AYREON: 01011001 (2008)
1) Age Of Shadows; 2) Comatose; 3) Liquid Eternity; 4) Connect The Dots; 5) Beneath The Waves; 6) Newborn Race; 7) Ride The Comet; 8) Web Of Lies; 9) The Fifth Extinction; 10) Waking Dreams; 11) The Truth Is In Here; 12) Unnatural Selection; 13) River Of Time; 14) E = mc2; 15) The Sixth Extinction.
I am ashamed to say that, this time around, I did not even bother looking up the basic contours of the story. It seems to be something of a cross between the, ahem, «realism» of Human Equation and the sci-fantasy of Universal Migrator, all having to do with machines overtaking man, when everybody starts thinking and acting binary (or, at best, hexadecimal), and somehow conceptually tied in to every other Ayreon album ever released — you gotta give Lucassen some credit, his megalomania never got in the way of accurately tying together all the little loose ends.
The problem is, this time around the music never really stimulated me into looking up any details. If the first half of Universal Migrator worked moderately well as a «musical picture gallery» of sorts, and Human Equation, de-padded and properly filtered, had a psycho-thriller sheen to it, then this follow-up, being every bit as large and pompous, hardly offers a single fresh idea. Seventeen singers in total show up for the project — at this point, it seems that contributing to an Ayreon prog-metal-opera turns into an obligatory clause in every power / symph / doom-metal band frontperson's contract, and they are all standing in line on his front porch on a daily basis. (Gotthard, Blind Guardian, and King's X are among the more notorious acts this time). And they all blow it on this mastodont, quite mediocre even for Ayreon's usually questionable standards.
Of course, there is no questioning the technical side of it all. Every note is in place, all the acoustic, electric, and electronic overdubs meticulously tested and adjusted to each other, each singer and singerine wined, dined, coached and poached to perfection. We could hardly expect anything less of a guy who has never sullied a single one of his fantasies with overt sloppiness. Extract it from its context, forget about every other Ayreon record ever released (better still, forget about every other record ever released, period), and 01011001 will be a monumental achievement in its own rights. As it is, it is about as exciting as the sequence of zeroes and ones that constitutes its true title (the letter ʽYʼ, short for either YAKETY-YAK or YARDBIRD YAWN, depending on your current state of mind).
In utter frustration, I cannot think of a single track here worth a specific mention. It seems as if Lucassen was so overwhelmed by the sheer number of people he got to act in his next play that he subconsciously fell back on his old musical stock, recycling all of his «meat-and-potato» ideas (folk, metal, electronic) without bothering to find any new combinations. Even the presence of one or two ʽLosersʼ or ʽShooting Companiesʼ could have already made a big difference, but no, these hundred minutes run on without a single ripple on the surface.
Obviously, this criticism makes little sense if we are simply supposed to like Ayreon as a musical phenomenon. One does not criticize something like, say, Haydn's symphonies for (frequently) sounding indistinguishable from one another, so why should this be different with Lucassen? Yet, first of all, it does not hurt to remember that 01011001 is Lucassen's first, and only, musical offering in four years (how many symphonies could Haydn have come up with in the same interim?), and even a hardcore fan could be entitled to something that did not sound exactly like a rearranged/restructured medley of past successes (and failures).
And second — this is where personal taste comes in — Ayreon's music has always been cheesy, humorless, padded, bloated, and emotionally monotonous. It was only during those select, happy, cherished moments where Lucassen was able to break through these walls that I felt like there was something to gain (and there really was). «Generic» Ayreon material has no reason to exist in my world («poor man's Rush» could be a good description), and I wouldn't want to recommend it for anybody else's, either. Hence, decidedly a thumbs down here, and here's hoping that the next Ayreon release will be more creative and let us learn something that we didn't already know, and wished we never knew in the first place.