Review: Ayreon – 'The Source'

Dutch multi-instrumentalist, singer-songwriter Arjen Lucassen returns with his latest Ayreon album, the first in four years. As enjoyable as The Gentle Storm side project was, everyone was hoping for another Ayreon album, and thankfully Lucassen obliged. Epic in every meaning of the word, there is so much to take in that it requires multiple visits to really appreciate ‘The Source’. Guest performers queued up by the bucketload to be part of this incredible Ayreon concept album. Concept albums tend to go over my head. ‘2112’ is a fantastic album not because of the concept, but because of the songs, the playing, and the sheer scale of it, so here’s a quick scoot over the concept threading through ‘The Source’. It’s set six billion years in the past on Planet Alpha, a world where computer intelligence has grown faster than the human equivalent. Kind of like Skynet in the Terminator movies, the computers take over, and humans have to flee the planet. That’s all I’ve got… apart from the fact that the track ‘Condemned To Live’ is based on the story that there is only one ship capable of leaving the planet. It’s to be filled by people with essential skills to help humanity survive. The remaining people are condemned to die, whereas the chosen ones are ‘Condemned To Live’ because they are leaving their loved ones to die. Phew, that was a tough one. Think of it like that episode of The Simpsons where something similar happens. Homer tries to get onto the spaceship leaving a doomed planet Earth by telling the guard that he is the piano genius from the movie ‘Shine’. When asked for his name, Homer replies…”Shiney McShine”. Classic. Now, I’m in no way at all trying to belittle Lucassen’s vision for ‘The Source’, sci-fi fans will lap it up, but had the music been sub-standard, no-one would’ve said, “At least the concept was interesting”. Thankfully, the music is anything but sub-standard, and he should be applauded for his courageous risk-taking approach to making music. Opener, ‘The Day That The World Breaks Down’ is a bombastic opening track. At twelve minutes long, it is weighty, practically three songs within one suite. Sweeping arrangements, galloping drums, crushing guitars, hammond organ, and vocals from 11 different vocalists including, amongst others, James LaBrie, Simone Simons, Tobias Sammet, Russell Allen, and Floor Jansen. There is an incredible video of the recording process that went into what Lucassen himself describes as a “long-ass bastard of a track”. Check it out above, and marvel at how multi-talented the man himself is. There are many influences to be heard throughout the album, Jethro Tull, ELO, and even Iron Maiden, can all be found, but it’s the influence of Queen that piques my interest, in particular the influence of what I consider the greatest Queen album ever, Queen II. ‘Everybody Dies’ is the bastard offspring of ‘Ogre Battle’, and ‘The Fairy Fellers Master Stroke’ from that 1974 opus. The magical layered vocals, the cinematic scale, and the experimentation… a totally sublime few minutes. Concept album, rock opera, prog metal, call it what you will, the fact that ‘The Source’ is open to so many different interpretations is a testament to Lucassen himself. You could listen to this album every day for a week and still find something new. It took a few spins of ‘Star Of Sirrah’ before the Andrew Lloyd Webber influences hit home, the “cast” taking it in turns to sing a few lines before faded back into darkness. Pure rock opera, and Floor Jansen has a career on Broadway whenever she decides to give up metal. Her contribution to the track is staggering. ‘Run! Apocalypse! Run!’ is all about the mix of NWOBHM-style guitars, the pounding bass drum (from the phenomenal Ed Warby), and another tip of the hat to early Queen, with the perfectly layered vocals. ‘Condemned To Live’ is one of many highlights on the album. Lighter vocals, chugging guitars, and lashings of Hammond organ, all help it stand out in a crowded marketplace. Much more of a guitar album than previous recordings, ‘The Source’ features more than enough moments to send guitar nerds into raptures. ‘Aquatic Race’, for instance, keeps it simple. There’s very little in the way of solos, but those riffs, man! The arrangements are incredible throughout. The best example would be the Arabic-tinged ‘Deathcry Of A Race’, a heady mix of string arrangements, high operatic vocals, and flutes! The Arabic vocal segment from Zaher Zorgati is spellbinding, and in his role as “the preacher”, Zorgati will have you up into the small hours checking out YouTube videos of his “day job” in Tunisian progressive metal band Myrath. There truly is so much on this album that it will take many hours out of your life. Don’t try and visit it in parts, go for the long haul. Only when you listen to it from start to finish in one go will you discover the benefits. The quality of the performances are dizzying. Helped by some of the strongest voices in rock and metal today, Ayreon has surpassed all expectations and produced a staggering piece of work. Say goodbye to your friends and family for a while, you’re going to be otherwise occupied. Available now through Mascot Label Group Review: Dave Stott]]>

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