AYREON Albums Ranked

AYREON Albums Ranked

What do you do if you are a Dutch multi-instrumentalist into progressive and metal, and you aspire to make the records that could have the same sort of popularity Dark Side of the Moon, or even something like OK Computer enjoy? You create Ayreon, a band formed by the one and only Arjen Anthony Lucassen.

Since 1995 Arjen Lucassen’s Ayreon went on to release nine studio albums, with the most recent being brand new 2017’s effort The Source. Known for bringing many great musicians, and especially singers, to work with him, Lucassen has collaborated with names that include James LaBrie, Russell Allen, Michael Romeo, Mikael Akerfeldt, Devin Townsend, Bruce Dickinson, Marcela Bovio, Anekke Van Giersbergen, Floor Jansen, Jonas Renkse, Daniel Gildenlöw, etc.

We tried to rank Ayreon’s records, and here is what we came up with.

09. Actual Fantasy (1996)

Ayreon‘s second full length output is a quite unique piece of music from this project. For the first and last time, Arjen Lucassen decided to not invite a high number of guest musicians but did something like a solo project where he played all instruments and invited one main singer as well as one supplementary vocalist. The project feels more like a band in here and this album sounds quite homogenous. It’s also the project’s shortest full length release and gets quickly to the point. Everything sounds coherent and seems promising. To keep it short, the new project’s project happens to be a band project. That’s a pretty original statement, isn’t it?

But the final result is by far not as brilliant as it could have been. The songs are all very long and surpass all the six minute mark apart of the short introduction. I feel that some of the tracks are artificially stretched and are not varied enough to justify such a length. That wouldn’t be much of a problem if the songs had at least a great atmosphere, a gripping passage and some catchy elements but that’s just not the case. The songs are mostly calm and slow paced and copy the progressive rock acts of the seventies without reaching the subtle intensity of calmer bands such as King Crimson, Genesis, Pink Floyd, Tangerine Dream or Gentle Giant. “Abbey Of Synn” for example could have been a solid opener if it would have been about five minutes long as everything is already said at this mark. The album closer “Forevermore” has the same problem and instead of finishing the record on a great note, the grand finale turns out to be a quite pointless and mellow stumbling towards the end of the line. The single “The Stranger From Within” shares the same fate. The shortened single version sounded like a tribute to the commercial progressive music of the late seventies and early eighties in the key of Yes and was rather catchy but the album version is twice as long and offers not much more than the short version. Progressive fans might find some interesting musical details from time to time but especially the metal fan section of Ayreon will quickly be turned off by the numerous unnecessary lengths. Let’s also add the revisited edition of the album doesn’t add anything appealing and actually sounds less coherent than the original release.

08. The Final Experiment (1995)

The whole first album is full of diversity and well arranged details. The record covers a big spectre from acoustic guitars to flutes and from epic female choirs to heavier growls. The enjoyable fact is that Ayreon takes the time to establish an intriguing atmosphere that fits with the story line instead of heading for the technical perfection and complexity. That’s an error many progressive bands commit including Lucassen himself with some of his future works. This album here is smooth and has an enjoyable flow. It focuses on the right melodies and coherent structures and that sounds vivid, human and authentic to me. Don’t expect three minute long keyboard solos. Arjen Lucassen doesn’t want to be the center of the own universe he created. He rather let his guests be part of it and shares the stage with them on almost equal levels.

It’s difficult to point out any songs on the record because it works as a whole. Let’s mention that the first couple of songs are quite huge and complicated and not easy to digest. I didn’t immediately fell in love with them and rather began to appreciate the album towards the second and especially the last third. In the end, the only problem of the album is that after a promising beginning the less impressing and memorable tracks are right in the beginning of the record and it still takes me some time to get into it. But the further the record goes the more interesting the pieces get and the more I get into the whole concept even if there is a clear lack of a truly memorable hit on this album. The powerful and yet quite diversified orchestral single “Sail away to Avalon” is the closest one to in this kind of category.

