Ayreon - The Theory of EverythingOf all of Arjen Lucassen’s projects, Ayreon is his best known and my least favorite. Having previously given both The Human Equation and 01011001 a shot, Ayreon really was a nut I couldn’t crack. Partially this is because I think the rock opera genre of power/prog metal bands à la Avantasia or Timo Tolkki’s Horrible, Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Avalon tend to lack vision; but the writers also lack the kind of talent necessary that make undertakings like Jesus Christ Superstar or Little Shop of Horrors fun and interesting1. However, since 2009, I’ve developed quite a love affair with Arjen’s music. So it was with this love of Arjen’s style and artistic sensibilities that I started listening to The Theory of Everything.

At first, my initial negative estimation of the project was confirmed. The music flowed well and reminded me of Guilt Machine and Lost in the New Real quite a bit, but there were no hooks. Instead of being drawn in by the music, the first thing that stood out to me about The Theory of Everything was the lyrics. Unfortunately, those lyrics made me cringe. As I listened, I noticed that Tarot-frontman Marco Hietala was really getting shafted with lines like: “Don’t believe him now / He’s envious / I’ve felt it from the start / I’ve always been the genius / And he just wants to be like me” and “Oh no, I can’t believe you’re falling for this loser / Oh no, I thought you knew that I am so much cooler” from “The Teacher’s Discovery” and “Love and Envy,” respectively. These lyrical sore spots stood out as I listened to the record repeatedly. After lyrics like “If he could concentrate he could help me / he might even be of some use” and “I have to confess, it’s experimental / Still running through the tests / The side-effects could include extreeeme delusions!2” from “Diagnosis,” I was pretty convinced that TToE was going to be a big loss for me. Apparently Arjen had used his lyric-writing hammer to craft this album3.

Arjen Lucassen 2013But a funny thing happened on the way to trashing this album: I kept hearing stuff I liked. Repeated themes started creeping under my skin and vocal performances started to stick. Arjen’s choice in musicians and—especially—vocalists makes TToE a special record. The main character, The Prodigy, is played by Tommy Karevik and he’s good, but the supporting cast is even better. Aforementioned Nightwish bassist/vocalist Marco shines as The Rival (regardless of content), while JB from Grand Magus delivers an equally fine performance as The Teacher. Cristina Scabbia (Lacuna Coil) is convincing and evocative as The (Prodigy’s) Mother. But for me, the heights are Michael Mills from proggers Toefinder Toehider, whose voice is incredible and performance is on par with Ian Gillan’s rendition of Jesus in Jesus Christ SuperstarJohn Wetton (Asia, and like every great English prog band ever) is brilliant in his role as The Pyschiatrist — and offers a nice dose of non-tenor male vocals with his so-damned-rock n’ roll voice. Finally, Sara Squandrani from Italian cheeseballers Ancient Bards also really delivers a top notch performance and has a voice I hope to hear elsewhere again. All of this without mentioning the all-star cast of musicians involved (Rudess, Warby, Wakeman, Hacket, Emerson, and that guy who plays flutes for Nightwish now).

This combination of Arjen’s unique writing style and these virtuoso performances makes for a remarkably enjoyable listening experience as the themes and the flow of the record start to really sink in. The Theory of Everything is essentially two 45 minute songs, and the scenes are laid out with musical interludes in between. These short pieces form sometimes what feel like whole songs (“Alive!” flows right into “The Prediction” for one of the heights of the record, for example), and sometimes they feel very separate on their own (“Progressive Waves” is dedicated to ’70s prog with copious references to Jethro TullYes, Rush, and Camel). The tracks can also be similar to intermezzi (like “The Parting” or “Inertia”). The music feels very “Arjen”—almost bordering on self-quotation at times—while evoking a lot more prog than I recall earlier Ayreon records to be. There are moments when Lucassen’s heavier side breaks through, but most of this material is rooted in hard rock and more complex art rock, to great effect.

Once the threshold was crossed, The Theory of Everything was addictive. Despite the occasionally embarrassing vocal parts, I started listening to the album non-stop. On the way to work, when I was doing Angry Metal Housework™ or working out, I was constantly listening to The Theory of Everything. Musically it’s so engaging, and patience with it is incredibly rewarding. Hearing the themes repeat in “The Prodigy’s World,” and “Inertia,” or in “The Argument 1” and “The Argument 2” or the “Theory of Everything” tracks makes the album feel a lot more like a classical piece of music than a rock n’ roll record. In fact, the special edition of the album has the tracks without vocals and I would definitely be interested in hearing this, as I’ll bet it would be equally as entertaining in its own right.

