Arjen Anthony Lucassen – Lost in the New Real

Although he is surely best known for his epic prog operas under the penname Ayreon, Arjen Lucassen is a man of many, many, many projects. Apart from his flagship project, he has pursued atmospheric prog metal with Guilt Machine and Ambeon, heavy ‘space’ metal with Star One and symphonic metal, and symphonic metal with Stream of Passion, and even then, that doesn’t encompass all of the things he has led or been involved with. Although it might seem redundant for Arjen to make a ‘solo’ album when he already has total creative control over many of his projects, there is a certain liberty here that would not have lent itself to established works. Like Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson did last year with “Grace for Drowning”, calling “Lost in the New Real” a solo record alleviates many of the preconceptions folks would have had with another Ayreon record. For anyone who had their doubts about it, Arjen’s latest creation is a celebration of his distinctive sound, and labels regardless, we have another vast progressive concept album to sink our ears into, courtesy of one of Holland’s finest.

Being that Arjen penned this album under his own name, it’s actually surprising to hear how closely “Lost in the New Real” resembles an Ayreon album. Compared to “01011001″ or “The Human Equation”, things are perhaps a little more melodic and accessible this time around, but Arjen retains that infectious sense of progressive sub-genre bending quirk that defines much of his work. Any existing Ayreon fans certainly won’t be surprised to hear a sudden folk interlude propped up in the middle of an electronic metal fusion, or whimsical 60′s psychedelia contrasted with crunchy metal riffs and the occasional death growl. This is simply (or not simply) Arjen’s way of doing things. It’s the fact that the styles are all fused together so effortlessly that makes the art brilliant, and it’s really no different on “Lost in the New Real”. The album’s teaser trailer brought light to this fact as well; suffice to say, there’s no sense of boredom on either of these discs, although it does help to be open to a wide variety of progressive styles. Metalheads should be prepared for gratuitous amounts of prog, and vice versa, although for any fan of Ayreon, this will be no surprise!

Like several of Arjen’s past works, “Lost in the New Real” is a double album, although unlike the Ayreon operas, the discs may be seen as separate journeys in their own right. The first disc is a conceptual piece observing many of the same sci-fi themes and topics as his earlier work. The second disc also has original material, but it is interspersed with covers from some of the classic bands that influenced him. Obviously, the first disc is the one that will sway most of the listener’s attention and appreciation, although the latter half of the album is more than mere bonus material. Even the covers carry many of the same themes of technology and isolation, so even though the album-proper may end with the progressive, ten minute monster that closes the first disc, the concept never ends.

“Lost in the New Real” does not tell a story so much as explore a number of topics through a scenario. In this case, a man (presumably Arjen himself) has been frozen in cryogenic stasis, and awoken in the future, to a world he can no longer identify with. Each of the songs that follow explore a different part of this dystopic future reality. Every limit of artistry has been exploited (“Pink Beatles in a Purple Zeppelin”), there is state-instituted population control (“Parental Procreation Permit”), people can live to gloriously old ages (“When I’m a Hundred Sixty-Four”) but would prefer to die (“Dr. Slumber’s Eternity Home”). It’s this sort of irony that makes Arjen’s vision of a future so interesting. It’s a very familiar vision for science fiction, but it’s made compelling by a sense of tongue-in-cheek playfulness. Even when he’s singing about the submission of the human spirit to soulless technology, the lyrics are rarely somber and the music never depressing.

At long last, “Lost in the New Real” offers an album where we get to hear Lucassen’s signature sound of epic metal fronted by his own voice. He has long been very modest about his voice in interviews, usually preferring to outsource vocal duties to some of the genre’s finest- Bruce Dickinson, Hansi Kursch, and Devin Townsend have all sung on Arjen’s records at one point. Though he has collaborated with some of the best singers the metal genre has ever seen, there was something undeniably sincere and warm about his scarce performances on the Ayreon records that always made me think he should put more of a confidence and focus on his vocals. Although backing vocalist Wilmer Waarbroek offers some operatic touches to the background, Arjen assumes all lead vocal responsibilities. His voice is very melodic, warm, and without any overt sense of technical wizardry to it. His voice befits the psychedelic style best; even when he’s singing in a more metal-edged style, there’s something about his voice that betrays a 1960′s charm, and given that many of the tunes here are of a more melodic persuasion than Ayreon, it meshes very well.

