AYREON: ACTUAL FANTASY (1996)
1) Actual Fantasy; 2) Abbey Of Synn; 3) The Stranger From Within; 4) Computer Eyes; 5) Beyond The Last Horizon; 6) Farside Of The World; 7) Back On Planet Earth; 8) Forevermore; 9) The Dawn Of Man*.
Lucassen's sophomore release is probably his least known of all, since it is highly atypical of the man's usual formula. It is not a single-concept «rock opera», but a conglomeration of separate songs, only loosely tied up with a general conceptual framework of the past, present, and future mysteries of the universe. It is much more heavily based on electronics than the rest of his albums (and a new, completely re-recorded version, called Actual Fantasy Revisited and released in 2004, continued and deepened that trend). And it only features the barest minimum of guest stars: two or three vocalists, a lonesome violin player (Floortje Schilt), a couple stray keyboardists, and Ayreon himself providing most of the instrumentation. And, in its original form, it only runs for about 55 minutes — ridiculously short for a guy who would, since then, strictly follow the law: «If it ain't on 2 CDs, it ain't worth a green goblin's crap».
That said, when it comes down to the actual content, the album is no less fun than its predecessor, and in some ways is actually a huge improvement — particularly in the songwriting department. Without being constrained by the needs of operatic storytelling, Lucassen can afford to invest more effort into the search for hard-hitting, if not exactly stunning, musical themes, and present them in a less campy manner (not a «non-campy» manner, mind you, but the lyrics are generally less inane and the vocal deliveries refrain from extra pomposity).
ʽThe Stranger From Withinʼ, in particular, is a fine and dandy piece of lite prog-metal: rhythmic, catchy, with a good balance between the electronic effects and the electric and acoustic guitar soup, and gradually building up towards a surprisingly ferocious climax, where a quasi-Metallica «terror riff» pops out of the ground at 6:18 into the song and very soon blows it up from within. (For some reason, the coda was not made part of the shortened single version — that's the best part of the song, you silly Dutch minstrel!).
Length is generally a problem, of course: Arjen-Aryon presumably deems it an insult both to his understanding of Art and to his slowly growing squad of fans to record anything under six minutes. On the other hand, these are prog epics, and they need to take the time to slowly come together out of the blue, get fleshed out, develop some dynamics... so I wouldn't really presume to use the term «padded» without reservations. It isn't always done well, but that is a different problem — whether we are ready to accept the derivative nature of these works or not.
As I said, the basic themes of the songs are strong foundations, guaranteeing memorability and, perhaps, even a little bit of emotion from repeated listenings — be it the spirit-raising synth fanfares of ʽAbbey Of Synnʼ, the robotic funk-metal riffage of ʽComputer Eyesʼ, the folk-rock chorus melody of ʽBeyond The Last Horizonʼ (that one brings to mind Mike Oldfield in his «pop» days), or the looped Vivaldian violin-led coda of ʽForevermoreʼ. Structurally, however, all of these bits are rather plain and straightforward — I would hardly expect anything but contempt here on the part of hardcore prog fans, and would certainly refrain from praising them as marvels of contemporary songwriting. But compared to tons of other «neo-prog» records that try to battle lack of genius with studious intelligence, Actual Fantasy is, at the very least, not as overtly boring, and the hooks grow hookier with each new listen.
In the end, I give the album a thumbs up. It is honest (the «real thing» for Lucassen himself, at the very least), far from monotonous (the balance between electronics, metal, folk, classical, and psychedelia is very even, almost calculated, I'd say), and does not really contain one single moment worthy of the proverbial cringe reaction (mainly because the vocalists are so wonderfully restrained most of the time, and even for pathetic climaxes, prefer the simple «folk» mode to «mock-opera»). And the arrangements are certainly far from trivial: I believe that the way in which all the electronics are integrated with live instruments commands respect, regardless of how crude one might or might not find the major musical themes. But yeah, this is still fantasy-based neo-prog, and much of it still sounds silly, so it's not as if I didn't warn you.