Sound — 9
Arjen Lucassen's Ayreon project has been on the forefront of the progressive rock scene since 1995, with many successful albums featuring a who's who list of rotating singers, sort of an all-star lineup of metal, prog and rock singers, each portraying a different character in the project's over-arching science fiction and fantasy narrative. Many vocalists have passed through the ranks, including such instantly recognizable names as James LaBrie (Dream Theater), Devin Townsend, Mikael Åkerfeldt (Opeth), Bruce Dickinson (Iron Maiden), Mike Baker (Shadow Gallery), Russell Allen (Symphony X), Floor Jansen (Nightwish), and many, many more. Presenting rock operas with such a depth of character interaction and utilizing many well-known vocalists means that the logistics of getting a live performance of one of the project's albums has been impossible...
In 2015, Arjen's former manager, Yvette Boertje, came up with the idea to do a fan project to bring an Ayreon album to the stage. After putting out some feelers and receiving positive feedback about the project and interest from many of the vocalists on Arjen's 2004 album, "The Human Equation," they decided to turn it into a bigger venture with Arjen's blessing (and eventually, even a small amount of involvement). Many of the album's vocalists return, each portraying their former characters. Many of these characters are personifications of emotions going on inside the main character's (referred to as "Me," and portrayed by Dream Theater vocalist James LaBrie) head: Passion (Irene Jansen, sister of Nightwish vocalist Floor Jansen), Pride (Magnus Ekwall of The Quill), Love (Heather Findlay, formerly of Mostly Autumn), Agony (Devon Graves of Dead Soul Tribe), and Reason (Eric Clayton of Saviour Machine). Marcela Bovio (ex-Elfonia, Stream Of Passion) returns as Me's wife. Some of the original vocalists were unable to make it to the album, presumably due to lack of interest or being too busy to contribute (and sadly, in the case of former Shadow Gallery vocalist Mike Baker, death), but rounding out the lineup are Jermain "Wudstik" van der Bogt as Me's best friend (replacing Arjen himself), Anneke van Giersbergen (ex-The Gathering, known most recently for her work with Devin Townsend) replacing Mikael Åkerfeldt as Fear, and Mike Mills (from Toehider) replacing both Devin Townsend (as Rage) and Mike Baker (as Me's father). There are a couple of characters not mentioned in the original album (Me's mother, doctor, and nurses), as well as a backing choir simply known as the "Epic Rock Choir." On the instrumental front, Joost van den Broek returns as musical director, Ed Warby takes his place as drummer (being the only other fairly steady member of Ayreon besides Arjen himself), and Jeroen Goossens plays flutes and other assorted wind instruments. Marcel Coenen (of Sun Caged) and Freek Gielen play the guitar parts, Johan van Straum (of Stream Of Passion) plays bass, Eric van Ittersum and Ruben Wijga (of ReVamp) play keys, frequent Ayreon collaborator Ben Mathot plays violin, and Maaike Peterse plays cello.
Phew. That's a huge cast of vocalists and instrumentalists, and each one plays a particular role on this record, with very few of them being underutilized, but it never quite seems like the band is too big or ambitious for the format of album this is. The music moves the story along quite well, with much more emphasis on big 7-string riffs, folky acoustic guitar explorations, wild synthesizer solos, huge Hammond organ parts, and huge theatrical melodies that sort of play like a darker version of something by Andrew Lloyd Weber. The live band plays their parts quite faithfully to the studio version of the album, and all of the vocalists are entirely on point throughout. Even James LaBrie, whose live vocals are often the source of intense scrutiny, sings incredibly well throughout the performance. There are a few reprises of songs interspersed throughout the live performances, that weren't on the album, presumably to add a few treats to listeners who are used to hearing the original album. Some of the vocalist switches may not be all that palatable to those who are sticklers for having all of the original voices, but as unbelievable as Anneke van Giersbergen replacing Mikael Åkerfeldt might seem, it actually works quite well, given the circumstances. And Wudstik (who is actually a Dutch rapper who is influenced by singers like LaBrie and Dickinson, and sings rather than raps on this record) is a surprisingly adequate replacement for Arjen Lucassen's Beatles-influenced vocals. I'd only have some misgivings about Mike Mills' performances, he doesn't seem to have the same kind of vocal power or range as Devin Townsend, but as he's one of my all-time favourite vocalists, any comparison may seem a little bit unfair. Arjen Lucassen himself makes an appearance at the end of the album as well, but any more information than that might constitute plot spoilers.
