If my readers haven’t already figured it out by now, I must confess that I’m a sucker for concept albums. The easiest way to win my heart musically is to play me a concept album; I can’t deny a concept album a thoughtful listen. Even for albums that aren’t necessarily following a concept, I can’t help but think of them as such. I love to read/listen to stories and love to attempt to understand each’s purpose. Was I glad to find out about this next band, whose discography includes many concept albums. The band Ayreon has created beautiful albums over the past several years, but only in the past year has made its way to my ears.
Ayreon is the brainchild of Dutch musician Arjen Lucassen, a talented multi-instrumentalist that has been releasing records for the past three decades. Accompanying him on every album are numerous guest musicians, some of them being icons in their genre. His music is easily classified in the progressive metal/rock genre, but should be considered more as a rock opera than anything else. As each album follows a story, each song acts as a chapter to the overall theme, with instrumental interludes to link them all together. Not to be confused with the Oscar winner for Best Actor, his latest album “The Theory of Everything” is simply astounding.
Beautifully directed and produced, “The Theory of Everything” tells the story of a young prodigy, his family, and others associated with his life as he deals with his academics and the pressures associated with his interactions with others. I love the amount of character detail that is revealed as the story progresses, and the character development that takes place as the plot expands. The album’s lyrics are simple enough to follow that the listener will not be confused, and are not complex enough for the listener to feel stranded as the album continues. It is interesting to see all this attention to detail in something as simple as a lyric, a form of art with very finite boundaries. The listener is easily able to picture each character without the use of a visual aid, and gives enough information for the listener to fill in the gaps with their imagination. To explain the entire album’s concept will take too much time, so you will just have to listen to the album to hear what happens with the young prodigy.
For an album with song lengths averaging just over two minutes, you’d expect the album to be very choppy. On the contrary, “The Theory of Everything” contains brilliant moments of musicianship, stringing together each song as if the album only contained one song altogether. As I said earlier, each Ayreon album contains numerous guest musicians, some of them the finest in their field. This album includes 8 different lead vocalists (Yes, you read that right) and 12 supporting musicians. The 8 different vocalists are entirely necessary for this album, as each singer plays a different character in the story. I can easily picture this album like a Broadway play, with each musician playing a different actor on stage. Some moments on this album are more spoken-word, while others allow for each singer to show their vocal ability. Some of the more recognizable names include Cristina Scabbia from Lacuna Coil, JB from Grand Magus, Tommy Karevik from Kamelot, and John Wetton from Asia/King Crimson.
On top of this vocal talent are notable guest musicians Steve Hackett (ex-guitarist from Genesis), Jordan Rudess (keyboardist for Dream Theater), Keith Emerson (keyboardist from Emerson, Lake, and Palmer), and Rick Wakeman (ex-keyboardist from Yes). Lucassen provides the groundwork for most of the instruments, as he plays guitar, bass, mandolin, and synthesizers. From the list of musicians, it is apparent that this album relies heavily on the keyboards and synthesizers. Even though “The Theory of Everything” contains awesome guitar solos, drumbeats, and bass lines, the keyboards are overwhelmingly the focus of this album. The songs “Surface Tension” and “Progressive Waves” contain some of the best keyboard solos I’ve heard since I found out about this band. During this 90 minute album, there are plenty of moments where the listener can just sit back and listen to the downright awesome instrumentals. If you’re a fan of the keys, then this album won’t disappoint.
To me, there are two musicians on this album that absolutely steal the show: singer Michael Mills from the band Toehider and singer Sara Squadrani from the band Ancient Bards. Being unknown musicians and bands before I heard this album, I was completely floored when I heard each of their voices. Playing the main character’s father, Mills is perfectly casted into that role with his wailing vocals and incredible range (“The Theory of Everything” / “The Gift” / “Alive”). Squadrani, playing the girl interest to the main character, has a pitch-perfect voice, and what I consider the highest-quality female vocals I’ve ever heard (“Prologue: The Blackboard” / “Love and Envy” / “Magnetism”). I was so incredibly moved by each of their vocals that I immediately had to listen to them in their main bands. I know that both of them will be featured on this blog in the future.
“The Theory of Everything” is a completely versatile album, which helps me to recommend them to just about anyone. Whether you’re a fan of brilliant guitar solos, of keyboard-dominant albums, of astounding vocal performances, or if you’re just a sucker like me of concept albums, this is the album for you. I recommend this album to those who are fans of progressive metal/rock bands like Dream Theater, Yes, The Devin Townsend Project, Symphony X, and others. Please support this album by checking them out on iTunes, or by checking out each individual musician’s main acts. If you fall in love with this album, I recommend you check out past Ayreon albums, since there is a stretch of several albums that all follow one main storyline. The musical geek in me was thoroughly satisfied.
Check out this Youtube video featuring the title track “The Theory of Everything”: