(I am way, WAY behind in terms of reviews of various books and music records, so don't be surprised if that comprises the bulk of the new content for the next few days)
If you enjoy complex, technically proficient, multi-layered rock operas with intricate storylines, multiple vocalists, outstanding musicianship, and phenomenal production values, then you will almost certainly have come across AYREON at some point. This "band", if it can even be called that, is the musical brainchild of Dutch multi-instrumentalist genius (and really ridiculously tall guy*) Arjen Anthony Lucassen.
He is, quite simply, an artistic prodigy. He writes everything for every album- all of the music, all of the lyrics, all of the concepts. He arranges all of the compositions and tries very hard never to use the same vocalist on more than one AYREON record. His records have featured some of the greatest vocal and musical talents to be found anywhere in the world, in any genre of music. And somehow, he manages to make it all stick every time he crafts a record.
He is, without question, one of the most phenomenally talented musicians in the world today.
Every AYREON album, ever, has been a concept album revolving around some kind of story or theme. And every single AYREON album up until this one, with the sole exception of 1996's "Actual Fantasy", has involved some form of reference to the story of the Universal Migrator**. Every single record he has ever made with AYREON, from first to last, has been unique and mesmerising; they have been of varying quality, to be sure, but you can always find signs of his peculiar genius on every single one.
He reached the absolute peak of his powers with 2004's "The Human Equation", which at one point in my life came thisclose to knocking several IRON MAIDEN albums off the perch of "Greatest Album of All Time". (The fact that I would even consider typing what would otherwise be utter blasphemy, should tell you just how good he is.) The follow-up to that record, the absurdly-named "01011001" (which is binary for the letter "Y"), was not nearly as good, yet still boasted some truly amazing moments as he finally closed out the Universal Migrator storyline, which he had been working on for some 15 years.
Now at last we come to a totally new story, a totally new concept, and totally new singers. The story behind this record is of a young Prodigy, severely introverted and crippled by paranoid delusions, who also happens to be a mathematical savant. His Father is a brilliant, relentlessly driven mathematician striving desperately to solve the mysteries of creation by completing "the theory of everything"- a term that laymen use for a concept in physics known as a "grand unified theory" that unites all of the four fundamental forces into a single field. His Mother is a loving, kindly soul who wants only the best for her son and is alienated by her husband's relentless, obsessive search for the solution to the theory of everything. And the Prodigy himself is forced to deal with the pressures of a world that does not understand him, dealing with a Rival at school and the affections of a beautiful Girl who falls in love with him.
The story progresses through the usual grandiose- some would say overblown- musical stylings of any great rock opera. The Prodigy is discovered by a Teacher who wants to train his prodigious mathematical talent; eventually the Teacher persuades the Father to take an active interest in the Prodigy's development. The parents agree to see a Psychiatrist, who prescribes an experimental drug with potentially dangerous side effects. The Mother flatly refuses, but the Father, seeing his son's talent for what it is, secretly agrees to administer the drug to see what will happen.
The Prodigy's mathematical talents soon take off as the drug allows him to re-enter the world around him, making his Rival look pathetic in the process and winning over the heart of the Girl. Yet, soon, the side-effects of the drug start to kick in, and events spiral out of control. The Father, devastated, confesses his perfidy to the Mother and the Prodigy; both reject him utterly. The Prodigy, desperate for the drug that allows him to control his reality, turns to his Rival for help and agrees to hack a bank and steal money as payment for his services. The Girl, appalled by his lapse of judgement, rejects him in turn. The Teacher, sympathetic to the Prodigy's plight, takes him to an isolated lighthouse, where he can work in solitude on the theory of everything.
At some point during his time alone, he hallucinates and is visited by his Father, who repents his sins and asks his son to forgive him. Forgiveness granted, the two proceed to work through the night to solve the theory of everything. As day breaks, his mind spent and shattered, his body exhausted, the Prodigy writes a note to the Teacher and then collapses, surrounded by blackboards cluttered with dense, impenetrable mathematics.
Upon visiting, the Teacher is startled to find two sets of handwriting on the boards. Thinking that the Father must have visited at some point in the night, he is astounded to learn from the Mother that her husband hanged himself the previous night out of guilt and shame. Turning to the blackboards, the Teacher ponders the meaning of the writing and wonders just how long it will be before anyone can truly understand what has transpired...
This album is a significant step up from its predecessor. The six years spent on other projects in between have clearly been of significant benefit. Arjen has come back from that hiatus re-energised, happier, and ready to write great music again. The number of vocalists is much more manageable on this record than the last one. The instrumental work is simply astonishing. Ed Warby's drumming is, as always, phenomenal- the perfect combination of metronomic precision and mad bombast. The production is as crisp and clean and powerful as ever. And the rock opera style, which in lesser hands would just sound ridiculous, works brilliantly; somehow Arjen manages to chaperone the singers such that they never get boring.
Of particular note here is Tommy Karevik's incredible performance as The Prodigy. I've seen him sing live with KAMELOT, twice, and I'll say this for him- no matter how silly and over-the-top KAMELOT's music might be, the man can sing. He proves it, time and again, with this record, and if this album is any indication, he has a truly stellar career ahead of him as one of heavy metal's greatest voices.
This is not, however, a perfect record. There are a couple of major flaws with it that stop it from being the tour de force that "The Human Equation" was. First, there is the Rival's story. There just isn't any point to it; Marco Hietala's singing is amazing, which is to be expected from the man, but the character of the Rival just doesn't seem to have any use beyond providing a strained and artificial source of conflict. Second, the love story between the Prodigy and the Girl makes literally zero sense to me. It seems so... forced, so contrived somehow. And it also sort of just peters out at some point in the later stages of the album.
That said, there is still a lot to like on this album- and there is a lot to this album. At 90 minutes long, split into 4 parts that are further split up into a total of 42 individual songs, this is NOT an album that you can just jump into. You'll be grabbed immediately by its haunting melodies, its powerful riffs, its outstanding vocal performances- but you cannot just pick a point at random and start listening. You have to be patient with this record. You have to listen to it, several times, all the way through, before realising just what a phenomenal achievement it really is. It grows on you over time, gets inside your head, and makes you wonder at the sheer genius of its composer's mind.
In summary, if you like progressive music, power metal, or just great heavy music in general, this album is for you.
Didact's Verdict: 4.7/5, a couple of silly and annoying flaws here and there still cannot stop this from being perhaps the best record released in 2013.
* Floor Jansen is roughly my height, just shy of 6 feet tall, which makes her very tall for a woman. (Did I also mention that she's an amazing live performer?) Arjen Lucassen is damn near 6'6". What IS it about Dutch people being absurdly tall?
** It's too complicated to explain here, just go listen to "Into the Electric Castle" and both parts of the Universal Migrator record, "The Dream Sequencer" and "Flight of the Migrator".