this album is comprised of Øystein G. Brun and Jens F. Ryland on guitar, Lars A. Nedland on keyboards and Asgeir Mickelson on drums.

The fact that we are in front of a much stronger record than the previous two is already apparent from the opening pair of songs, “The Genuine Pulse” and “Gods of My World”. On both songs the songwriting is lean and direct, with some excellent guitar riffs and leads intertwined with Nedland’s great barrage of vintage keyboards. The song structures explore different themes and sections, but they are always anchored in instantly recognizable choruses and melodies, that help the listener keep track of the journey. The arrangements add just enough layers to make the music interesting without overburdening it with excessive complexity. Fast and aggressive parts are complemented with grandiose mid-tempos giving the music an epic and majestic tone, reminiscent of the atmosphere one can find on Dimmu Borgir’s Enthrone Darkness Triumphant, but with an added dose of quirkiness and folk allure. The overall impression is that on the new album Borknagar have finally achieved the right balance between their various facets (black metal fury and melody; progressive experimentation and accessibility), which is a huge improvement over The Archaic Course, for example.

The individual performances of all musicians involved in the album are outstanding. Vintersorg is excellent, both when he uses his epic clean vocals and when he resorts to his grim growls. Both styles are nicely balanced through each song and fit well with one another. Tyr offers a very melodic bass presence which constitutes an exceptional rhythm section together with Mickelson’s varied and sophisticated drumming. Brun and Ryland’s guitars nicely complement one another, which is again an improvement over previous albums where one had the impression that Borknagar had not yet figured out how to make the two guitars work together. Lars A. Nedland’s performance also deserves tons of praise. On Quintessence he had already demonstrated to be a very talented musician, but his role on that album was perhaps a bit disconnected from the rest of the band, with the result that occasionally his keyboard parts were sounding a bit out of place and forced. Nedland is perfectly integrated in the band now, and it is great to hear his always tasteful choice of keyboard sounds, varying from vintage Hammonds to futuristic synths.

Probably a lot of these improvements come down to the longer time the band actually spent in the studio, honing the songwriting and recording the songs (two months compared to the few weeks of previous releases), and to the excellent sound production by Børge Finstad (who will go on to produce several records in this genre, with Borknagar, Solefald and Wind). The guitars and drums sound great, with lots of bite and edge. There is a lot of space and dynamics in the sound that let each instrument come through when necessary, even Tyr’s bass – which is an instrument that often gets sacrificed in this type of music. This spaciousness does not at all come to the cost of power, though: the album can pack a punch or two when needed. Again, the record is excellently balanced in its various facets.

While there is a lot to like on Empiricism, the album does contain a couple of dull moments, with slightly more nondescript songwriting. This is the case especially in the second half of the record, where we have tracks like “Inherit the Earth” and “Liberated” that are borderline fillers. Fortunately, the good moments greatly overweigh the bad ones, and tracks like the opening duo, the progressive tour de force “Soul Sphere”, and “Four Element Synchronicity” stand tall as great example of the talent of these six musicians. The latter song is particularly remarkable for how modern it sounds still today, 20 years after it was first recorded: this track could have been taken from one of the recent albums of Leprous (before their progressive-pop turn) or Ihsahn, showing how visionary and forward-looking Borknagar were back then (or perhaps how backward-looking the progressive metal scene is today!?).

In summary, Empiricism is a strong album, marking a definite return to form for Borknagar. After Quintessence, I had started to wonder whether Borknagar were perhaps a “one album” wonder, which after the excellent The Olden Domain were destined to drown in mediocrity. Empiricism proves me wrong. It is not quite at the level of excellence of The Olden Domain, but it gets damn close and is definitely a highly recommended listen if you are into progressive extreme metal.

ENSLAVED Caravans to the Outer Worlds

EP · 2021 · Progressive Metal
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siLLy puPPy
ENSLAVED seems to have overcome its moniker as it has over the course of three decades been one of the most prolific and creative shapeshifters in all of extreme metal and in the year 2021, some thirty years after its formation in the icy cold Norwegian city of Haugesund, Ivar Bjørnson, Grutle Kjellson and their constantly rotating cast of musical accompaniment are continuing to churn out more innovative and even currently relevant music.

