''We’re on a journey to forever
dreams eternal, in a wondrous world without walls
we are forever, wondering what the future holds''
Mascot Label Group
Every metal artist out there wants their music to be original, and unique and many have manage to create truly original and beautiful albums that appeal to many fans, for example, by giving their music an oriental touch (Myrath or Orphaned Land) or by using a choir and orchestra as a backdrop to heavy guitars (Epica or Nightwish) or by other writing deep, touching lyrics (Kamelot or HIM). But Ayreon’s music is on a different level because of the way it is thought and created. It combines metal music and storytelling in such a way that it is impossible not to be fascinated by what you hear. There are many bands out there that release brilliant concept albums (see Opeth or Pain of Salvation) but Arjen Lucassen has taken this a step beyond and tells his stories through characters and dialogue rather than only lyrics that describe the situation. You actually get to experiment first-hand what the characters are facing, how they are reacting to a peculiar situation, and what their emotions are, even their psychology, in a way. This is what I believe sets Ayreon’s music apart from anything else. Tobias Sammet’s Avantasia and recently Dark Sarah have joined in this trend of making character-based concept albums.
Chronicle 1: The Frame
1. The Day That The World Breaks Down
2. Sea Of Machines
3. Everybody Dies
Chronicle 2: The Aligning Of The Ten
4. Star Of Sirrah
5. All That Was
6. Run! Apocalypse! Run!
7. Condemned To Live
Chronicle 3: The Transmigration
8. Aquatic Race
9. The Dream Dissolves
10. Deathcry Of A Race
11. Into The Ocean
Chronicle 4: The Rebirth
12. Bay Of Dreams
13. Planet Y Is Alive!
14. The Source Will Flow
15. Journey To Forever
16. The Human Compulsion
17. March Of The Machines
“The Source” is a piece of a bigger puzzle in Ayreon’s well-known Forever saga as it is a prequel to his 2008 binary album (01011001) and it is just as groovy, and catchy as that record, though some lyrics are a bit cheesy. Most of you will instantly recognize the classic Ayreon sound as soon as the first song begins and will re-connect to the stories that made this musical project a force to be reckoned with on the progressive rock / metal scene. I’m sure you will find lots of Easter eggs hidden both in the lyrics and the instrumental to remind you of his earlier work. “The Source” tells the story of a world dominated by machines that have started a war against humanity, and thus the humans are forced to look at the stars for an answer and a new planet to inhabit. The heavy use of synthesizes gives the music a very SF-ish vibe that works extremely well with the concept of the album, the voyage through space in search of their new home, near the Star of Sirrah. Listening to “The Source” I recall passages from Seventh Wonder’s 30-minute epic track “The Great Escape” as the theme is the same – leaving behind a ruined Earth for another planet.
In true Ayreon style, there are many layers of music from flutes, to violins, cello, guitars, bass, and drums that give the songs depth, intensity, and diversity. I especially love the folky atmosphere of “All That Was”, the oriental vibes of “Deathcry of a Race”, the mellow, dream-like instrumental and ethereal vocals in “The Source Will Flow”, the bluesy feel of “Into the Ocean”, the catchiness and pop-ish feel of the late 80’s – early 90’s of “Journey to Forever”, the groovy synth solo executed by Mark Kelly and lengthy guitar solo performed by Marcel Coenen on “The Dream Dissolves”, Paul Gilbert’s excellent guitar solo on the epic “Star of Sirrah” and finally the masterful guitar solo by Guthrie Govan on “Planet Y is Alive!”. Each guest musician is on top of their game, giving some of their best vocal performance here. And Michel Mills (from Australian band Toehider) in the role of TH-1 is just fantastic. I was impressed with Michel on “The Theory of Everything” (2013) but his vocal delivery here is exquisite, especially the binary sequence in “The Day That the World Breaks Down” (which means ‘trust TH-1’), the first few lines in “Everybody Dies” as well as his fast delivery on “Run! Apocalypse! Run!”. He is by far the best vocalist here, making good use of his full range, doing everything from highs to lows to even some harsh vocals to some downright creepy, borderline robotic, phrasings. Simply amazing.
