March 27, 2020

I’m the guy who comes up with the ideas, sees the big picture, and puts it all together…

“I just love recording my various projects in the studio,” says Arjen Anthony Lucassen, mastermind behind the soaring series of concept albums set in the Ayreon universe, “but I’m not a live performer. I’m the guy who comes up with the ideas, sees the big picture, and puts it all together.” Indeed, for those like myself, who miss the grandeur and bombast of the early 1970s flowering of prog concepts, Lucassen is a link between the past and the future – but his natural element is the studio, crafting perfectionist art using the finest tools available: the foremost singers and musicians currently working in the world of symphonic metal. His first album in this series, The Final Experiment from 1995, introduced the character of Ayreon, a blind minstrel at the time of King Arthur, but somehow also managed to include a science-fiction future apocalypse seamlessly into the tale. Actual Fantasy a year later was followed in 1998 by his third opus, Into The Electric Castle. This ripping yarn saw eight characters, selected from different epochs by a mysterious and arrogant godlike figure (think Q from Star Trek if you’re into that kind of thing), and set on a quest to the Electric Castle of the title.  Anticipating brutal Big Brother-style game shows, the all-powerful narrator tells them that each sub-quest would see one of them eliminated until he had narrowed down his search for a worthy winner – anyway, no spoilers here.

The Ayreon juggernaut didn’t actually play live until 2015, when Lucassen (who suffers from ‘crippling stage fright’ in his own words), pulled the whole project together but was not part of the live band. But then he did take to the stage in a minor role in the 2017 ‘Ayreon Universe’ live shows in Tilburg. That series was recorded and released as Ayreon Universe Live the following year, in which the audience was deliberately high in the mix, clapping and singing along to the songs, and roaring their approval every time some new guest was presented on stage. The result was a kind of party-atmospheric singalong at which the guests seemed genuinely excited to be in attendance; the musicianship and showmanship were of the highest order as expected, but as the songs were taken from across the board of Ayreon’s albums, there was no progressive story line as such.

Arjen Anthony Lucassen

All of which brings us to this year’s release. 2018 saw the 20th anniversary of Into The Electric Castle, which was celebrated with a remix and re-release, plus a series of four nights back at the same venue in Tilburg, putting on an impressively grandiose live concert of the whole album and pulling many of the original cast back to perform, notably Fish as the Highlander, Edwin Balogh as the Roman, Anneke van Giersbergen as the Egyptian, Damian Wilson as the Knight, Edward Reekers as the Futureman and Lucassen himself as the Hippie. In a brilliant piece of typecasting, the mighty power who organises the quest and narrates the story is played by none other than John de Lancie, who actually played Q in Star Trek: The Next Generation. He does a terrific job too, engaging the audience and keeping them up to date with who’s in, who’s out and who’s left.

Even though this album was recorded at the same venue as the previous offering, the whole feel is radically different. Whereas it has been mentioned that the audience were almost part of the show in Ayreon Universe Live, they are much further down in the mix this time, while at the same time sounding to be about ten times as numerous, creating a soft bed of background sound on which the show weaves and pulses like a surfer. Popular figures and passages are still greeted with massive waves of applause, without it intruding on the narrative at all.

Musical highlights begin with third track Amazing Flight, in which the gruff-voiced Barbarian is non-plussed at encountering a foe he couldn’t fight with sword alone, but the spaced-out hippie is getting into the whole cosmic ride; Tull-like flute plays answerback with a violin sound, followed by some great guitar harmonies. The Decision Tree is tremendous too, with shredding guitar and whizzy keyboards also playing answerback solos. Tower Of Hope sees the audience wording the intro along with the narrator, before the jingling, sing-song intro gives way to powerful, major-key heavy chords. This abruptly morphs into a walking bass country jazz-fusion section with a bit of everything; manic, but brilliant – the crowd is ecstatic.

Astonishingly, each of the 2 CDs is a massive hour and a quarter long, pushing the whole concert to a wildly generous two and a half hours – plus there is a DVD thrown in for good measure. Each of the characters takes to his or her role with gusto and genuine drama, but the actual story line ends halfway through the second disc. The remainder of the time is packed with a pot-pourri of songs from Lucassen’s other projects, namely Shores of India from Gentle Storm, Ashes from Ambeon, Out In The Real World from Stream Of Passion, and Guilt Machine’s Twisted Coil. Then we are treated to an unexpected but atmospherically faithful cover of Marillion’s Kayleigh, followed by the poppy Pink Beatles in a Purple Zeppelin from Lucassen’s solo album Lost In The New Real.

The whole set comes to a rousing conclusion with Songs of the Oceans from Lucassen’s Star One project, which brings me to my only slight gripe with the whole set. Electric Castle is possibly the best and most coherent narrative story out of all the Ayreon tales, in which the characters and the dramatic context are the main focus, the music forming something of an atmospheric backdrop. As such, it’s a little more pedestrian than some, compared with the peaks-and-troughs variety of The Final Experiment, or the heavier nature of Flight Of The Migrator. The lengthy tale has drawn us in and the performances have left us spellbound, but it’s not until this final track, from Lucassen’s heaviest and hardest-rocking project, that we realise what the set has been missing all along; a decent, powerful charging rocker. Well, better late than never as they say, and this last song is a corker. Still, I’d have to say the biggest highlight for me is probably Valley Of The Queens featuring the ethereal beauty of Anneke van Giersbergen’s voice, who was also the main vocalist for the aforementioned Gentle Storm.

So then, if you are already an Ayreon fan then you’ll know what to expect, although you may not have expected so much of it. If you are not a fan, then why not?