AYREON: UNIVERSAL MIGRATOR (2000)
Part I – The Dream Sequencer: 1) The Dream Sequencer; 2) My House On Mars; 3) 2084; 4) One Small Step; 5) The Shooting Company Of Captain Frans B. Cocq; 6) Dragon On The Sea; 7) Temple Of The Cat; 8) Carried By The Wind; 9) And The Druids Turn To Stone; 10) The First Man On Earth; 11) The Dream Sequencer (reprise);
Part II – Flight Of The Migrator: 1) Chaos; 2) Dawn Of A Million Souls; 3) Journey On The Waves Of Time; 4) To The Quasar; 5) Into The Black Hole; 6) Through The Wormhole; 7) Out Of The White Hole; 8) To The Solar System; 9) The New Migrator.
Technically, these are two albums: breaking slightly with Ayreon's standard pattern of releasing 2-CD packages, Lucassen decided to split his «prog» and «metal» sides, releasing the first half of Universal Migrator as a special treat for the «artsy types» and the second half for the «metalheads». Consequently, on a formal basis Part I: The Dream Sequencer and Part II: Flight Of The Migrator count as separate entries in the discographies and tend to earn separate reviews. However, I see no reason to follow this tradition, since: (a) a 2-CD deal is a 2-CD deal, and no renegading will be tolerated; (b) the concept and storyline are sort of continuous, after all; (c) although Arjen does formally enforce the musical boundaries, what with the first album all ruled by electronic textures and acoustic guitars, and the second completely dominated by heavy electric riffage and soloing, the «B-movie spirit» that guides the man is always the same anyway. Plus, above and beyond all that, I am not sure if I have enough impressions to carry me through two different reviews here.
Although, on second thought, I could have, because, once you get to at least partially assimilate the expected sprawl, The Universal Migrator is no less fun than Into The Electric Castle — in fact, it is more fun, because this time, the underlying story, while still a story, functions more like a flimsy framework for a set of autonomous musical landscapes. Formally, it is a sequel / prequel / interquel / whatever (with time travel in the picture, you never know) to The Final Experiment, describing the hallucinations of the last man left alive after humanity's extinction — in The Dream Sequencer, he travels through several different historical epochs, and in Flight Of The Migrator, takes stuff to a whole different level by heading straight for the Big Bang... and never coming back, so it seems, but enough of that.
For the first CD, the basic inspiration was clearly Pink Floyd — the instrumental introduction brings to mind both Wish You Were Here and The Wall at the same time, and then there is this idea of musically capturing a patch of bleak desperation and loneliness, puffed up to universalist levels... ring a bell? No, it is not expressed with comparable ferocity — maybe because there is no autobiographic value in these compositions — but there is a pretty nifty fanfare theme nestled in the depths of ʽMy House On Marsʼ (although it would probably have been more effective if played with real fanfares rather than Arjen's well-worn synthesizer equipment).
What really won me over in the course of Disc 1 was ʽThe Shooting Company Of Captain Frans B. Cocqʼ — not only is the song named for the «authentic» title of the painting we usually know as The Night Watch, but it is actually an attempt at a «musical translation» of Rembrandt's masterpiece, trying to recreate with electronic textures, dark guitar solos, and psychedelic, phased vocals straight out of 1967 (courtesy of Tuesday Child's Mouse) that shadowy mystique of van Rijn's trademark style. Maybe it does not succeed, or maybe it does, but the point is — the idea itself is fairly extravagant, and totally unconventional, for a guy usually perceived as a sci-fi / D&D / B-movie freak. Besides, regardless of the context, the song simply has a catchy chorus and an impressive guitar theme to it.
Dancing out from that starting point, there's more — ʽDragon On The Seaʼ, with lyrical references to the fleet of Queen Elizabeth, is an exuberant folk-prog epic, overdubbing bleeping electronic patterns over folksy acoustic strum and making it work; ʽTemple Of The Catʼ features a lovely vocal part from Jacqueline Govaert and samples from a Maya festival; and ʽThe First Man On Earthʼ, with vocals from Spock's Beard's Neal Morse, is a fairly friendly and upbeat song for a subject as grim as the first appearance of Homo sapiens on the planet. Diversity is the key — as the hero moves from locus to locus, the music incorporates more and more influences; the only bad news is that the instrumentation lacks the appropriate diversity — guitars and keyboards express most of the moods, where sometimes mandolins or pan pipes would be more welcome. Oh well — budget is budget.
The second part, Flight Of The Migrator, was almost universally panned by reviewers when compared to the first part, and for a good reason: the idea to filter out the metal from Dream Sequencer and tightly pack an entire sixty-five minute disc with it really did not work. For it to work, Arjen would need to at least be a first-rate metal-riff writer — but most of the riffs hardly strike me as being original or inspiring. Where Dream Sequencer is an imaginative neo-prog record, Migrator is, overall, rather pedestrian power metal.
Lucassen's personal charm did help him to engage a whole swarm of notorious metal singers — Bruce Dickinson himself, for instance, pulls ʽInto The Black Holeʼ out of the black hole of unmemorable melodies, and then there are guys from Stratovarius, Primal Fear, Helloween, Threshold... pretty impressive heap, unfortunately, saddled with mediocre and monotonous material (and where the monotonousness is broken, it is broken with the same synthesizer fanfares, as in ʽDawn Of A Million Sunsʼ, of which we'd already had our full share on Sequencer).
Only once does this rather boring journey to the beginnings of the Universe break out of its set pattern: as the hero goes ʽThrough The Wormholeʼ, the tempo picks up — they aren't, after all, called «wormholes» because you're supposed to move through them like a worm — and a merry jackhammer-ish thrash-boogie rips your speakers in half, reminding of the old trickster school running from Van Halen to Extreme. Aaaaah, kick-ass! Unfortunately, it is one of the shortest tracks on the album — a measly six minutes.
Still, if you are a really big fan of power metal, I guess the guest vocalists alone, who all seem to be quite seriously into this stuff, will provide sufficient reason to own the album. And by combining the two parts of Universal Migrator, I have cunningly gotten rid of the necessity to award Ayreon with another thumbs down — the first half is an unquestionable thumbs up, and the second half is... well, think of it as a really large bonus for the metalheads. Oh yes, and the hero dies at the end, but his soul manages to merge with the Universal in the process, restarting the cycle of life from the beginning, so, theoretically, you will be able to listen to this record an infinitesimal number of times — might as well try to enjoy it, for lack of a better alternative.