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Saturday, December 22, 2012

Ayreon: The Final Experiment


AYREON: THE FINAL EXPERIMENT (1995)

1) Prologue; 2) The Awareness; 3) Eyes Of Time; 4) The Banishment; 5) Ye Courtyard Minstrel Boy; 6) Sail Away To Avalon; 7) Nature's Dance; 8) Computer-Reign (Game Over); 9) Waracle; 10) Listen To The Waves; 11) Magic Ride; 12) Merlin's Will; 13) The Charm Of The Seer; 14) Swan Song; 15) Ayreon's Fate.

Everybody get out your cheese forks, the fondue is steaming hot and waiting for you. Meet Arjen An­thony Lucassen, «Aryon» for short, a long-haired, mind-twisted Dutch guy who spent so much time reading Ursula Le Guin, playing Dungeons & Dragons, and listening to Eloy and Hawkwind that one actually wonders how in the world did he have any left to learn to play his instruments, or compose his mega-epics.

Actually, before going solo, he'd spent a whole decade playing in a metal band called Vengeance, which never managed to achieve success, but gave him time to hone his chops and understand that heaviness for heaviness' sake was simply not his thing. His thing, apparently, was to explore the corny side of progressive rock — finish the dubious task of merging symphonic rock with pocketbook fantasy, something that early Uriah Heep and early Rush were so deep into, but even­tually decided to advance to a more «serious» level. Fuck them pretentious, obscurantist creeps, Arjen Anthony Lucassen said: I am getting into this the right way, and I am never getting out of this once I'm in. Pledging complete allegiance and loyalty to wizards, unicorns, and damsels fair.

The Final Experiment, recorded in 1995 with approximately a dozen guest vocalists and a dozen session players (mostly little-known Dutch musicians), was formally credited to «Arjen Lucas­sen»: «Ayreon» was the name of the rock opera's protagonist, with whom Lucassen empathized so much he ended up borrowing his name for the rest of his life. The album was rejected by seve­ral record labels — «unicorn bands are on their way out», so they said — but Ayreon persisted in a most medieval way, eventually got what he wanted, and the world has never been the same ever since. Now let me quote:

This is the voice of Merlin. Listen well, for it concerns you. This chronicle commences in the year 2084 A.D. Mankind has virtually destroyed itself. Its survival depends on The Final Experi­ment. Scientists from the 21st century have developed a new computer program called ʽTime Te­lepathyʼ. By using this technique they have sent visions of humanity's decline back in time. These transmissions have been received by the mind of a blind minstrel who lives in 6th century Great Britain. His name is Ayreon... It shall be Ayreon's quest to sing of these visions and thus warn the world of its impending downfall in order to change its future into a long and prosperous one...

...okay, you get the drift already. Now the important thing here is neither make the mistake of trying to take it too seriously nor immediately laughing it off without giving it a decent chance. The concept itself, per se, is neither good nor bad; it is frequently dragged down by primitive ly­rics (Merlin: "Ayreon, you are an evil stranger / Ayreon, you have become a danger / Your words are all but a lie / I vow that ye shall die"), but the lyrics are entirely secondary here: Lucassen is primarily a composer. It could have helped, probably, if he'd spent some of the money wasted on guest stars to hire a proper English librettist.

The music, though, is surprisingly not bad. The emphasis is on a rich, diverse, fully fleshed-out sound — well, as fully fleshed-out as it can be when your budget is sort of stretched and you can­not allow yourself a decent orchestra. But in addition to synthesizers, where Lucassen comes ac­ross as a diligent, if not particularly gifted, disciple of Wakeman, there are acoustic and electric guitars, pianos, cellos, flutes, woodwinds — definitely a far cry from the monotonous «art metal» sound of bands like Queensryche. And, most importantly, the guy knows how to use them for proper atmospheric purposes.

