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Album Reviews : Ayreon – The Theory of Everything

By on December 7, 2013

Ayreon-TheoryOfEverything-cdI’ll be the first to admit, writing the review for album The Theory of Everything was a rather difficult task. Mainly because I’m not sure it can even be really classified as an ‘album’ in the first place. To explain it in another way, Ayreon’s latest release is as much as an album as the works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart or Ludwig van Beethoven. Dutch composer, Arjen Anthony Lucassen, is first and foremost, a composer and The Theory of Everything plays more like a series of interwoven compositions than a metal album. Filled with musical interludes, it builds a temporal story that plays across two CDs essentially forming two 45-minute length tracks (though, however, if you bought the limited edition, you’ll be treated to two extra CDs that basically turn The Theory of Everything into a solely instrumental release, creating its own unique listening experience. And one I’d highly recommend.). As such, I’m going to refrain from using the term ‘album’ for the rest of this review.

The tracks featured on this release could be classified as arrangements instead of songs, and only because to refer to them as such would seem diminishing to the great and complex work Arjen has achieved here. While on first listen, The Theory of Everything mightn’t appear that overly complex, on repeat listens you begin to realise that there is far more to this piece of music than first meets the eye. The Theory of Everything creates an overarching tale that carries across the entirety of the release and is a significant departure from his two most recent works 01011001 and The Human Equation; not only in the story being told, but in the musical compositions and vocal performances of the many excellent guests he attained for the release. It is far less a rock/metal release than it is an oratorio, with those subtle nuances to still make it appear as a rock opera.

Featuring the likes of Marco Hietala (Nightwish, Tarot), Janne “JB” Christoffersson (Grand Magus), Sara Squadrani (Ancient Bards), Rick Wakeman (ex-Yes), Cristina Scabbia (Lacuna Coil), Tommy Karevik (Kamelot, Seventh Wonder), Jordan Rudess (Dream Theater), as well Melbourne’s own Michael Mills (Toehider), and a host of other notable guests, The Theory of Everything is – to put it as plainly as possible – an admirable work of art. It would be at the detriment of what Ayreon has achieved here to merely review this as any other metal album I would normally write for. But on that same token, it is, and has been since its conception, marketed as a progressive metal/rock opera release. So, as such, I’ll explain it in the best way I can.

The entire album is quite inspiring, but to put it frank, as other reviewers such as Angry Metal Guy have said, The Theory of Everything isn’t accessible – not in a traditional sense, at least. This is a record that requires attention and focus from its listener to fully take in and appreciate the musical mastery presented before them, both in the compositions and production, and in the vocal performances. And further to that, this record isn’t broken up into traditional songs like many metal releases are produced to be. It’s segmented into arias and synthesized interludes with the vocals floating above the instrumentation to help form something separate from anything currently on the market.

Told through the eyes of ‘The Prodigy’ (Karevik), the performances on The Theory of Everything are not only top-notch but are able to carry this interesting tale of the beauty and conflicts that can simmer in life and one’s existence when following their passion. While ‘The Prodigy’s’ world benefits from unparalleled genius, it also borders on a level of psychosis, as the colleagues, friends, and professionals he’s surrounded himself with try to make sense of his individually troubling situation.

I won’t lie here. The first time I listened through The Theory of Everything, I’m not sure I quite understood it, if only for the fact I’ve never quite heard a release like this before; only having recently discovered Ayreon myself. But I will say this, I’m quite impressed by what Arjen’s achieved here, and if you’re the sort of listener who enjoys or takes to the concept of being lifted on a journey through melodies of sorrow, pain, love, and joy, and who takes fancy in excellent performances that only further enchant and augment the experience, then The Theory of Everything is definitely a release to look into.

It may take time to grow on you, but I can assure you the payoff is worth it. As I’ve written above, the performances of the guest vocalists on this album is one of the many highlights on The Theory of Everything; showing many, such as Sara Squadrani and JB who play the ‘The Girl’ and the ‘The Teacher’ respectively, in a light that I’ve hadn’t yet seen them in before. Arjen is a master not only of composition, but of bringing out the best from the people he works with, and The Theory of Everything is absolute testament to this. Michael Mills, for example, adds a stand-out performance in his role as ‘The Father’; utterly convincing in his portrayal.

