I’ve always envied those who had the chance to experience wonderful albums in their time… I know, art is not bound to a time or a place but let’s not kid ourselves; it’s a whole another level when you latch on to a great musician during their heyday! My generation was too young to witness some of the greatest albums coming to existence… The Wall, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Tommy, Thick As A Brick, Quadrophenia, Close to the Edge, 2112, Operation Mindcrime… Some may have been released within our lifetimes but we were at least too young to appreciate them! Some contemporary ones, thankfully, can compete with the great old past – say, Dream Theater’s “Metropolis Part II: Scenes from a Memory” comes to mind – so that we can feel not too left out.
That said, this is one unique moment. Now, I get to experience an album on a whole new level; witnessing the craft that went into making the record, even having some li’l chats about it with the man himself, and finally seeing my name in the acknowledgements… An album which will clearly be an essential part of the music history and my own collection of fondest memories! Thank you Arjen Anthony Lucassen… You’re too much!
Yeah, this sort of wraps up my view but I have a feeling that I should talk a bit more about both the man and the album itself! 🙂
Well, let me put it this way… It takes so much genius to do a true concept album like The Theory of Everything! It epitomizes everything prog from time signature changes to varied instrumentation, infinite layers of complexity, intricacy, well-thought lyrics, even better, a great concept to giant epics. It’s basically undeniable that this album is good by anybody’s standards.
Let me elaborate though!
It’s not the first time Arjen showcased his ability to cook up a well-rounded album; he is quite famous for creating remarkable soundscapes, exploring themes and human moods, creating the most appealing sort of music without going over the top. As far as arrangements and sonic dynamics are concerned, he has always been a master. His music is practically a part of a fan-base’s DNA. He is definitely one of the most influential musicians of our time.
Of course, all these (foresee-ably) made anticipation run wild and occasionally come back for a bite throughout the wait. The last two albums Arjen done, both his solo, Lost in the NewReal and Star One – Victims of the Modern Age were aurally stunning. Add to that the stellar cast Arjen announced one by one through fun videos, I could be said to have been holding my breath the whole time! Speculation was plentiful over the Internet, both on the secret line-up and the conceptual direction he would take as the Ayreon saga was completed… And I delightfully found out that all that hype wasn’t for nothing! Duh! After ‘The Human Equation’ this album is another crown achievement that further established Mr. Arjen Luccassen as one of the most accomplished musicians of our time…
So, yeah… The Theory of Everything does not stray far – nay, at all! – from the tradition. His sense for tasteful arrangements, rhythm and production ideas, not to mention his geeky approach to the story and special groove make listening to the album a real treat. Just like one would expect from him, there is a high level of complexity and utterly tasteful musicianship on display, as well. It’s just amazing how he is well aware of his own strengths.
Yes, he does have a signature style, as you know. Some ingredients that make the music his own. But the genius here is his approach to song-writing making an album filled with all these traditional elements fresh!
The most interesting thing for me is the fact that, in contrast to his music he is unbelievably unpretentious as a person. In my interview with him for Lost in the New Real he mentioned that his confidence, which is normally high while he crafts his music, always drops a bit every time he is about to release it in the form of a record… That he gets a bit shy in putting his work out there and starts thinking about ways to deal with the critics. Dang. I love this mang! I find it super-cute for a man famous for churning out fantastic albums on a regular basis.
For this album Arjen assembled a new star cast. Who would expect seeing three legendary keyboardists, Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman and Jordan Rudess in one record? I mean really? And… Steve Hackett!! Dang!
The list is long and includes Ed Warby – who’s been contributing over the years – on drums, Troy Donockley on whistles and Uilleann pipes, Ben Mathot on violins, Maaike Peterse on cello, Jeroen Goossens on flute, bass flute, piccolo, bamboo flute and contrabass flutes, Siddharta Barnhoorn on orchestrations, Michael Mills – who we see as a vocalist as well – on Irish Bouzouki, Wilmer Waarbroek on backing vocals and Arjen Anthony Lucassen on everything else! And by everything else I mean electric and acoustic guitars, bass guitar, mandolin, analogue synthesizers, Hammond, and Solina Strings to name a few…
Now, as you already know, Lucassen albums have this tradition of amazing singers as well… This time around we have this brilliant list!
(In order of appearance) JB as The Teacher, Sara Squadrani as The Girl, Michael Mills as The Father, Cristina Scabbia as The Mother, Tommy Karevik as The Prodigy, Marco Hietala as The Rival, and John Wetton as The Psychiatrist.
Sooo, let’s see… We see appearances from Dream Theater, Genesis, Yes, ELP, Seventh Wonder Asia, Nightwish, Lacuna Coil, Kamelot, Grand Magus, Ancient Bards and Toehider (about whom I actually found out thanks to this album). Oh Mang! Seriously? I mean, what’s next? Resurrect a music legend lost to us?
Musical Direction… What’s New?
I touched upon the signature style of Lucassen… But hey, don’t let this fool you… take a closer look and you will see that this album, compared to other Ayreon albums, harbours more freedom; lots of ups and downs and different vibes all around creating a weird effect that gives a different flavour that gets you, baffles you! It’s restless, shifting from mood to mood even within the course of a single track. It’s very touching in the quieter moments, really powerful in the heavier ones, and insanely catchy in some melodic parts. Right when you think things get really busy, working to the max, it suddenly gives you room to breathe mostly through the atmospheric feel of the synths… All these back to back make the album sonically very interesting.