A year after the band’s Scandinavian folk-infused progressive black metal offering “Utgard,” ENSLAVED is back with an EP’s worth of four new tracks that offer yet another take on the band’s already established mishmash of folkened black prog metal. ENSLAVED proves not only to be an astute long term survivor in the extreme metal world but maintains its popularity due to the fact that this band knows how to juxtapose the aforementioned ingredients and change things up just enough to keep things a bit different than what came before.

CARAVANS TO THE OUTER WORLDS is a short but sweet EP (ENSLAVED’s fourth overall not counting demos) which clocks in at only 18 minutes but offers four intense atmospheric prog and black metal tunes that continue to forge ahead into the future. On this EP, ENSLAVED joins the ranks of the more psychedelic black metal bands that look to the stars rather than confine themselves to the fjords with themes from the stars as well as lysergic organ runs and other space rock elements melding their way into the crunchy power chords and blackened prog workouts.

Wisely ENSLAVED sticks to its established sound on its full-length releases but isn’t afraid to experiment radically once in a while on these infrequent EP releases. Perhaps this is a testing ground to see how well this type of music is received but if the success of psychedelic black metal acts like Oranssi Pazuzu and Hail Spirit Noir are any indication, ENSLAVED has a pretty good chance of adapting its classic sounds to a new era of hybridized black metal that keeps morphing into the next phase of evolution.

For those more accustomed to ENSLAVED’s heavier sounds of yore ranging from the 90s black metal behemoths that culminated with “Mardraum” or the intricately designed black metal prog that ran from “Monumension” to “In Times,” CARAVANS TO THE OUTER WORLDS may be a bit of a disappointment due to the fact the clear emphasis is on the atmospheric and ethereal elements with only the heavier parts adding a bit of contrast. ENSLAVED has definitely mellowed out in recent years but that’s really not a bad thing at all considering how incredibly well this band crafts melodic folk-fueled catchiness with atmospheric and heavy contrasting elements.

Given that CARAVANS TO THE OUTER WORLDS is designed to take ENSLAVED on a journey into the world of space rock, i’m not really put off by the lack of metal heft in comparison to the classic years of yore. This is simply a really outstanding series of four tracks that actually leave me wanting more. This easily could’ve been extended into a full-length release and i for one would totally embrace this spacier side of ENSLAVED ever expanding persona. While purists will surely be left cold by this perceived wimping out of an aging metal band, i find this one to be quite a statement of expansiveness to continue to take ENSLAVED down roads never considered way back in the Viking theme days. While by no means ENSLAVED’s best works here, this is definitely an essential listening experience for true fans.

DREAM THEATER Images and Words

Album · 1992 · Progressive Metal
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SilentScream213
Images and Words is kind of the first Progressive Metal album of the blue collar, semi-symphonic ballad heavy variant. While Dream Theater’s debut was a pretty generic slice of first wave Prog Metal, here Dream Theater take a cue from the likes of Queensryche and Fates Warning, adding strong, anthemic choruses and near-Pop commercial sensibilities, though retaining the later band’s complex songwriting and musicianship. More interestingly, they borrow Savatage’s melodramatic balladry, and bring a strong ensemble of keys, strings, sax, and probably a bunch of other instruments to the mix.

New (and now long-time) Vocalist James LaBrie adds a signature charisma to the vocal delivery, with an impressive range and strong lyrical chops. Instrumentally, it’s not in the overtly technical territory of prog wankery, and rather the band does a great job of servicing the song as needed, and showing off when appropriate. There’s also a huge variety to the songs here, and they pull off just about everything they try their hand at. There’s epic songs, somber songs, sappy songs, serious songs… and tons of different styles, all wrapped in that signature Prog Metal package. The band is so instrumentally entertaining that they actually make a cheerfully cheesy wankfest in “Take the Time” that manages to be a total delight from start to finish.

There really isn’t a wasted minute here, and the penultimate track “Wait for Sleep” is proof of that. Normally, 2 minute non-metal interludes on Metal albums are terrible wastes of space that just slow things down, but this one is a beautiful piano-vocal duet that not only sets the mood perfectly for the last track, but is a memorable piece of beauty in it’s own right. And that last track, “Learning how to Live,” is definitely the band’s greatest achievement as of release. Perfect closer that goes through a total range of moods and styles in it’s 11 minute runtime, never overstaying it’s welcome.

