Sound — 9
In the annals of prog-rock in the post-Nirvana years, there are a few very wonderful names out there: Dream Theater, Pain Of Salvation, Opeth, Devin Townsend, and so on. But one name that shouldn't be overlooked is Ayreon, and it's quite a project. Masterminded by Dutch multi-instrumentalist Arjen Lucassen (who plays just about everything but drums, which are ably handled on most releases, including this one, by the indispensible Ed Warby), Ayreon seeks to be a multi-album science fiction story arc with vocals handled by an all-star cast of vocalists, and each album features several vocalists from well-established bands (including each of the four mentioned in the first sentence of this review). Arjen has kept to the story arc for most of his career, aside from his "side projects" such as Star One, Guilt Machine, The Gentle Storm, and such, but there had been some exceptions. "Actual Fantasy", his second Ayreon album, did not deal with the story arc (which I'll refer to as the "Planet Y saga" from here on in), before returning to it on the absolutely classic "Into the Electric Castle", and after his 2008 record "01011001", and the issues he had with wrapping up the saga, he finally felt that the story arc had run its course and that maintaining continuity in the saga would be nigh on impossible, leading him to start anew with 2013's "The Theory Of Everything", which featured a story disconnected to the saga.
However, it seems that the itch to tie up some loose ends with the Planet Y saga has convinced Arjen to produce a prequel, and that is the mode we get into with this most recent album, "The Source". Set on Planet Alpha in the Andromeda Galaxy (if you're not a fan of cheesy sci-fi, this would be the time to turn away), this album's concept deals with how Planet Y and its race of emotionless aquatic beings turning to humanity to rediscover their emotions came to be. And given that the first part of the story deals with the apocalyptic breakdown of society on Planet Alpha as ten characters prepare to leave on their ship, the StarBlade, in an attempt to preserve something of their race, it makes sense that the first half of the album has much of the heavier material than the second.
Opening with the tremendously epic "The Day That the World Breaks Down", Arjen musically sets the mood of the album with a heavier emphasis on crunchy rhythm guitar, pounding drums, and roaring Hammond organ than on some of his more recent work. Vocally, the song is a showpiece for all ten main singers: James LaBrie (Dream Theater) as "The Historian", Simone Simons (Epica) as "The Counsellor", Floor Jansen (Nightwish) as "The Biologist", Hansi Kьrsch (Blind Guardian) as "The Astronomer", Tobias Sammet (Edguy, Avantasia) as "The Captain", Tommy Karevik (Kamelot, Seventh Wonder) as "The Opposition Leader", Tommy Rogers (Between the Buried and Me) as "The Chemist", Nils K. Rue (Pagan's Mind) as "The Prophet", Mike Mills (Toehider) as "TH-1", Michael Eriksen (Circus Maximus) as "The Diplomat", and (sir) Russell Allen (Symphony X) as "The President". Fans with keen eyes will notice that, unlike many Ayreon albums, most of the names on this list are returnees, with even a couple of names (Mike Mills and Tommy Karevik in particular) appearing on Ayreon's previous record.
Through the rest of the record, Arjen and his all-star cast of singers work through a myriad of styles from straightforward power metal ("Run! Apocalypse! Run!", "Planet Y Is Alive!") folk-tinged prog-rockers with flutes, violins, and acoustic guitars complementing heavier sections ("Sea Of Machines", "All That Was", "The Dream Dissolves", "The Source Will Flow") and dynamic prog-metal pieces with many changes in mood and atmosphere ("Deathcry of a Race", "The Day That the World Breaks Down"). Going into a song-by-song analysis of the record would be a fruitless endeavor, as with many Ayreon records, and would push the word-count of this review into the stratosphere, but suffice it to say, there isn't a genuinely bad musical moment to be had on the album. Arjen is truly one of the most masterful composers in the prog-rock sphere, and manages to cram this album full of breathtaking melodies, rockin' riffage, washes of synth and organ, and yet, never gets so out-of-hand that the music or the story becomes obfuscated. His production style also plays a big role in this, being over-the-top yet still "controlled" in a way, with a lot of breathing room for the many vocalists on this album to stretch out in their roles.
