Music review

Into Space: Ayreon Continues Sky-High Ambition With Eighth Album Opera

Dutch musician Arjen Anthony Lucassen burst onto a new scene in 1995, pioneering a project that made the world of metal stop for a brief moment. As a fan of sci-fi and dramatic musical opera, Lucassen brought out Ayreon, a group that gripped its goal of massive and cinematic metal with a clenched fist. After seven albums following the epic narrative of Lucassen’s development, Ayreon has returned, starting from scratch, but still keeping its signature ambition. The Theory of Everything marks a new beginning for Ayreon. Lucassen, content with the saga concluded with the previous album 01011001, began a whole new mythology for the Ayreon project, with The Theory of Everything marking its genesis. Ayreon’s ambition continues to walk on air with the project’s eighth album; it’s a powerful and massive endeavor whose strength comes from its united result instead of its scatterbrained components.

Lucassen’s aspirations and creative ambition toward his Ayreon project is downright superhuman (he makes Coheed and Cambria’s seven-album Amory Wars mythology look like a Dr. Seuss book). His bizarrely routine practice on enlisting upwards to 20 guests for each individual album continues with The Theory of Everything. If there’s a face in classic prog rock, modern symphonic or progressive metal, there’s a good chance it appears in an Ayreon album. The Theory of Everything doesn’t stray from that tradition, bringing on vocalists like Marco Hietala of Tarot, Cristina Scabbia of Lacuna Coil and John Wetton of Asia to name a brief few. Joining the instrumentalist section are musicians like ex-Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett and ex-Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman. With such an eclectic group of musicians from such diverse rock and metal backgrounds, The Theory of Everything very rarely stays in one lane. Lake & Palmer’s Keith Emerson and Dream Theater’s Jordan Rudess provide a cosmic synthesizer double team on “Progressive Waves”, while the grinding guitars of “Quantum Chaos” are sure to rev up the atmosphere before ascending even higher. The constant shifts in tone from heavy metal to synth-driven symphonies are poignant, but a bit too abrupt to avoid being disorienting.

The cavalcade of musicians also shows a general lack of synergy, since almost none of the musicians have collaborated with Lucassen prior to The Theory of Everything. There is a large emphasis on keyboard and spacey synths over heavy guitars, especially in comparison to past Ayreon albums, but the more subtle inclusions like the uilleann pipes from Nightwish’s Troy Donockley and a fantastically melodic solo on “Transformation.” But overall, it’s an album fully under Lucassen’s wing, and while that’s still a very admirable feat of creativity on his part, it tends to divide the album in small, but noticeable ways.

Like Ayreon has accomplished in the past, The Theory of Everything is a prog opera, a bombastic and massive spectacle of a metal record. Each vocalist represents a specific character in Lucassen’s story, a tale that draws influence from the cult series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In explaining the transcendent nature of The Universe and the characters that Lucassen uses to demonstrate the story’s purpose, Ayreon bathes itself in such loftiness that it can be very difficult to understand what exactly Lucassen is trying to tell us. In four phases across two CDs, Ayreon demonstrates an insanely ambitious story that just tends to stretch further than the seams can hold. Lucassen clearly has a vision that demands to be heard, but hesitates to be comprehended.

When divided up into individual sections (even by phases), The Theory of Everything sounds more unfocused than it should. With a lack of distinctive moments, a restless musical tone, and a premise so absurdly up in the clouds, it’s not the kind of album that your typical metal fan would fall in love with, even after multiple exposures. But when listened to in its entirety, the vision that Lucassen has pitched to the world doesn’t sound as out of reach. Like any great opera, The Theory of Everything is better than the sum of its parts, a culmination of smaller components that when united, become something completely different and completely unique. And like any theory, this 90-minute opus of ambition has noticeable flaws and a focus that sounds absurdly off-kilter at first, but once the research is put in and the pieces come together, something understandable and poignant appears, something that furthers itself and the world around it in ways originally thought to be impossible.

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