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Ayreon

- 01011001 – Special Edition CD and DVD

Review by Gary Hill

Ayreon is Arjen Luccassen. He creates magnificent rock operas under that name and manages to bring in some of the most impressive musicians in the business to work with him on these projects. This release is his latest such album. It’s a powerful two CD musical journey that sits quite nicely along the border between progressive rock and heavy metal. It seems likely there is too much metal here for prog purists to really climb on board, but that’s a shame because this is an incredible work. I guess they are the ones who will be missing out.

Luccassen’s guests this time out include Blind Guardian’s Hansk Kursch, Daniel Gildenlow of Pain of Savaltion, Bob Catley of Magnu and Jorne Lande. Also appearing are Anneke Van Giersbergen (The Gathering, Aqua De Annique), Tom Englund (Evergrey), Simone Simons (Epica) and Ty Tabor of King’s X. IF that wasn’t enough we also see Derek Sherinian (Dream Theater, Planet X) and Tomas Bodin (Flower Kings) on the disc.

Also included in this incarnation of the CD is a DVD. This disc features some great behind the scenes interview segments. We also get a computer animation video of the song “Beneath the Waves.” There are some bloopers included here, too. All in all, this video provides a new perspective on the music presented here. Whether you get the CD set or the one with the DVD, if you like hard edged modern progressive rock, pick this up. You will not be disappointed.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2008  Volume 2 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Disc 1 - Y
Age of Shadows (incl. We Are Forever
Sound effects start the rock opera off with things that are a bit hard to identify at first giving way to a pounding machine sound. This beating becomes the rhythm of the music as the metallic jam begins. They work through several killer themes and progressions. This is powerful and dramatic. The vocals enter back in the mix over the top of a stripped down variant on the musical elements. The vocals rise up in terms of delivery and placement in the mix and then they work the music out into the chorus, which is far more progressive rock in texture. This is also a wonderfully constructed segment that’s full of energy and emotion, while focusing on melody. They alternate between the two main musical motifs to create the central musical structure of the first “song” of this. We get variations here and there, operatic vocals and classical progressions at times, instrumental progressions at others. They drop it back to a balladic motif that calls to mind Pink Floyd just before the five minute mark for the “We Are Forever” portion. This becomes quite beautiful as it is built upon.  A female vocal enters a little after the six minute mark, taking the themes forward. This continues building gradually; feeling at times like it’s ready to burst back up. Instead, it drops even further down for a continuation of the ballad styles. The binary CD title appears in this track. This keeps getting more powerful and seeming like it’s ready to explode outward. Instead it drops back to even mellower sounds to continue each time. At just past the nine minute mark the operatic section from the first half returns and takes the track back into that motif to take it out in a very satisfying way. At almost eleven minutes this opener is a real epic. It’s also a killer song and serves as an excellent opener.
Comatose
Electronic, noise type percussion starts this and it feels like it will explode back out into metallic fury. Instead this stays mellow with the rhythmic patterns covered by keyboard layers as the only instrumentation set to accompany the powerful vocal duet.  This song is four and a half minutes long, but after that opener, it seems really short.
Liquid Eternity
Acoustic guitar motifs, with an electronic feel, start things here. An ominous noisier segment shows up in traces. The focus shifts and this sound wails out in metallic fury. It drops off, though and an ambient keyboards and processed vocal pattern takes over. As they carry on it feels like it’s ready to burst back out. Instead they keep the style unaltered for another verse. After that verse, though, they do fire back out into metallic power. When this ends, though, we get a new melodic ballad arrangement for the next vocals. Then it’s back to the powered up sound to carry it forward. The sections we’ve heard before are the basis for most of the rest of the track. These are used in alternating formats, with the arrangements getting variations and augmentations for good effect. There is an intriguing classical music meets jazz and ethnic textures section later that gives way after a time to a return to the more metallic elements.  Weighing in at over eight minutes in length this number has us back up into the epic territory. 
Connect the Dots