Prog metal, ‘70s rock and folk combined in a rock-opera style album have been Ayreon’s trademark ever since. Arjen’s guitar work on this album is great with lots of fine solo’s but also beautiful acoustic parts. On a negative note, the synth-work on this album can sound dated from time to time with hard lead parts very upfront in the mix and sometimes there’s simply to much going on.

07. Universal Migrator Part 2: Flight of the Migrator (2000)

Flight of the Migrator represents the second of the separately issued, two-part science fiction-based Universal Migrator CDs. Once again, multi-instrumentalist Lucassen employs a multinational aggregation of vocalists and keyboardists to supplement his existential visions. And while Part I: The Dream Sequencer is primarily an ambient/electronic progressive rock-based outing, Part II of this series figuratively takes the willing listener back to the beginning of time, as the hard-edged prog/metallic stylizations parallel a stewing universe, i.e., “The Big Bang.” Throughout this affair, the music contrasts the expertly crafted dreamscapes witnessed on Part I as the musicians expound upon rapid unison choruses, shifty time signatures, and synth-led themes. The piece titled “Journey on the Waves of Time” boasts a memorably melodic hook thanks to Erik Norlander‘s meaty analog synthesizers as the overall vibe might rekindle notions of a typical Emerson, Lake & Palmer motif, although Ralf Scheepers icy, high-pitched vocals detract from the melodious effect. The band also utilizes strings and electro-acoustic interludes to counterbalance some of the high-impact proceedings amid Lucassen‘s penetrating and often blistering lines performed on electric guitar. Overall, Flight of the Migrator is a noteworthy release for the year 2000 yet some of these pieces are slightly amorphous in scope and fail to sustain any lasting degree of interest.

06. Universal Migrator Part 1: The Dream Sequencer (2000)

The Dream Sequencer signifies tranquillity and serenity in conjunction with the “last of the Mars Colonists” who have depleted their resources thanks to a catastrophic, albeit futuristic war. And besides the rather far-flung yet pleasingly affable concept, the crystalline recording in concert with the musicians’ often dazzling and altogether sympathetic interplay equates to a thoroughly enterprising affair that sustains interest. Lucassen enlists a multinational cast of vocalists and musicians for an exposition that at times elicits fond memories of early-’70s Pink Floyd-style dream-laden vistas. However, the band does indeed perform with a late-’90s edge, while also maintaining a consistently identifiable sound and style as many of these textural soundscapes are enhanced by sweet-tempered vocals, layered synths, and seductive melodies that skirt the fringes of ambient electronica and classic progressive rock. Whereas, Lucassen excels as an accomplished guitarist and colorist who chooses his notes wisely yet is equally adept at seizing the moment by way of bone-crushing leads and concisely executed chord progressions. The Dream Sequencer is brimming with climactic overtures, enticing vocal harmonies, and memorably melodic themes. Basically, Lucassen‘s strong compositions and alluring arrangements strike an engaging chord as the music and overall production hearken back to the glory days of defiantly inventive progressive rock.

05. The Source (2017)

The story of The Source is set six billion years in the past relative to Earth. It begins on Planet Alpha, a world in the Andromeda system where computer intelligence has far surpassed that of humanity.  Alpha is facing a massive global crisis, with ecological and political catastrophes threatening all human life. The Alphans (our human ancestors) try to save their planet by entrusting the global computer mainframe—The ‘Frame—to find a solution. Given total control of the planet, the ‘Frame reaches the logical conclusion that its creators are the cause of all the trouble. The only way to solve Alpha’s problems is to exterminate humanity. This leaves the Alphans no other option than to try and escape their horrific fate. But their escape comes at a terrible price. It’s the beginning of a story that contains everything that has made the Ayreon epics so endlessly fascinating all these years.

The Source sees James LaBrie, Simone Simons, Floor Jansen, Hansi Kursch, Tobias Sammet and Russell Allen returning to work with Lucassen on the new release. The album feels diverse, but comparing with The Theory of Everything, The Source feels heavier and more biting and aggressive. It’s comprised of plenty of softer parts which flow and transition nicely, as expected. “Star of Sirrah,” “Everybody Dies,” “Deathcry of a Race” and the opening “The Day that the World Breaks Down” are among the finest pieces of what Ayreon in 2017 is.