In one corner you have your futuristic sounding synthesizers, around another hippy instrumentation masterfully delivered by Ben Mathot or Jeroen Goossens … Vibe and tempo changes perfectly match the mood changes in the story – something you don’t find just anywhere aside from the works of true masters.
Production and Speculations of a Stalker…
As for the production, insert all the cool adjectives in the English language here; clear, crisp, elegantly arranged, clean… Mmm makes a girl speculate more … Is this clarity a reflection of Arjen’s peaceful and content life away from the crowds? Far away from the chaos of the world outside? Well, although Arjen hiding himself in his Electric Castle makes a stalker’s life very difficult, is it may be an advantage for us fans, him not wasting any time but pouring his torrent of emotions into an album?
The album is not only well-heeled with intellect and matters of the geeky persuasion but also myriads of emotions coming through a well-thought story, which renders the album not-so-marginal for the social mainstream, making it into something considerably more enduring and universal.
Every phase on the album is based on some of the many stresses of human mind: jealousy, conflict, obsession, hate, competition, ambition, despair, break point of willpower, selfishness, greed, remorse, self-detest, being stuck in situations where you have to make a decision… You will relate to at least one – if not all – of those emotions and will be verily and mightily absorbed by the underlying drama if you’re willing to give yourself over to it.
Goes without saying, to truly appreciate what Arjen achieves here requires your utmost attention, as you let the musical magic take you in.
Angst the human disconnect brings about, loss of interpersonal communication – priorities blurring as people keep hidden agendas when connection is the only thing that is meaningful. When the only goal should be the shared happiness for a family, be it a family of a few people or an entire race, animosity through social constructs… How most innocent looking desires can be so destructive… The world is nasty, people deceive – and we’re all powerless in the end.
There is also a sense of mystery and because of it I won’t be doing a track by track. To be fair though, this is also because with my style of writing it would take the form of Encyclopaedia Lucassen!
Arjen’s ability to express emotions alongside his conceptual creativity – as well as his ability to construct a lengthy conceptual narrative – enables him to pen out effective dialogues between various characters which ultimately turn into fantastic vocal harmonies and takes the form of fantastic songs. There being some actual emotional underpinning to the music on display the only ingredient necessary is the presence of vocals that actually can convey it – which is one of the strong points of the album.
Complexity & Perfection
Nothing sounds out of place and despite the presence of legendary guest musicians no one holler “look ma, no hands!” Everything is blended in a very gentle, subtle, convincing way – the whole things is very intricate yet relaxed, just like a perfect make up… What? I’m a woman, surprised?
All in all, a lot of different styles in the form of diverse instrumentalists and voices are blended into a perfect whole.
With a lot of redonkulous musicians on board, obviously, the album is chock full of excellent instrumentation.
The sheer beauty and unforgettable nature of the keyboard melodies are dominating the album and underpinning the haunting melodies achieving a near-perfect balance of lyrical themes and perfectly crafted songs, painting both aural and – almost – visual pictures. The masterful delivery and the expansive skill add so much more depth to the songs… Just glorious!
My favourite phase…
…is the last one. Not surprising as then is the time when it becomes really special with the story unveiling its secrets and reaching its peak with more powerful emotional delivery from the vocalists… The vibes in this phase are just insane.
Gentle warning… This part will be relatively long – especially the bit about one particular vocalist who literally (yes) blew my mind… He sounds extremely passionate with each and every delivery but especially with his insanely-desperate-sounding screams. Yes… I was blown away by the range and power of Mike Mills’ voice, most convincing vocals in the whole the album if you ask me.
In all fairness, maybe Mike Mills and Cristina Scabbia inevitably stand out due to their roles that require the most emotive delivery. I say that because I know for a fact that Tommy Karevik is capable of much more than what he’s done here and yes, I’m a true Seventh Wonder fan.
As for Cristina… I’ve always liked her work with Lacuna Coil and worked out to her albums in London for weeks. But honestly, I have never seen her shine this brightly before… Arjen certainly was in the know about her skills – she is clearly much more capable than I thought she was! Well, this wouldn’t really come off as a big surprise to long-time Arjen fans as he clearly knows how to bring out the best in vocalists and make clever use of their range, style and timber… Even Damian Wilson admitted to the same fact in my interview with him some time ago…
If you want to experience what I am trying to tell here first hand, just go to the last phase and listen to The Argument 2 and The Parting back to back… Dang!
Hearing those tracks for the first time, I was just floored by the insane emotional and technical delivery of these two vocalists – as well as the riffs, harmonies, melodies, and Steve Hackett’s otherworldly solo… Well the awesomeness of it all, in brief. Those tracks literally brought tears to my eyes…
Every vocalist really does the job of complementing to the music perfectly. They all capture the emotion of every word without fail. There are moments that they all shine vocally… The only vocals that may be considered as a bit less of a highlight belong to Sara. Not that she is bad or anything, don’t get me wrong. But her delivery feels a bit weaker compared to the rest of the bunch…
And with these words…
Guys… I still have a bazillions of gazillions things to say… There is John Wetton and his deeply impressing voice; there is Jordan Rudess about whom I can write for days… Father Wakemen…. but honestly, no matter how much longer I write, this review will feel incomplete…
Truth is, you have to experience it yourselves… The booklet in your hands, a nice drink, some decent sound system and no distractions… Otherwise no one can really tell you the perfection of the music and the great drama on display here; no one can describe the sophistication of the sound; and no one can really convince you about how it will resonate with you and how the intricateness will hit all the sweet spots.
Just go and buy this masterpiece. Thank me later. Yours truly, Lady O