Album review: AYREON – The Source

Ayreon - The Source

Music Theories Recordings [Release date 28.04.17]

It’s 12 years since Ayreon’s first album ‘The Final Experiment’ and the key elements of a conceptual sci-fi story with prog rock underpinnings remain at the heart of the new album ‘The Source.’

It’s a multi genre, multi personnel rock opera which accords to multi instrumentalist/composer Arjen Lucassen’s view that: “All options are still open, with regards to sound and style.”

This gargantuan work pushes many familiar buttons, from prog rock, metal and keyboard and guitar led riffs, to his melodic sensibility and interrelated themes voiced by multiple singers.

There’s plenty of prog and metal, while an incredible array of 10 vocalists – actually 7 less than on his previous album – bring to life influences as diverse as Jethro Tull, Trace, Yes, Queen, Zappa (vocally), Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, Celtic rock, and fleetingly on ‘The Aquatic Race’, both Bowie and The Darkness style vocal phrasing.

Overall, it’s a triumph of vivid imagination, conceptual planning, structure and performance over something that could easily have become unwieldy and overblown. There are enough musical highlights, startling vocal performances and an escapist sci-fi story line to carry the listener through to the conclusion of a huge musical accomplishment.

The album sink or swims with the vocals, and happily each guest lights up the narrative with their own feel and range, while the music mirrors the dramas and tensions of the story line and then for the most art resolves them.

The album title refers to the source of mankind and it’s increasing dependence on technology. Musically the album spans decades, as it thematically imagines a futuristic past called Planet Alpha, a world where artificial intelligence has triumphed some 6 million years before mankind.

Arjen Lucassen’s central theme was inspired by French artist Yann Souetre, whose industrial imagery provides both a creative source (pun intended) and the thematic artwork.

The album plays like an opera with an impressionistic libretto and mini suits of music that suddenly unravel, but never quite stay long enough to fully explore their full musical depth. However, the combination of the singers and musical intensity amplifies the story enough to make an impressive coherent whole.

The 10 singers bring dynamic contrast to the 17 track album, while several shifting instrumental breaks – often within the songs themselves – feature guests such as Jeroen Goossens on flute, Ben Mathot on violin and guitarists Paul Gilbert and Guthrie Govan.

If there’s a downside it’s simply that the narrative is sometimes too dense to allow the music to breathe, leaving several of the vocalist stranded as they battle to bring expression to lyrics that are no more than a link or an explanatory function rather than dramatic dialogue. This is counter-balanced by several instrumental workouts that range from prog metal to grunge and always aim to reflect lyrical meaning.

‘The Source’ is a weighty piece of work that stretches the sci-fi themes into universal applications, while Arjen himself excels as a catalyst on guitar, keyboard, bass and mandolin parts and brings out the best in his material and the talents of his guests.

The opening ‘The Day That The World Breaks Down’ is very strong and sets out thematic parameters of the narrative while embracing bombastic keyboard led galloping rock. The same song slips into an early musical highlight, a Tull style funky, blues-rock groove featuring muscular vocalist Russell Allen as The President. He maps out the theme of mistakenly entrusting a global computer mainframe to solve mankind’s problems : “I must have been blind, I mean, it should have been obvious, straight out of my mind to rely on a cold machine.”

Ben Mathot’s gentle violin link ushers in the dynamic  ‘Sea of Machines’, featuring the beguiling voice of Simone Simons as the Counselor, while Nils K. Rue as the Prophet is at the centre of a plethora of voices that cleverly mirror the revelatory text: “I’ve seen the future in a dream, I’ve seen a sea of machines, I’ve seen a realm beneath the waves, another time, another space.”

The self explanatory ‘Everybody Dies’ pushes the narrative forward and sounds like Yes despite the doomy lyrics: “You lived like you did and you thought everything would be fine? Now you scamper and run, but you’ve already run out of time!”

But as with all of Lucassen’s work, he never stays in one direction too long, as narrator Mike Mills (TH-1) evokes Zappa’s Central Scrutinzer on the line: “There’s no way to stop it and clearly there’s nowhere to hide calculation of survival rate: 0%.”

Tommy Karevik as the Opposition Leader and Tommy Rogers as the Chemist slip into a cod-operatic Queen mode as the piece gathers weight with an effective call and response vocal section and a significant organ break that is pure Tull circa ‘Thick As A Brick.’

There’s sharp contrast again, on ‘Star Of Sirrah’ as James LaBrie’s clarity of diction in his role as the Historian leads to staccato rocking over a rumbling bass and dense synths.

Tommy Rogers’s defining line in the song is cleverly underpinned by a big uplifting arrangement that again mirrors lyrical meaning: “It’s the Source of our rebirth, the essence of life!”

Curiously no sooner has Arjen illustrated the connection between musical mood and lyrical intent, then he strangely attaches a recurring uplifting Celtic sweep to the seemingly doomed duet dialogue of Michael Eriksen (the Diplomat)  and LaBrie as the Historian: “Our world, our lives have been destroyed.”

‘Run! Apocalypse! Run!’ is another highlight. The band stretches out around Karevik’s high register vocals and an unsettling edgy tempo on a high octane instrumental break. The enveloping hook evokes the feeling that you want to run and not stop!

The climactic ‘Condemned To Live’ is a booming rocker with a melodic theme, significant prog metal riffery and shifting time changes, all of which lock into a track with a corner stone narrative.

As the chronological narrative unfolds and the project broadens its musical horizons you can feel Lucassen in his element. He adds significant fills here and solos there and draws the ensemble into his big musical vision and the listener into the story

His use of the vocalists is the key to the project as he brings contrasting timbres to bear on tension building pieces of narratives.

On ‘Aquatic Race’ he appears to use two different vocalist for role of the historian and he shifts from the realms of the operatic to 80s’ Todd Rungren’s Utopia, especially when the cast reaches for the line:  “Allow yourself to drift beyond the bounds of death and reach out for infinity.” It’s a style he later recycles on the celebratory ‘Planet Y Is Alive’.

‘The Dream Dissolves’ is different again, and features Simone Simons as the Counselor on a recurring Celtic influenced wall of sound that belatedly to an expansive synth solo and a beautifully crafted guitar solo.

‘Death Cry Of A Race’ revisits the Celtic influences and features Floor Jansen’s startling operatic range. The ebb and flow of the album and the depth of his musical ideas are further reflected in the way the same song embraces an Eastern flavour.

The scratchy toned guitar and blues-rock opening of ‘Into The Ocean’ could be Martin Barre from Tull.  It’s a structurally strong song and another highlight that embraces big vocals on a booming prog arrangement, while ‘The Human Compulsion’ features cleverly contrasting vocal parts, as Tommy Karevik as the opposition leader hits a mighty final note on the inquisitive line: “Are we still human, buried in our minds?, or did we leave ourselves behind?

Some Floyd style electronics finally leads us into the low key ending of ‘March Of The Machines.’

There’s so much to lyrically and musically digest here that it does take a few plays for all the themes, nuances, motifs and vocal parts to fully reveal themselves.

The album sounds like a great idea that grew bigger and bigger, but then again Arjen’s never been known as doing things by half. Suffice it to say that if you dive deep enough you will find much to treasure. ****

Pete Feenstra

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