It’s been a busy few years for Arjen Lucassen since the release of the last Ayreon studio album The Source in 2017. Firstly, the colossal Ayreon Universe was a lavish stage production, a star-studded retrospective that spanned a quarter century’s worth of music. Not to be outdone by his own opulence, Lucassen bravely upped the ante last year, re-assembling most of the original cast of his breakthrough opus Into The Electric Castle and staging an even more elaborate revisiting. Outfitted with knights, ghouls and enormous castle walls, it was a bold and unrestrained spectacle that couldn’t have been more decadent had it been performed on ice. With both exhibitions filmed and issued as deluxe sets, there was much greatness for the worldwide Ayreonauts to absorb and digest, but new music is what many have been craving in the interim. On 25 September that wish is being granted with Transitus, the sprawling new double album from the Lofty Madman Of The Netherlands (a moniker I’ve invented just now that I’m hoping will stick).
Veering from the expansive Ayreon saga and its multi-album sci-fi storyline, Transitus marks the second time Lucassen has taken a side-step and forged a new conceptual path. But if 2013’s The Theory Of Everything was a more introspective story that focused on the life of a child genius, many of its themes were still rooted in space and science. Transitus instead casts its gaze to the Gothic horror tales of centuries past; a supernatural odyssey that is accompanied for the first time by a companion graphic novel.
With fresh and notable faces joining familiar Ayreon favourites from previous works – and a surprising and delightful narration courtesy of Tom Baker of 1970s Doctor Who fame – Transitus is another grand and exhilarating journey that feels born to become its own staged musical. With its confident straddling of genres, rich characters, and compelling storyline, one imagines a deliciously vibrant production where Lucassen and his cohorts pull out all the stops. If smash productions can center around cats, transvestites and man-eating plants, there’s no reason why this intriguing ghostly tale couldn’t be just as entertaining. Besides, who among us can say they don’t want to see Simone Simons chew the scenery as the Angel Of Death?
I had a typically fun, amusing and informative chinwag with the man himself about Transitus and all things Ayreon, and as always he revealed a few genuine surprises along the way…
VT: Congratulations on Transitus, it’s a huge album! You must be so proud of it.
AL: Ahh… no! (Both laughing) You know me, I’m in my insecure phase now, it’s terrible. It always happens, you know? When I finish the album, I’m really proud and glad and then I have to wait three months until it’s released. And then the nagging starts: ‘Ahh, this could have been better!’ And then you start seeing comments here and there on the internet, you know: ‘01 was the last good thing you did.’ Oh my god…
VT: Oh, there’s no way that is true.
AL: I know, I know, but I guess my insecurity is what makes me a perfectionist, so that’s good.
VT: Transitus in some ways is the ‘biggest’ Ayreon album yet. It’s not the longest, but it’s the most elaborate, somehow.
AL: I think so, yeah. Firstly, I worked on it longer than any other album, like three years. Having said that, as you know I did the two live shows and DVDs in between, so that took up a lot of time too. But this was planned to be a movie, it wasn’t planned to be an Ayreon album. So I wanted to do it really big, you know, impress movie makers and make this huge album to get funding for a movie. I think that’s how it turned out so big… I didn’t care about money. It was like ‘Dee Snider? Okay. Tom Baker? Okay.’ You know, all these big names which aren’t cheap, of course. I didn’t care, I wanted to realize that movie. But then of course, the whole Corona thing started, which makes it very hard to make a movie at this point. Especially getting funding, you know a movie costs millions, and even then you’re talking low budget.
VT: The album can be quite dark in places, but it’s very warm sounding, and very melodic. It takes a different musical path than The Source did, but I like that about your albums. They always sound like you, but not exactly like the one that came before.
AL: Great! I’m so glad you say that, because that’s exactly my intention. Firstly for myself, you know, it’s shitty to repeat myself, because then I have to make a better album. I’d rather not repeat myself and make a different album, you know? I’m so glad you said warm, because The Source is not a warm album – which I don’t mean negatively at all – it’s a prog metal album, a cold album, and this is really the contrast, indeed a warmer album. And of course, as I was thinking I was making a movie, I didn’t want to make a cold metal album. That’s hard to get funded, and to get people to the cinema and stuff like that.
VT: And you’ve gone for a different vibe this time, away from the sci-fi and into a more old fashioned horror story.