AMORPHIS Elegy

Album · 1996 · Progressive Metal
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Vim Fuego
Is that a sitar? On a death metal album?

It’s an electric sitar, yes, but this isn’t really a death metal album. It’s a close relative to one though.

Before “Elegy”, Amorphis was a bit of a death metal icon. The band’s first album “The Karelian Isthmus” released in 1992 was much revered for it’s brutality and heaviness, with guitarist Tomi Koivusaari’s guttural vocals carving the band a unique spot in the death metal pantheon. And to follow that up you go even more brutal, right? Of course you fucking don’t. That’s how you paint yourself into a corner. No, you do what Amorphis did and innovate.

So, along came 1994’s “Tales From The Thousand Lakes”, and metal fans were in awe of Amorphis again. The album was still brutal and deathly, but this time it had clean vocals, courtesy of singer Pasi Koskinen. Sure, this wasn’t completely unknown, as Fear Factory had been doing it for a few years, but Amorphis did it differently, with a dose of melody, but without compromising on the metal content.

And so to 1996 and “Elegy” and the sitar. There’s also tambourines, accordions, keyboards and acoustic guitars, and it’s obvious Amorphis isn’t a death metal band any more. And that’s OK. In fact, it’s more than OK. No, the growls aren’t gone completely – they provide a stark contrast on most tracks, but Koivusaari enunciates far more clearly than most death metal vocals. The guitars are no longer distorted chainsaws, but they are far from completely clean. Amorphis was never a blast-after-blast style death metal band, more the mid-pace groove style. Their groove never really relied on chug-a-chug riffs much either, so the evolution to fluid melodic, veering on psychedelic riffs isn’t too jarring for most Amorphis fans. In fact, it all seems completely logical.

This sounds like a full-on mainstream sell-out, with a band seemingly turning it’s back on their dark, primitive roots. This couldn’t be further from the truth. As an album, “Elegy” is heavy as hell, and totally uncompromising. It’s just that it’s not traditional death metal-style heavy, and there’s no overt attempt to aim for a commercial market. This is a band well and truly expanding their horizons. Look at a track like “The Orphan”. It’s basically ambient metal, with vocals and swirling keyboards fleshing it out, and then without the listener realising it, there’s a chunky great riff playing under an ethereal choir. There’s even twin lead guitar melodies. This is the layered, textured songwriting style throughout the album.

Lyrically, the band have taken great inspiration from Finnish mythology. “Elegy” is based on the Kanteletar, a collection of almost 700 poems and ballads, and a companion work to the Kalevala, which “Tales of the Thousand Lakes” was based on. These folk tales of everyday life and philosophy seemed to have also inspired the band to folk music melodies, but still only a stone’s throw from full on metal song construction. There are so many damn good catchy riffs and melodies it’s hard to pick any in particular as the best example. There’s the mid-section of “Song of the Troubled One”, but then compare it to the introduction to “Against Widows”, or the outro to “On Rich and Poor”, and it’s impossible to say “yes, this one is the best” simply because these passages of music just keep coming.

“Elegy’ is often called a transitional album, between Amorphis’ death metal roots and their progressive metal destination, and often such transitional albums get overlooked because the albums either side are purer examples of the different genres. No band ever sets out to record an album thinking it’s going to be transitional though, and are simply making the music they feel inspired to create at that time. “Elegy” is not a transition, but an evolution, a triumph, and a masterpiece.

TIME MACHINE Reviviscence (Liber Secundus)

Album · 2004 · Progressive Metal
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lukretion
The fourth (and to date last) full-length album of Italian prog-metallers Time Machine continues the trilogy based on Valerio Evangelisti’s book “Cherudek” that the band had started with their 2001’s LP Evil. Released in 2004, Reviviscence also continues Time Machine’s tradition of frequent personnel changes between albums. Of the line-up that had recorded Evil, only Lorenzo Dehò (bass) and Gianluca Ferro (guitars) remain. They are joined on the new record by drummer Luca Sigfrido Percich, guitarist Gianluca Galli and vocalist Marco Sivo, all coming from fairly unknown local metal bands. Reviviscence is also characterized by several guest spots, including solos by both Angra’s guitarists Kiko Loureiro and Rafael Bittencourt, and a keyboard solo by Fabio Ribeiro (Shaman, Andre Matos).