04. 01011001 (2008)

Lucassen has assembled a pretty strong cast for this round, including Pain of Salvation mastermind Daniel Gildenlöw, Jonas Renkse of Katatonia, Jorn Lande, Hansi Kursch, Floor Jansen, Steve Lee, and many more. All in all it’s an impressive vocal cast any other band would be jealous of. The vocal performances are not limited to songs like on the Universal Migrator epos, however; like on the Human Equation, they are split between the songs. This means you’ll hear for example Renkse appear various times through the album, delivering his trademark vocals (since Renske is one of the few who wrote some of his own vocal melodies, he gives off a definite Katatonia vibe in some of his peaces, contrasting nicely with the music.)

Other vocal standouts include Lande, who provides first rate melodic hard rock vocals, Gildenlöw with his unique expressive range, and Anneke van Giersbergen/Floor Jansen combine for some epic dual vocals to dominate the songs. The only times singers appear to sing full songs, are the Man vocalists, who usually share lead vocals on a song. They are less numerous and apart from Simone Simons (Epica) and the unknown Dutch hiphopper Wudstik (who is actually an excellent singer and Lucassen deserves some credit for picking this guy up to play), they don’t stand out as much as some of the “Forever” vocalists.

This epsiode hinges on a race called Forever, whose planet has been dominated by machinery, and they set out to travel through time and colonise another planet for their survival. They arrive at the planet Earth at the time of the dinosaur’s extinction (various Ayreon albums also make reference to real-life events or previous events in the Ayreon Saga; the ending of the album centers around the destruction of the earth in 2085, and what happens to the Earth then. Further information should lead you to the Universal Migrator installment.) It’s all complex and interlinked, and hard to get into unless you’re a hardcore fan of the band, which does not make this the ideal newcomer’s album, but it’s there to get into if you like the music.

And musically, Ayreon does not disappoint here. Ayreon always married prog and metal, but on this album Lucassen has added electronics to his widening arsenal, along with the folk elements returning. The album ranges through various moods, from the stomping opener “Age of Shadows” which opens with an almost Rammstein-esque riff, to the folk-metal inspired “River of Time,” to the drowsy Floyd meets Depeche Mode “Comatose,” to some terrific ‘80s hard rock choruses on “Unnatural Selection” (Lande plays a big part in enhancing these.) Overall the material on offer is varied, yet sustains a mood and a typical bombastic Ayreon sound with a lot of segue-background effects. Of course the technical enthusiasts aren’t kept begging, with Michael Romeo delivering a grand guest solo, and various other synth/guitar/keyboard solos to be found. There are even violins and flutes, just to add to the grand drama of the whole thing.

03. The Theory of Everything (2013)

Admittedly upon first sitting down to listen to the album in its entirety, I met The Theory of Everything 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 Everything reveals 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 Everything moves 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.

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.

02. Into the Electric Castle (1998)

After the previous Ayreon’s album, Actual Fantasy, which sold below expectations, Lucassen sought to deliver a top quality recording. If the album had not been a success, Arjen said he would have no longer continued the Ayreon project. With this in mind, he created the concept and music for a progressive science fiction epic and gathered some of the best vocalists around.

Lucassen picked each of his singers so well that the releasing of this story, through lyrics and music, is really stunning. Not only the vocalists are great, but they real become, each with their roles, delivering a performance that is vocally impressive and emotionally involving, something you wouldn’t expect from a relatively cheesy science fiction story.

Being a concept album, as are all Ayreon’s albums, it’s a fairy tale about eight persons from very different eras. It tells a science fiction story with characters influenced by science fiction movies. The eight main characters sing each song, played by a different vocalist, from different times and locations. Into the Electric Castle follows the lives of eight characters from different epochs in history who meet in a lost dimension. They find themselves in a strange place. They have been brought together by an invisible force and have to enter into an Electric Castle. A mysterious voice guides them through a maze of trails that leads them to the Electric Castle, in which they must find the gates back to their own centuries. Characters die in different songs, building suspense about who will reach the gates in the end of the story.