The first disc is varied, yet wholesome and consistent. Rutger Hauer’s (of Blade Runner fame) gravelly narration becomes dry after a couple of spins, but the album-proper is a progressive marvel. The first and last “New Real” tracks are some of the finest compositions Arjen has ever done, fusing dark, spacey ambient music with grandiose metal orchestration and a meticulous attention to the way different instruments are used. “Pink Beatles in a Purple Zeppelin” and “Where Pigs Fly” are also particular winners, each sporting some humorous and thought-provoking lyrical ideas. “Dr. Slumber’s Eternity Home” and “Yellowstone Memorial Day” are a little less memorable than the rest, but there is never a sense of the album’s flow getting hurt or broken as a result. “Lost in the New Real” is slightly less bombastic than the over-the-top Ayreon approach, and it certainly translates well here. It’s the most interesting conceptual idea Arjen has had for an album since 2003′s “The Human Equation”, and it’s clever enough to spark topics for debate, without ever offering a clear solution to the problems.

The second disc- as you may expect- is less impressive than the first. Although there are originals tunes here as well, the latter half of the album is defined by the covers. In terms of the originals, they are generally less spectacular than the tracks off the first disc, still enjoying the same degree of meticulous sound production, but in want for the same cleverness. I never thought I would say it, but the covers are far superior to any of the originals on the second disc. I say this not necessarily because Arjen has chosen tunes from some of progressive rock’s greatest icons, but because he often manages to achieve the impossible- taking a classic song, rearranging it to his own style, and sometimes making it even better than the source material. Case and point, Pink Floyd’s “Welcome to the Machine” is bastardized into a spacey prog metal rancor beast. There are still the same vocal melodies, but Arjen has fused it with his own riffs. The other covers here are a little more true-to-form, but just as impressive. Blue Oyster Cult’s “Veteran of the Psychic Wars” and The Alan Parsons Project’s “Some Other Time” are given new life here, given the same care and attention Arjen would give his own songs, to the point where I might possibly enjoy Arjen’s version more. Of course, Led Zeppelin’s version of “The Battle of Evermore” remains unconquered, but Arjen can’t be held to fault for that! The second disc wraps up with Zappa’s “I’m the Slime”, and for better or worse, it sounds almost identical to the original. I may have preferred to have heard Arjen take Zappa’s vision in a new and exciting way, but there’s no harm done in the straightforward way Lucassen and co. have paid tribute.

It’s an hour and a half journey, and it’s one I think most fans of Ayreon will be thrilled by. Although the covers are a great way to hear Arjen playing something that’s not directed by his own, familiar vision, it would have been interesting to hear him go someplace with this solo project that was different than what he’s already done with Ayreon and Star One. For better or worse, this is another dose of Arjen Anthony Lucassen doing what he does. It’s great, emotional and progressive music, and it enjoys some of the finest production you’re bound to hear this side of the Alpha Quadrant. With the announcement of a new Ayreon album slated for a possible 2013 release, we may have to wait a while before we hear from Arjen’s solo project again. In any case, “Lost in the New Real” may not revolutionize Arjen’s style, but it’s excellent, excellent stuff. For thought provoking, memorable progressive metal, you need look no further.

Tracklist:

CD 1:
1. The New Real (6:24)
2. Pink Beatles in a Purple Zeppelin (3:36)
3. Parental Procreation Permit (5:03)
4. When I’m a Hundred Sixty-Four (2:30)
5. E-Police (4:07)
6. Don’t Switch Me Off (4:06)
7. Dr Slumber’s Eternity Home (3:51)
8. Yellowstone Memorial Day (3:31)
9. Where Pigs Fly (3:47)
10. Lost in the New Real (10:19)

Time 47:14

CD 2:
1. Our Imperfect Race (6:27)
2. Welcome to the Machine [Pink Floyd] (4:45)
3. So Is There No God? (4:41)
4. Veteran of the Psychic Wars [Blue Oyster Cult] (4:34)
5. The Social Recluse (3:55)
6. Battle of Evermore [Led Zeppelin] (5:28)
7. The Space Hotel (3:49)
8. Some Other Time [Alan Parsons Project] (3:27)
9. You Have Entered the Reality Zone (3:24)
10. I’m the Slime [Frank Zappa] (2:53)

Line-up:

* Arjen Lucassen – vocals, all instruments (excepted those of featured musicians)
* Rutger Hauer – narrations

With:

* Wilmer Waarbroek – backing vocals
* Ed Warby – drums
* Rob Snijders – drums
* Ben Mathot – violin
* Maaike Peterse – cello
* Jeroen Goossens – flute
* Elvya Dulcimer – dulcimer

Links:

http://www.arjenlucassen.com/

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