AL: Right! Again, not repeating myself, let’s do something different. Also because I was thinking of doing a movie, a sci-fi movie is terribly expensive. Under fifty million, you don’t make a sci-fi movie. So I was thinking ‘What else do I like?’ and I always loved horror movies and ghost movies. And I never really did that before. I did it a couple of times in the first bands I had, lyrics based on The Omen and stuff like that, but I didn’t do a whole horror… well, horror is too heavy a word for this, it’s more like a ghostly romance story. And I’ve always loved the supernatural as well.
VT: Do you think this is a storyline you might continue in the future?
AL: No, no way. This is really a side-step. The story is finished, not many people got through it alive! (Laughing)
VT: I know, but then I thought the Ayreon story finished with 01…
AL: True! And then I made a prequel. But making a prequel to this one would be kind of boring. So like Theory Of Everything and Human Equation, this is a finished story.
VT: I was excited when I saw you brought in Dee Snider… a hero of mine when I was a young lad!
AL: Cool! I heard For The Love Of Metal, his last album. And most singers start to slowly lose that power at 50, but my god! He still has that power and that charisma on stage. And I was still thinking of the movie. So imagine if the dad comes in and it’s Dee Snider! (Laughing) I didn’t fly him over from New York just for one song, so he recorded it himself. And when I got the recordings I was like ‘Oh my god, this is so powerful, this is even better than I hoped for’.
VT: And Tom Baker?! Another legend.
AL: I’m being spoiled by working with my favourite actors. On my solo album, Rutger Hauer, then live with John De Lancie. You get kind of addicted, it’s like ‘Okay, I want another big name!’ I was thinking that Star Trek was a big influence on me, but Doctor Who was as well. Especially Tom Baker, because you know the ones before and after him were okay, but I didn’t enjoy them half as much. Because he played himself! He says it himself, he didn’t have to act to play the doctor. And I noticed when I went to England to record him, he is that person. He has that humour and that twinkle in his eye. He was totally perfect for the story, he loved it so much and he had so much input and improvising, putting his own personality into it. Another dream come true.
VT: He is the most well-liked Doctor, I think.
AL: He was the best. There are a couple of good ones that came later, I really like Matt Smith, he did a great job and had that same humour. And of course, the Scottish guy… ahh! What’s his name now?
VT: David Tennant?
AL: David Tennant, he was great too. But I think they would agree themselves that Tom Baker is the ultimate Doctor Who. He had it all, the charisma, he was very self-assured but very human.
VT: I like the narration aspect a lot, it reminds me of Journey To The Center Of The Earth by Rick Wakeman.
AL: David Hemmings did a great job there, I loved the sound of his voice. Definitely that was an influence. He was telling a story, and it’s the same here. It’s like a grandfather telling his grandson a story. And I wanted a storyteller, not a narrator. Another good example is Richard Burton in War Of The Worlds. Narrators can be so terribly annoying, some over-the-top guy (mimics Shakespearean actor voice): ‘And the prince entered the castle…’ (Laughing) It’s like ‘Oh my god, shut up! Gimme some music!’ But if it’s someone who really draws you into the story, then it’s a bonus, an extra dimension you add to the music.
VT: A few other new faces this time around too… Joe Satriani, Marty Friedman… and coincidentally, former Arena vocalist Paul Manzi who has been recently replaced by your longtime singer…
AL: Right! By Damian, that’s true! I met Paul about eight years ago at the Prog awards. We hit it off straight away. And we said that we have to work together one day. But of course I need the perfect part for a singer, and this time I had it, the evil brother. I loved him in Arena, for me he was so far the strongest singer in that band. And such a nice guy as well. He came to my place and we shot a lot of footage against the green screen. I did that with every singer who came, just in case it would turn into a movie. Like an audition tape so I could show the director what they could do. I’m glad I did that, because now we can use it for the video clips.
VT: This is now the fourth studio album in a row where you do no vocals yourself.
AL: Is it? I don’t know why. Maybe I just don’t have a part for myself, or there are just too many singers I want to work with. Also because this was going to be a movie, I didn’t want too many singers, I had a limit in my head of eight. I had that on Electric Castle and I really like that. I love 01, but the only thing there is that it had seventeen singers, which is just a bit too much, I couldn’t give them enough attention. I still think a singer like Daniel Gildenlöw didn’t have enough space. Again, it was like an addiction: ‘Let’s get as many big names on this as I can!’ On this one I wanted to limit it and give people more space. And maybe that’s why I’m not singing on it, on the next one I should find a weird part for myself again.
