If there is one thing the world of progressive rock and metal is known for, for good or ill, it is excess. Be it an excess in technical prowess and notes played over “listenability,” huge over-the-top live productions, or an excess in the length of songs. Fans of the genre love all those aspects of the music, and those who don’t point to it in criticism or accusations of it being “pretentious.” And one type of album that is either loved or hated for its excess is the concept album/rock opera. I will dare to say that in the long history of prog rock and metal no one has embraced the rock opera more, or been more consistently good at it, than Arjen Lucassen and his Ayreon project. Arjen will soon be releasing the first official Ayreon DVD: Ayreon Universe ‘Best of Ayreon Live’ documenting last year’s first ever official Ayreon concerts, and for fans the wait has been worth it.
Since 1995 there have been 9 studio Ayreon albums, all but one of which has been a rock/metal opera with a unifying storyline, and all but the first two have been double albums (or later combined into a double as intended). The lone consistent presence has been Arjen who writes the story, music, and lyrics, plays the majority of the instruments, and often sings as well. Given that the albums are all stories with multiple characters he utilizes different singers for each part, and, until fairly recently, had not worked with the same vocalist twice. Vocalists have been drawn from some of the biggest bands in metal and progressive music over the years, from Iron Maiden, to Nightwish and Opeth. To say Arjen has worked with the best is a gross understatement. This rotating cast of characters has obviously made performing live nigh to impossible. In 2017 however he held the first official concerts (there was a series of theater shows based on his ‘Human Equation’ album, but Arjen was not a prominent planner in the shows), bringing in a cast of thousands (well, 11 instrumentalists, 18 vocalists, and 100 total working behind the scenes to be more accurate) to make his artistic vision a reality.
The result was, for the audiences lucky enough to make the trip to the Netherlands, the show of a lifetime. Everything about it is large, expansive, and in excess; from the rotating singers and instrumentalists, to the costumes, pyrotechnics, and video screen, this show makes an impression of the viewer. It’s an epic in the cinematic sense, comparable to a Cecil B. DeMill film, it’s so gloriously over the top to be virtually immune to criticism, and while some may find it absurd, you can’t help but being entertained by the spectacle.
The majority of Ayreon albums take place in a sci-fi universe and are connected to each other in over lapping story lines. It is fitting therefore that the show, though being a traditional concert (as opposed to performing a full album), is started by the suggestion of a loose story line of the music and images being sent from the future to the past as a warning to mankind. The first images are ones and zeros on the screen, and vocalist Michael Mills coming onstage in a bizarre sci-fi costume complete with laser pointers on his head, and hands and a wired helmet that looks straight out of the ‘Predator’ franchise. The music then kicks into high gear with “Prologue” from the very first Ayreon album. I’m not going to go song by song or even close to it through the entire show, as there are 28 songs total being performed. However every Ayreon album has been represented along with songs from the first Star One album.
Probably the most impressive feat of this concert was the sheer number of “big name” vocal talent that was gathered for the three shows. All had appeared on Ayreon albums and though they mostly sang songs they performed on their albums, they also covered songs they did not sing. Among the vocalists collected were Marco Hietala and Floor Jansen of Nightwish, Hans Kürsch (Blind Guardian), Jonas Renske (Katatonia), Anneke van Giersbergen (ex-The Gathering), and plenty more. The instrumentalists had all played with Arjen on multiple albums, and consisted of strings and woodwinds as well as the more typical rock instruments. Who you will not find on stage for the majority of the show is Arjen, the man responsible for the evening. From a fan’s perspective this is disappointing, as he’s the one everyone wants to see and hear. As anyone who as ever watched an interview with him, or contacted him via social media can tell you, he’s probably the nicest guy in the music business, so seeing him is always a joy. However he has a well know fear of performing on stage and talking in public. So when he does appear to play two songs and chat with the audience at the end of the show, he’s putting himself out there for us in a very vulnerable and crowd loving way and I am very grateful to him for being willing to do so.
The performances throughout the nearly two and a half hour run time are executed wonderfully, The viewer’s highlights will likely depend on what their favorite album is and who their favorite vocalists are. My favorite song of the evening was the moody and atmospheric “Comatose” sung by Jonas and Anneke which was done perfectly and beautifully. An odd choice I thought was “Day Sixteen: Loser” from the previously mentioned ‘Human Equation’ album, as neither of the original singers appear in the concert. Vocalist Mike Mills does an admirable job filling in for Mike Baker, but it became readily apparent that trying to fill in the screamed vocals at the end originally done by Devin Townsend is an exercise in extreme futility.
What is sure to be a highlight for many was also the first single released to announce the DVD release: “Everybody Dies” from last year’s excellent ‘The Source.’ The song featured nearly every vocalist and instrumentalist involved, as well as fire, explosions, and the most impressive videos on the screen behind them. It’s a massive song, and was given the proper treatment. It is after this song that Arjen comes on and plays guitar for the final song of the main set. Afterwards he gives a lengthy talk to the crowd thanking the people behind the scenes and explaining how the shows came to be. The evening closes with “The Eye of Ra” which is a Star One song, with an epic chorus to close. To do it properly everyone comes on stage for the end of the song and sings it together. It is a highly fitting closure to what must have been an incredible evening and is certainly a fantastic viewing experience. The crowd, to say the least, was enthusiastic.
The DVD/Blu-Ray release includes a bonus disk with extra material as well. One of those extras is 17 minutes of highlights from the try out show, performed on a small stage in a small venue, and includes several vocalists not on the main DVD. The songs are shown in pieces, and never for much longer than a minute, and while of interest isn’t anything I’m likely to go back and watch again. What I found of much greater value was the nearly hour and half behind the scenes documentary. All the cast and instrumentalists are interviewed, as well as extensive interviews with Arjen about the background and creation of the show, the songs chosen, and the incredible logistics involved in getting it to happen. There is also rehearsal footage and some brief interactions between the musicians. For fans interested in how these shows came together, or Arjen’s process, the documentary is nothing you want to miss.
The technical aspects of the show are also excellent, the camera work is very good, and there is none of the obnoxious jump cut editing that plagues so many concert DVDs. The sound is spot on as well and includes a full 5.1 Surround Mix for those with the proper set up.
With Ayreon Universe ‘Best of Ayreon Live’ fans of Arjen Lucassen’s two decades of incredible rock/metal operas are in for a real treat, and an evening of theatrics and expertly performed music. For such fans this DVD is a must have without doubt. For fans of prog rock, and metal who have never taken the time to listen to an Ayreon album this will serve as an ideal introduction to the music, as every side and aspect of the project is covered and represented. It is an excessive, bombastic spectacle, much like the best of prog rock and metal. Fans are sure to enjoy it, and if you don’t, well, you probably don’t deserve to anyway.