Tobias Sammet in the role of the cocky Captain, Hansi Kürsh voicing the Astronomer, and Nils K. Rue giving a strong voice to the Prophet are just as incredible as they have some very powerful performances throughout the album (example: “Into the Ocean”). As a fan of both Nighwish and Epica I know what Floor Jansen (the Biologist) and Simone Simons (the Counselor) are capable of, however I was pleasantly surprised by their delicate, soft vocals on “All That Was” and by their operatic duo on “Deathcry of a Race”. Just beautiful. Tommy Rogers as the Chemist, Michael Eriksen as the Diplomat, and James LaBrie as the Historian also shine brightly through their perfectly executed vocals (“Star of Sirrah”). A shout-out to both Russell Allen and Tommy Karevik for the powerful and emotional delivery of their lines, though I must admit I was hoping for a harsher confrontation between Allen’s President and Karevik’s Opposition Leader as I thought their characters would be on more aggressive terms but still their exchange on “Planet Y is Alive!” makes up for everything. As a Myrath fan, I was also hoping for a bit more from Zaher Zorgati as the Preacher not only some chants and Arabic lyrics on “Deathcry of a Race” but I’ll have to settle for the promise of more on future albums. If you were impressed by the 12 minute opener “The Day That the World Breaks Down” (released as a first single) then you have an idea of the musical brilliance that is to follow, and I believe that “Deathcry of a Race” is the crowning jewel of this album, and I consider it to be the cast’s best performance (just check out Tommy Karevik’s emotional passage about Alpha’s fate, Zaher Zorgati’s mournful vocals or Tobias Sammet’s high notes). With such a stellar ensemble, the vocals couldn’t have been anything less than impressive on each song. Credit must also be given to the instrumentalists, whose talent brought Arjen’s music to life – Ed Warby’s precise drumming (“Into the Ocean”), Ben Mathot’s superb violin lines (“The Dream Dissolves”), Maaike Peterse on cello (“Condemned to Live”), Jeroen Goossens playing a variety of wind instruments (“The Source Will Flow”), Joost van den Broek on grand and electric piano (“Star of Sirrah”) and last but definitely not least, Arjen Lucassen on guitars, bass, mandolin and synthesizers (“The Day That the World Breaks Down”).
I love the constant back-and-forth between the characters that make the songs more dynamic, as the interaction between Floor Jansen and Tommy Karevik on both “Condemned to Live” and “Deathcry of a Race” or between Tobias Sammet and James LaBrie on “Aquatic Race”. There are also memorable passages on “Aquatic Race” and “Journey to Forever” when all the guest vocalists sing together as a choir (the Ship’s Crew). I must also point put the soaring vocal choruses and vocal harmonies that really put the power in power metal as well as the intricate, prog-oriented instrumental passages that flow together seamlessly and tie this whole progressive metal epicness into 4 big chronicles, for each story-line. However, each of the 16 tracks (exception: “March of the Machines”) can stand on their own as each have a story and a personality of their own and many also have strong, easy to sing-along choruses (I personally love rocking out to “Journey to Forever” or “Run! Apocalypse! Run!”). If you want to discover the story by yourselves then skip the following paragraph as it contains major spoilers and go straight to the end.
Part 1 (“The ‘Frame”) presents a world dominated by machines and technology from which they must escape because they are in a war they cannot win and are slowly approaching the day when everything around them breaks down as “the ‘Frame is cutting off the power, we’re stranded in the dark” (the Chemist in “Sea of Machines”). Part 2 (“The Aligning of the Ten”) shows the way in which everybody comes together and decides it is time to leave Alpha because, as the Historian says, “we lack the power to immobilize the ‘Frame / we need to save our race and leave this world behind”. Preparations for the long journey on board of the spaceship Starblade to the aquatic planet Y near the Star as Sirrah begin, as “a cold-blooded war rages on”, to quote the Opposition Leader. “All That Was” is a beautiful longing for all those they will have to leave behind to face the ‘Frame, reason why they start to feel guilty and lament their reckless decisions on the emotional “Condemned to Live”. Part 3 (“The Transmigration”) is their journey planet Y, because “our world is ruined”. The opposition leader is determined to learn from their mistakes and vows that “this time we won’t depend on cold machinery” for their existence. During their long journey they hibernate (“The Dream Dissolves”) but soon they must awake as they reach their destination, far away from the ‘Frame, and learn that “Alpha is shattered”. Part 4 (“The Rebirth”) presents the new planet and its watery ecosystem, with which they have to create a sort of symbiosis if they want to survive and some questions arise as to whether they can “ever adapt to this alien life” (“Bay of Dreams”). The Opposition Leader can’t trust the President because “you swore the ‘Frame would shield us, so we welcomed your machines” but now they are starting anew and “we can build a new community” without the help of computers. “Planet Y is Alive!” is a chant of joy that they made it safely to their new haven. However, some doubts arise from each of the characters regarding the possibilities of their current situation as “The Human Compulsion” reveals our weakness as humans. Will we repeat our past mistakes? Can we live in a digital-free world? Little do they know that they are not free of the ‘Frame as “March of the Machines” leads smoothly into the first track and plot-line from 01011001, “Age of Shadows”.
Once again Arjen Lucassen managed to create an elaborate story with vivid characters, drama, loss, hope, and above all a moral point for us all to heed – don’t trust too much in technology because it could overpower you one day. I give this energetic, dynamic, and highly entertaining album a perfect 10/10 and place it directly into my list of best albums of 2017.
“The Source” will be released on April 28th and you can pre-order it from here. In the meantime, get ready for take-off and forget the ‘Frame!