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Saturday, September 9, 2017

Ayreon: The Source


CD I: Chronicle 1: The 'Frame: 1) The Day That The World Breaks Down; 2) Sea Of Machines; 3) Everybody Dies; Chronicle 2: The Aligning Of The Ten: 4) Star Of Sirrah; 5) All That Was; 6) Run! Apocalypse! Run!; 7) Condemned To Live.
CD II: Chronicle 3: The Transmigration: 1) Aquatic Race; 2) The Dream Dissolves; 3) Deathcry Of A Race; 4) Into The Ocean; Chronicle 4: The Rebirth: 5) Bay Of Dreams; 6) Planet Y Is Alive!; 7) The Source Will Flow; 8) Journey To Forever; 9) The Human Compulsion; 10) March Of The Machines.

Where do you go, exactly, after you have just dealt with The Theory Of Everything? Any other deity of rock would probably retire into singularity, the karmic cycle being completed once and for all. And yet again, Arjen «Beyond-The-Cosmic» Lucassen proves to us that his conscience penetrates far behind the limits of the unlimited — with his thoughts now bent upon the source that sets the «everything» in motion. Physicists and cosmologists all over the world, beware: you've got literally nothing on this guy, who, with just a humble budget of a few thousand dollars and a little help from his illustrious friends, is capable of penetrating the mysteries of the universe in a way that all your billion-dollar colliders and synchrotrons will never be able to replicate...

...but actually, no. Once you look into the concept, disappointment quickly sets in, because tech­nically, The Source functions as a constrained prequel to 01011001, telling the story of an early human (humanoid?) race living somewhere in the Andromeda Galaxy and eventually forced out of their homelands by machines that they created themselves — a story told so many times that I guess it must be true, be it in the distant future or in the even more distant past. So, a few of these humans escape, develop some sort of superdrug that helps them live underwater (apparently, it is the drug that is called ʽThe Sourceʼ), and eventually settle on Planet Y in the system of Sirrah, where they begin working on even more and better machines, rebooting the cycle. Frankly, I sort of expected better from the guy than this regurgitation of a motive he'd already used at least once, or maybe more than once (honestly, I do not remember).

And if his basic fantasy channels have ceased to transmit fresh ideas, then what is to be said about his musical channels? This here is yet another sprawling «soft power metal» opera, spread across four parts on two CDs and featuring a cast of 12 vocalists for 12 different roles — this time, however, somewhat less eminent than last time; I recognize Dream Theater's James LaBrie, Blind Guardian's  Hansi Kürsch, and Symphony X's Russell Allen, but most of the rest are from even lesser entities (Nightwish, Between The Buried And Me, etc.); then again, why should the biggies want to star in some wretched prequel, of all things?.. And in terms of melodies, this is precisely what you expect of Ayreon these days — nothing more, nothing less; refer to the Theory Of Everything review, whose musical summary is perfectly applicable to this album as well.

Which is not to say that it sounds bad, mind you. By this time, we all know how to treat Ayreon space operas — they are the musical equivalent of your average Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster, with the word average heavily stressed: good enough for a relaxed evening of popcorn and Coke, and maybe one extra night of Walter Mitty-style dreaming if you, like, totally let yourself go. His big advantage is diversity: the music is still well correlated with the dynamic twists of the story, so you have your metallic sections with chuggin' riffage, your lyrical sections with strings and angelic harmonies, your desperate-suicidal sections with delirious guitar solos, your pastoral sections with Tull-style flutes, and your ambient-atmospheric sections with electronic loops and heavenly synth tapestries. If not for the fact that most of the guest vocalists take the «rock opera» moniker way too seriously and end up outscreaming each other, there would be very few irrita­ting factors about The Source. But this is power metal, apparently, and so everything has to be done with power, or else the loyal fans will think they're all faking it, you know.

Was there anything special, this time, that somehow managed to seduce my attention? Over ninety minutes of music? Absolutely and totally nothing. At best, it was "this sounds totally like Eighties' metal-era Jethro Tull" (ʽDeathcry Of A Raceʼ), or "this sounds totally like the Alan Parsons Project" (ʽThe Source Will Flowʼ — needless pun on Frank Herbert here?), or "this is like a 100% Iron Maiden rip-off, man!" (ʽRun! Apocalypse! Run!ʼ, for some strange reason not featuring Bruce Dickinson, but featuring three or four guys who all want to sound like him). And no, it's not like all the music here is completely stolen — it's that the tunes to which you might really want to pay some attention are precisely the ones that sound like classic acts. The ones that just sound like Ayreon pass by without a twitch.

As for the storyline, I'd advise not to look too deeply into it. Typical lyric is: "Planet Y is alive, our race will survive! Forever we're free and forever we'll be and forever we will dream!" (For some reason, as I mentally translate this into High German and try to picture this in a Wagner libretto, it no longer sounds that bad — perhaps it is the operatic-pop singing style, after all, that completes the Heavy Blush effect). Just drift on the fringes and you'll be okay to survive the ride, with a large size bucket of heavily buttered popcorn and, preferably, the speakers blasting this shit at top volume. Also, Floor Jansen (Nightwish) as The Biologist is hot. I wish they'd give her a couple arias or something (actually, this is one more flaw: every track here is delivered by mul­tiple vocalists in short bits, never giving us the chance to establish much of a bond with any single character — certainly not something you could ever accuse Wagner of).

I don't know why I am not giving this a thumbs down. I guess there is still something vaguely amusing about all these Ayreon albums and how he not only seems to take it all quite seriously himself, but convinces all his endless guest stars to take it seriously as well. On the other hand, The Source, like everything that precedes it, completely lacks the preachy aspects of the worst prog rock — it's just a sci-fi roller coaster, with an amazing shitload of work going into it, too, so I can understand all the rave reviews from power metal and neo-prog lovers. I certainly won't be the one to stop the source from flowing, much as I'd wish that, every once in a while, it would flow through slightly less predictable ground.

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