Stylistically, Reviviscence can be described as a cross between Time Machine’s masterpiece Eternity Ends from 1998 and their previous record Evil from 2001. Of the latter, the new LP retains the taste for a modern approach to progressive/power music, based on beefy, groovy guitar riffs, futuristic keyboard samples, and powerfully dark melodies that remind me of bands like Kamelot. But there are also echoes of Eternity Ends on Reviviscence, partly because Marco Sivo’s voice has the same high-pitch tone and mellifluous timbre of Nick Fortarezza, who had sung on the 1998’s album, and partly because of the Angra influences that were very prominent on Eternity Ends and return, albeit less conspicuously, on the new album.

This description may sound exciting, considering how Eternity Ends and Evil are both very strong records in their own way. Alas, despite its best intentions, Reviviscence is a fairly disappointing release, mostly because a lot of the material feels very much run of the mill and uninspired. Melodically, there are very few moments of this album that stand out, even after repeated listens, and the whole album flows away without making much of an impression. The material in the second-half of the record is somewhat stronger, also thanks to some inspired guitar playing and a touch of colour given by unusual instrumentation (the sitar on “Tears of Jerusalem”) and samples (the George W Bush’s speech at the end of “Grains of Sand”), but it really does not go beyond the average level.

Another weakness of this record is the quality of the line-up, which I think is somewhat inferior to those of the previous two records, at least in the vocal department (in a few places, Sivo’s vocals come across as tentative and fairly generic) and the drumming. On the other hand, the band has gained something in terms of guitar firepower. Both Galli and Ferro are excellent guitarists and the album contains some interesting and exciting guitar playing and solos (“Grains of Sand”, “Tears of Jerusalem”, “Seeds of Revolution”).

Unfortunately, the production is also a step-down compared to the band’s previous two records. The album does sound really poor for something recorded and produced in 2004. It is loud and noisy, with a terrible guitar and drum sound and an unbalanced mix that puts the keyboards and samples all over the place and on top of the other instruments. This truly detracts from the listening experience, especially in songs where one can hardly tell apart what’s being played as everything sounds like an indistinguishable mush (the choruses on the title-track and “Angel Lucifer”).

Overall, Reviviscence is a mixed bag of fairly uninspired and badly produced material. There is some saving grace in the guitar work, especially in the solos, but it is too little to lift the album beyond the “so-so” level. It is a pity because Time Machine have been a really interesting and exciting band in the Italian and European progressive metal scene, and this is a rather unfortunate way to conclude their discography. We can only hope that Dehò may at some point in the future decide to revive his old band and conclude the Evangelisti’s trilogy with a better album than this one. Until then, I think I will stick to Eternity Ends and Evil.

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AYREON Electric Castle Live and Other Tales

Movie · 2020 · Progressive Metal
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adg211288
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.

DREAM THEATER Breaking The Fourth Wall

Movie · 2014 · Progressive Metal
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rdtprog
It seems like it was just yesterday that the Luna Park DVD was released. Now it's another one from the Boston Opera House less than a year later. The show is divided in three acts. The first act is tracks from the last two albums and the song "A Trial of Tears" from "Falling to Infinity". The second act is 5 songs from the "Awake" album to celebrate his 20th anniversary and the third act is the encore celebrating again "Scene from a Memory" with his 15th anniversary. On those 2 albums, the band use the same pattern by starting to play the technical, fast and heavy songs like "The Mirror", "Lie", "Overture 1928" and "Strange Déjà Vu" and finishing with the slower and emotional songs like "Lifting Shadows Off A Dream", "Space Dye Vest" and "Finally Free".

"The Illumination Theory", the most progressive and the epic song of the last album is played with an orchestra in the second act which is the perfect fit with this song that contains an irresistible classical break in the middle. The picture is crystal clear and the camera work more satisfying than the "Luna Park" DVD. As for the sound, I had to crank up the volume very high to get the full sound. Again, I wish we could hear John Myung louder, but that's what happens on live recording, it rarely match the sound quality of a studio release. James Labrie's voice is in nice shape as well as all others members. It's another nice addition to your Dream Theater collection. 3. 8 stars.