This one has an odd sort of intro. A percussive texture is covered with a retro pop sound – sort of distant in the mix. This gives way to a bouncy sort of modern pop rock. It’s not quite emo, but not far from it. The chorus pounds out into music that’s closer to the rest of the disc. This is an unusual piece, though, and in some ways the “odd man out” on the set.  It’s definitely a rather weird one.
Beneath the Waves
This track weighs in at about eight and a half minutes and is a suite of five songs rolled into one. Mind you, it’s all set up as one track on the CD, so that’s how it gets reviewed here. Atmospheric elements start this in dramatic fashion. Eventually balladic motifs emerge amidst this and begin to grow. When the vocals come over the top of this it reminds me a lot of early Genesis.  Hints of a power about to emerge come in as this carries forward, but still they keep the musical motif relatively unchanged here. Instead of powering out like it seems it’s going to, we get female vocals joining and a more classically tinged arrangement. After a verse like this it shifts towards fusion sounds for an instrumental section. The next vocals come over a more hard rocking motif that comes out of the backdrop for that instrumental movement. Eventually this works its way up to some seriously powerful music. Around the six minute mark they drop it way back for another verse in a ballad-styled sound. Then they bring it up to a powerhouse jam with alternating lines of male and female vocals and some great keyboard textures. This shifts out to an odd keyboard sort of sound after a time and then a new instrumental motif that feels a bit like the hard-edged side of Jethro Tull takes it to its conclusion.
Newborn Race
Here we have another multi-part suite, this one just under eight minutes in length. An acoustic guitar based motif that has quite a bit of energy serves as the backdrop for the vocals here. I can hear traces of Jeff Wayne’s take on “The War of the Worlds” here. The guitar sounds weave in a playful way that’s almost ballad-like at times. It powers out to more metallic motifs as they carry on, but it’s definitely more in a neo-prog style than a true heavy metal sound. They work through a number of changes again. This takes on varying moods and modes. The vocals create the story and a powerful musical journey at the same time.  The track screams out for a while and then drops way back down to mellow tones, bringing it into the next one. This is one of the more dynamic tracks here and it’s also an extremely cool one. The vocals here give me chills at times, because they seem to evoke the ghost of Phil Lynott.
Ride the Comet
Keyboards bring this up out of the last track and this feels almost like another portion of that track. Pink Floyd elements merge with neo-classical, nearly operatic sounds. This becomes frantic, metallic music after a while, feeling a bit like something from Lana Lane’s catalog. It’s dropped way back down after a time and we start back through the same pattern once more. This has a bit more straightforward approach on the catchy chorus. At just under three and a half minutes this is a short piece and it ends abruptly.
Web of Lies
The sounds of a telephone modem dialing in and connecting to the internet begin this. This gives way to a pretty balladic approach with gentle female vocals. Less than three minutes in length, this doesn’t have a lot of time to really grow much. The playful ballad stylings serve to carry this tale of love over the internet through. Appropriately we get both male and female vocals here. There is also a rather classical bent to the arrangement.
Disc 2 - EARTH
The Fifth Extinction
The second CD opens with a ten minute plus, multipart suite. Keyboards begin this in fine fashion and the track gradually grows from there in dramatic ways. This doesn’t fire off in any hurry. Instead it’s a steady upward pattern, becoming a galloping, but still very melodic, progressive rock sound that’s based on acoustic instrumentation. Male and female vocals both make their way across the arrangement. This holds it for the first two to two and a half minutes. At that point they burst out into some killer metallic sounds. This holds the track for a time before giving way to a keyboard dominated, slightly Celtic jam. This is counterpointed by a return to the metal sounds. The piece carries on by working through returning and new journeys in a crunchy prog rock style. This has elements of the best of The Flower Kings at times. They drop it way down to a fully classical music section at around the eight minute mark. This only holds it for around half a minute, though and they launch back out into metallic prog from there.
Waking Dreams
Some dramatic keys lead things off here. They work through some intriguing melodic lines as they carry forward. The tune takes on the effect of cool keyboards and percussion serving as the backdrop for the male vocals. This gives way to a more linear (and less rhythmic) approach for a set of female vocals. Then the opening vocal section returns with a more powered up (but no signs of crunch here) arrangement. As one might predict the female vocals (and a more intense version of the music that accompanied it) are back next. This pattern serves the song well and we get some instrumental excursions within this arrangement. This is not one of the epics and perhaps it’s not one of the most obvious choices for “best track,” but for some reason it really sticks with me. I really love this song and it might well be my favorite here. Without question, it and a couple others are worth the price of admission by themselves.
