In his latest Ayreon release, The Theory of Everything, Dutch multi-instrumentalist, composer, singer and producer Arjen Anthony Lucassen unveils a completely revamped conceptual universe for Ayreon. Gone are the complicated story lines featuring sci-fi, aliens and time-travel; in their place is a real-world drama set in the here and now.
As a one-man revivalist for the term ‘rock opera’, Lucassen has spent the past decade-plus meticulously cultivating a reputation for perfectionism within his chosen realm – progressive rock with a powerful yet symphonic heavy metal backbone.
Reflecting Lucassen’s rising profile, Ayreon has been able to attract guest appearances from the biggest names in both of these genres, including members past and present of Iron Maiden, Marillion, Dream Theater, Yes, Porcupine Tree, Hawkwind, Opeth, King’s X, Avantasia, Within Temptation, Lacuna Coil, Symphony X, Spock’s Beard, Uriah Heep, Black Sabbath, Magnum, Blind Guardian, Epica and many more.
Although his previous Ayreon album, 01011001 (2007) was a commercial and critical success that charted in 17 countries, Lucassen owned up to having been seduced by the embarrassment of riches that were laid before him, revealing to an interviewer that the Ayreon universe would only return if he could “start from scratch and do something completely different with it."
“Things were getting way too complicated -- even for me!”, he admits today. “The huge number of guests, the complicated sci-fi story that had been told across the previous Ayreon albums, even the title of ‘01011001’ album was inscrutable to all but the most dedicated fans”.
Wrapping up the original Ayreon saga with ‘Epilogue: The Memory Remains’, a track on the ‘Timeline’ boxed set, Lucassen took a creative break from Ayreon, focussing instead on other projects including Guilt Machine, Star One and his solo record ‘Lost In New Real’. And yet something kept calling him back to Ayreon. Determined to revamp and revitalize the Ayreon universe, Arjen has spent the last 18 months crafting a simpler yet by no means less extravagant new record. Summing up the new concept, Arjen explains, "it takes a look at the fine line between genius and madness, focussing on the conflicting desires of the characters and the consequences of following their passions. It's not science fiction, but a human story set in a science context."
“Don't be fooled by the simplified story line -- there is still a LOT going on musically and structurally. I've made an album with very few conventional choruses, and hardly any lyrics being repeated. And I'm eminently aware that it will probably come over as a ton of information at first listen. But my ultimate goal is to make timeless music that stays interesting over repeated listens. Personally, I don't get that with repetitive, sing-along music."
While ‘01011001’ showcased no fewer than 17 lead vocalists, including Lucassen himself, ‘…Everything’ features just seven guest singers – none of whom have been involved before with Ayreon. Representing the symphonic metal world are Marko Hietala of Nightwish and Kamelot’s Tommy Karevik, while Cristina Scabbia from Lacuna Coil and JB of Grand Magus fly the flag for heavy metal. Meanwhile, the album also showcases two relatively new talents; Michael Mills of Australia’s Toehider and Sara Squadrani from the Italian group Ancient Bards.
Look out also for a cavalcade of high profile instrumental players. Among the album's biggest stars are Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson, known for their celebrated keyboard-playing exploits with Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, plus former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett, as well as vocals from the current Asia/former King Crimson, UK, Uriah Heep bassist John Wetton. Lucassen’s trusty sidekick Ed Warby once again applies his hard-hitting, technical-yet-tasteful drumming patterns.
“Working with members of four legendary progressive rock bands of the 1970s was a dream come true,” Lucassen enthuses.
Still in progressive territory, Jordan Rudess of Dream Theater contributed a keyboard solo, with Troy Donockley (Nightwish) playing Uillean pipes and Low Flutes.
“There’s a ‘Tales From Topographic Oceans’ thing going on,” smiles Lucassen in relation to the record’s musical content, casually referencing 1973’s seminal double-concept album by Yes, which infamously housed one song on each side of its original vinyl. ‘The Theory Of Everything’ fills two full CDs with just four ‘epic’ tracks – ‘Singularity’, ‘Symmetry’, ‘Entanglement’ and ‘Unification’ – each more than 20 minutes long.
“Those are broken down into 42 titled sections – and as all fans of 'The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy' will know, 42 is the meaning of life,” explains Lucassen with a laugh. “If you buy the album from iTunes there will be 42 separate tracks.”
All will become crystal clear when ‘The Theory Of Everything’ is unveiled via InsideOut Music on October 28.