With the huge success that the run of ‘Ayreon Universe’ shows brought Arjen Lucassen in 2017, it was only a matter of time before he put his ‘Ayreon’ hat back on for his sophomore live outing.
With Lucassen though, it’s not as simple as putting a band together and booking a venue. For one, there is the small matter of his crippling stage fright, describing it himself by saying, “Up to the night before the Tilburg shows, I was having dreadful panic attacks, but it’s all for a good cause!” Also, it’s not your average band that Lucassen puts together. He has a nucleus of killer players that he always calls upon. Long time Ayreon fans will recognise players such as Joost van den Broek, Johan van Stratum, Ben Mathot, and drummer extraordinaire, Ed Warby. The logistical nightmare comes with the all-star cast that Lucassen also calls upon; Fish, Anneke van Giersbergen, Damian Wilson, Thijs Van Leer (Focus), Simone Simons, John Jaycee Cuijpers (Praying Mantis) and Marcela Bovio, to name but a few. 22 musicians and singers, and John de Lancie (Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation) as narrator. That’s one hell of a Whatsapp group right there.
With it being the 20th anniversary of the ‘Into The Electric Castle’ album, Lucassen felt “It was the perfect moment to perform this live”, hence why the Ayreon camp descended upon Tilburg again, and fans flocked from all over the world to witness this incredible production. Not only ‘Electric Castle’ in full, but tracks from Lucassen’s solo albums – the titular ‘Other Tales’, as well as a few surprises.
Those expecting some of the bombastic prog metal featured on the last Ayreon studio album, ‘The Source’, might be disappointed, as there is a lack of metal, but even if you did find yourself here because of ‘The Source’, there is still plenty of power to marvel at. For instance, you do get Fish performing with John Jaycee Cuijpers from NWOBHM stalwarts Praying Mantis on a magical version of ‘The Decision Tree’. The vocal harmonies between the main ‘characters’ and the backing vocalists are incredible and add so many layers to the finished product. Sidenote: top marks to John de Lancie for the correct pronunciation of Fish’s character ‘The Highlander’. Highlander is one word, no pauses; never, ever High-Lander.
‘Tunnel Of Light’ is a moment worth the price of whichever way you purchase ‘Electric Castle Live And Other Tales’; be it triple vinyl, double CD+DVD, Blu-Ray or über-sexy wooden box special edition. It’s a light, whimsical moment that recalls ‘Dreamboat Annie’ era Heart and features Fish, Anneke van Giersbergen, Simone Simons, John Jaycee Cuijpers, Edwin Balogh and Edward Reekers. Anytime Anneke van Giersbergen appears the neck-hairs stand to attention, but ‘Valley Of The Queens’ which she performs with Focus founding member Thijs Van Leer is deserving of being singled out. As are the moments whenever Damian Wilson walks on stage; ‘Across The Rainbow Bridge’ (brief chugging riffs for the metalheads) and ‘The Castle Hall’ being the prime cuts. Just two shining examples of this underrated English vocalist. If you needed any further evidence of the range of Epica vocalist Simone Simons, then slide into ‘Cosmic Fusion’ and melt away, not for too long though, as Mayan vocalist George Oosthoek quickly appears with “Death’s Grunt”.
After ‘Another Time, Another Space’ brings the “Electric Castle” part of the event to a close, it’s into the “Other Tales” segment; and what a way to kick it off. Lucassen and Anneke van Giersbergen of course performed together in The Gentle Storm, and it’s truly a thrilling moment when the strains of ‘Shores Of India’ begin. Often missed off “the top vocalists in rock” compilation lists, Anneke van Giersbergen proves yet again why you overlook her at your peril. You want rarities? How about ‘Ashes’ from the ‘Fate Of A Dreamer’ album that Lucassen released under the name Ambeon? Or ‘Out In The Real World’ from the band that Lucassen formed with Marcela Bovio; Stream Of Passion? Bovio totally, totally slays, and will have you furiously searching Spotify for every album that she has performed on. Even rarer, Fish performing ‘Kayleigh’ with this incredible band.
The biggest reception is reserved for the biggest star of the night; Arjen Lucassen himself, and when he does appear on stage as “The Hippie”, it is genuinely heartfelt. As you would expect from anything with the Ayreon name attached, this is a bold and immersive listening experience. Not one to simply dip in and out of, this is the perfect lockdown album, as it’s going to take a few hours to digest. Turn the Tiger King off, wave the family goodbye (from 2 metres away), and get your prog on.
Available now on Music Theories Recordings/Mascot Label Group
Review – Dave