The Truth Is In Here
I suppose the title to this is the opposite of Fox Mulder’s mantra in a way. In any event, cool keys lead things off here. After a time other instruments join and they take this into a decidedly Celtic musical direction.  The arrangement is stripped down a bit and the vocals enter over this backdrop. This is another killer tune that has a rather unusual approach. I like the little bits of female vocals that come in with a processed delivery here and there.
Unnatural Selection
Sound effects lead things off here. A processed, effects laden keyboard texture comes in from there and holds it for a while, staying atmospheric. Other waves of keyboards join after a while and build melody. Vocals come in over the top of this backdrop. The track powers up later, but strictly based on the powerhouse rock and roll vocal delivery. After the minute and a half mark the music shifts, firing out in a killer metallic riff. After a “listen to the warning” section they shift out back towards more melodic for the verse. This has a hard rock texture to it. Perhaps in some ways this is a bit less “prog rock” than some of the other music here, instead relying on a catchy “pop rock” sound. Still, there’s enough meat on the bones to keep prog heads happy and tuned in. We get sound bites over the top of some dramatic keys later as an interlude. They bring it back up for a while and then work through the varying themes of the track. This is a cool and parts are very catchy, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it a “highlight.”
River of Time
Years ago I wrote a song by this title. Part of me was expecting to hear it here. Well, that didn’t happen. Lucassen wrote a much different piece than mine. A ticking clock in the background starts this appropriately. Then a Celtic sort of sound is delivered on acoustic instrumentation for a time. That holds it for a while until it is reworked in a harder edged version of itself. This crunchy segment works for a time and they drop it down for the entrance of the vocals.  The cut stays true to the main musical theme, but works through varying deliveries on it. At one point they scream out in a metallic fury, while at other points we get more traditional Celtic sounds and all points in between. This is cool piece of music. A Jethro Tull-like burst ends it.
E=MC2
Einstein’s equation is immortalized in music here. Dramatic keyboard elements start it off and create the song’s central structure. They fire this out in a powerhouse, metallic jam from there, still reflecting the same musical themes. This gives way to a stripped down journey for the first vocals. As they carry out from there it takes on a rather operatic approach for the dramatic female vocal segment. They power it back up from that point in fine fashion. We get a cool instrumental motif from there, based on this segment. Then it drops back down for a reprise of the first vocal section. After they work through the familiar patterns through the chorus we get a smoking guitar solo to continue things. An extended keyboard sound – droning – ends this.
The Sixth Extinction
At almost twelve and a half minutes, this multi-number suite is the longest on the whole set. Classical elements merge with harder edged prog rock as they create the introduction to this. They drop it way down for a ballad type sound with some serious rock and roll vocals. Other vocals are added into the mix as the work through this journey. They power it back up the motif that preceded it for a interlude and then come in with a more powerful take on the ballad sounds. This gets even harder rocking as they come out of that vocal section. Then keys alternate with hard rock vocals. We get a quick display of death growls and they repeat this section. Then it shifts out to more operatic motifs for the next take on this. They take this out to a different stripped down musical texture for the next vocals. This modulates out later to a killer keyboard oriented ballad approach, but this then gives way to a reprise of the segment that preceded it. They continue on like this, becoming more theatrical at times before they explode out into metallic fury with some killer prog rock keyboards. This gives way to another melodic journey that’s quite strong. It crescendos after a while and then rises up with a neo-classical meets epic metal approach.  This is worked and reworked and becomes exceptional powerful, to a great deal due to the killer vocal performance that comes in over the top. A metallic crescendo, complete with closing metal scream gives way to noisy effects. A short line of classically tinged music ends things.
 
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