Sound: This is the third solo album by Dutch multi-instrumental genius Arjen Lucassen, head of such massive progressive rock/metal projects like Ayreon, Star One, Stream Of Passion, Guilt Machine, and more. Though he would be inclined to disagree with the "genius" label, his first solo album since 1996 is chock full of genius melodies, mostly sung by Arjen himself, in stark contrast to most of his projects, where upwards of 20 singers are utilized.
The album opens with one of the heavier tunes, "The New Real". Trademark Arjen sounds make their way into this song, like flute melodies, psychedelic vocal harmonies and acoustic guitars, seven-string guitar breakdowns with guitar/violin unisons, subtle electronics... It very much sets the tone for the rest of the album. While it sounds like it could easily fit onto any Ayreon album, having all of the vocals sung by Arjen (with a little help from powerhouse Wilmer Waarbroek on backing vocals, and Rutger Hauer's narrations) gives it a bit of individuality from the Ayreon canon.
For most of the rest of the tracks, there is a much more psychedelic sound, with songs like "Pink Beatles In A Purple Zeppelin" sounding much more like the namedropped bands than anything on an Ayreon album as of late. The heavier moments seem to be lacking through the middle of the album, but there are still moments of intensity like the piano intro of "Parental Procreation Permit", but even that comes off as sounding more psychedelic in comparison to, say, "The Human Equation".
Fans of Arjen's guitar style might be a little disappointed by the seeming lack of huge guitar solo moments, but when they are there, they're simply sublime, like on the title track, or "Dr. Slumber's Eternity Home". Though the album is only vaguely connected to the Ayreon saga (the main character is none other than Mr. L himself, and the Dream Sequencer is shown on the album cover), the narrations from Rutger Hauer (star of "Blade Runner") give a much more story-like atmosphere.
Much of Arjen's canon is on here, like folk in "When I'm A Hundred Sixty-Four", metal on "The New Real", psychedelia on the aforementioned "Pink Beatles In A Purple Zeppelin", so Arjen fans will not be shocked by the abundance of sounds. My favourite track on the album is the epic length title track, which covers all of the moods on the album and reprises a few tracks. It goes through so many different moods and changes, and feels like the most progressive track on the record.
There isn't a single bad track on this album, though. It should be noted that disc 2 features songs that didn't really fit into the concept, and a few well-placed cover songs, like Pink Floyd's "Welcome To The Machine", Frank Zappa's "I'm The Slime", Blue Oyster Cult's "Veteran Of The Psychic Wars", Led Zeppelin's "The Battle Of Evermore", and Alan Parsons Project's "Some Other Time". Rather than sounding like mere afterthoughts, though, the tracks here are of the same quality as disc 1. // 9
Lyrics: Arjen has a way with making concept albums, and this is no exception. The story is about Mr. L, a man who was cryogenically frozen at the point of clinical death, only to be revived in the distant future. The album deals with Mr. L's adjustment to "The New Real", a world full of restrictive birth permits ("Parental Procreation Permit"), electronic girlfriends ("Don't Switch Me Off"), natural disasters ("Yellowstone Memorial Day"), shady death doctors ("Dr. Slumber's Eternity Home"), alternate dimensions where Jimi was a flautist ("Where Pigs Fly"), the death of music ("Pink Beatles In A Purple Zeppelin"), and internet police ("E-Police").
The title tracks leaves Mr. L wondering if everything he is experiencing is real or not, and has to choose if he wants to remain switched "on". While this album doesn't really come off as being preachy about any topic, there always seems to be a bit of an anti-technology theme on Arjen's albums. Lots of lyrics to do with disconnection from reality, technology making it harder and harder to tell what's real and what's not... Even the cheesiest of lyrics on this record feel like there's some meaning to them in that regard.
Arjen had never considered himself much of a singer, but his soft, psychedelic croon fits this music very well. He is not the most amazing singer you'll ever listen to, but he has got skills nonetheless. // 9
Overall Impression: All in all, this is a wonderful package for a concept album, with great 50s style artwork, a great mix of all of Arjen's sounds, and a worthy follow-up to Star One, Ayreon, Guilt Machine... My only real criticism of the album is that disc 1 seems far too short, while disc 2 has little to do with disc 1 and I feel like disc 1's concept could have been properly extended across both, or the songs that didn't quite fit the concept could have been adapted. But it doesn't detract from the quality of the songs.
And the best songs on here are the first and last tracks of disc 1, "The New Real" and "Lost In The New Real", which cover the entire gamut of Arjen's arsenal. A highly recommended nearly-instantly-classic album worthy of carrying on Arjen's huge musical legacy. // 9