(DGR reviews the new album by Arjen Lucassen’s Ayreon project. This is obviously an Exception to Our Rule.)
I have a deep and abiding love for the Ayreon project. Describing it to people on the occasions when I can do so has proven to be an endless source of entertainment because it always ends with someone just going, “That sounds ridiculous”. They’re right too. Ayreon is a ridiculous project, one in the business of making space metal operas filled with multiple characters represented by multiple singers and then having insane guestlists of musicians written up for each one as well.
It’s not so much that I love Ayreon for how well Arjen Lucassen does with the music, but more so because of the absolutely insane amount of ambition that the project has required. He has told stories that span galaxies and cover millenia in the blink of an eye, and he has wrangled some of the best vocal performances out of an amazing array of musicians that I’ve ever heard. It just seems so grand, and when it comes to that, The Theory Of Everything is at face value a concept disc about a father/son team of geniuses working to unite physics of the macro and quantum levels; yes, the whole thing just seems… ridiculous.
No matter how hard outlets like Popular Science, Bad Astronomer, and Io9 try, physics at a granular level isn’t a sexy subject (although googling ‘sexy physics’ has provided hours of entertainment), but the results are. When broken down into layman’s terms and punctuated with pretty pictures, physics can seem incredible, but physics is much like meeting your heroes/watching your favorite food being made. It loses a lot of that appeal when you realize how much bookwork/math/study goes into it. The idea of Ayreon tackling this subject, whilst also dealing with the ideals of a father who feels inadequate because his son ranks somewhere high on the savant/autism range, is remarkable.
Still, in dealing with a situation that seems relatively minute in comparison to the galaxy-spanning subject matter, he manages to take things to a… ridiculous level, somehow fitting in a full-on caper as well as dealing with the ramifications of experimental medication on an individual, all within four movements, and still in grand, Ayreon fashion consisting of the same keys and synths that he’s been using for years. Basically put, it’s the sort of lovable ridiculousness (I know, I keep using that word, and I’m not finished) for which I have come to love this project — and Theory Of Everything makes it seem like the project never went on hiatus.
The album is an interesting addition to the Ayreon discography for two different yet substantial reasons: One, this is the first time an Ayreon disc has felt like it was written as a ‘rock’ opera and could feasibly be performed on stage like a musical, and Two, this is the first time I’ve found myself laughing at an Ayreon disc.
The Theory of Everything has four big overarching movements, although depending on where you got it (hooray digital) the album has been split up into a whopping forty-two tracks. They range anywhere from a single minute to three, with a few coming in at the sub-thirty-second mark. The songs all flow into each other, so the movements really feel like one solid hour-plus-long song, which plays into the rock opera aspect of the CD. Its chosen subject matter also fits into it, because The Theory of Everything is a very human story with a fairly small cast of characters.
This isn’t the first time Ayreon has played with the issues of the psyche, especially in the album The Human Equation, but that one had a massive cast in comparison to this one. The grounding of the concept in this way also lends itself to the idea of a full stage performance. Dealing with characters essentially just changing rooms has to be easier than the more fantastical and sci-fi aspects Ayreon has played with before, although Into The Electric Castle could also suit such a production – but I imagine some of the concepts in that disc would be difficult to play with live. There are also surprisingly few songs where all of the vocalists are going at once, and plenty of occasions when only one or two characters are simultaneously expressing themselves, so those of you who thought things were getting a little over the top post the two Universal Migrator discs (and their one vocalist per song routine) may find The Theory Of Everything a bit more welcoming. Having said that, Ayreon has always adapted pretty well musically to multiple people singing at once.
Given that the vocalist roll call is smaller, they also get a little less of the focus, too. The Theory Of Everything has a lot of music packed into its runtime, including songs in which one expects that plot threads will likely be resolved, with that being done entirely through music. The guest musician credits is actually just a tad longer than the vocalist set. I can think of two examples in particular where two characters (on two separate occasions) say that they are going to do something, and then a big musical break happens for about three minutes, and then the characters come back, going,”Huzzah! We did it!”, which can lead to some pretty serious whiplash injuries from the sudden head-turn you’ll perform as a listener if you weren’t seriously locked in to everything that was being said.
Musically, it’s like Ayreon never left either. If you’ve followed this project for a while you will immediately recognize every single synth used and every type of songwriting trope that mastermind Arjen Lucassen favors. Like the past few discs, two or three songs truly ascend into heavy metal range with the rest being pretty close to the prog rock and prog metal realms. Considering the tremendous amount of flute music on the disc (another Ayreon favorite — the fact that it took two whole minutes to get to the first flute solo was shocking), it even treads into lighter areas. One strikingly beautiful ballad, “Mirror Of Dreams” (beginning of Phase 4: Unification), verges very closely on music that you would overhear at a Renn Faire. Vocalists Cristina Scabbia and Sara Squadrani, however, make magic out of it. Much later, there’s a song, too, where actual SCIENCE! (exclamation point required) happens and the whole thing is set over a swing beat. It feels like such a ridiculous idea that you can’t help but roll with it. That, and the lyrics really are something special.
