Today I’ll be reviewing a (spoiler alert) phenomenal album from Dutch artist Arjen Lucassen’s project Ayreon. The 2013 album, The Theory of Everything, is a progressive metal/rock opera about the life of a savant and the struggles that surround his attempt to reconcile all of physics.
Since this is my first review for MasterSelf, I’ll take a moment to give you an idea of what I’m trying to do with these reviews. First off, unless there’s a new album by an artist that I’m a fan of, I won’t be reviewing everything that comes out. What I will be doing is attempting to find music that I find to be either a phenomenal display of skill or thought-provoking in some way. I’m a proponent of the idea that you can alter your state of mind with music, and in that vein I’ll try to share songs and albums that are motivational, uplifting, or just generally awe-inspiring. With that out of the way, let’s get to it.
Ayreon is definitely the coolest and strangest musical phenomenon that I had never heard of. Lucassen is the creative force behind most of the writing and music, but he recruits a number of singers from other European metal bands. This gives the work a similar quality to a stage show, which is very unusual if you’re used to traditional one (or even two) singer groups. In addition, the vocalists change every album, although the project keeps a similar sound overall.
I found this album in a list of the 10 Best Rock Operas and Concept Albums, where it’s ranked #5, beating out Bowie and Green Day, if you can believe it. Before you listen to it, I highly recommend that you give yourself the opportunity to hear it in a single sitting, whether that’s at work or on a long drive. Trust me, you would not get the complete experience if you get it in parts. Unlike most albums, it’s a linear story and the songs all blend together. I couldn’t tell you how many songs are on it without looking it up. Fortunately for you, I did look it up, and there are 42 (a great reference to The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.)
The album tells the story of “The Prodigy” (no, he doesn’t smack anyone’s bitch up,) a one-in-a-million autistic savant with a “gift for numbers never known before.” His father is a failed mathematician who could not manage to solve the Theory of Everything. As a result, he resents the boy. His mother is fairly overprotective and has differing opinions on what to do with the son. In addition, at school he has a rival (voiced by Marco Hietala of Nightwish and Northern Kings) who is jealous of his mind and of the girl who loves him. I won’t get into too much detail as far as the plot, but it’s fantastic and it’s definitely better than many movies these days.
Musically, it’s incredibly complex, mixing traditional rock and prog metal with folk and operatic influences in a way that is almost completely unlike anything I’ve heard. The songs flow together immaculately, despite huge changes in rhythm, genre, tempo, and tone. Despite it being a vocally-driven album, there are no compromises on the instrumentation. This album rocks- the guitar work is incredible and holds up against anything else you’d expect from a European metal group. Notable, at least to me, is the album’s effective use of synthesizers. Normally, I’m fairly against synths in metal, because unless you’re in Kalmah or Children of Bodom, it just doesn’t do it for me. However, they’re so fantastically integrated here that they mesh seamlessly and really add to what is an already sonically diverse offering.
The lyricism is good, and leans more towards the kind of writing you’d find in a musical than in a traditional format. It works, although there are weaker moments, like in “Love and Envy,” where the Rival sings, “Oh no, I can’t believe- you’re falling for this loser. Oh no, I thought you knew- that I am so much cooler!” Fortunately, moments like this are few and far between, and more than cancelled out by fantastic vocal melodies like the Rival’s part in “Magnetism,” “He will deceive you, you’re being used. Don’t let him play you, all he wants to do- he wants to be with you.”
The only song that falls flat musically, in my opinion, is the short instrumental “String Theory,” which doesn’t really seem to fit in, given its position in the story. You’ll see what I mean when you hear it. Again, these occasional flaws are minor in comparison to the amazing musicianship on tracks like “The Theory of Everything, Pt. 1,” “Progressive Waves,” “Magnetism,” and “Mirror of Dreams.” The folk influences are some of the strongest points of the album, and they work surprisingly well with the weird proggy time signatures. I’m a fairly big fan of progressive music, but this album shouldn’t be intimidating to a non-prog listener in the way that a Dream Theater or Gojira album may be.
All in all, you must give this album a listen. It’s a phenomenal experience and unlike anything I had ever heard before. I can’t believe that I was unaware of this band, given how incredible this production is. Make sure to check out the lyrics for the liner notes, which have extra plot details that help to explain what’s happening.
Check it out here: