April 26, 2024

In the old days, they used to criticise prog rock for being pompous, bloated and overblown. I never understood the criticism; surely that’s why it was so great? Sure, I enjoy 12-bar blues, rocking metal and pub rock, no arguments there at all. But when I really want to get lost in the music, there’s nothing like a fantasy concept album, interpreted by stupendous musicians who just get a kick out of being sodding brilliant. All through the 1980s, surrounded by the plinky-plonky Casio sounds of Yazoo and Depeche Mode, I yearned for someone to bring back the concept album, complete with necromancing wizards, warrior heroes, and as many ladies of the silver wood as you could shake a stick at. And then there was Ayreon.

The Ayreon universe, currently encompassing ten sprawling sci-fi fantasy albums of prog metal virtuosity that makes Rick Wakeman look like a punk rocker, has been brought into being by Dutch master Arjen Anthony Lucassen. And the original studio album of 01011001 was a bit overblown, even for him. It tells of the alien scientists of the water planet Y, (represented by digital code 01011001), and their flawed creation, humanity, on the brink of self-destruction through their own folly. By Lucassen’s own admission, it was never intended to be played live, otherwise he wouldn’t have engaged 10 musicians and no less than 17 singers to play all the various parts.

Photo by Cristel Brouwer

Nevertheless, here it is: a live stage production named 01011001 – Live Beneath The Waves, recorded in front of an ecstatic audience at Poppodium 013 in Tilburg, The Netherlands in September 2023. And in typical Lucassen style, this production includes no less than 19 singers, who shimmer on and off the stage with balletic precision, singing solo, or as duets or trios, or occasionally en masse. Musicians appear randomly in different places on the stage scaffolding, or on the stage itself, in front of a back-projection that highlights aspects of the narrative as it unfolds. The listener can opt for the audio experience only, on 2 CDs, 3 LPs or digital formats, or watch the whole thing on DVD or Blu-Ray. Most of the performers appear in monochrome, cyberpunk-inspired outfits, but Lucassen appears on stage himself in a bright red floor-length overcoat, to take part in the story. The video is worth watching, not because the music sounds any better or because the stage show is unmissable, so much as to marvel at the absolute perfection of the production. It runs with the precision of a Swiss watch, or a well-oiled machine.

Arjen makes his first appearance on track 5, Connect The Dots, up on the scaffolding in his red coat, before descending to the stage. No sign of his legendary ‘crippling stage fright’ here; he owns the stage and receives the crowd’s adulation. The heavy metal intensity dissipates for a while, a couple of tracks later, with the almost Nick Drake-ish folk of Newborn Race, with its electric violin line. It drifts into distinctive Thin Lizzy territory for a while, before singer Jaycee Cuijpers brings off a massive, long and powerful note at the end. But probably the highlight, for CD1 at least, is the rocking Ride The Comet. A couple of the vocalists start headbanging on stage, against dramatic chords adorned with some stupendous shredding guitar – the first extended solo of the night – and with a burst of flames stage front at the end! Real theatre indeed.

CD1 ends with some more hard rock, with multiple singers entering into a perfectly choreographed vocal debate, and some prog in alternating 3-4 and 5-4 time, with two guitarists and a bassist rocking out, Status Quo-like, centre stage. This is followed by the spooky wail of a theremin and an audience clap-along to a pseudo-classical cello section, some great vocal duetting, then the simple statement, ‘We are … alive…’ to bring this section to a close.

After a great synth solo from Joost van den Broek (who also doubles as Lead Producer), in the opening track of CD 2, Arjen as Mr. L. is wheeled on to the stage on a hospital trolley, singing of his recurring dream. Anyway, we know what to expect by now, the production ramps up if anything, with vocalist Mike Mills from Toehider in particular pulling off some fantastic high notes. After a breathless album finale, Arjen steps up to give a little speech and thank everyone, before a 25-minute encore consisting of a Simone Simons-led rendition of This Human Equation, the frankly stunning, headbanging metal highlight of Fate Of Man, and then the 13-minute epic The Day The World Breaks Down. The backing singers come down from the scaffolding to the main stage at last, and the whole production slithers to a halt after a generous 2¼ hours.

Now, I’m absolutely sure that there has been some post-production somewhere, but if so, then it all jigsaws together seamlessly. If it was a heavily rehearsed West End production then I’d say OK, you’d expect something close to perfection, but these are all professional, touring, recording and gigging musicians – I can’t imagine they have been closeted in this theatre, rehearsing for months on end. But the mix and production are absolutely studio-clear and every single note is perfect. However it was accomplished, it all looks and sounds fantastic. I take my hat off to Arjen, the band, the singers and about 150 crew. If I had more hats, I’d take them all off at once. Superb. For those who wish to know, here is a full list of the performers:

Singers:

  • Tom Englund (Evergrey)
  • Mike Mills (Toehider)
  • Daniel Gildenlow (Pain Of Salvation)
  • Marcela Bovio (MaYan)
  • Irene Jansen
  • Jan-Willem Ketelaers
  • Brittney Slayes (Unleash The Archers)
  • Hansi Kürsch (Blind Guardian)
  • Jonas Renkse (Katatonia)
  • Anneke van Giersbergen
  • John Jaycee Cuijpers (Praying Mantis)
  • Damian Wilson (Threshold)
  • Maggy Luyten (Beautiful Sin)
  • Simone Simons (Epica)
  • Phideaux Xavier
  • Arjen Anthony Lucassen (Ayreon)
  • Liselotte Hegt
  • Marjan Welman
  • Wudstik

Instrumentalists:

  • Keyboards:   Joost van den Broek
  • Drums:         Ed Warby
  • Bass:            Johan van Stratum
  • Guitar:         Timo Somers
  • Guitar:          Marcel Coenen
  • Violin:           Ben Mathot
  • Flute:            Jeroen Goossens
  • Cello:           Jurriaan Westerveld

01011001 – Live Beneath the Waves by Ayreon will be released in 3LP, 2CD+DVD, Blu-ray, Earbook, and digital formats  on 17 May 2024 via Music Theories Recordings / Mascot Label Group

Photo by Lorena Aal