Ayreon is a musical project by Dutch songwriter, singer, multi-instrumentalist musician and record producer Arjen Anthony Lucassen. These works are typically described as prog rock/metal or metal opera, blurring the line between where a concept album ends and a fantasy epic in the vein of Tolkein begins.
Most Ayreon releases feature complex storylines containing a host of characters and accompanied by detailed, almost theatrical concepts (the vast majority of which take place in the same universe – more on that later). The latest album ‘The Source’ doesn’t deviate from this trend, weaving an epic tale around a civilisation struggling to survive after their artificial intelligence system decides to exterminate human life.
The opening track “The Day That The World Breaks Down” manages to seamlessly blend foreboding soundscapes, epic rock ballad sections, a (dare I say it) blues-based dynamic breakdown, and prog metal – complete with soaring vocal harmonies. And somehow, they all just flow naturally without any hint of disconnect.
A throbbing Industrial electronic pulse opens up “Everybody Dies” coupled with a layer of choir harmonies, bringing to mind Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”. However, this quickly takes a dark turn by launching into distinctly heavy, detuned guitar riffs that reinforce the stark fate the population of the story face. To quote the lyrics: “None will be spared so don’t assume, not ragged clothes, nor silver spoon / You’re all the same when extinction looms”. Punctuated by frantic lines from the population of the story looking for a way out, this song sets up their desperation for survival and plants the seed for a slim chance at escape.
‘The Source’ as an album is clearly intended to be heard as a whole. The rich story influences the dynamics carrying between tracks and controls the emotion and energy of the songs. As such it’s quite difficult to write a review that does this release justice without sitting down and writing a summary of the storyline and the characters. I did mention before that Ayreon focuses on a tale of very epic proportions and I’m going to provide a few important dot points below on this – please be warned that these could be considered spoilers. So if you’d rather listen to the music and discover the journey for yourself, then skip these next few points.
- The Alphans (our human ancestors) are facing a massive global crisis, with ecological and political catastrophes threatening all human life.
- The Alphans try to save their planet by entrusting the global computer mainframe – The Frame – to find a solution. Given total control of the planet, the Frame reaches the logical conclusion that its creators are the cause of all the trouble. The only way to solve this problem is to exterminate humanity.
- There is just one ship that is capable of making the journey to a new planet, and it can only carry a handful of people. So only those who have essential skills or other useful qualities are allowed to join. All the others have to stay behind. Those who are allowed to leave are, as the title goes, “Condemned To Live”, as they must wrestle with the unimaginable anguish of leaving their families – and the entire Alphan civilization – behind to certain doom.
- This new planet is named Planet Y. Once a planet covered completely in fields of crystal and underground oceans, Y evolved into an ecosystem capable of sustaining life. Modified Alphans lived underwater here, free from the Frame. However, after years of technological development, the race (Now named The Forever) covered the entire planet in giant machines designed to improve their quality of living, eventually granting them biological immortality. However, after so much use, they became so dependent on their mechanical components that they lost their emotions and built infrastructure so tall that it blocked out the light from their own sun in a time known as the Age of Shadows.
- The Forever seed a passing comet with their own DNA and send it off in an effort to revitalise their race, eventually reaching Earth and breathing life into the planet.
There’s more to the story and incredible amounts of detail; however, I won’t rob you of the pleasure of hearing this tale unfold in the album.
All of the songs form an integral part of this album coming together as a whole, yet they somehow manage to stand alone and hold a unique quality as a track at the same time. Much of this is accomplished by vast dynamic and emotional shifts in the pieces, but also with unique instrumentation. Some tracks feature gentle lilting flutes, mandolins, and psychedelic synth lines, whilst others boast hair-raising falsetto vocals and frantic guitar solos. The sheer diversity of ‘The Source’ and the skill with which it’s assembled is an art form unto itself, and speaks incredible volumes about Arjen’s ability to compose and arrange music.
If the idea of ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’-era Pink Floyd meeting a tale similar in proportion to Lord of the Rings, with a soundtrack boasting the fire of power metal and the melancholy of folk music without sounding contrived sounds fun, then Ayreon is for you. ‘The Source’ is an incredibly diverse musical journey which illustrates and conveys emotion with great skill.