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Saturday, February 15, 2014

Ayreon: The Theory Of Everything


CD I: Phase I: Singularity: 1) Prologue: The Black Board; 2) The Theory Of Everything, Part 1; 3) Patterns; 4) The Pro­di­gy's World; 5) The Teacher's Discovery; 6) Love And Envy; 7) Progressive Waves; 8) The Gift; 9) The Eleventh Dimension; 10) Inertia; 11) The Theory Of Everything; Phase II: Symmetry: 12) The Consultation; 13) Diagnosis; 14) The Argument; 15) The Rival's Dilemma; 16) Surface Tension; 17) A Reason To Live; 18) Potential; 19) Quantum Chaos; 20) Dark Medicine; 21) Alive!; 22) The Pre­dic­tion.
CD II: Phase III: Entanglement: 1) Fluctuations; 2) Transformation; 3) Collision; 4) Side Effects; 5) Frequency Mo­dulation; 6) Magnetism; 7) Quid Pro Quo; 8) String Theory; 9) Fortune?; Phase IV: Unification: 10) Mirror Of Dre­ams; 11) The Lighthouse; 12) The Argument; 13) The Parting; 14) The Visitation; 15) The Breakthrough; 16) The Note; 17) The Uncertainty Principle; 18) Dark Energy; 19) The Theory Of Everything, Part 3; 20) The Blackboard (Reprise).

Well, I guess that if it was inevitable for a concept album about «the theory of everything» to be produced in the first place, it might have also been inevitable that Arjen Lucassen would have to be the mastermind behind it. Let's face it, after all the Universal Migrators and Human Equa­tions there was simply nowhere left to run but to the very top of the tower. This is the album to end all albums, the ultimate in the ultimate, Ayreon's Lifehouse, Topographic Oceans, and Mahler's 9th all rolled in one. A single listen to all four sides in a row will give you the intellect of a Stephen Hawking, two listens will empower you to rule the world, and a final third run will, beyond all reasonable doubt, allow you to reweave the fabric of the universe at your whim. But remember — only supreme, absolute concentration will get you anywhere with this, and it takes intellectual skill, psychological training, and a really high degree of tolerance for kindergarten-le­vel sci-fi anecdotes to immerse yourself, freely and lovingly, in the world of Ayreon.

I must say, though, that I honestly admire how high the man has managed to raise the stakes. The very fact of The Theory Of Everything being yet another double-CD rock opera is not surpri­sing, but this may be the most cohesive, story-dependent, and ideologically ambitious project in Ayreon history so far, and among the usual horde of guests to help the artist bring it to fruition, there are no less than four prog veterans: Rick Wakeman plays piano throughout and has an «old school» synth solo on ʽSurface Tensionʼ, Keith Emerson has an astral Moog solo on ʽProgressive Wavesʼ, Steve Hackett adds a guitar solo on ʽThe Partingʼ, and John Wetton sings the important part of The Psychiatrist. Not to mention, of course, all the innumerable singers and players from newer, somewhat less legendary prog and metal outfits (Dream Theater, Nightwish, Lacuna Coil etc.) — ol' man Lucassen has lost none of his supernatural gravitational charisma.

The story itself needs no retelling and can be partially deduced from simply glancing at the song titles — speaking of which, the «songs» themselves are really just small individual parts of four lengthy suites («Singularity», «Symmetry», «Entanglement», «Unification»), with track separa­tion engineered the way it is usually done with classical operas in the CD age. The story seems to be drawing its inspiration as much from A Beautiful Mind as it does from Tommy, and has all the complexity, originality, and general appeal of a second-rate comic book. The lyrics are best left alone, and I mean it, really. Let me just give you a couple samples: "(Prodigy:) A grand design in all its majesty / Vibrating strings, quantum gravity / Why was I chosen? / What does it mean to me? / Tell me why!" Or this: "(Rival:) One day I'll show them / I am the genius / One day the whole world will know / One day I'll show them / Who he really is / One day they'll know". Per­sonally, I think there'd have been no harm in jettisoning a few of the guest musicians and using the money to hire a good librettist instead. But it's really all about the music, right?

Well, here comes the nasty part. The music behind all this is... sort of a very typical, very smooth, very predictable Ayreon sound. Not particularly heavy, although some tracks are well within the limits of «power metal» stylistics; highly influenced by Celtic and other folk traditions; well stocked up on electronics, since a proper, well-behaved «theory of everything» should be able to look both to the past and to the future; professionally-impeccably played and sung. But, just like on the previous Ayreon album, there are no musical ideas here that would justify the «progres­sive» tag — some of the riffs may be «new» from a purely technical point, yet the ideology be­hind them is strictly conservative. If there is any bar at all to be raised on The Theory Of Every­thing, it is only the self-satisfaction bar. It may well be so that, listening back to those tapes, Lucassen finally said to himself — «here is the album I've always aspired to make, where every­thing is in its right place and all the ingredients are mixed in just the right proportions». So now you, the listener, can simply chuck all the previous Ayreon albums out the window and satisfy yourself with this one. Heck, maybe you can chuck all your albums out the window, period — this is The Theory Of Everything, after all, isn't it?

My biggest problem is with the «rock opera» approach: all the pieces being so short, it is hard to get focused on any particular one. In the classical paradigm, even the most story-dependent, plot-driven operas usually have their individual overtures, arias, and interludes that stand out like par­ticularly bright brushstrokes on a monotonous canvas. Here, apart from one or two recurrent themes (like the Jethro Tull-style guitar/flute title theme), the trivial plot overshadows everything, and, since it is downright impossible to empathize with the grossly cartoonish «characters» that would probably be rejected even by Japan's cheesiest anime studios, the «extra-melodic» factors do not compensate for the auxiliary nature of the music. Which is a pity, because somehow I feel that at the core of this sprawl, lies a potentially decent 40-minute instrumental album, with frien­dly guest contributions from Wakeman, Emerson, and Hackett, a few memorable themes, and re­latively tasteful arrangements that combine impressive playing technique with moral restraint, not letting the whole thing run into an Yngwie Malmsteen flying circus extravaganza. But the «rock opera to end all rock operas» fetish just does not let me verify this.

It must be said, however, that finally we have a musical composition named ʽString Theoryʼ that is entirely dependent on... guess what? Yes, that's right, the entire world of science has spent half a century wondering when exactly the essence of the theory would finally be encapsulated in a ninety-second string quartet retelling. Two problems, though: (a) the track also relies on synthe­sizers, ruining the purity of the experiment; (b) where the hell is ʽSuperstring Theoryʼ, with all the guest musicians pulling out their violins and finally delivering that «lost chord» which Pete Townshend himself was unable to find?

Granted, I even feel a little sorry that such an ambitious project, upon completion, has largely remained limited to specialized audiences and publicity sources — even the All-Music Guide has failed to provide an appropriate review, and the record has mostly been picked up on by various metal-oriented magazines, which is not justified at all, since it is not at all a metal album. Then again, there is no use pretending, either, that a rock album called The Theory Of Everything can be perceived as anything other than (a) intentionally humorous or (b) unintentionally ridiculous, and since Ayreon is very rarely (a), that this here is most likely a case of solid (b). The only thing that, from my point of view, excuses Lucassen is that the man combines the qualities of a fana­tical whacko and a hard-working professional. And, from that angle, The Theory Of Everything is one of the whackiest and the most professional records he ever made. The kind of crap that you just don't come across on a daily basis — like a white rhino's, or something like that.

Check "The Theory Of Everything" (CD) on Amazon
Check "The Theory Of Everything" (MP3) on Amazon

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