Back in 2008 when Ayreon released 01011001, I was taken aback by some of the criticism it received. Although there were those that still applauded Arjen Lucassen’s bombast and ambitious scope, many more seemed to discredit the album for what interpreted as an overly familiar approach. Though my opinion doesn’t appear to be shared by many others, I thought (and still think) that 01011001 was a masterpiece, a natural culmination to the composer’s metal opera cycle. Even so, Arjen’s decision to start fresh with a new saga only fuelled my anticipation for The Theory of Everything. Arjen’s familiar eclecticism remains, but this latest double-disc opus makes it abundantly clear that we’ve set foot in a new era for Ayreon. Though this artistic rejuvenation is welcome (and some might say necessary), this latest installment in Ayreon‘s proud catalogue feels scaled back when compared to the last two masterpieces. Though it doesn’t compare favourably to Arjen’s best work, The Theory of Everything is a strong foundation for a new progressive metal saga, and I’m interested in see where he’ll take it next.
Outside of the atrociously disappointing Dream Theater and the latest instant classic from Haken, The Theory of Everything sparked my anticipation moreso than any prog record released in the past year. Admittedly upon first sitting down to listen to the album in its entirety, I met Ayreon‘s latest opus with disappointment. Not only did it feature the least impressive cast of vocalists since Actual Fantasy, it had also exchanged satisfying song structures for an onslaught of bite-sized segments, tied together with some semblance of an epic. Though my biggest gripes with The Theory of Everything have remained in part, appreciation grew with the dawning realization that Arjen had taken the risk of making a fresh start. Experienced on its own, The Theory of Everythingreveals itself as a treasure trove of compelling musical ideas and passages, even if Arjen’s pieced them all together a little awkwardly.
I’ve seen many people liken The Theory of Everything structurally to Yes‘ infamous (and equally brilliant) “Tales from Topographic Oceans”; a double album that consisted of four twenty-odd minute compositions. Although Arjen has broken this 42-track spectacle into four ‘phases’ (or sides), the tracks often feel like self-contained miniature ideas rather than pieces of an ‘epic’ whole. In bold rock operatic fashion, The Theory of Everythingmoves away from regular song structures in exchange for a more spontaneous theatrical flow. There is some clever use of recurring motifs sprinkled throughout the album, but for the most part, the musical ideas feel structured episodically. Although the ‘phases’ begin and end with important plot points relating to the album’s concept, The Theory of Everything can feel pretty incoherent if listened to as a collection of four epics. Although I would have easily preferred more concise and focused compositions in the vein of 01011001 or Into the Electric Castle, repeated listens to the album do give the impression that the sheer quality of the ideas individually more than makes up for the perceived lack of conventional structure.
As for these ideas themselves, Arjen has once again outdone himself. Where other aspects of the album may suffer, the segments themselves sound as excellent and as epic as anything in the band’s catalogue. There is a greater instrumental emphasis here than on albums past, and each of the four sides are home to epic segments. Ayreon‘s traditional fusion of traditional progressive metal, electronic, folk and classical music really shines here, and though The Theory of Everything is almost twice the length of your average album, the eclectic approach to instrumentation and style feels consistently fresh and engaging. When compared to past Ayreonalbums, The Theory of Everything sounds a little more vintage, more reserved and indeed, less ‘metal’. A few rhythmic eruptions like “Quantum Chaos” still earn the album a metal label, but I get the strong impression here that the second saga of Ayreon will see the project cater even more to its prog-based fans.
Hearing about the new cast of vocalists has always been the most exciting part of a new Ayreon album for me. In the past, Arjen Lucassen has had a fantastic taste in the voices he chooses for the characters, 01011001 had two of my favourite vocalists (Daniel Gildenlow of Pain of Salvation and Hansi Kursch of Blind Guardian) on it, and The Human Equation featured contributions from Devin Townsend… bloody Devin Townsend! By contrast,The Theory of Everything’s offering of vocalists from Lacuna Coil, Ancient Bards, Asia and Nightwish feels surprisingly weak in comparison. While it’s still puzzling to see such a lack of prog and metal star power working with Ayreon this time around, the vocal performances are very good, if not excellent. Tommy Karevik (the latest singer of Kamelot) is chosen perfectly for the role of the opera’s protagonist, and Grand Magus frontman Janne Christoffersson gives an excellence performance here as well, offering his voice for the role of the ‘Teacher’. Otherwise, the vocals here aren’t quite as dazzling as I thought they’d be, and I think I’ll always bit a little disappointed that The Theory of Everything doesn’t feature a more distinguished cast of guests.
Although the vocalists may not have been as dazzling as expected, Arjen makes up for it with an incredible cast of guest instrumentalists from across the prog spectrum. Dream Theater keyboardist Jordan Rudess and prog wizard Keith Emerson both stand out for their respective solos on “Progressive Waves”. Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman and classic Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett are also featured. This emphasis on classic prog icons for guest appearances, paired with the more reserved musical style are both redolent of Arjen’s intention on reinventing Ayreon with this album. Although some things have certainly changed, expert musicianship and stellar production standards remain Ayreon‘s signature. Although Arjen is prone to use disparate elements like folk and electronica in the same musical phrase, it’s blended together brilliantly, and never feels forced, as often seems to be the case with many genre-bending proggers.
