The ninth Ayreon album, and the project is showing no signs of running out of steam...
It’s virtually impossible, within the terms of reference of a mere ‘record review’ to explain about the grandeur of an Ayreon album. Especially this Ayreon album. Ferchrissakes, the opening track on the album, The Day That the World Breaks Down, weighs in at twelve and a half minutes in length, contains more riffs and ideas than most mortal bands can come up with for entire albums, and features vocal contributions from eleven, count ‘em, eleven vocalists..
This is the scale we’re working with. The Source is a work so vast in ambition, so splendid in execution and so monumental as a result that simple words will never do it the service it requires. But we’re nothing if not professional here at Sentinel Daily, so let’s have a go at telling you a bit about it anyway…
If you’re new to Ayreon, then you’ll need to know that The Source is part of a wider saga written by the project’s guiding light and chief genius Arjen Anthony Lucassen concerning a race of aquatic beings who live on the Planet Y; However, despite being the ninth album to come out under the Ayreon banner, it’s actually a prequel to what’s gone before, and acts in particular as a precursor to 2008’s 01011001. That Clear? Good. If you’re a longtime Ayreonite, then you’ll need to know that, as Lucassen alluded in his interview with Sentinel Daily a couple of months ago, it’s a much more guitar-heavy proposition than the last Ayreon opus, 2013’s The Theory of Everything. This is a bona fide progressive metal record, and that’s good to report.
It’s also a very dynamic record. Too many bands use the word progressive when they actually mean “we write terribly overlong songs and have no means of self-editing so here you go, it’s progressive, dude”; Lucassen is such a good songwriter and arranger that, even with a song as long as that already-mentioned opener, the listener is never given the chance to become tired, and the attention never wanders. Riffs follow one another at a frightening rate, reoccurring and becoming motifs that the listener can lock onto, themes that become instantly recognisable and friendly. TDTTWBD is a truly momentous way to announce The Source’s arrival.
Second track Sea of Machines doesn’t quite have the same impact – how could it after what’s gone before? But the slightly poppy Everybody Dies delivers the attack from a different angle and really stands out, operating in the sort of territory Muse have made their own over the years – although in much better style, natch.
Star of Sirrah is a titanic piece of melodic metal, featuring high quality vocal work from Blind Guardian’s Hansi Kürsch and Avantasia/Edguy man Tobias Sammet. It’s great to hear Sammet making an appearance in somebody else’s metal opera, and his contributions throughout in the role of The Captain are superb. All That Was is an airy, folksy interlude, and acts as a backdrop for a semi-duet between the mighty Floor Jansen and Epica’s Simone Simons, but excitement levels rise again on the faster-paced Run! Apocalypse! Run! A great ensemble piece that musically rips along at high speed with some great drumming from Ed Warby (who, as ever, is on top form throughout) and superb keyboard solos. This is Euro speed metal at its finest, and it’s nice to hear such joyous, unabashed performances from all involved.
The Celtic metal of Condemned to Live follows this up, sounding for all the world like something Gary Moore might have cooked up in the late eighties, but it comes across as a little lightweight, especially when the brooding heaviness of the superb Aquatic Race follows hot on its heels. A beguiling mix of moods and styles, it’s one of the standout tracks on the album. Lucassen’s bass is pushed to the fore on the early verses, giving the song an almost Faith No More feel, although that’s a fleeting impression, as so many are on this album. Refrains flit in and out of the consciousness, some gone almost before the listener has time to react to them.
The Dream Dissolves is, well, dreamy; Simons and Jansen impress again – especially Jansen, who is absolutely monstrous in the role of The Biologist; The Celtic themes return here, adding a nice line of consistency through the middle part of the album (or Transmigration, as this section of the story is called), and that’s continued, after a nice Jethro Tull-styled insertion of flute from Jeroen Goossens into the superb Deathcry of a Race. Symphony X throat Russell Allen is good here, as is Sammet, but as so often on The Source, despite top drawer performances across the board, it’s the sheer quality of the material that’s the star. Heavy, eastern-tinged riffs, magnificent vocals (including some superb singing in Arabic from Myrath’s Zaher Zorgati), this is pure, unadulterated heavy metal nirvana.
But just when you think they’ve probably peaked, Arjenssen and company push things into the red. Into the Ocean, the next track, is, quite simply, one of the best heavy rock songs you’ll hear all year. Coming on like a heavier Rainbow (the song’s working title in production was Silver, in homage to Rainbow’s Man on the Silver Mountain), it features an utterly spellbinding performance from Allen, who really is just about as good as it gets in heavy metal singing in 2017. He’s ably supported, especially by Kürsch and Sammet, but really Into the Ocean is all about Allen and his bravura, match-winning performance.
Bay of Dreams can’t live with that sort of grandeur, slipping by whilst you’re still recovering from your Oceanic exertions, but the heaviness of Planet Y is Alive! hits the spot, Warby’s insistent drumming powering the track along at a lively clip as the guitars gallop and that man Kürsch embodying the optimistic nature of the track with his emotive delivery. After the track’s breakneck conclusion you’ll need to calm down, so the woozy Floydisms of The Source Will Flow are welcome, if not exactly rousing. But Ayreon, as mentioned earlier, is nothing if it’s not dynamic, and this change in pace is as necessary as it might be welcome, especially as it also helps to underline the spritely nature of next track Journey to Forever; There’s a real seventies feel to this track, a bouncy, almost Broadway feel to the ensemble vocals that, when added to the distinctly Uriah Heep feel of the keyboard/guitar interplay make a strong impression on the listener. Fifteen tracks in, The Source is truly the gift that keeps on giving…
Penultimate track The Human Compulsion packs a lot into its two and a quarter minute duration, and then it’s down to Toehider man Mike Mills to end the album on his own with the futuristic endpiece March of the Machines.
The Source is a sprawling piece of work – probably too much for normal humans to digest in a single sitting – but, to this reviewer’s mind, it’s easily the most satisfying work to emerge from the Ayreon camp. There quite literally is something here for everyone, but that universal appeal never comes at the cost of the coherence of the story or the performance. It is, in short, a meisterwerk.
Ayreon’s The Source will be released by the Mascot Label Group on April 28th.