Sunday, October 27, 2013

album review: 'the theory of everything' by ayreon

It is one of the most ambitious and fascinating projects ever undertaken in metal - hell, some could make the argument that it's one of the biggest in music as a whole. The brainchild of a genius singer-songwriter multi-instrumentalist with a love of prog rock, psychedelia, and science fiction. A project that has spanned dozens of metal acts, big and small. For me, it has been the introduction point to so many bands to which I've consequently discovered and loved, and the fact that something coherent and engaging could have been made from it is mind-boggling.

Yes, folks, I'm talking about Ayreon, the multi-album megaproject masterminded by Arjen Lucassen. Started in 1995 with The Final Experiment, the Ayreon 'story' spanned seven albums, all of them which are good and a few are goddamn classics. In that respect, it's a little hard for me to be heavily critical of this project, partially because it played such a huge role in my discovery of progressive metal and partially because it's so goddamn great. I guess if I was going to try here, Arjen Lucassen's closest analogue in another field would be Kenneth Branagh, in that both men are fiendishly ambitious, produce highly cerebral material that can toe the line between epic and camp, and that they both have unbelievable clout in their ability to recruit players from all across their field. You want a short list of bands from where Lucassen has called up performers? How about After Forever, Blind Guardian, Dream Theater, Avantasia, Epica, Kamelot, Nightwish, Gotthard, Iron Maiden, Lacuna Coil, Rhapsody of Fire, Within Temptation, The Flower Kings, Yes, King Crimson, and even Genesis! And really, I left a whole slew of acts off the list - that's how much clout Lucassen has, and it's kind of incredible how he can call up so many different prog and metal performers to work with him time and time again.

But for those of you who don't know, the Ayreon project had its concluding element with 01011001 (the binary term for Y) in 2008, with Lucassen finally setting it aside to go onto other projects, like the follow-up Star One album and the fascinating experimentation of Guilt Machine. Yet, this year, he announced he was calling together a whole new crop of musicians to come work with him on an album titled The Theory of Everything. And as an Ayreon fan and a physics grad, I was more than intrigued by what Lucassen would be able to create from his insane vision and fetish for weird science. Joking aside, this has been my most highly anticipated album of the year thus far. So, did he pull off another classic?

Well, to be completely honest, I'm not sure I'm the critic you should be asking on this subject. It's been a policy of mine to always fully articulate my own personal biases and preferences before I deliver a review (that's why the preamble tends to go on as long as it does, so you gain appropriate context), and with that in mind, I don't think I can be as objective as I'd like with The Theory of Everything. And strangely enough, it doesn't really have anything to do with being an Ayreon fan - no, this time it has to do with the subject matter, which we'll discuss in a bit. For the moment, however, the album gets an immediate recommendation, as while I'm not sure it's Ayreon's best (The Human Equation is pretty hard to top), it's pretty damn close.

The first thing I'd like to qualify when talking about this album is that whoever made the decision to split the album into forty-two distinct tracks needs to be smacked, because without a bit of personal remixing (which I did), there are audible thuds between each piece. This album is meant to be heard as four twenty minute long tracks, with the addition breakdown coming through in the transitions, which are masterfully done and don't require the additional physical track splitting. Now I don't blame Arjen for this - in fact, I'd probably place the majority of the blame on the label - but then again, I'm not surprised it was done. After all, labels get antsy when they see songs longer than twenty minutes, even on prog albums - but at the same time, after I had mixed the album back to a four-track state and smoothed the transitions, The Theory of Everything flowed a lot better. Of course, the issue then becomes that there isn't the same single potential (as if that matters on a prog album statement like this...), but again, I'd argue that's fine: if you took segments out of the larger piece, sure you'd have solid enough singles, but they lose something without the larger context of the album behind them, which is both a strength for the cohesiveness of the work and a bit of a weakness for being able to replicate the distinct song standouts like 'Day Eleven: Love' from The Human Equation or 'River of Time' from 01011001.

The point I'm labouriously trying to make is that the album is meant to be listened through in four large tracks - and each of them are fantastic, uniquely defined by their own sounds and musical motifs that stretch throughout each piece. Everybody is at their best here, and no performer feels remotely out of place. I will say that this album has the distinctive Ayreon sound (and flashes of Guilt Machine) - but as I've mentioned before, that's not a bad thing because Arjen innovates enough with chord progressions and his choices in instrumentation to give this album its own distinctive sound. In this case, his integration of some more modern synths are damn near perfectly integrated, and his choice to bring in Troy Donockley (known for his work with Nightwish) adds a whole new layer of flavour to the album that I really enjoyed. On top of that, there's a stronger symphonic bent to this album that did wonders for adding greater weight and atmosphere to the story - and putting aside my own personal connection to said story, it's arguably one that needs all of the support it can get. 