Arjen Lucassen

On the negative side, however, two major things stand out. First, there’s a lot more “intermezzi” than arias, which leads to a problem for some listeners. One of the biggest complaints I’ve heard about the record is that Arjen needed to “cut out the filler.” This critique is essentially—as I interpret it—that there are no traditional songs on this album and people aren’t really sure what to do with themes and intermezzi. The Theory of Everything isn’t accessible, despite Arjen’s amazing melodies and writing. In my experience, however, this is just about time and familiarity; with time, you start to become familiar with the contours of the record and it’s very giving. Second, while music trumps lyrics, the story on this thing bugs me for a couple of reasons and is really interesting for others. I’m going to get into that into a review aimed specifically at the story at a following date.

For the discriminating progger, however, The Theory of Everything is a triumph. The writing is stellar, the performances are unworldly (Michael Mills!), and the feel is perfect. Arjen’s production is always excellent, though in my opinion it could probably have been even more dynamic with less compression. If you’re a fan of prog or a fan of Arjen, this record is definitely one for you. Have some patience, give it some time. It’ll grow—and when it finally sets down roots, it’s a keeper.

Rating: 4.5/Guilt Machine
Label: InsideOut
Release Dates: US: 10.29.2013 | EU: 2013.10.22
Websites: arjenlucassen.comfacebook.com/arjenlucassenofficial

Show 3 footnotes

  1. What I’m saying is: Tobias Sammet is no Andrew Lloyd Weber, and he never will be. Kids who were brought up listening to rock and metal and who aren’t classically trained or who haven’t spent a lot of time working in the genre are often simply not prepared for the task of actually writing something as giving and intellectually challenging as an opera or a musical. Throw in that lyrics are hard to do (and that everyone writing this stuff is ESL), and you’re simply asking for trouble.
  2. As opposed to… a mild psychosis?
  3. Subtle as a truck. Though, to be fair, writing dialogue is hard and making it work with music is even harder, so I get it. But… it doesn’t change how it sounds.
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  • Mike Eckman

    I am a life long Ayreon fan and I think this is an excellent review. I first became aware of Arjen around the time that the Dream Sequencer / Flight of the Migrator albums came out (before they were packaged as a double album).

    As the years went on, I started to lose interest. 010101010011200100120138013 or whatever it was called, and the Human Equation were good, but lacking that “special” sound that was present on the previous albums.

    Rather than continue to ramble on about my love affair for Arjen’s music, for those of you who are only aware of their most recent albums, I emplore you to check out the older Ayreon stuff. Specifically “Into the Electric Castle” which I consider to be one of the best prog metal albums of all time.

    Even the first two albums “Actual Fantasy” and “The Final Experiment” were genius, at a time when underground progressive metal was in its infancy. Seriously, how many great metal albums from 1995 can you name?

    I never get tired of hearing the older Ayreon stuff, and I’ll say that there are things to like about all of his albums, including this new one, but when I get the urge to hear his music, I’ll go for any of the first 5 albums rather than anything released after 2001.

    • Angel of Deaf

      Well, in answer to “how many great metal albums from 1995 can you name?” there’s actually quite a few in my honest opinion.

      You got: “Gamma Ray’s Land of the Free I” – “Death’s Symbolic” – “Iced Earth’s Burnt Offerings” – “Symphony X The Damnation Game” – “Blind Guardian’s Imaginations from the Other Side” – “Moonspell’s Wolfheart” – “Suffocation’s – Pierced from Within”…

      And those are the ones that i know, i’m sure there are more great albums from other bands.

      And, if you want me to be brutally honest, pretty much all ayreon’s albums kind of fall short but, that’s just my personal opinion.

      • Hell yeah. Aside from the comment about Ayreon, I completely agree. The mid-90s were an excellent time for underground metal. I’d say metal went into a bit of a “renaissance” when it got killed by grunge in the popular media.

    • Oh man, the mid-90s is actually a fantastic time for metal. The Swedish and Norwegian scenes were in full swing, producing some of my favorite material ever in that time.

      Examples: Windir – Det gamle riket; Theatre of Tragedy – S/T; Storm – Nordavind; Naglfar – Vittra; Morbid Angel – Domination; Katatonia – For Funerals to Come; Borknagar – S/T; Blind Guardian – Imaginations from the Other Side; At The Gates – Slaughter of the Soul; Ulver – Bergtatt; Samael – Ceremony of Opposites; Opeth – Orchid.

      • Angel of Deaf

        Damn… i haven’t heard almost any of these albums! I have so much to explore yet…

  • Robotron2084

    Great review. I love the music but I am still trying to get past some of the lyrics. There are some moments I still cringe but it really does grow on you over time.

    I usually order everything Arjen releases so I again purchased the full meal deal and I can tell you that the instrumental discs are good but you really do miss the vocal tracks.