VT: I think people are surprised to see Ed Warby is not the drummer this time.
AL: Absolutely, and the reason for that, like I told you earlier, is that it wasn’t going to be an Ayreon album. Of course, if it was always going to be an Ayreon it would have been a no-brainer, it automatically would be Ed. But it was going to be a movie, and I wanted a guy with more varied style. Because let’s face it: Ed is a machine, a metal monster! (Laughing) And he does that so well, it’s perfect. But I don’t think this is a metal album, it’s more like a rock musical. And the good thing about Juan (van Emmerloot) is that he has his own studio. I never did this before, but I went to his studio with my demos, just a little MIDI piano playing the chords and the melody. And we really worked on the drums together: ‘Forget my style, what would you do here?’ And he came up with the weirdest stuff, jazzy parts, funky parts, just very different ideas that I would never have thought of. And of course, I told Ed. I said ‘Ed, I’m going to do a movie now and I need a different kind of drummer’. And he totally understood and even helped me look for another drummer. But when it turned into an Ayreon at some point, I had to tell him and he did not like that very much, obviously. And I think that’s cool that he didn’t like it! (Laughing) He could have said ‘Ahh I don’t give a shit.’ But it was a bit of a letdown for him.
VT: There’s always next time…
AL: Oh yeah, absolutely, yes!
VT: The epic opening piece Fatum Horrificum is such an effective intro with the Hellscore choir. It’s like a nice long overture to the album, introducing some of the themes.
AL: Yeah, it’s very cinematic. Actually, I didn’t have narration for the first two years, and that intro was ten minutes and it was a lot, you know? You go from one extreme to the other, like you say the Hellscore choir which is like this Omen kind of thing, this dark, devilish choir. And then you go to this nice little Pink Floyd part, and I played it to people who were like ‘Woah! What’s happening here?’ It’s a lot of information. That’s basically when I thought to myself ‘Narration would be very cool here’. Someone who draws you into the story, who explains what’s happening. Because I like making it easy for people, I don’t want it to be hard. I want people to escape and just dream away in my stories.
VT: There’s even Latin in there, that’s a first for Ayreon, I think.
AL: There is, and luckily my brother is a teacher of Latin, so I just gave him a demo with fake vocals on it, and with his help we wrote the Latin lyrics. It’s fantastic.
VT: Some of my favourite parts are the choruses that the Angel Of Death and the Furies sing in Listen To My Story and Your Story Is Over. It’s cool to hear Simone really getting into her role.
AL: Absolutely, and what I had in mind there was a little bit of a mix between Jesus Christ Superstar and Tommy. You’ve got the sus4, which Pete Townsend often did. Think Pinball Wizard, you know? (Sings opening riff) So I had The Who very much in mind with that chorus. And Simone is so great in this part! Usually with Epica she is very serious and very classical. And the thing is, I’ve often recorded her and when she comes to my studio she has this twinkle in her eye, she’s always joking and I wanted to bring that side of her out. I created the part of the Angel Of Death for her.
VT: I was thinking of taking that sound clip of her saying “Well hello there…’ and using it as my ringtone… but we won’t tell her that.
AL: (Laughing loudly) That’s cool! Yeah, just do it, she would love it!
VT: There’s a great guitar solo, I think it’s yours, in the song Two Worlds Now One.
AL: Oh thanks! Yeah, it’s my Gilmour moment.
VT: Do you improvise your solos or compose them?
AL: I don’t compose them at all, I just start. And I never rehearse on guitar, so I’m not very fluent. Basically I build them up almost note by note. So I don’t compose them, but I don’t improvise them either. I just play the first notes that come to mind and then stop and think about what notes should come next. And I record the notes after that. So I record it in little pieces, and sometimes I learn the whole solo and try to play it in one go, to make it more fluent. Sometimes I just leave it if it’s not obvious that it’s been compiled of little parts. But playing them live would be quite a challenge for me, to be honest! (Laughing)
VT: Talk Of The Town is such a great track. You’ve probably heard this already, but the heavy theme really reminds me of Dawn Of A Million Souls.
AL: Well, it’s funny. Some people say Digital Rain, others say Dawn Of A Million Souls. But the funny thing is, I kind of based it on Stargazer by Rainbow. (Sings: ‘In heat and rain, with whips and chains…’) That’s what I had in mind, I had no idea I was stealing from myself, I thought I was stealing from Rainbow! (Laughing) But apparently I did that twice before.
