Look, I know I’m late with this. I can hardly swing reviews these days and Arjen didn’t pull any punches with The Source. In fact, our Poofy-Haired Dutchman™ didn’t even do me a solid by making The Source a sequel to The Theory of Everything, an album I adored. Rather, he made it a prequel to 2004’s 01011001 (that’s “Y” for those of you who aren’t computers), an album that I’d spent precious little time with. What’s weird about that, is that 01011001 is probably his least popular album aside from Into the Electric Castle. When I went back to listen to it, I have to admit that I agree. So I was perplexed by the choice to write a prequel to it. But Arjen’s mind works in mysterious ways, which is why I have come to love his music so much. So, despite a history of prequels being horrible pieces of shit that not even a mother can love, Arjen gets better with age and I needed to give it a chance.
The Source, if I’m understanding it correctly, is a story about the Alphans—who are the ancestors of humans? (I’ve never been clear on this point)—leaving their world for a new one (hint: Planet Y) because a rogue AI has decided that the best way to cope with planet’s problems is to kill everyone. This sets the stage for an epic musical journey in four parts, with the individuals discovering the problem (Chronicle 1: The Frame), leaving the world (Chronicle 2: The Aligning of the Ten), getting to the new world and getting injected with Liquid Eternity (Chronicle 3: The Transmigration), and the last one, which I won’t spoil (Chronicle 4: The Rebirth). The story is OK, though unlike its predecessor, there’s not quite a human story to follow in the same way. In fact, the most interesting character in the whole thing is TH-1, but a robot’s character growth isn’t necessarily the high bar for development.
Musically speaking, the record feels oddly familiar. All composers have a voice, but The Source feels almost intentionally like Arjen is quoting himself. For example, in “The Deathcry of our Race,” there’s a riff I could swear is from The Gentle Storm. There are moments early on in the album that remind me of The Theory of Everything, while some of The Chemist’s (Between the Buried and Me‘s Tommy Rogers) parts remind me of Arjen’s solo album. And in comparison to its predecessor, The Source is a lot more linear, lacking the recapitulation and themes which worked so well on that record. This hardly means that the music isn’t strong and interesting—and some of the heaviest material Arjen has produced in a good, long while—and he nails hooky melodies like only Arjen can do.
The Source, however, demonstrates what I think may be Lucassen’s greatest, unheralded strength: voice direction. He does such a good job of choosing voices for what they do best, and by doing so he makes me like voices that I’ve never enjoyed. James “Just Ran up the Stairs” Labrie (The Historian) has almost single-handedly made Dream Theater unlistenable for me,1 but I have always liked him on softer material. This is, not coincidentally, what Arjen almost exclusively uses him for. On the other hand, unlike her actual band Nightwish, Floor Jansen (The Biologist) gets some room to show off her enormous pipes throughout the album.2 While Symphony X‘s Russel Allen (The President) is all gruff and rock n’ roll, but Arjen never lets him do his New Jersey nü metal routine.
The voices do a great job of complementing the great music. The Source peaks when it seems like Lucassen isn’t taking himself too seriously. My favorite songs on the album are probably “Everybody Dies,” which features some rare Tommy Rogers growling, but also cues for jazz hands and is surprisingly cheerful for a song with that name. I also love “Run! Apocalypse! Run!” which, aside from having the funniest chorus imaginable (you don’t exactly run from the apocalypse…), sits alongside “Deathcry of a Race” as some of the heaviest Ayreon material that I can remember. Another highlight is when The Robot—voiced by Toehider‘s amazing Mike Mills—hat/tips The Beatles (and Arjen’s solo album) on “Bay of Dreams”: “Will you still be needing me? Will you still be feeding me? Will you still be heeding me? Will you still let me serve when you mutate into the species roaming these oceans? Or will I be disengaged?”
Still, in spite of these high points, Ayreon albums need an outstanding lyricist. I don’t mean a good one—the lyrics for The Source work well—but Arjen needs a heavy metal Howard Ashman. I can’t help but feel the whole “prog/power musical” idea would be taken up a notch with a lyricist who knows how to really turn a phrase.3 This, combined with the fact that the Ayreon stories—actually, excepting The Theory of Everything—seem to be very much of the “X happens and people do Y,” as opposed to engaging in character growth always leaves me a bit cold. The Robot is really the only character who seems to develop in this whole story, so maybe this is his story? Regardless, I just feel like when I start to engage in the lyrics intellectually, I am left a bit frustrated.
But why hold Arjen to a standard that I don’t hold anyone else to? I do, indeed, love Sonata Arctica, and no one’s ever accused Tony Kakko of being a good lyricist. For me, The Source is still a great piece of work by a guy whose tone and writing I continue to love as it develops. The music is catchy and engaging, and the entire cast delivers beautiful vocal performances. If I’m honest, being on one of these records has become a bucket list thing for me and I need to figure out who to bribe in order to get it done. Let me start by highly recommending that you buy 14 copies of The Source. There’s a 4 CD earbook version! And it’s really just that good!
DR: 8 | Format Reviewed: v0 mp3
Label: Mascot Records
Release Dates: You shut the hell up!
- Cue freakout in the comments in 3, 2, 1…. ↩
- Remind me again why Nightwish hired her to chain her to the floor? ↩
- You may laugh that I reference Howard Ashman. But that guy had some amazing lyrics—check out Little Shop of Horrors or Beauty and the Beast. Both of them have tongue-twisting, hilarious and witty lyrics which anyone writing something theatrical should envy. ↩