    Tull always seems to shine through on most of Arjen’s work in my ears but on this record there were some old ideas and some new ones as well (like Sweet….should I admit that?). It is never a boring experience listening to his work since he has an amazing musical history woven into his character.

    I don’t know why people dislike 01 so much. Sure the lyrics can wane (I’ll never understand liberal politician worship) but musically it really comes together for me. Not really a fan of the Castle, but damn Guilt Machine is awesome (and I really do enjoy Arjen’s rendition of Arnold Layne)…..and I do believe Arjen has surpassed JCS already, but then that is again just my opinion.

    You are right about one thing it is hard to limit yourself when writing about his work which speaks volumes about what he has created here. Thanks for this place. Without it I would have missed out on a great many musicians. It’s no nice to see reviews that don’t rely on ego or coolness…..Oh no, I can’t believe….that word is now forever changed.

  • Stefano Kevin Prince Vitali

    As I wrote on Facebook, amazing review for an amazing record. The lyrics are one part fascinating, one part cringe-inducing. Sort of a Narm Charm (try to google it =P). The music is an orgasmic rollercoaster of unbelievable vocal lines (Michael Mills, who the heck are you? Where do you come from? Why aren’t you hailed as one of the top ten living rock singers?), everchanging themes that flow from a flash of genius to a rock groove to the comfortable territory of a folk melody to a bumpy prog ride. It’s not perfect, it’s not easy to get into, but when it comes back to you as a whole, it’s overwhelming, and you can’t stop listening to it. This is the kind of sensation that the Album Of The Year usually givesyou, and yes, it is THAT good.

  • Angel of Deaf

    I’m gonna be honest, i always thought ayreon albums sucked monkey balls… Some great songs here and there but nothing really special.

    The theory of everything was a very pleasant surprise and to be even more brutally honest, it’s great to get “less accessible” records as opposed to the standard formula of music. It’s a different experience and i think that it’s a really well executed one. Not like the new boring (IMO) Rhapsody album…

    Great review AMG, stay strong! :D

  • Anon Bananon

    So far, my experience has been that of the first two paragraphs of this review. The performances of the vocalists certainly are amazing, but the occasionally cringe-inducing lyrics have prevented me from fully focusing on the music that carries them (and that comes from someone who owns the majority of the Rhapsody (of Fire) discography).

    I never really had this problem with Ayreon before. He may not be the most subtle of lyricists, but I’ve found that strangely liberating. As a comparison, a lot of modern prog (or tech-death, for that matter) metal bands border on the pretentious in that department. What bothers me here though, is this whole “unknown genius with some kind of autism/ADD” stereotype worship. It’s been done before, and while I find it rather cheesy in it’s own right, the additional lack of subtlety magnifies this problem.

    This review gives me hope, however, that there is more to find in this record if I just work on suppressing that cringe reflex. It should be possible, considering the amount of magical unicorn riding legendary ice warriors with emerald swords of pure elvish emotion that I’ve managed to stomach over the years.

  • Christofer

    Into the Electric Castle and the one and only Guilt Machine-album conquers all! Ayreon never topped ITEC and still stands as the crownjewel in the Ayreon-discography. I might check this new one out but ever since that snoozefest 011010101001 came out I have lost interest in all things Ayreon.

    • sathriel

      That is all a matter of taste. Some people love Into the Electric Castle yet other prefer The Human Equation. The Guilt Machine is great but so is Star One so there.

  • Zadion

    I’ve heard a lot of criticisms thrown towards Ayreon’s concept over the years, and I honestly don’t understand any of them. I find Ayreon’s overall concept to be thrilling and a testament to his creative power – not just ANYONE could write a complex story spanning his entire discography the way he does, even if the execution (AKA the actual lyrics) is a little shaky at times.

    That said, I heard The Theory of Everything starts a new story so I know nothing about that yet. I’m definitely looking forward to your review on that, though, and it’s great to hear the album is a keeper. I loved 01011001, so hopefully I’ll love this too.

  • i rahter prefer instrumental version of this album…

  • Grbby

    I agree completely with this review. I love everything Arjen does, but sometimes I wonder what his music would be like if he partnered with somebody critical. Sometimes it is just too, well… too Arjen.

  • I love the music, but the lyrics really kill it for me. It’s like a high school musical.

    • Zacra

      Pretty much why I haven’t bought it.

  • This is a great review of a great album. Thank you, AMG.

    I’m a big Arjen fan, I like everything that he has done. I think he really changed things up with this one. I wasn’t crazy about it at first but after a few listens it started growing on me. After that I couldn’t get it out of my head and I’ve probably played this album like 30 times already.

    I found the choice of theme refreshing. That being said I did find myself missing the old topics of human extinction, creation, loss of emotion, space madness, the future, etc. to me that stuff is just… so much cooler. This album kind of focuses on a more personal drama and it’s hard for that to match the epicness of previous albums.

    We don’t really hear what happens after Theory of Everything is solved. This would be very interesting and I hope that the next album addresses that.

    The lyrics are totally cringe worthy at points but isn’t that par for the course for a rock opera? I listen to these albums knowing I am in for some cheesy tales. They do sound great, and they are very catchy. I guess this is where he would need to improve though, it seems to be breaking immersion for a lot of people.

    AMG, I too would really recommend giving all the albums before Human Equation a listen.

  • sathriel

    Happy to read this review. As I love 01… reading the positive thoughts of AMG makes me sure I will probably love The Theory… I am glad that Arjen managed to sway you, AMG, because I know that before Guilt Machine and his last solo outing you were at most lukewarm in your reception of his work.

    • I really was quite negative towards his work. I have seen the light.

  • sathriel

    Oh, and one more thing on Footnote 2: Nitpicking much?, AMG Extreme delusion as opposed to minor delusion maybe? Or you don’t see a difference between hearing brids’ voices where there are none and believing that there is an alien creature in your vein that you need to get out before it kills you.

    • He didn’t actually mean “delusions,” he meant “a psychosis” which is what they call it later on.

      The OED has Delusion as: “1. The act of deluding; the condition of being deluded. 2. The action of befooling with false impressions or beliefs; the fact and condition of being cheated and led to believe what is false. 3. Anything that deceives the mind with false impressions; […] a mental derangement.”

      The thing is that in terms of grades, “delusions” don’t come in “minor” and “major.” Even a slight psychosis is a terrifying and horrible experience for everyone involved. “Extreme delusions” is just an overstatement, and—this is probably nitpicky—something a psychiatrist would certainly never say.

      Still, that’s one of my favorite parts of the album. I laugh every time, but I enjoy that song immensely.

      • sathriel

        Yeah, psychiatrist would not but the artist plays with the word and hyperboles and overstatements are his bread and butter. Really looking forward to hearing the album, itshould be here soon.

  • HohenheimOL

    Frankly,the only thing about the lyrics that bothers me is that the album expects you to listen to them in the first place. The delivery is what kills me. These people are clearly ESL and, barring JB, most of them sound about on par with Luca Turilli in terms of their understanding of etymology. Straight up, this album is like Ascending to Infinity with constant narration. I’m baffled by how it manages to stay listenable.

  • Michael Mills

    Dude, thanks for the compliments!

    -Mike, Toehider

    • LOL. I realized i called your band “Toefinder.” I’ve now decided I’m starting the band Toefinder, which is going to be your band’s archnemesis.

      I want to say, man, when I said that you were on par with Ian Gillan’s performance as Jesus in JC Superstar, that is one of the highest compliments I can give. Fucking Ian Gillan man. You have an incredible voice, and I will be checking out your band posthaste.

      • sathriel

        Haha, yeah, I was wondering about the band’s name. That explains the mystery I guess :D

  • OzanCan

    So Star One effort sounds better? No?

  • Feytalist

    I’ve also never been able to get into Ayreon. The amount of talent Arjen puts on his albums is undeniable, but it’s never really come together for me. I do love me some Avantasia though, specifically The Metal Opera, so maybe it’s just a change of taste thing.

    I’m always up for giving bands a second or third listen though. Maybe this is the time Ayreon sticks.

  • brutal_sushi

    Great review… but the score/Guilt Machine is the best part…

  • Fritz

    This is the best review of this album out there. Nicely written and I share your opinion 100%.
    You should compare the sound of this one to the mxing of 01011001. Having Brett Caldas-Lima produce this album changed a lot; in a good or a bad way is a matter of opinion…

  • lrn2swim

    Hello from the future!! It’s really great, just the best. Here in the USA we have a fuzzy orange buffoon leading a bunch of angry and afraid war mongering fact fearing nature hating luddites. A perfect time for you to revisit the Ayreon album 01011001 as it’s story line is apparently were we are heading. Now that you’ve caught the Arjen bug, I think you will find that you love it now. IMO it’s much superior to Theory of Everything. You planning on reviewing the new album, The Source when it comes out? I’m happy to say that I’ve had the opportunity to listen in it’s entirety with headphones and think it’s his crowning achievement, possibly one of the best rock/metal/prog albums ever made, no hyperbole. Interested to hear your take.

    Oh and Michael Mills, if you read this, I can’t even comprehend how awesome your vocals are on the new album. Turns my brain into shit. Great job!