VT: Well, if you’re going to take something, take it from a song like Stargazer.
AL: Stargazer is my favourite song of all time. It will never be beaten, that’s the one for me.
VT: We talked about Dee Snider earlier, he sounds absolutely amazing on the song Get Out! Now! That track has a fantastic chorus.
AL: I got the whole session from him, not just the vocals they picked in the end. Which means I got about ten takes of him doing the song. And I’ve never heard this before, but all ten were brilliant, there wasn’t a bad take in there. Not an out of tune take, or a weak take, or his voice cracking or whatever. I don’t know how he does it, I’m truly amazed by what he did. Basically it’s a straightforward rock and roll song, he really elevated it to a higher level.
VT: I know you’ve released a video for This Human Equation, which is another highlight. Tom Baker’s laugh at the beginning is amazing.
AL: It is, and of course that wasn’t in the narration. He just did that, totally improvised it out of the blue. And I was like ‘Oh my god, I got it on tape! I can use it!’ Because I think he did the intro three times or something, and that laugh he only did once, on the last one he did. Very cool.
VT: I love the track Message From Beyond that alternates between that groovin’ riff and the beautiful melodic vocals.
AL: True, and the original feel I had for that riff is very War Of The Worlds… yeah, I’ve been stealing a lot, sorry! I don’t know if you know the song (sings riff) but that’s the feel I wanted to capture. And with Juan in the studio, I said ‘What else could you do with this riff?’ And he did that jazzy part, just for fun, and said ‘Ha ha’… and I said ‘No, not ha ha. That’s totally cool!’ He said ‘But that’s weird.’ And I said ‘Right!’ (Laughing) So that’s something that never would have happened with Ed, that’s not in his system. That’s one of the perks of having composed with Juan before we started.
VT: I think people are going to like the comic book a lot. Have you considered making more of those, maybe even for previous albums?
AL: I would love to, for Electric Castle or whatever. But we worked on this one for a year. It took two weeks for one page. A lot of work, which also means a lot of money, it’s quite an investment to make a comic book like that. And to sell them on their own, I don’t think I would ever sell enough of them to get the money back that I would have put into it. So I think this was a one-off thing. Having said that, I really enjoyed the whole process. It’s something special and it has a purpose. If you read it you can follow the story a lot easier.
VT: Is a stage production of Transitus something you are considering for the future?
AL: It’s absolutely a possibility, but I haven’t thought about it yet at all. We did think about doing something live next September, but the shitty thing now is that we can’t risk it and we have to decide by the end of this year if we’re going to go ahead with it. I don’t see it happening, actually. We have to start organizing a year in advance, we have to sell tickets of course… it’s an expensive production. Obviously we’re not going to get 12,000 people from 64 countries right now, no way.
VT: There are two big Ayreon anniversaries this year. It’s the 20th anniversary of the two Universal Migrator albums, for one. There’s a lot of music on those… how do you look back on those now?
AL: They’re a bit snowed in, between Electric Castle and The Human Equation. They didn’t really get the attention that those two albums got, which is weird because for me they have the strongest songs: Dawn Of A Million Souls, Into The Black Hole, The Druids Turn To Stone, First Man On Earth… they are among my best songs ever. It may have to do with the fact that I divided the two styles, they were sold as two albums in the beginning and it was very confusing. I definitely want to give those albums a new chance, I want to remix them. I’ve already been talking to the record company and they like the idea. And of course, make a nice package again (not too expensive), and do vinyl again. I hope to be working on that maybe this year or the beginning of next year.
VT: And as hard as it is to believe, it’s already the 10th anniversary of the second Star One album Victims Of The Modern Age.
AL: I know! Funny you should mention it. As you know, every album I do is a reaction to the previous one, so since Transitus is not a metal album, I’d love to do a metal album now. So I’m thinking of doing a ‘Star Three’. But I don’t want to repeat myself, so last week I took a really long walk and with headphones I listened to both Star One albums. And again, it’s weird for me because the first album sold like crazy, it’s way more popular than Victims Of The Modern Age, which is one of my lesser sellers. But when I heard it, I thought ‘Oh my god, it sounds so good, and so huge!’ And it sounds stupid to say about myself, but the songs are kind of intelligent, you know? And then you listen to the first Star One album and it’s basically simple songs (laughs and sings ‘Intergalactic space crusaders…’) But it’s way more catchy, the first album. It has standout tracks like Set Your Controls and Songs Of The Ocean and The Eye Of Ra. The second album for some reason doesn’t have that. It’s kind of all on the same level for me. That’s probably why I didn’t play one of them on Ayreon Universe, but I think that album is so incredibly strong. The riffs, the sound, and of course the singers sound so good.
