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Saturday, January 19, 2013

Ayreon: The Human Equation


1) Day One: Vigil; 2) Day Two: Isolation; 3) Day Three: Pain; 4) Day Four: Mystery; 5) Day Five: Voices; 6) Day Six: Childhood; 7) Day Seven: Hope; 8) Day Eight: School; 9) Day Nine: Playground; 10) Day Ten: Memories; 11) Day Eleven: Love; 12) Day Twelve: Trauma; 13) Day Thirteen: Sign; 14) Day Fourteen: Pride; 15) Day Fifteen: Be­trayal; 16) Day Sixteen: Loser; 17) Day Seventeen: Accident?; 18) Day Eighteen: Realization; 19) Day Nineteen: Dis­closure; 20) Day Twenty: Confrontation.

By now, we all should know: Arjen Lucassen is really «The Flying Dutchman», that is, he is ac­tually trying to officially enshrine himself as the Wagner of rock music: writing nothing but ope­ras, using fantastic settings to reflect universalist messages, and ensuring that only the strongest, with the biggest attention spans and the most time to burn, will survive. Unfortunately, the com­parison is hard to elaborate — unlike Wagner's librettos, Lucassen's lyrics are not only preten­tious but, for the most part, childishly crafted, and he has yet to find his own Tristan chord. The main problem of Wagner's music is, however, shared with fidelity — each of the «operas» is hor­rendously pad­ded out. Music of such ambitious stature cannot deserve being spread across less than two CDs, after all. Yeah, there used to be a time when the Beatles could sum up the state of the world within the five minutes of ʽA Day In The Lifeʼ, but they were just summarizing — Ayreon is here to present you with a detailed account balance. Or, at least, such might well be Arjen Lucassen's personal philosophy.

What is interesting about The Human Equation is that, for once, Lucassen decided to break up the series of fantasy tales in favor of something more «mature» — a bizarre Freudian opera about psychic convalescence through a twenty-day-long period of re-experiencing one's accumulated traumas in a comatose state, or something like that. In fact, this is nothing less than Ayreon's own personal version of The Wall: here, too, you will find abusive schoolteachers, carefree parents, abandoned lovers, and a climac­tic scene of «disclosure» where... anyway, I am not going to pretend that I am unwilling to spoil the plot for you, given as how I am not sure I got it all right in the first place (and I never really bothered much about the second one).

Does it help make the music any better? Absolutely not. Arjen Lucassen knows not the meaning of the word «subtlety», and has never heard the expression «less is more», or, if he has, he must have understood it the other way around — this is why no Ayreon album is ever going to threaten the shelf status of The Wall, even relative to modern kids who practice the «never trust anybody any art piece over thirty» ideology. Frankly speaking, you'd only understand the deep substantial difference between Universal Migrator and Human Equation if you started checking on them armed with a lyrics sheet — and I wouldn't advise you to do that. "It's time to leave your shel­tered cage / Face your deepest fears / The world is against you / You're fighting back the tears" is about as profound as it ever gets. Oh well, could be worse.

Lucassen did get some top-notch vocal talent for this Psychodramatic Masterpiece, though. The protagonist («Me») is voiced by Dream Theater's own James LaBrie, one of the major anta­gonists («Fear») — by Mikael Åkerfeldt of Opeth, and another one («Rage») — by Devin Townsend of Strapping Young Lad: again, not much ground for practicing «subt­lety» with these steel-throat war machines, but oh the masculinity of it all! And, matching the good old Aryan, uh, I mean, Ayreon manpower are the ladies — lead singerines from the little-known bands Elfonía (Marcela Bovio) and Mostly Autumn (Heather Findlay), the latter of which, playing «Love», can go from a Sandy Denny lament to a Kate Bush purr whenever she wants to. Nifty, if not exactly breath­taking.