All the melodies are strictly traditional. There is the expected medieval folk (ʽThe Awarenessʼ; ʽYe Courtyard Minstrel Boyʼ — sheesh!); the ʽKashmirʼ-ian mid-Eastern vibe (ʽEyes Of Timeʼ); the synthesized horn-dominated progressive anthem (ʽSail Away To Avalonʼ); the melodramatic rock opera flash with guitar pyrotechnics (ʽWaracleʼ); even a multi-part prog-rock suite going from soft acoustic to fast'n'furious rocking bits (ʽThe Banishmentʼ) — Lucassen is being quite honest with you: he is not pushing forward any boundaries or making any bold statements, just trying to put his own stamp on a whole musical direction that he clearly adores. Even the «pom­pous» message seems more like an honorary tribute to Rush than a genuine attempt on the part of «Ayreon» to warn his listeners of the impending doom.

And some of these melodies are quite good, really: at the very least, any fan of the whole «neo-prog» schtick should try this out — they are not nearly as complex as, say, anything by Ängla­gård, but they are generally catchier, and they all make sense within the story, as silly as the story might be. Nothing on an Ayreon album can be emotionally «gripping» for me (I can be moved by parts of Lord of the Rings, for sure, but it takes a certified Professor of English Language And Li­te­rature to achieve that effect; Arjen Lucassen is nowhere near as well-trained), but much can be curious and intriguing. It is all a bunch of high-quality B-level trashy fun. Some of the singers, including «Ayreon» himself, tend to oversing, but we are not dealing with twenty-four-hour-a-day operatic bombast here — the vocal parts are as diverse as the melodies.

The production is far from ideal: there is too much echo, too many electronic effects on the drums (sometimes drum machines are used altogether), and the synth-strings and synth-horns are way too strongly associated with washed-up art-rock dinosaurs so as not to sound seriously dated to­day. But there was probably no alternative to this anyway, certainly not in the mid-Nineties when «Ayreon» was still a relative nobody. Besides, not even the best studio, or the best session play­ers, or the use of the finest symphonic orchestra in the country could have removed the inevitable campy flavor. I refrain from giving the record any sort of judgement — its philosophical flaws and emotional stiffness are beyond doubt, but so is the musical boldness and professionalism that it took to put the record out. And then there is always sheer curiosity. After all, want it or not, this whole project is a weird one.

Check "The Final Experiment" (CD) on Amazon
Check "The Final Experiment" (MP3) on Amazon

5 comments:

  1. "with whom Lucassen empathized so much"
    I am afraid it's the other way round. Ayreon pronounced as English sounds more or less like Arjen in Dutch - Lucassen has decided to name the protagonist after himself.

    "mostly little-known Dutch musicians"
    The only names I recognize are Barry Hay, the vocalist of Golden Earring and Edward Reekers from Kayak.
    For me the Prologue is already wrong. Lucassen thinks that classical music equates bombast. Damn, UH's usage of classical instruments on Salisbury was more subtle. That band also provided tons of goofy fun (Shadows of Grief), something Lucassen completely lacks. As he isn't pushing any boundaries either I don't see why this should be called progressive. The result is a complete bore for me. Besides an English librettist a few courses Composition at the Amsterdam conservatory also would help.
    I'll shove Shostakovitsh' 7th in my CD-player again.

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    1. Golden Earring and Kayak are big names for an unknown Dutch composer though.

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  2. Never heard of this group before but, from the description, it essentially sounds like a precursor to the modern Dungeons & Dragons sound of groups like Rhapsody and Dragonforce (i.e a meeting of Iron Maiden and Rick Wakeman on ice).

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  3. Was not expecting you to cover these guys. Most of what I've heard from then (which isn't much really) seemed like kinda lame prog to me (though not the worst I've ever heard). Curious to see how their discography holds up to you.

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  4. Their debut is not their strongest work. Stuff like Universal Migrator, Human Equation and 1011001, however, are amazing.

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