VT: My next question was about which album in your catalogue do you feel didn’t get the attention it deserved… but maybe you’ve just answered that.
AL: Definitely. Definitely Victims Of The Modern Age, yeah.
VT: I wanted to mention a song of yours that I feel is very overlooked: Our Imperfect Race from Lost In The New Real.
AL: It’s totally ignored by everyone! Every time I hear it is like ‘Woah!’ (Laughing) I’m so proud of it. It has a Floyd feel, and especially those lyrics, that’s me. That’s 100% me. What I’m saying there is what’s going on in my head.
VT: I think it’s one of the best songs you’ve ever done, no question.
AL: I’m so glad you say that, because no one mentions it. Maybe because it’s on the second CD? I don’t know. I still remember playing it to Lori and she was like ‘Meh.’ Of course, it’s not a catchy song, it’s not like Space Hotel that jumps out, or Pink Beatles. It doesn’t have a clear chorus, it’s more like a three-part epic thing, so yeah I’m glad you mentioned that song.
VT: I loved that little acoustic tour EP you made with Anneke, where you played a few of your songs and a couple of covers. Have you ever considered a full album of something like that?
AL: I basically did the same thing with the reissue of The Final Experiment. We didn’t have the original tapes anymore so I couldn’t remix it and I didn’t have bonus tracks, so we did an acoustic version. And with Anneke, that was a last minute idea, we thought ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to sell a couple of these songs during the tour?’ It’s a fun little EP, but I don’t know if I would do a whole album like that.
VT: I know people are always suggesting singers to you, but I’d love to hear Peter Hammill on one of your albums.
AL: And I was very close to having him on the album! I met him at the Prog awards, and we really hit it off together. I just need to have the right part for him, I haven’t had that yet, but it would be great to work with him, he has such an iconic voice. I always feel like there’s a little bit of Bowie in there.
VT: So on the near horizon for you is the remixing of the Universal Migrator albums and a potential new Star One. Anything else? Squeeze in a Christmas album by year’s end maybe?
AL: It’s so funny you say that! I just recorded a Christmas song. The label asked for one for a compilation, a couple of their acts had done one, and I was like ‘No way!’ (Laughing) And then I remembered on my first solo album I had a demo that I never used, because that record company had also asked for a Christmas track, so I thought ‘Let’s work on that’. And I was having fun, so I recorded it last week! It’s a very happy song, it’s got sleigh bells, the whole enchilada. (Laughing)
VT: I can’t wait. Last question, and it’s the most difficult one. If you could only listen to one Beatles album again for the rest of your life, which one would it be?
AL: (Without hesitation) Magical Mystery Tour.
VT: Oh! So that wasn’t a difficult question, then.
AL: No, not at all. It has Strawberry Fields and I Am The Walrus. If those two tracks had been on Sgt. Pepper, I would have said that. But they are on Magical Mystery Tour. Those are my two favourite tracks… it’s a big competition with A Day In The Life, and then of course there’s Revolver which is also high on the list because of… ummm… ahh shit! What’s the last song again, the weird one…
VT: Tomorrow Never Knows.
AL: Tomorrow Never Knows, right. But maybe I should have picked the White Album, because there are more songs. (Laughing)
VT: But that also means you have to listen to Revolution 9.
AL: Oh yeah, that’s true! (Mimics ‘Number 9… number 9…’) I only made it through once, I think!
VT: Okay Arjen, this was fun. Best of luck with Transitus, but you won’t need it. People are going to love it.
AL: Yeah, always fun man! See you for Star Three, maybe next year, who knows?
Fatum Horrificum (A] Graveyard, B] 1884, C] Daniel And Abby, D] Fatum, E] Why?!, F] Guilty · Daniel’s Descent Into Transitus · Listen To My Story · Two Worlds Now One · Talk Of The Town · Old Friend · Dumb Piece Of Rock · Get Out! Now! · Seven Days, Seven Nights · Condemned Without A Trial · Daniel’s Funeral · Hopelessly Slipping Away · This Human Equation · Henry’s Plot · Message From Beyond · Daniel’s Vision · She Is Innocent · Lavinia’s Confession · Inferno · Your Story Is Over! · Abby In Transitus · The Great Beyond