The music itself is splendid, heavily layered with synthesizer textures to give it a space opera feel. All the songs incorporate a variety of styles, from progressive metal, to ‘70s rock, to folk and to synthesizer pop. The songs vary in complexity and heaviness, but they’re all pretty catchy. The music evolves with the mood, adjusting itself to each particular singer and the tone of the lyrics. It almost seems like you don’t need the lyrics, as the music displays more emotion than of the lyrics do. While the entire album needs to be listened to straight through to really get the sense of the story line. However, many of the songs can be listened to individually, and every song is absolutely great. How often do you come across a song where blues guitar is interrupted by acoustic space-rock as in “Amazing Flight,” or from the majestic synthesizers that open “The Garden Of Emotions” to the catchy chorus of “The Castle Hall”? Into The Electric Castle is filled to the brim with great melodies that demonstrate the Arjen’s ability to write great songs in many different styles, including progressive rock, metal, fusion, folk and others. It features some great heavy guitar stuff and beautiful synthesisers solos. Another great thing about the album is the use of real violins, cellos and flutes, as opposed to using synthesizers to produce decent, but nonetheless fake imitations of the real instruments.

01. The Human Equation (2004)

The Human Equation takes place over two discs, nearly two hours of music, and 20 tracks, each representing a day. The album tells the story of a man in a coma and his struggle back to life. Told from two perspectives, cleverly woven lyrics and music take us from his bedside where his wife and best friend stand vigil, to the inside of his mind where his demons are haunting him. He must confront his emotions: Rage, Pride, Fear, Reason, Love, Passion, and Agony, all brilliantly sung by some of the most talented vocalists in the industry, in order to fight his way back to life. As he confronts these inner demons we discover what led to the coma in the first place, and some of the fears and trials that await him outside his own mind.

Musically, The Human Equation truly runs the gamut of styles. Everything from acoustic folk, hints of orchestral arrangements, spacey psychedelic prog, and powerful metal finds the appropriate place on the album to move the story forward. Most of the instruments are played by Arjen himself, but he wisely pulls in some truly talented musicians to flesh out the sound. As we have come to expect, Ed Warby does a masterful job on the drums, and guest instrumentalists bring their talent to the table on the keyboards, cello, violin and flutes. There really is something for just about everyone on this fine album. And while often clumped into the category of progressive rock/metal, Arjen tastefully refrains from the self-indulgent displays of technical virtuosity that is often associated with the genre, while still displaying excellent musical ability.

It is the amazing melding of apparently incompatible styles of music that makes The Human Equation such a fascinating experience. Not only do we never know what the next song is going to sound like, each song can surprise the listener, with artistic, coherent transitions from metal to folk, psychedelic prog to orchestral arrangements. Each instrument contributes to the story, and helps to pull the listener in, to the point that it is simple to begin to empathize with the characters.

Similarly, the styles of the different vocalists are melded together to create a singular listening experience. James LaBrie (vocalist of Dream Theater) sings the part of Me, the protagonist. Wife is sung by Marcela Bovio (of both Elfonia and Stream of Passion), and Best Friend by Arjen himself. Once inside the protagonist’s head, things really start to get interesting. Mikael Åkerfeldt (of the inimitable Opeth) is Fear; Eric Clayton (Savior Machine) is Reason; Devin Townsend is stunning as Rage; Heather Findlay (of Mostly Autumn) is a breath of fresh air as Love; Magnus Ekwall (from The Quill) epitomizes Pride; the stunning Devon Graves (Dead Soul Tribe) sings the part of Pain; Irene Jansen (Karma) is Passion personified; and Mike Baker (Shadow Gallery) puts in a chilling performance as the psychotic figure, Father. It is an impressive list of vocalists, but what is more impressive is the way in which Arjen brings them all together, uses their unique talents and styles, and tells a powerful story with each one. This is rock opera perfected.

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