There’s a lot of prog in today’s world and let’s face it: a lot of it is pretty bad. The genre ranges from bands going for that Pink Floyd re-hash (Porcupine Tree) to blatant Dream Theater clones (Seventh Wonder) to bands that might be trying to add to the genre and failing in the end because there’s always a band somewhere that has done your stuff before (and better at that). Prog might be a saturated genre, but I don’t consider that a bad thing; it puts the bands that ARE good on a pedestal to rise above the mediocrity and show why it’s still one of the most interesting genres around. Ayreon is one of those bands. Actually, it’s more of a project than anything else.
See, Ayreon is a one-man band. Arjen Lucassen pulls the strings from his home studio where he writes all of the music. At times he sings on his own material, but in Ayreon he prefers to hand over the reins to singers from other bands to show their capabilities. This way, Ayreon has been THE band for usually so-so Power Metal singers to display their vocal vivacity. In the past, Arjen has worked with artists like Steve Lee (Gotthard), Jorn Lande (Masterplan), Anneke van Giersbergen (The Gathering), Bruce Dickinson (Iron Maiden), Daniel Gildenlöw (Pain of Salvation), Devin Townsend (Strapping Young Lad) and list keeps going on and on. Of course, not all of those singers are so-so, but you catch my drift.
The Theory of Everything encompasses a story, like the name suggests, of a prodigious boy with a gift for numbers in search of the theory behind everything. During the story, you’ll meet a troupe of vibrant characters, all cast superbly. This album gets so much better as soon as you start listening to it like you would to a musical instead of a regular Prog Metal album. You can get lost in the story with every listen. Seeing as it is one of the major selling points of the album, I will not go into details, but the story is good enough to envelop an entire album and holds up with every listen.
One of the reasons it’s such a great record and why it gets better with every listen is the delivery of the vocalists. This time around, the vocalists are almost reminiscent of legit voice actors and their renditions of the characters couldn’t have been done better. The cast is versatile as well, with experienced greats like John Wetton (Asia) and JB (Grand Magus) handling their mentor/psychiatrist roles very well. The lead roles on the album have been bestowed upon Tommy Karevik (Kamelot) and Michael Mills (Toehider), both having an incredible range and great tone. Their parts, respectively the prodigy and the father, are handled with such care that one might wonder why Arjen didn’t come up with this combination earlier. Finally, the secondary roles are for Marco Hietala (Nightwish) who plays a bullying rival, Sara Squadrani (Ancient Bards) who plays the love interest of the prodigy and Christina Scabbia (Lacuna Coil), who plays the mother of the prodigy. Every single one of the singers have their moments to shine with most notably the dialogues between Karevik and Mills (Alive! and Side Effects) and the confrontations between Karevik and Hietala (Collision, one of my favorites on the album, and Love and Envy). One more absolute gem on the album is the song “Mirror of Dreams” in which Scabbia and Squadrani debate a major plot point with each other in a dreamy, floaty and beautiful manner. Absolutely stunning performance all-round.
The instrumentation on this album is something else. Anyone expecting the heavy, Prog Metal guitars and drums featured on Ayreon’s previous effort 01011001 might get a kick in the teeth: The Theory of Everything is much more a rock opera and a Prog Rock album than it is Metal in any way. The guitars aren’t all that prominent and the organs and string sections serve up the bulk of the sound on the album. Is this a bad thing? No: it fits the style of the narrative, which isn’t as aggressive and plays out on a much smaller scale. That is to say, there are still heavy songs on this record. For example, Quantum Chaos and Transformation/Collision certainly pack a punch and that, combined with the fact that you aren’t getting slapped around the ears with a Rammstein-esque guitar sound (that was featured on 01011001) all the time makes them stand out. The majority of the songs are, however, more airy and speak to the imagination. Arjen chose to feature his beloved organs a lot and a large piece of the lovely sound is to be credited to the string-section arrangements.
I wouldn’t be able to end the review without speaking of another ingredient in the tasty Ayreon formula that makes this album so delicious: guest musicians. Not guest singers; musicians. There’s a couple on every Ayreon release and this time is no different, featuring solos by Jordan Rudess (Dream Theater), Steve Hackett (Genesis), Rick Wakemen (Yes), Keith Emerson (Emerson, Lake & Palmer) and Nightwish’s Troy Donockley gracing various songs with flute melodies that are beyond amazing. Never before did I love flute melodies, but this man got me hooked.
Now, at this point you might be wondering: is there anything wrong with this effort, or are you just going to praise it into space? It’s a good point, because I don’t think I’ve found anything wrong with this album. One might consider that Arjen might’ve shot his wad by placing two guest solos close behind each other on Progressive Waves, where Keith Emmerson and Jordan Rudess follow up each other in rapid succession, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing; it gives the illusion of two Prog Rock legends going in hard and dueling it out. One might also say the lyrics are simple (which they are, mind you), which in my opinions just makes it easier to understand and take in such a grand theme within a few spins. The delivery is melodramatic, sure, but as I said; as soon as you listen to the album as if it’s a musical instead of your run-of-the-mill Prog Rock record, you’ll find that all of these complaints turn into the strong points of the album. Take me up on my advice: I guarantee you, you’ll be playing this album for a long, long time.
Here’s the iTunes link for the album if you feel the need to buy it! By all means, support the artist if you like what you read/hear!
Written by: Job van Dongen – November 7th, 2013