The Theory of Everything marks the first time since Actual Fantasy (in 1996) where an Ayreon album hasn’t contributed to the overarching Ayreon concept mythology in some way. As 01011001 and the “Timeline” compilation released shortly thereafter made for a satisfying conclusion to Arjen’s sci-fi epic, it’s exciting to see the man moving onto a new saga. This time around, Arjen has chosen to step away from the overt science-fiction and fantasy tropes, instead choosing to build the story around psychologically believable characters and interpersonal drama. This approach has worked wonders for Ayreon in the past; his magnum opus The Human Equation made for compelling psychodrama in the purest sense, involving a protagonist interacting with personified manifestations of his emotions. In addition to its fascinating high concept, Arjen imbued the plot and characters with a surprising amount of depth for a rock opera. Although The Theory of Everything isn’t as interesting a concept as The Human Equation, its story- pertaining to the struggles and moral dilemmas surrounding a mathematical genius- offers plenty of room for Arjen to explore much of the same psychology and relationships. Many tropes on The Human Equation are found again here: the neglectful father, the morally tainted protagonist, the concerned romantic interest. Although The Theory of Everything doesn’t offer nearly as engaging of a plot, the psychological depth is once again striking. Each character is fuelled with their own distinct opinions and motivations, and no action within the story is without conflicting moral viewpoints for and against it. With that being said, it’s not as compelling of a story as I would have hoped to hear on an Ayreon album. Although the story’s potentially paranormal epilogue leaves me excited for where Arjen might take this saga next, the story seems to plod along at times, defaulting on praise or criticism of its hesitant protagonist. To those detractors that have long condemned Arjen’s often complex sci-fi creations however, The Theory of Everything’smore human approach might come as a welcome change of pace.
It’s certainly not a perfect album, and not the masterpiece I was hoping to hear from Ayreon, but The Theory of Everything sounds rich and multilayered in spite of its weaknesses. Although a less impressive set of vocalists and convoluted album structure make for glaring issues, there are so many brilliant moments here that deserve to be heard by any self-respecting fan of modern prog. In spite of Arjen Lucassen’s apparent intent to renovate his style, I don’t imagine existing detractors of his work will be converted to the man’s legion of rabid followers. Likewise, if you’ve enjoyed Ayreon in the past, the weaknesses here won’t otherwise impede enjoyment of the experience. Ayreon has delivered a complex, bombastic, no-holds-barred progressive rock epic with The Theory of Everything, but then again, we wouldn’t have expected any less of him anyways.
“Phase I: Singularity” (23:29)
1. Prologue: The Blackboard
2. The Theory Of Everything Part 1
4. The Prodigy’s World
5. The Teacher’s Discovery
6. Love And Envy
7. Progressive Waves
8. The Gift
9. The Eleventh Dimension
11. The Theory Of Everything Part 2
“Phase II: Symmetry” (21:31)
12. The Consultation
14. The Argument 1
15. The Rival’s Dilemma
16. Surface Tension
17. A Reason To Live
19. Quantum Chaos
20. Dark Medicine
22. The Prediction
“Phase III: Entanglement” (22:34)
4. Side Effects
5. Frequency Modulation
7. Quid Pro Quo
8. String Theory
“Phase IV: Unification” (22:20)
10. Mirror Of Dreams
11. The Lighthouse
12. The Argument 2
13. The Parting
14. The Visitation
15. The Breakthrough
16. The Note
17. The Uncertainty Principle
18. Dark Energy
19. The Theory Of Everything Part 3
20. The Blackboard (Reprise)
Vocalists: (in Order of Appearance)
- JB (Grand Magus) as The Teacher
- Sara Squadrani (Ancient Bards) as The Girl
- Michael Mills (Toehider) as The Father
- Cristina Scabbia (Lacuna Coil) as The Mother
- Tommy Karevik (Kamelot, Seventh Wonder) as The Prodigy
- Marco Hietala (Nightwish, Tarot) as The Rival
- John Wetton (Asia, King Crimson) as The Psychiatrist
- Ed Warby (Hail of Bullets, Gorefest) / drums
- Rick Wakeman (Yes) / keyboards
- Keith Emerson (ELP) / keyboards
- Jordan Rudess (Dream Theater) / keyboards
- Steve Hackett (Genesis) / lead guitar
- Troy Donockley (Nightwish) / whistles, Uilleann pipes
- Ben Mathot (Dis) / violin
- Maaike Peterse (Kingfisher Sky) / cello
- Jeroen Goossens (Flairck) / flute , bass flute, piccolo, bamboo flute, contrabass flute
- Siddharta Barnhoorn / orchestrations
- Michael Mills (Toehider) / Irish bouzouki
- Wilmer Waarbroek / backing vocals
- Arjen Anthony Lucassen / electric and acoustic guitars, bass, mandolin, analog synthesizers, Hammond, Solina strings