While I'm reviewing the audio portion of this album (a DVD/Blu-ray version is also available), the video also reveals that these singers are fairly decent at musical theater acting as well, with many of the singers performing their parts by singing and acting them, using many props (including a crashed up Mercedes Benz and a hospital bed... more on that in the lyrics section!) to tell the story. But it's also just kind of fun to see a bunch of other singers push around James LaBrie on stage during "Day Two: Isolation."
The production of this record is excellent, given the size of the band plus the choir, showcasing the amount of breathing space Arjen Lucassen wrote into the music. Even when the Epic Rock Choir is taken into consideration, the sound is never completely overpowering. It does not sound at all like any of the singers' vocal parts were replaced in the studio, or altered in any way, even though it doesn't sound like any of the vocalists (except maybe the aforementioned Mike Mills) needed any kind of pitch correction. It's truly a testament to Arjen's songwriting that such an ambitious scope can translate very well into a live recording.
Lyrics — 9
Rock operas have a tendency to be cheesy as all hell. I need to get this out of the way, because invariably, there will be the odd few who will comment about how awful rock opera lyrics can be. And let's be real here. Any kind of project that uses many vocalists to portray different characters in a theatrical way is going to rub a certain percentage of people the wrong way.
With that out of the way, let me give you a bit of a rundown of the story of the album. We start with a man in a hospital bed, in a coma with his wife and best friend at his side. Inside the man's head, an internal dialogue with his emotions take you through his life story, piecing together how this man ended up in this sorry state. Abuse from his parents, schoolmates, a relentless drive to become a successful man to spite these aspects of his life, and his relationships with others have all conspired to cause him to be in this coma. How did he end up like this? Will he get out of it? These are the questions at the heart of the story, and with the way this album is presented, each singer delivering lines in an almost conversational style, it feels less like a progressive rock opera, and more like a legitimate piece of musical theater.
Each vocalist brings their unique style into the project, and they were all well chosen for their qualities, much like certain actors are perfect for certain roles. James LaBrie commands his role as the main character quite well, even including some spoken dialogue that's not included in the studio version. Eric Clayton's role as Reason is well-suited to his deep, operatic voice. Magnus Ekwall and Irene Jansen as Pride and Passion, respectively, are completely natural choices owing to their huge, powerful vocals. Anneke van Giersbergen's vulnerable voice works just as well for the character of Fear as Mikael Åkerfeldt's did, even though they both have very different vocal styles. Devon Graves' extremely pained vocals made his role as Agony a perfect one.
The only vocalist I'm still unconvinced about is Mike Mills, as both Me's father and Rage. He's a competent enough vocalist, but he just doesn't have the power or charisma of either of the vocalists he replaces, and there are a few moments his voice breaks in an unprofessional way.
On the flip side of the coin, James LaBrie has been known in the past for his live vocals being particularly iffy, but he sings much better on this live record than I ever remember hearing him on any Dream Theater live DVD. This might be the record that changes my mind about James as a vocalist, and puts him back in my good books as one of rock music's best vocalists out there. Apparently, he was also quite good on Dream Theater's recent Astonishing tour, lending credence to the idea that theatrical rock opera might be the thing his voice is best suited to.
Overall Impression — 9
With the original studio album being one of my all-time favourite albums, I was extremely excited when I heard that "The Human Equation" was being brought to the stage. But even I had no idea just how big this project was going to be until I saw the trailer on YouTube, with many of the original vocalists portraying their roles from the record. Ayreon's albums have always been incredible in their scope and ambition, and while it's always been a logistical impossibility to make Ayreon concerts a frequent thing (also owing a bit to mastermind Arjen Lucassen's anxious reluctance to perform live), hearing "The Theater Equation" has led me to the conclusion that Ayreon's albums were *born* to be performed live on stage. Between the previews of the visuals on YouTube ("Day Two: Isolation" and "Day Eleven: Love" are available in full to be watched) and the great musical and vocal performances from all involved, this project is everything I could have imagined it to be, and much more. There was a lot of potential for this project to be lacking in many ways, both vocally and instrumentally, but the actual performances on this record exceeded my wildest expectations.
The only things I would have changed on this record would have been getting Devin Townsend to reprise his role, and perhaps replacing the solo section in "Day Sixteen: Loser" with the blazing Hammond organ solo from the album version, rather than the synth/guitar tradeoff that was only released on the single version.
Overall, though, this is the best live representation of any Ayreon material ever (and perhaps only the first time Ayreon, in name, has actually performed live, besides the acoustic performances from the "01011001" release party), and I'd definitely like to see project director Yvette Boertje attempt the same thing with some of Arjen's other Ayreon works (especially "Into the Electric Castle").