Originally written by Ian Dreilinger.
Ayreon is nothing if not over the top. From sprawling lengthy tunes to grandiose and psychedelic arrangements, it only seems appropriate that the music be rooted firmly in spaced out themes. The Human Equation, the new double concept album from Arjen Lucassen, the brains behind Ayreon, is not about space, but, as the title implies, about a man who ends up comatose following a car accident and finds himself trapped in a dreamlike state where he has to confront his emotions and follow his memories as they lead up to the car accident. He has to escape the prison of his past faults and indiscretions, set things right with himself, if he ever wants to emerge from the coma and fix his life. The main character is given voice by James LaBrie, simply called Me, while supporting roles and his various emotions are sung by a spectacular cast including Mikael Åkerfeldt of Opeth, Eric Clayton of Saviour Machine, Devon Graves of Dead Soul Tribe, Devin Townsend, Marcella Bovio of Elfonia, Heather Findlay of Mostly Autumn, Magnus Ekwall of The Quill, Arjen Lucassen himself (whose voice is spectacular and reminiscent of 60’s psychedelic music) and several others. Clearly, that’s quite a cast of players, and the only downfall is that it’d be tough if not impossible to successfully duplicate what’s on the album in a live setting.
In all honesty, The Human Equation was not as immediately pleasing as past Ayreon releases, probably mostly because there come certain expectations for an album based on the history of the band, and The Human Equation is not only thematically the opposite of past records, but is musically quite different as well. Many of the songs are far more streamlined and concise, but they really have to be because it’s safe to assume that where in the past the lyrics were written for preexisting music, the lyrical content is of much greater importance here and the songs conform appropriately to that. Fortunately, it is initially amply good enough to merit repeat listens and as the storyline unfolds, the music that accompanies it starts to both make much more sense and become far more enjoyable.
While every project Arjen Lucassen has had a hand in is very diverse, this is quite possibly the most. Many of the songs are what would be expected form Ayreon; that is to say, there are a few songs of epic proportion featuring plenty of over the top arrangements, but for every one song like that, there is a small handful of shorter, more rock oriented and accessible songs. That might come as a bit of a put off for many prog fans as it initially was for me, but the often-mellower songs and more subtle attention to detail make The Human Equation easily the most forward thinking output ever released by Ayreon.
The story to this concept album is highly detailed, as it needs to be to fill over 100 minutes of music. The main character is followed through many important events from his life, from being bullied at school, to meeting and falling in love with his wife, to a betrayal of his lifelong best friend. These are all things that led up to, and contributed to the car accident that left him comatose, and to emerge from the coma he has to set things right in his own mind so that when he emerges he can set things right with everyone close to him. While it’s certainly in no way focused on planetary and cosmic tales, it’s still a very dramatic story, laced with occasional excess. But of course, for this type of music, that’s entirely appropriate.
Lucassen won’t settle for less than perfect musicianship, and that hasn’t changed here, but it has been expanded upon. The Human Equation features not only the standard instruments (obviously with much more emphasis on psychedelic keyboards than many other bands would dare), but Violin, Cello, and Flute played by several seasoned musicians. Possibly the best performance is Ed Warby’s on drums. It’s not that he’s a ridiculously technical player; quite the contrary, he’s often very straightforward, but his subtle restraint is just as impressive as his fast aggressiveness. He also has possibly the best drum sound (particularly on his kick drums) that I’ve heard in quite some time. Joost van den Broek, of Sun Caged, gives a wonderful synth performance, as do the other keyboardists featured, and Arjen gives his all on guitar with an abundance of creativity and diversity.
The vocalists deserve a paragraph of their own; there are just so damned many notable singers! LaBrie is someone to either love or hate. An opinion on his singing can make or break someone as a fan of Dream Theater, and for those who don’t appreciate his singing in his main band, I’m happy to say that he doesn’t detract at all from Ayreon. He’s featured quite a bit as the main character, but he fits the part quite well and never manages to become an annoyance. Mikael Åkerfeldt is probably the next in order of importance, and he’s used differently than I would have anticipated. His performance is predominantly clean vocals, but there are a few occasions where he lets out some growls of staggering ferocity. Eric Clayton has possibly the cheesiest voice, a deep, often bellowing, and warbling baritone, but it’s something you can easily grow to enjoy. Unfortunately, one of the vocalists whose performance I was most looking forward to is the most sparsely used. Devin Townsend is featured on a few songs with short parts in each, but he’s so much more aggressive than anticipated. His singing is somewhere in between a shriek and a scream, and it’s pure anguished fury. Though he’s got the same name (but spelled differently), Devon Graves is on the opposite end of the spectrum with his fragile and moody voice. The rest of the vocalists offer performances equally high quality, from start to finish.
Hopefully by now it goes without saying that this is an impressive release. If you’ve enjoyed Ayreon in the past, buy this album. Even if you haven’t and are at least remotely into progressive rock, particularly with psychedelic leanings, buy this album. I’d like to see Arjen return to his standard themes on the next album, but this can be looked at much like Opeth’s Damnation: a highly successful creative endeavor into uncharted territory. Key words being highly successful.