Ayreon – The Theory of Everything (2013)

Ayreon - The Theory of EverythingWell this was a long time coming. I’m speaking of the review, but the same could go for The Theory of Everything, the follow-up to the 2008 01011001 album, which was long held to be the swansong for the Dutch Ayreon project. Arjen Anthony Lucassen, tired of doing huge and complex projects after 01011001, had all but decided that there would be no more Ayreon, and instead concentrated on Guilt Machine, the second Star One album and his 2012 solo record, albums which were all a lot more straight-forward the increasingly complex bloat Ayreon had become. Apparently though, Lucassen needed another challenge in his life; queue 2013, and the new Ayreon album, The Theory of Everything.

If there’s anything you can say about Lucassen, it’s that he doesn’t take half measures. I cannot remember the last time he released a proper, single album record, and even his solo album, a collection of relatively simple songs, had a connecting narrative between songs, and an entire second disc with a multitude of bonus material. The Theory of Everything, however, may be the tall man’s most ambitious project to date, counting four twentyfive-ish minute long songs, making up for a hundred or so minutes of music. It also makes it, in some ways, the most complex Ayreon album to listen to so far, and it won’t be until the umpteenth listen that you’ll finally manage to discern some order in the apparent chaos.

The first couple of runs you give The Theory of Everything, you will probably experience it as an overblown, muddled mess. The album is divided into four ‘phases’, with each ‘phase’ being comprised of a number of fragments, some short interludes, some longer segments, but all of them strung together in order to make for one musical piece. This means that The Theory of Everything is an album meant either to enjoy integrally, or at the very least as twenty-odd minute chunks, which in turn makes it Lucassen’s least accessible album to date. It has taken me nearly a month to crack this progressive nut. This is partly due to a lack of time to do so, but mostly because Ayreon’s eighth is a musical work you have to really sit down for.

It becomes apparent in the very first minutes of the album that Arjen has stayed true to his progressive roots and his own sound, which has always been very distinctive. The Theory of Everything, comprising of exactly 42 segments in an obvious nod to Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, is a very typical Ayreon album, without feeling as forcefully bloated as 01011001. It seems as if the long hiatus has allowed Arjen to reload the battery, making this a fresher approach to what’s otherwise a very familiar musical canvas. More than ever, Lucassen also offers a well working harmony between seventies’ prog rock, heavy metal and an ever bigger dash of folk than before, resulting in a fascinating album with a myriad of melodies and styles that play off each other excellently.

With a great line-up of both vocalists and musicians, which I’m not going to name individually (just take a glance at the line-up below), there really isn’t much you can find wrong with The Theory of Everything, unless you take issue with the unconventional way the songs are structured. Difficult to get into at first, you will eventually grow to find distinct segments you enjoy, and rejoice in hearing recurring themes in each of the four phases. In time, The Theory of Everything grows into a brilliantly structured masterpiece of contemporary prog, and it makes you wonder why you didn’t get it before. Ayreon’s eight album might not be for everyone, and some of you may very well be put off by the apparent monster it may seem at first, but if you really sit down and give it the chance it deserves, you’ll once again hear a sheer musical genius at work. And I for one didn’t expect anything else from maestro Lucassen.

Label: InsideOut Music

Tracklist:

Phase I: Singularity:

  1. Prologue: The Blackboard (1:55)
  2. The Theory of Everything Part 1 (3:01)
  3. Patterns (1:03)
  4. The Prodigy’s World (1:31)
  5. The Teacher’s Discovery (2:58)
  6. Love and Envy (2:39)
  7. Progressive Waves (3:16)
  8. The Gift (2:38)
  9. The Eleventh Dimension (1:46)
  10. Inertia (0:45)
  11. The Theory of Everything Part 2 (1:50)

Total length: 23:29

Phase II: Symmetry

  1. The Consultation (3:49)
  2. Diagnosis (2:48)
  3. The Argument 1 (0:24)
  4. The Rival’s Dilemma (2:22)
  5. Surface Tension (0:57)
  6. A Reason to Live (0:45)
  7. Potential (3:14)
  8. Quantum Chaos (2:09)
  9. Dark Medicine (1:23)
  10. Alive! (2:29)
  11. The Prediction (1:05)

Total length: 21:31

Phase III: Entanglement

  1. Fluctuations (1:01)
  2. Transformations (3:13)
  3. Collision (3:26)
  4. Side Effects (2:59)
  5. Frequency Modulation (1:44)
  6. Magnetism (3:54)
  7. Quid Pro Quo (3:09)
  8. String Theory (1:29)
  9. Fortune? (1:36)

Total length: 22:34

Phase IV: Unification

  1. Mirror of Dreams (2:30)
  2. The Lighthouse (3:16)
  3. The Argument 2 (0:49)
  4. The Parting (3:27)
  5. The Visitation (3:27)
  6. The Breaktrough (2:00)
  7. The Note (1:11)
  8. The Uncertainty Principle (2:09)
  9. Dark Energy (0:44)
  10. The Theory of Everything Part 3 (1:29)
  11. The Blackboard (Reprise) (1:13)

Total length: 22:20

Line-up:

Vocalists:

  • JB (Grand Magus) as The Teacher
  • Sara Squadrani (Ancient Bards) as The Girl
  • Michael Mills (Toehider) as The Father
  • Cristina Scabbia (Lacuna Coil) as The Mother
  • Tommy Karevik (Kamelot, Seventh Wonder) as The Prodigy
  • Marco Hietala (Nightwish, Tarot) as The Rival
  • John Wetton (Asia, UK, ex-King Crimson, ex-Family, ex-Roxy Music) as The Psychiatrist
  • Wilmer Waarbroek – backing vocals

Musicians:

  • Arjen Anthony Lucassen – electric and acoustic guitars, bass guitar, mandolin, analog synthesizers, Hammond, Solina Strings
  • Ed Warby – drums, percussion
  • Rick Wakeman (ex-Yes) – synthesizer solo on “Surface Tension”, piano
  • Keith Emerson (ex-Emerson, Lake & Palmer) – synthesizer solo on “Progressive Waves”
  • Jordan Rudess (Dream Theater, ex-Liquid Tension Experiment) – synthesizer solo on “Progressive Waves”
  • Steve Hackett (ex-Genesis) – guitar solo on “The Parting”
  • Troy Donockley (Nightwish) – uilleann pipes, whistles
  • Ben Mathot – violin
  • Maaike Peterse (Kingfisher Sky) – cello
  • Jeroen Goossens – flutes, bass flute, piccolo, bamboo flute, contrabass flute
  • Siddharta Barnhoorn – orchestrations
  • Michael Mills (Toehider) – Irish bouzouki

Further surfing:

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