DREAM THEATER Dream Theater - Score: 20th Anniversary World Tour Live with the Octavarium Orchestra

Movie · 2006 · Progressive Metal
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AtomicCrimsonRush
I always look forward to putting this DVD on as I know I am going to get the best of both worlds; symphonic orchestrated music and full on Dream Theater prog. I agree with some reviewers that the setlist is not exactly mind blowing but it nevertheless spans the 5 year history. It is interesting the way the orchestra blends into the metal sound, similar to the Metallica S&M concert, or indeed Kiss Alive IV. It is always of interest when metal meets symphony. The DVD "Score" is very well produced, sharp editing throughout and excellent sound quality. There is nothing wrong with the visuals at all, with the band members sharing the spotlight, but the problem lies in the setlist itself. There are too many omissions and some opportunities wasted in the early part of the concert.

It opens with some deadset oddities such as The root of all evil, I walk beside you, Another won and Afterlife. It isn't until Under A Glass Moon that it really takes off showing the power of that brilliant track and Petrucci's amazing guitar solo. Later we are treated with The spirit carries on and the entire suite of Six degrees of inner turbulence; absolutely flawless and indispensable on the live stage. After an ovation the band belt out Vacant, The answer lies within, Sacrificed Sons and the masterpiece epic Octavarium that is quintessential to the band. The Encore: Metropolis Pt. 1 is a brilliant way of ending the concert to a rapturous crowd.

Disc 2 is packed with some hit and miss Bonus material including a mammoth 20th Anniversary Documentary, that has some fascinating info on the band and the way that not everything goes to plan on a tour. Portnoy has too much to say and now it is a bitter taste now he has scarpered and been replaced. The Octavarium Animation is terrific, and the live performances are always a treat including Another Day (Tokyo - 1993), The Great Debate (Bucharest, Romania - 2002) and Honor Thy Father (Chicago - 2005).

The DVD comes with high recommendations due to the visual quality, and overall package. Ignore the early part of the set and just enjoy DT at their absolute best in the middle half of the concert accompanied by masterful orchestration. A must for all DT fans and one of the best DT DVDs available to this point in time.

DREAM THEATER Live at Budokan

Movie · 2004 · Progressive Metal
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AtomicCrimsonRush
One of the first DVDs I saw of Dream Theater before the onslaught of DVDs that have come since. This is an early performance and of considerable interest as a result. These were the glory days of Dream Theater ramming prog down the throats of the hungry Budokan fans. It is an incredible performance best seen than heard though the audio experience offers much as a type of Dream Theater concoction of the best of the earlier years. The CD is good listening but the visual persentation is incredible. There are a few odd surprises scattered in the mammoth set list but the classics are here and played to perfection. Beyond This Life is a huge epic clocking 19:37, and with some dynamic lead guitar from Petrucci. The Test That Stumped Them All is always a killer track live and sounds fresh and powerful with huge bass runs of Myung and Portnoy's slamming percussion.

Endless Sacrifice is an 11 minute gruelling journey into prog excess with a wild keyboard section from Rudess. The Instrumedley to follow features some awesome musicianship. LaBrie is in fine form on soaring vocals, and shines on such compositions as the 14 minute Trial Of Tears and New Millennium. It is always a pleasure to experience a Jordan Rudess keyboard solo and it is as inventive here as ever. There are some amazing songs such as Solitary Shell, Stream Of Consciousness and quintessential Pull Me Under. The set closes with epic 16 minute In The Name Of God. So overall this is a great set with power metal and tons of instrumental breaks. It is progressive and packed to the gills with mind bending virtuoso solos and material from some of their best albums. It was the "Train of Thought" tour so there is plenty from that album as well as "Six Degrees" and "Images and Words" among others.

The special features are wonderful featuring 'Riding The Train Of Thought" a Japanese Tour Documentary of about half an hour, and John Petrucci Guitar World segment, Jordan Rudess Keyboard World, and a Mike Portnoy Drum Solo clocking 12 minutes. The Dream Theater Chronicles - 2004 Tour Opening Video is okay showing the video the crowd saw in the opening, and Instrumedley with multi-angles is lots of fun. Overall it is a fantastic DVD concert, and all Dream Theater fans must have it.

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