But interesting musical ideas have decidedly given way to being a bit too much focused on the operatic components. Although Lucassen is no longer segregating his «progressive» and «metal» sides — meaning that there will be no fifty-minute long unbroken stretch of bland power metal — the re-blending is sorta sour, with way too many tracks simply fusing together the grumbly chugga-chugga and the strings-supplying synthesizers (see ʽSchoolʼ, for instance): so many, in fact, that the good bits have to be fished out like dumplings from a broth, over the course of re­peated listens. This means work, and who likes being driven to work by pretentious long-haired Dutch potheads? There you are.

Cutting to the chase, here are some tasters that might — or might not — convince you that The Human Equation is not utterly worthless. Actually, all of them were cleverly released as singles. ʽDay Seven: Hopeʼ, re-titled for single release as ʽCome Back To Meʼ, is a somewhat touching, well-written art-pop song, carried by a catchy organ pattern. ʽDay Eleven: Loveʼ has a somewhat annoying power metal chorus, but the main melody is a surprisingly sexy waltz (the major attrac­tion here are Heather Findlay's alluring Kate Bush-isms).

Weirdest of all is ʽDay Sixteen: Loserʼ, which might be the first track I know of to combine the sound of an Australian didgeridoo (played by Jeroen Goossens) with that of an Irish jig — and then lay some mammoth metal riffage over both. If that is not enough for you, try waiting until the end of the song for a ridiculously over-the-top death metal rap to put the cherry on top. Oh, and how could I forget the added bonus for Uriah Heep fans? Ken Hensley himself wanders into the studio to play an old-style ʽGypsyʼ-like psychic organ solo. The oddest thing of all, it seems to work — the song is so utterly baffling that, at some point, it transcends «hilarious» and starts sending out schizophrenic waves all over the room.

Other than the singles, Equation has quite a respectable finale — ʽDay Twenty: Confrontationʼ builds up genuinely spooky atmospherics with cleverly piled up loads of phased and echoey gui­tars, processed organ, and «metal slide» riffs saved for the chorus. With all the vocalists coming together and the song eventually speeding up, it does seem to be headed for some sort of Wagne­rian finale — unfortunately, the abrupt ending is sort of anti-climactic, but I guess Ayreon just had to ensure himself some continuity with the rest of his oeuvres, which explains the superfluous reference to the «Dream Sequencer».

None of this should conceal the fact that a large, large, large chunk of the material is quite non-descript (and the problem would only get worse with the next release), and can only appeal to big fans of power metal vocalization. But then, come to think of it, such is the fate of 90% of operas ever written — not only is it impossible to keep the genius afloat for two or three hours on end, but you are not even really supposed to try. What is really bothersome is that so many of the tracks stretch out past acceptable limits, and that so many of the themes are rather monotonous variations on each other — not just «boring», but «boring in the same boring way». On the other hand, this might simply be an invitation to make your own Human Equation: I'm sure that most of us could trim this down to about forty minutes of interesting and even inspiring music. Start off with the singles, then think about whether you need the rest. The singles are good.

Check "The Human Equation" (CD) on Amazon
Check "The Human Equation" (MP3) on Amazon

1 comment:

  1. "the Wagner of rock music"
    That explains a lot - I think Wagner a bore as well.

    "unlike Wagner's librettos"
    Are you sure of this? I'm no man of lyrics, but it was my impression that Wagner's librettos were tripe as well. But I only have been familiar with Der Fliegende Holländer and Der Meistersinger.

    "such is the fate of 90% of operas ever written"
    Exactly. But oh those precious few times that everything does work - then opera is the greatest form of art man ever conceived. Kudos to Pete Townshend for pulling that off (leave out the Underture though).

    "the added bonus for Uriah Heep fans"
    You knew I wouldn't be able to resist the temptation, didn't you? Yeah, Loser is a fairly good song. Don't know how much Hensley had to do with it, but it has more or less the same goofy fun I appreciate so much in UH. That's why his solo works.