However, as with many albums of this magnitude, such as just about any other Ayreon record or, for another recent example, Dream Theater's "The Astonishing", there are songs I simply like better than others, and there are a few things in the track ordering that bother me a little. The songs that I prefer on this record tend to be the most energetic metal pieces, such as the absolutely brilliant "Run! Apocalypse! Run!", the powerful "Star of Sirrah", and the album's epic opener "The Day That the World Breaks Down". While none of the songs on the album are bad at all, and any of the tracks on their own are truly wonderful, I do feel that by the album's second disc, things tend to get a bit mellower and all of the energy and excitement spent in the first disc seems to wind down a bit much. There are some good energetic moments on disc two, such as "Planet Y Is Alive!", which features some of my favourite vocal work from Hansi and Floor on the entire album. But on the whole, disc two seems to lack the energy of disc one. The rest of the songs are definitely not terrible songs, but I find the second half of the album a bit more difficult to pay attention to than the first if I'm attempting to listen through it all in one sitting.
Vocalists are not the only guest performances on the album, and along with the rotating cast of singers, we also get a few instrumental soloists, and I'm very impressed with the lineup for this record: Marillion's Mark Kelly takes a keyboard solo on "The Dream Dissolves", the wondrous Paul Gilbert takes an absolutely wicked solo in "Star of Sirrah" (drinking game idea: take a shot every time you picture one of Gilbert's trademark facial expressions during that solo), guitar guru Guthrie Govan wows us on "Planet Y Is Alive!" with one of his trademark "off-the-cuff" solos that sounds like it was done in one take, and lastly, Sun Caged's Marcel Coenen, whose name is familiar in the Ayreonverse as the lead guitarist on last year's "The Theater Equation" concert/DVD, performs an absolutely incredible solo in "The Dream Dissolves". This is along with the usual cast of musicians Arjen employs on many of his albums: Joost van den Broek (piano), Maaike Peterse (cello), Ben Mathot (violin), Jeroen Goossens (flute/woodwinds).
Lyrics — 10
Since 1995's "The Final Experiment", one of Ayreon's biggest claims to fame is the sci-fi saga that nearly all of their albums (save for "Actual Fantasy" and "The Theory of Everything") have at least some connection to. This saga has brought in many different myths and stories, tying together ideas such as Merlin and the knights of the round table with a future World War III, the extinction of the dinosaurs being engineered by a desparate alien race searching for the meaning in their lives on Planet Y, aiding in the development of the human race in an attempt to search for their lost emotions, and even finding a way to connect the idea of a single "Universal Migrator" soul being created in the Big Bang. Tying a lot of these elements together has proved a bit troublesome for Arjen in the past ("01011001" being a prime example), and sometimes, albums have only been linked to this saga by very tenuous threads ("The Human Equation" could stand on its own as a disconnected story, were it not for a brief reference in the album's closing moments).
"The Source" proves to be a bit of an antithesis to "01011001's" attempt to find an end for the story, being a bit of an origin story for the whole Planet Y saga. Starting on Planet Alpha in the Andromeda Galaxy as The President (Symphony X's Russel Allen) hands control of the planet to "the 'Frame", a vast network of artifical intelligences, the story of humanity already begins on a gloomy note. Upon being given control of Alpha, the 'Frame attempts to solve the mounting problems of its ecology and society, only to realize that humanity itself is the problem and begins to eradicate us. The first part of the story follows The President along with nine other characters as they attmept to make it to their spacecraft, the StarBlade, as humanity falls apart around them, knowing that they will likely be the only survivors of their race, and dealing with the emotions and guilt that this situation has brought many members of the ship's crew. The rest of the story chronicles their journey to a water-covered planet near the "Star of Sirrah", and the struggles they will have to endure, such as genetic modifications to adapt to an aquatic environment through a chemical compound known as "The Source", and the struggle to prevent the same thing from happening to their new homeworld.
