A few years back when Guilt Machine released, Arjen Lucassen (of—deep breath—Ayreon, Star One, Arjen Lucassen, Guilt Machine, Galexia, Stream of Passion, Vengeance, Ambeon and a myriad of other projects I probably don’t even know exist) is reported to have said that if he’d had to do it over again, Ayreon would have sounded like Guilt Machine. Whether that was just talk in the build up for a new record or not, it appears that to a certain extent he meant it, as his new Lost in the New Real sounds like the combination of the two projects. On the one hand, Lost in the New Real is a concept record and (faux) double album, featuring the dulcet tones of Rutger Hauer as narrator and “psychologist,” like one would expect from an Ayreon record. However, like Guilt Machine, the record features primarily only one vocalist (Arjen himself), and the music is largely a post-Pink Floyd progressive rock heavy with atmospherics and sweet, but melancholic, melodies. As a fan of Guilt Machine and not of Ayreon, I can say that I was curious to see how this sort of combination would work and I was pleasantly surprised.
Musically, Lost in the New Real, isn’t really wandering too far afield for this prolific Dutchman. I think that anyone who is a fan of the man’s previous work will hear immediately who it is that has written this music. But what Lucassen seems to be going for here is a strange and very referential mix of melodic progressive rock with all of the music and culture (primarily American, but also English) that his little poofy-haired Dutch (cheese)head sucked up during his youth. Not counting the 5 covers on disc two, including of Led Zeppelin’s classic “Battle of Evermore,” the references to 60s and 70s rock are thick on this record, including “Pink Beatles in a Purple Zeppelin” and “When I’m a Hundred Sixty-Four,” but also “Where Pigs Fly,” is just filled with counterfactuals—many of them being quite specific to the American context over a jaunty folk sounding tune (“Elvis was a vegan / Dylan never got stoned,” etc.).
The other thing this is thick with what appears to be an older musician’s coping with the new world at his fingertips, if you will. References to downloading culture (“I remember the old days, on the digital seas / It was a time when pirates ruled the waves!”) in “E-Police,” conspiracy theories about controlling the world’s population in “Parental Procreation Permit” (this also has a main riff that is similar to Lucassen’s go-to-drummer Ed Warby’s mighty “In the Silent Grave” from Burden of Grief). He even goes so far as to reference the theories that Yellowstone holds a massive, deadly volcano on “Yellowstone Memorial Day.” And, on the second disc he works with the increasing individualization that the Internet allows in our social relations—specifically referring to the ability to start friendships “without obligation,” on “The Social Recluse.” I can only imagine this Lucassen drifting around the Internet sucking up this horribly frightening material and thinking “Ooo, dystopian concept album!”
And surprisingly enough, while this record threatens to get long at times at two CDs and 1 and a half hours, I actually really enjoyed both CDs quite a bit. Lucassen’s strength has always been his writing of melodies and use of instrumentation, and Lost in the New Real doesn’t disappoint even a little bit. Every song is built on catchy, pop-inspired melodies and choruses—though at times it does wander into heavier material or material that sounds like it could have been straight off the Guilt Machine record (specifically the title track “Lost in the New Real” and one of my favorite’s from the record “Our Imperfect Race” or the chorus on “So Is There No God?”). The covers (Pink Floyd, Blue Oyster Cult, Alan Parsons Project, Zeppelin and Zappa) fill out the second half, where Arjen said to me that he had music he just liked too much to not put on the CD, and they make a good counterpoint to Lucassen’s own material. I think the only song I didn’t like really at all was “I’m the Slime,” which is a Frank Zappa cover. Me and that guy never really have seen eye to eye.
Aside from the dated references, though—which make it hard for an album to age well, in my opinion—Lost in the New Real is a remarkably enjoyable prog rock record from one of the brightest musical minds of our generation. Lucassen’s output in the last few years has changed, but I think it’s improved with this album, Star One’s last one and Guilt Machine under his belt. Arjen seems to be moving into a golden age of self-reflection, and it seems to be doing wonders for his musical creations. Worth a purchase, just for Rutger Hauer’s fantastic voice, too. Man, that guy’s got a great voice.