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Monday, March 11, 2019

Ayreon: Ayreon Universe


1) Prologue; 2) Dreamtime; 3) Abbey Of Synn; 4) River Of Time; 5) The Blackboard; 6) The Theory Of Everything; 7) Merlinʼs Will; 8) Waking Dreams; 9) Dawn Of A Million Souls; 10) Valley Of The Queens; 11) Ride The Comet; 12) Star Of Sirrah; 13) Comatose; 14) Day Sixteen: Loser; 15) And The Druids Turned To Stone; 16) The Two Gates; 17) Into The Black Hole; 18) Actual Fantasy; 19) Computer Eyes; 20) Magnetism; 21) Age Of Shadows; 22) Intergalactic Space Crusaders; 23) Collision; 24) Everybody Dies; 25) The Castle Hall; 26) Amazing Flight In Space; 27) Day Eleven: Love; 28) The Eye Of Ra.

General verdict: Listening to this condensed history of Ayreon in two hoursʼ time will probably not make you a fan. Watching it with your own eyes might do the trick... but perhaps not in the way Arjen himself would want it.

As we all know, Ayreon does not perform live all too frequently... in fact, Ayreon almost never performs live, because he does not have a sufficient budget to feed all the guest singers and to replace himself with a set of live musicians and the fireworks and the dry ice and the big screen with psychedelic visuals and the buckets of chicken blood... okay, could do without the buckets of chicken blood, perhaps, but not without the big shiny robot costumes and all the Star Trek hairdressers. And yet, on the other hand, somehow we saw it coming: all that immense legacy of fantasy had to come out onstage sooner or later.

A first taste had already been presented a couple years earlier, with the audio and video release of The Theater Equation, which, as you can guess, was a theatrical staging of The Human Equation in its entirety. But surely just one measly rock opera cannot cover the breadth and scope of Ayreonʼs vision that encompasses everything that the corny sci-fi genre is capable of. And so, two years later, welcome to Ayreon Universe: a gala-level grand presentation of the entire legacy of Arjen Anthony Lucassen, recorded over two days in September 2017 with the aid of ten musicians and sixteen guest vocalists — including such luminaries as Blind Guardianʼs Hansi Kürsch, The Gatheringʼs Anneke van Giersbergen, Nightwishʼs Floor Jansen, and Katatoniaʼs Jonas Renkse. (Unfortunately, Paul McCartney of The Beatles couldnʼt make it. He was supposed to appear, but they asked him to sing ʽDay Sixteen: Loserʼ, and he took offense at this veiled hint at the artistic failure of Press To Play on the sixteenth year of his solo career).

The setlist, as you can see, tries to justify the album title as much as possible: it puts together highlights from every single Ayreon record, and not one of them seems to be preferred over the others — although, by some strange coincidence, Universal Migrator, which I usually select for my top Ayreon pick, somehow gets the short end of the stick, each of its parts being represented by only one song (and the one song from the first part is not ʽThe Shooting Company Of Captain Frans B. Cocqʼ, which is still probably my single favorite Ayreon track of all time). More than that, it seems to me that they have tried to forge an entirely new, somewhat cohesive, story out of these highlights — at least such is the implication of having a booming-voice narrator intrude from time to time and explain what might be going on. But this, of course, is of more importance to the true fans of Ayreon (all nine thousand of them that were in the audience on those nights) than to somebody like me, who is always more amused by this music than impressed by it.

Many of the songs still have to be significantly truncated — selecting two hoursʼ worth of content from Ayreonʼs 12-hour legacy is a delicate matter — but it is more interesting that at least when it comes to the early material, some of these live renditions sound much better, bypassing some of Ayreonʼs past problems with glossy and stuffy productions, featuring more intricate vocal harmonies, less cheesy synthesizer tones, and livelier drumming. This is, however, the absolute maximum of what I can say about the music — commenting on individual tracks might make it seem like I actually care, which I absolutely do not.

I did watch a couple of video previews that Arjen himself posted on YouTube, and if you are a fan, by all means get this in video rather than audio form, because this is, like, the ultimate in clichéd nerdy fantasy: waves upon waves of guys and girls in black leather and ridiculous sci-fi cosplay gear, miles and miles of long hair waving in the winds of time, and gallons upon gallons of futuristic pomp. Sure, itʼs been that way ever since the invention of progressive and power metal, but if you need an overdose rather than just a simple fix of that, Ayreon Universe is a great bet. Besides, for some reason it makes me happy that a thing like this is at all possible in the modern world — I mean, geeky nerds worldwide deserve their own brand of buffoonery, donʼt they? Truly, this is some Superbowl level shit, I could totally get into Ayreon going out there and having a blast with ʽAmazing Flight In Spaceʼ instead of Beyoncé or Katy Perry. 

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