With all that said, though, hearing Ayreon just do Ayreon is a comforting thing, like settling into a warm bed. The gap between CDs doesn’t look all that crazy if you look at it from a timeline perspective (four years passed between Human Equation and 01011101), but the thought of the project actually disappearing during the hiatus period made the five years between the aforementioned 01011101 and The Theory Of Everything seem so much longer.
Arjen has always had a knack for pulling incredible performances out of the vocalists who appear on the Ayreon releases. In particular, I had always thought Jonas Renske of Katatonia fame was a pretty good singer, but his appearance on 01011101 as one of the Forever ratcheted my opinion of him way up higher. Who knew that adding just the tiniest amount of robotic effect to his voice every once in a while would make him seem so much colder, so much more distant? And it seems like he took what he did on that disc back to Katatonia, because he’s just sounded so much better in Katatonia since that album, too. Arjen writes many of the vocal lines for this project, so he deserves the lion’s share of the credit, and his ability to pull such wonderful performances from vocalists who are already established as really good singers is great. He continues that on The Theory Of Everything, especially with the singers who are really out of their element on this disc.
Cristina Scabbia of Lacuna Coil fame really turns in one hell of a performance in particular, doing things that she really doesn’t get a chance to do with her own band. Every time she pulls off lines as the mother character on this disc, it is truly impressive. Sometimes you can’t even tell it’s her, until you pay attention to the lines and realize that it’s her character talking. Tommy Karevik, to whom a lot of folks were exposed during his turn on Kamelot’s Silverthorne disc (and others will recognize from his band Seventh Wonder), plays a huge role on this album as the son and protagonist in a huge chunk of the story. He too turns in a performance that few will recognize as him. It’s an impressive feat because the character speaks through him and the voice he gives the character is impressive. A few times he sounds like Tommy Karevik playing the role, but for most of the disc he is keeping in tandem with the father character played by Michael Mills, who sings in a way higher range, or just generally dominating the song.
With the over-the-top nature of the Ayreon project can sometimes come a tendency to overdo it, just a little bit, and this is where I got my few laughs at The Theory Of Everything. Every vocalist on this album (especially Sara Squadrini) does an incredible job, but they all have one or two lines where the delivery is just so ridiculous (I hope you’re not keeping count) that I couldn’t help but chuckle.
Marco Hietala (of Nightwish) has one of my two absolute favorites, in which his character, who is the rival and general adversary of Tommy’s protagonist, is discussing with him robbing a bank (yes, there is a robbery on this album, don’t worry, it was pretty sudden for me too). The way in which he drags out bank during his introduction of the idea makes him sound partially drunk and partially like he didn’t know when the word was supposed to end. I know it was to hold on to the melody of the song, and he really does hold on to it for quite a bit, which was impressive, but it’s one of the few times on the album when the plot seems to override the music. That extra half-second or so on bank leaves me with a bit of a grin every time.
The exchange between Marco and Tommy really is a good one, though, as both characters realize that they need to work together. Otherwise, Marco winds up with a large chunk of the early parts of the CD left to himself, constantly fighting the protagonist character at every turn and going a pretty good job of sounding despicable, despite his (and everyone else’s) love of stretching out the word genius to gene – e – yus. One segment early on, when he realizes that the protagonist character just might be smarter than he is, includes a really good vocal line, and he carries it very well. The whole bank segment and the following few songs are highlights on the disc.
My ABSOLUTE favorite, though, comes courtesy of Michael Mills, during a far earlier discussion in the early parts of Phase II: Symmetry (during the song “Diagnosis”). When a character announces they could try giving the protagonist a drug to help him focus, Mills goes, “WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAIT. Tell us More! That sounds intriguing!” In that moment I realized that I wish people spoke like that regularly. It takes a statement and a question that would otherwise be fairly mundane and sends it way past over the top and right into the stratosphere — and it is incredible. It’s a comedy of opposites in full effect when it comes to moments like that; The Theory Of Everything plays with such serious subject matter and is so grounded, that when someone goes over the top and full-on power metal in delivering a line, you really do see a lot of the short man, tall man, thin guy, fat guy, buddy cop dynamic in play. Making the mundane seem like fireworks should be going off during a relatively standard therapist’s consultation is something truly special.
I don’t want this to seem like we’re just picking apart The Theory Of Everything, though, because the rock opera aspect of the whole release really does make this one hell of an addition to the overall Ayreon discography. It has “only” been five years, but it feels like an eternity has passed since the last album, and hearing the project return just as grand as it was when it left is a good thing. The Theory Of Everything shows that Ayreon is just as ambitious a project as it has ever been, and that it will be stretching itself into new territory and new subject matter. I personally can’t help but love it for all of its idiosyncrasies because it is so rare that you get to hear a musician try so many things and make them work, or even just generally to venture outside their comfort zones. Taking something that feels like a hybrid of Rain Man and other mathematical savant cases and modernizing it with today’s physics, as well as dealing with the sort of effect such an individual could have on so many lives outside their own, is truly a feat. Tying that story into a musical is something else entirely.
Yes, this is a disc chock full of clean singing, so it’s not our usual fare round these here parts, but The Theory Of Everything really is something special. It’s not a full paradigm shift for the project musically, but it’s a great step forward into new subject matter areas to be mined, and it feels like the sort of disc that could revitalize the whole project.