Here's where we're going to have to talk about the 'story' and themes of this album, which is reasonably simple, yet good enough that I don't want to spoil too much. Basically, it's a cross between Good Will Hunting, Limitless, and The Social Network in terms of story, character, and themes - and it really appropriates the best elements of all three. But it's also here where I have to qualify any criticisms/praise I deliver, because stories about possibly-autistic young men dealing with genius and impossible dreams - particularly in physics, the consumption of drugs to 'clear one's mind', all interwoven with a heartbreakingly complicated relationship with said genius' parents and especially his father... yeah, there's no way I can possibly be objective when it comes to talking about these, particularly considering how much they resonated with me on an emotional level. What I will say is this: Arjen does an astoundingly good job framing this story, giving all the characters very human motivations and emotional responses, and his singers do their absolute damnedest to sell it. And I can't deny how much it really, really got to me.

But that being said, there are a few points that I'd like to point out, the first surrounding the overall concept of this album. I'm not the first one who has said that Ayreon's material would likely be better suited to the stage or film rather than just music, and it's a credit to how good Arjen is at evoking emotions and images through his instrumentation and lyrics. With that in mind, though, the core story of this album revolves around solving the Theory of Everything, a series of physics equations that involves the unification of all of the fundamental forces into one mathematical model - in essence, it's about people thinking and scribbling equations, and there aren't many ways to make that compelling on any level. That's one of the reasons I appreciated the grand symphonic backdrop Arjen incorporated into this story, because it lends dramatic weight to the story.

And here's where Arjen makes his best decision with The Theory of Everything, and it's linked to a big problem whenever people attempt to make art out of science. It tends to either go one of two ways: you have the 'technobabble' approach, where science concepts are bastardized into important sounding words but show the artist doesn't really understand or care about the concept; or you get what I'm going to call the 'Primer' approach, where the science and complex terminology is preserved and understood, but not presented in an emotionally compelling way outside of the 'puzzle' of it all. It's no surprise at all that Hollywood tends to go with the former.

But there's a third path, and it's what I'd like to call the 'Social Network' approach: using the science as a framing device for grounded, human drama. The Social Network on the surface might be about the foundation of Facebook, but the emotional undercurrents and conflicts are presented in such a compelling manner that the founding of a website takes a backseat to the human drama underneath. And that's what Arjen does with The Theory of Everything: it's not about the theory, it's about the father-son dynamic, the rivalry between geniuses, the risks of mind-altering drugs and parental responsibility, and the obsessiveness of men seeking primeval truths. Those are powerful, epic, big-idea themes that Arjen tackles masterfully, only barely touching on the science jargon of it all... for the most part. There are a few isolated points throughout the first and fourth tracks that did feel like science 'words' and elementary particles and theories were included almost for their own sake, and that did annoy me.

A bigger problem, however, comes in through the writing of this album, in that it's a bit underwritten. Now it didn't bother me as much - the instrumentation did such a good job stimulating my imagination that I was able to easily understand the scene from how Arjen wrote it, and I would prefer this approach to free-flowing jargon any day - but I can see where some people would get lost, particularly if they can't empathize with the underlying themes of the story. This is most an issue in the fourth track on the album, because as the story by necessity refocuses on the solving of the equation, some of the human drama doesn't carry over as well outside of the principle themes. And sure, those themes are definitely compelling, but they aren't as well articulated or had the same level of nuance that the first three tracks did (the second and especially the third). 

On that note, I can't say I'm the biggest fan of the album's ending - Arjen has a bit of a habit of ending his albums on slightly odd notes, and The Theory of Everything is no exception. If I'm going to criticize it without spoiling it, it feels a bit abortive and unnecessarily mysterious - yes, there were tragic consequences in the solving of the Theory, but I think the follow-up doesn't quite land the emotional punch, particularly with the parallelism of the father's fate. I dunno, maybe it's because I heard 'Higgs Boson Blues' by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds earlier this year and it did that 'follow-up to world-changing discovery' so damn well, I was a bit underwhelmed when Arjen didn't quite take that next step as far (incidentally, Arjen, a collaboration with Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds would blow my mind - just saying).

Yet all of that being said, The Theory of Everything by Ayreon is one of the best goddamn albums of the year and it cannot get a higher recommendation from me. Is it perfect? No, but what is? Every single vocalist is at their peak delivering a story that really got to me on an emotional level that I was not expecting at all, and it had the unique instrumental and compositional genius to back it up. I cannot stress how much you all should get this album as soon as you can, because it gets the 9/10 without question and despite the harshness of my criticisms, it's within spitting distance of a 10. If you have someone in your life who loves science or who is too smart for their own good, get them this album - and then get it for yourself, because it is just that great and he deserves the support.

And Arjen, if you happen to stumble upon this video... well, you did something special with this one, man, and I can't thank you enough for it.

1 comment:

  1. I stumbled on this review via YouTube, and I really love the passioned way you bring your reviews. And in a way, like Ayreon introduces people to lots of new singers and musicians, your reviews and blog introduce me to other musicians too. Many thanks for that :-)

    And I do have a quiet hope that you would review older Ayreon albums/side projects too, but there's so much music to listen to ;-)

    Keep up the good work!