AYREON: INTO THE ELECTRIC CASTLE (1998)
1) Welcome To The New Dimension; 2) Isis And Osiris; 3) Amazing Flight; 4) Time Beyond Time; 5) The Decision Tree (We're Alive); 6) Tunnel Of Light; 7) Across The Rainbow Bridge; 8) Garden Of Emotions; 9) Valley Of The Queens; 10) The Castle Hall; 11) Tower Of Hope; 12) Cosmic Fusion; 13) The Mirror Haze; 14) Evil Devolution; 15) The Two Gates; 16) Forever Of The Stars; 17) Another Time, Another Space.
Despite — or, perhaps, because of — a slight trimming that Ayreon gave his lush campy spirit on Actual Fantasy, the album did not sell at all well. Allegedly, this prompted a gamble — on his next album, Lucassen vowed, he would virtually pull all the stops, and if this did not work, he would put the Ayreon brand under glass, once and for all. Considering that this is far from the last review of Ayreon here, we have to assume that the gamble worked — I do not have the sales figures on hand, but they must have at least compensated for the impressive budget spent on the album: with no less than ten guest vocalists and about as many session musicians teaming up for the project, Arjen must have pawned his entire collection of D&D editions.
Into The Electric Castle finalizes and stabilizes the Magic Ayreon Formula, which has so far remained unchanged: a double-CD, approximately two-hour-long, album in the form of a «prog rock opera», featuring multiple role-playing vocalists and a cohesive sci-fi storyline, primarily influenced by trashy B-movies and pulp, but not without an occasionally surprising lyrical insight. Here, the storyline is that eight different heroes from various times and social environments have to undertake a challenging and perilous journey to... well, you can always rely on good old Wikipedia for these things; suffice it to say, there have been worse storylines, and, not being an expert on sci-fi / fantasy and not even dreaming of ever becoming one, I cannot really give a good judgement from within the confines of the genre. From without these confines, it is exceedingly silly, but then, what isn't?
What about the music, then? Despite the impressive diversity of approaches — as with every self-respecting neo-prog album, the influences range from classical to medieval folk to psychedelic pop to heavy metal to electronica to whatever else I've forgotten — the music does not leave a particularly lasting impression. Once you start poking around in the textures of any given track, short or long, monotonous or multi-part, none of these textures will probably impress you with original solutions, or jolt your emotions if you are already well-versed in classic prog.
On the other hand, one need not necessarily expect scattered individual wonders of intellectual creativity and emotional resonance from a two-hour prog rock opera — yes, a few of them would be nice, but the most important question is whether this mammoth is «valid» as a whole. And to this, my answer is — I'm not sure, which, in almost any prog-related situation, translates to «give it time and it will either stay the same or grow better».
Here are the benefits. Into The Electric Castle mostly manages to avoid boredom — there are no lengthy, flashy, self-indulgent jams or solos; the melodic patterns and moods alternate with each other on a regular basis; the instrumentation is diverse enough to avoid immediate pigeonholing — and certainly, so is the singing, with all the guest vocalists representing personalities widely removed from each other, so that you have «metal-opera» guy Damian Wilson contrasted with folkie lady Sharon den Adel, or with ex-Marillion frontman Fish playing a «Highlander», or with Lucassen himself impersonating a 1960s hippie (not very credible, but amusing).
Into The Electric Castle manages to avoid or minimize direct rip-offs — you can see tributes and homages pulsating all over the place, but there has really been a lot of serious hard work thrust into Lucassen's composing here. A single six- or seven-minute track will always lead you through several sections — each of which, on its own, will seem like you've already heard it somewhere else (you just can never tell where), but together they will be woven in a seamless, unforced manner. Can Sixties' psychedelic pop, Seventies' jazz-fusion and Eighties' hair-metal coinhabit the same song without mortal injury to each other? Check something like ʽGarden Of Emotionsʼ and see for yourself.
Finally, Into The Electric Castle manages to avoid ploughing the depths of bad taste — it is not exactly «tongue-in-cheek», but most of the time, it stays within a strict «B-movie» pattern, working on cheap thrills without pumping out moralizing pathos. Maybe I am wrong and Lucassen is dumb enough to think that a record like that is supposed to trigger spiritual cleansing and emotional catharsis, but that is not what my intuition suggests — there is no deep «philosophy» behind this music, this ain't Yes or even Rush, this stuff calls for popcorn and a large Coke, and Arjen is simply happy to deliver the goods.
For a moment out there on ʽThe Mirror Hazeʼ, I almost jumped as, at one point, the man veered straight into the main theme of Phantom Of The Opera — then quickly pulled out before it would be too late — but, in a way, this is Phantom Of The Opera: pulp entertainment where it really only matters how unexpectedly and how often the creator manipulates the fabric of events, and how professionally it is all done. In other words, there has to be a course of intrigue, and there have to be grounds for respect. 'Sall.
Into The Electric Castle satisfies on both counts. You know more or less what to expect from the man, but you never know exactly — he may drag out a sitar player to play a little raga, or get a little flower-powerish for no apparent reason, or fall upon a cool metal riff that happens to have been underused, if not exactly genius, or go for some growling vocals when the script demands it. Yes, much of the time is dedicated to playing rather tired old Celtic / Anglo-Saxon folk scales, but this is still much better than the pompous adult contemporary motives that sometimes pass for (bad) «neo-prog» — and at least we know for sure that Lucassen is generally more inspired by Led Zep III / IV than by Journey and Styx. All in all, I can't remember a damn thing about this album — other than it was goofy fun, and if one hundred minutes of a prog rock opera can be «goofy fun», it's a thumbs up for sure.
Check "Into The Electric Castle" (MP3) on Amazon