Using a multitude of varying styles, instruments, and vocal performances, The Theory of Everything can at times recall Queen, while at other times brings to mind bands like Asia (perhaps no less to the fine performance of band founder and ex-King Crimson member, John Wetton, who plays the part of the ‘The Physician’), the softer folk melodies of Eluveitie (especially in track “Unification, Mirror of Dreams”), and the English prog rock bands of the 70s; which is always a plus in my book. Much credit must be given to Arjen. His style isn’t commercial in any sense, but it is legitimate and honest, and that honesty carries in every minute of these compositions. I think what adds to the appeal of Arjen and equally his band is the fact he is simply a man doing what he loves, and he isn’t afraid to step beyond the boundaries established by so many past bands, and push the envelope even if it means that at times his work may come off as understood. The story Arjen’s developed for The Theory of Everything is engaging enough alongside the music that you can be carried off on this journey, and experience what’s always made music so wonderful and fascinating since its conception. That it’s something that brings to the fore emotions and experiences we all know, whether they be to love or to loathe, and even those that perhaps we were never even aware of ourselves. Music can achieve all this, and The Theory of Everything is, in recent memory, hands down the best release to have achieved this exuberant exploration of what makes humans uniquely human. That alone deserves applause and praise.

One thing that is troubling at times with this release, however, is the fact that the musicians don’t always get the credit they should, at least in terms of record play, and feel a little drowned out by the vocal performances of the many guests assembled here. It’s a rather minor gripe though in the scheme of things, where for the most part, the production is rather flawless.

As a first time listener of Ayreon, I must say, I’m overall very impressed, not only of the production value and the compositions, but of the vocal performances and the incredible life and passion that is pulled from each of them, while played to the harmonising and rhythmic melodies that flow seamlessly through the compositions like waters in a canal. Everything on this release is understated, and at no point does The Theory of Everything come off as pretentious or self-indulgent. There’s the right amount of synth-use, just as there is the right amount of vocalisation, neoclassical instrumentation, and undertones from modern metal and prog rock.

The best way to approach The Theory of Everything is with an open mind and without any sense of preconceived notions. Only then, I feel, can you as the listener, and the one being invited to not only peek into but live in this world, understand the masterpiece Ayreon has created here. Don’t expect a rock opera in the sense of Avantasia, nor should you expect straight-up prog rock in the sense of Pink Floyd. Instead, think of The Theory of Everything as a theory in a new way to create a metal album. There isn’t really anything Ayreon’s releases can honestly be compared to, aside from other earlier Ayreon releases. And it’s because of this that if you go into it as nothing more than a curious mind and a willing listener that you’ll likely experience the story Arjen has to tell you the way it was meant to be told: with the melodies, synths and vocals of this record swimming their way up every fibre in your body, weaving through you like the tingling sensation you feel when you touch ice.

What is the simplest way to describe Ayreon’s The Theory of Everything? Unique.

Band: Ayreon
Album: The Theory of Everything
Year: 2013
Genre: Progressive Metal / Rock Opera
Label: Inside Out Music / Century Media
Origin: Dutch
www.facebook.com/ArjenLucassenOfficial
www.arjenlucassen.com

Tracklisting:

CD1:
Phase I: Singularity
1. – Prologue: The Blackboard
2. – The Theory of Everything Part 1
3. – Patterns
4. – The Prodigy’s World
5. – The Teacher’s Discovery
6. – Love and Envy
7.  – Progressive Waves
8.  – The Gift
9.  – The Eleventh Dimension
10. – Inertia
11. – The Theory of Everything Part 2

Phase II: Symmetry
12. – The Consultation
13. – Diagnosis
14. – The Argument 1
15.  – The Rival’s Dilemma
16. – Surface Tension
17.  – A Reason to Live
18.  – Potential
19.  – Quantum Chaos
20. – Dark Medicin
21. – Alive!
22.  – The Prediction

CD 2:
Phase III: Entanglement
1.  – Fluctuations
2.  – Transformations
3. – Collision
4. – Side Effects
5. – Frequency Modulation
6. – Magnetism
7. – Quid Pro Quo
8. – String Theory
9. – Fortune?

Phase IV: Unification
10. – Mirror of Dreams
11. – The Lighthouse
12. – The Argument 2
13. – The Parting
14. – The Visitation
15. – The Breaktrough
16. – The Note
17. – The Uncertainty Principle
18. – Dark Energy
19. – The Theory of Everything Part 3
20. – The Blackboard (Reprise)

About

Jonathon is an aspiring fantasy/sci-fi novelist and music journalist. Thanks to the influence of the music he grew up with, he has always possessed a keen interest in metal and rock. He is also a huge fan of mythology, legend, and folklore from all across the world. You should follow him on Twitter.