“The Theory Of Everything” First Impressions
Earlier this week I received a big package from the Netherlands. Inside was the brand new limited edition art book version of Ayreon’s The Theory Of Everything. The product was a lot larger than I expected, but it’s so beautiful! Hardcover book, quality printwork inside, amazing imagery. It’s really one of my favorite “limited edition” versions of any album I’ve purchased; I didn’t even listen to it yet! Like nearly all of Ayreon albums, this one was a double length album, so I had to carve out some time to be able to sit down and listen to it with my full attention. It’s been 5 years since the last Ayreon album, 01011001, came out and Arjen said he wasn’t ready to make another Ayreon album until he had something fresh to offer. So I was quite pleased when he not only announced this new album, but also said he was bringing it back down to Earth and exploring “the most complex object in the known universe: the human mind.” Don’t get me wrong, I love Ayreon’s entire discography, the space-y nature of it, and the storyline of the Forevers, but hands down The Human Equation is my favorite album. So for this next album to bring it back down to that level, and tackle the human mind once again, got me real excited. After sitting down and listening through the entire thing, I was very very pleased; it absolutely blew me away. At the same time, it was very very different from any other Ayreon releases, both in tone and execution. I’m sure it’s going to take me some time to wrap my head around it all, but here are some of the things that stood out for me on a first listen:
- The first track, “Prologue: The Blackboard” is very reminicient of the first track from The Human Equation, “Day One: Isolation.” A brief track with two characters, one male and one female, looking over the unconscious protagonist of the album. Got me excited very fast.
- The track arrangement is quite unorthodox, but works extremely well. Over all, there are 42 tracks in this double album, but they are grouped into acts, or Phases as the album calls them, that are about 20 minutes long comprised of about 10 tracks each. This is not unlike Rush’s 2112 or Dream Theater’s Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence. The result is shorter tracks without repetition within them, but it keeps the pace of the entire album moving without seeming rushed or sacrificing the storytelling element. Each song has it’s own feel or it’s own voice, so within each act there’s a great amount of variety of tempos, moods, and styles.
- Even though it’s a double album with a decent amount of playtime, there is a lot of ground to cover as far as story and exposition goes. The pacing of it is just right, we get a lot of information about characters and what’s happening in the story, but it never feels overwhelming or rushed, nor does it feel like we’re short changed or lacking anything. If you follow along with the lyric book, most tracks have some text telling you when the track is taking place in relation to the Prologue, information on what has happened between tracks, or a brief setup of what is about to happen. This isn’t absolutely vital information, but it helps paint the overall picture and fill in the gaps a little.
- The singers are all amazing, absolutely great choices by Arjen. Not only do they sound great, but they all really fit their character and sang so expressively. With only 7 total singers (as opposed to say, 17 in 01011001), they really have a lot of room to show off and show different aspects of their voice. It also makes it a lot easier to keep track of who is what character. The harmonization between Sara Squadrani and Cristina Scabbia in “Mirror Of Dreams” was spine tingling. Marco Hietala is one of my favorite male vocalists because he’s so versatile and has a such a range of styles. Most of the time we hear his raspy metal voice (which is awesome), but here and there you’ll hear him sing soft or sensitive, firm, pensive, high, or low. It’s just very exciting to have one album where he’s doing all of that. I’ve read several reviews of the album, so I know I’m not alone in saying Michael Mills was incredible! Such an inspired performance! He’s pretty good for the first few tracks he’s in, but once The Prodigy is awakened, he really takes off! Did not expect that at all.
- I really enjoyed the instrumental tracks. They helped bridge the other tracks, and each of them were very unique. It also helps that there were some incredible soloists playing; including two already legendary keyboardists and one that is surely slated to follow in their footsteps. I also like that the soloists are credited in the lyric book whenever they play.
All in all, this is another great Ayreon album, definitely one of his finest in my eyes. It’s very refined, strikes a good balance of ambition and execution, and still retains that classic Ayreon sound and feel, despite “returning to Earth.” I hope that this is the start to a new storyline in the Ayreon universe. I was a bit disappointed that there weren’t any direct references or ties to any of the existing Ayreon albums or key concepts. But the album definitely left a couple things open!
“I’m sure there are still people who want to sit down, relax, headphones on, and be taken on a musical adventure.” – Arjen Lucassen