Ayreon – Transitus Review

There’s nobody quite like Arjen Anthony Lucassen. Sure, Tobias Sammet of Avantasia is the other big metal opera guy, but he can’t match Arjen for variety or quality. Besides the prog/power sound of Ayreon‘s core albums, his other successes include the gorgeous classical instrumentation of The Gentle Storm, the mopey Porcupine Tree prog of Guilt Machine, and more. Transitus, though an Ayreon album, is pretty light on metal sensibilities. It has an 1880s setting which unashamedly leans on Victorian Gothic horror. Appropriately, it makes heavy use of classical instrumentation alongside the guitars and synths. This makes it the most Broadwayesque of a body of work that’s already often metalized Broadway.

Fortunately, the strength of Arjen’s songwriting and direction of the guest cast is as on display as ever on Transitus. As with The Theory of Everything, recurrent themes and character motifs tie the album together. These tend to worm their way inside your head with repeated listens. Unlike that record’s very classical structure though, it remains a series of defined songs, reinforcing the Broadway feel. This continues with some particularly good use of reprises (“Condemned Without a Trial”/”She is Innocent,” “Listen to My Story”/”Your Story is Over!”). Arjen continues to sound like Arjen. The melodies are frequently immediately identifiable as his, just in a symphonic prog rock setting this time, while avoiding (narrowly at times) actual self-quotation. The cast is, of course, great, and as usual, Arjen manages to emphasize each singer’s voice and strengths. The duet and ensemble pieces are particularly solid (“Talk of the Town,” “Hopelessly Slipping Away”). The brilliant Cammie Gilbert (Oceans of Slumber) steals the show as Abby, starring opposite Tommy Karevik (Kamelot) as Daniel.

Much like Arjen’s solo album Lost in the New RealTransitus has a narrator. Tom Baker (Doctor Who) is excellent and does a sterling job selling the narration. His presence definitely helps move the story along. However, there is a lot of it. With 22 tracks and narration on all of them, the narrator can at times get in the way of the music. The story describes rich white scion Daniel falling in love with one of the family’s black servants, Abby. The family disapproves and everything goes terribly wrong. This is fairly challenging territory, especially given Arjen’s general lack of lyrical subtlety.1 Unfortunately, Abby is largely a passive character to whom things happen. Daniel has far more agency despite his death in the first song (spoilers). He gets more lines too (also a shame given how good Gilbert is). Only Abby’s stepmother Lavinia (played well by Amanda Somerville) gets anything resembling character development. It’s all a bit tonally awkward, with the Broadway/campy B-movie Ayreon feel of the music clashing with a tragic storyline that’s delivered pretty straightforwardly. Particular offenders here include the silly “Dumb Piece of Rock” (which seems to be mostly an excuse to cram the admittedly great Mike Mills (Toehider) in), regular use of spookitus Latin chanting (“Fatum Horrificum,” “The Great Beyond,” etc.), and more awkwardly on-the-nose lyrics (Simone Simons’ (Epica) otherwise very good Angel of Death is particularly prone to this, but it affects everybody).

Transitus sounds good and balances its classical and modern instruments and large vocal cast well—no mean feat. Given The Gentle Storm‘s success, I do wonder if it could have leaned further into the classical instrumentation. Transitus lacks the metal bite of most other Ayreon albums or the very identifiable sonic palette of, say, The Theory of Everything. This means its choice of instrumentation can at times sound a little bland. The guitar solos by famous guitarists (Joe Satriani, Marty Friedman) then end up a little forced. The cast and writing are strong enough that this isn’t a huge problem, but it does hold it back from quite hitting the highs of some of his other work.

This review has been fairly challenging to score, and I’ve definitely spent quite a lot of it kvetching. If you haven’t been converted to Arjen’s music in the course of the last decade of stellar albums, this isn’t going to change your mind. Transitus exhibits Arjen’s flaws as a writer as well as it does his strengths. As with many of his pieces though, it’s definitely a grower. The more time I spend with it the more often I find myself with, say, the Angel of Death’s motif or the main Transitus theme stuck in my head, and the less I mind when it starts to feel too much like Doctor Who on Broadway.2 The album is full of excellent performances, and I’ll eagerly listen to anything Cammie Gilbert sings. If you like Arjen’s style and songwriting and aren’t put off by the lyrics and story or ancillary things like the omnipresent narration, you’ll find a lot to like here.

Rating: 3.5/5.0
DR: 9 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Music Theories Recordings
Websites: arjenlucassen.com | facebook.com/arjenlucassenofficial
Releases Worldwide: September 25th, 2020

Show 2 footnotes

  1. Likewise, for example, The Theory of Everything‘s treatment of its neurodivergent lead character was somewhat questionable.
  2. Which I would totally watch, by the way.
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