Sound — 10
This album is the newest offering from the Norwegian genius, Arjen Lucassen. For those of you new to Ayreon, the Arjen basically does a "Steely Dan" by masterminding the entire album, and then utilising various friends and session musicians to create the album. Arjen generally plays parts like guitar, bass, etc. but enlists the session musicians for alternative vocals, strings and folk instruments, and soloes. The cool thing about the album is that it is one gigantic Rock Opera, with each song being a chapter in an overall story. Arjen creates an extremely varied album. It is very hard to label, with songs ranging from folk metal (River of Time, Newborn Race) to progressive metal (E=MC^2, Ride the Comet) to electronica (Comatose). Although songlength usually averages out at 8 minutes with 15 songs total, the songs still maintain momentum without feeling drawn out. Every song is good in it's own right, but what really makes the album shine are the standout vocals and soloes. All the vocalists paint Arjen's story with sweeping choruses and opera-like singing. The vocals really make the album what it is, and the soloes (a favorite of mine being Symphony X guitarist Michael Romeo's from E=MC^2) really bring the songs to the next level. The soloes are tasteful while being fairly skilled. The only issue I can think of as to the sound is that the bass guitar and acoustic guitar are often drowned out in the recording, but with around 6 other instruments and an equal amount of vocalist on any given song, that is to be expected.
Lyrics — 9
This is the most important area for the album, and boy does it excell. The story describes how an alien race tries to survive, I will leave it at that as I do not wish to spoil it for you guys. The lyrics discuss controversial issues such as evolution and abortion cleverly in the story, such as in Newborn Race, "Do we have the right to play gods? / I strongly feel I have to make a stance". Thankfully, this insinuations are fairly well hidden, so Arjen avoids the pitfall that many bands encounter by not coming off as preachy. Of course, since this is a Sci-fi story, there are certain lyrics--such as "He's the last man alive. / (Searching for the answer)" in The Sixth Extinction--which subjectively come off as cheesy, but again that is to be expected, and Ayreon does not make a habit of it.
Overall Impression — 10
Although this album is not better or worse than Ayreon's previous offerings, Arjen's musical genius shows clearly in this album. The entrancing story telling, phenominal vocals, and immpressive soloes clearly push this album above and beyond what is expected from a standard release from an artist. Standout songs such as River of Time, E=MC^2, and The Sixth Extinction give a good view of what this album is like, but all of the songs need a listen considering how diverse they are. All of the issues I have listed are either minor or unsurprising; this album s truly great. A must listen for fans of Rock Operas and musicians going through a lyrical slump, this album is inspiring and a great addition to any repertoire.