The characters on this album are, like many Ayreon records, almost sort of caricatures, performing their role in a larger-than-life sort of way, and each singer brings their own unique style to their character. Of particular note are Tommy Karevik (from Kamelot and Seventh Wonder) as "The Opposition Leader", whose powerful vocals are always a treat to listen to, and Mike Mills (from Toehider) as "TH-1", a robot that has stayed faithful to humanity and joined the StarBlade's crew, whose almost Roger Taylor-esque vocal layering borders on the kind of insanity we'd expect more from a singer like Devin Townsend (don't believe me, check out his work in "The Day That the World Breaks Down", which he actually wrote the melodies for by himself). Floor Jansen (from Nightwish) also consistently wows me with her passionate vocal performances throughout. This isn't to say that the other vocalists did not perform up to my expectations, and as is usually the case with new Ayreon records, if you're anything like me, you'll probably find yourself wanting to check out each singer's work (Michael Eriksen's in particular made me finally check out his band Circus Maximus, which got a very positive response from me). As well, it's interesting to hear many of these singers work in a context other than their main bands, especially in the case of vocalists such as Between The Buried And Me's Tommy Rogers, who sings almost entirely cleanly (save for a brief growl in "Everybody Dies") over a musical tapestry that is about as far removed from his BTBAM work as one can get. On the other hand, some vocalists on this record seem tailor-made for Arjen's distinctive music. Blind Guardian's Hansi Kursch is in all of his glory on this record.
There is also one vocalist who did not get mentioned yet, and it's worth noting that an eleventh singer, Myrath's "Zaher Zorgati" sings some lines in Arabic during "Deathcry of a Race" as a character known as "The Preacher", which I'm not clear as to whether this is a distinct character from Nils K. Rue's "The Prophet", but his voice definitely lends a lot of character to that track.
Lyrically, the storytelling is everything you'd expect from an Ayreon album. Each vocalist lends their distinctive personality to each of their parts, and the story is as gripping as anything you'd expect from a rock opera of this magnitude. If there ever was an artist to have perfected the art of storytelling in a rock opera, it's certainly Arjen Lucassen, and even though people who are not fans of cheesy science fiction might be turned off by the idea, there isn't an artist out there that executes the concept as perfectly as Arjen.
Overall Impression — 9
Arjen Lucassen has very little left to prove after having released some of the most solid prog-rock albums of recent years. His career as it is already stands as a testament to the power of the rock opera, and Arjen can be considered one of the artists who has perfected the idea. It's likely that in a perfect world, Arjen would be remembered in 100 years as this generation's Andrew Lloyd Weber or Jim Steinman, but prog-rock's niche is particularly small these days.
So the fact that Arjen can continue to just do what Arjen does and still manage to put out such an absolutely mind-blowing record is nothing short of monumental. You would think that after over twenty years of putting out such high-quality prog-rock, Arjen would slow down or his ideas would start to come off as a little inept, but Arjen still manages to put out a record that will give any fan of rock operas a massive smile on their face throughout. On my very first listen, I openly cheered during songs such as "Run! Apocalypse! Run!" and "Star of Sirrah". I was moved to tears by the magnificence of "The Day That the World Breaks Down". The sing-off where each vocalist takes a turn summing up their character and their place in the story at the end of the album, "The Human Compulsion" with the ominous closer "March of the Machines" had me give this record a standing ovation from my computer chair. I suspect that this will be a common reaction to this record for anyone who is already a fan of Arjen's work.
And even better is that this album has actually grown on me after a few listens, more than it already had. Some of the tracks that I hadn't been particularly sold on at first ("Into the Ocean", for instance, partly due to Tommy Karevik's incredible vocal performance) are now turning out to be go-to tracks for me.
This record has all of the potential to be "Album of the Year" for me, even though it has some stiff competition from Pain of Salvation's most recent effort, "In the Passing Light of Day", but it's entirely likely that nothing will come out for the rest of the year to top this album. Highly recommended.