Album Title: The Source
Label: Mascot Label Group/Music Theories Recordings
Date Of Release: 28 April 2017
My relationship with the music of Arjen Anthony Lucassen is a complex one. I would definitely class myself as a fan, but not one without reservation, as the back catalogue contains both the sublime and the slightly less impressive as far as I’m concerned. For example, I love the ‘Space Metal’ and ‘Victims of the Modern Age’ albums under the Star One moniker, whereas I have a hard time with early Ayreon records up to and including ‘Into The Electric Castle’. For many, this latter revelation will be akin to blasphemy, but that’s my opinion and I stand by it.
Nevertheless, latter Ayreon releases have made a much more positive impact with ‘01011001’ and ‘The Theory of Everything’ both capturing my imagination to the point where I was really excited to hear Lucassen’s ninth instalment of this particular franchise, ‘The Source’.
It has been a while in the making, some four years since the release of ‘The Theory of Everything’. Mind you, projects as ambitious as ‘The Source’ take some time and organisation to pull off, even for a workaholic like Lucassen. Additionally, the intervening period has also seen him working with Anneke van Giersbergen on the debut The Gentle Storm album, ‘The Diary’.
‘The Source’ is, as you might expect, a full-on science-fiction concept album, set 6 billion years in the past, that seeks to tell the story of an alien race’s attempts to save themselves and their planet from crisis. It is comprised of 17 individual tracks of progressive rock and in keeping with these huge Ayreon rock operas, it features no fewer than twelve guest vocalists, some which are new to the Ayreon family and others that are returning for another stint. As such, you get to hear the talents of James LaBrie (Dream Theater), Tommy Giles Rogers (Between the Buried and Me), Simone Simons (Epica), Mike Mills (Toehider), Floor Jansen (Nightwish), Hansi Kürsch (Blind Guardian), Michael Eriksen (Circus Maximus), Tobias Sammet (Edguy, Avantasia), Nils K. Rue (Pagan’s Mind), Zaher Zorgati (Myrath), Tommy Karevik (Seventh Wonder, Kamelot) and Russell Allen (Symphony X).
If that wasn’t enough, Lucassen, the multi-instrumentalist recluse is joined by a select group of musicians including drummer Ed Warby (Gorefest, Elegy), guitarists Paul Gilbert (Mr. Big), Guthrie Govan (The Aristocrats, Asia, Steven Wilson), Marcel Coenen and keyboard player Mark Kelly (Marillion). There’s even room for guest appearances from regulars like cellist Maaike Peterse, flautist Jeroen Goossens and violinist Ben Mathot.
Regardless of your thoughts on the music of Arjen Lucassen, one cannot deny his ambition to pull this project together, however seasoned a pro he might be. And on that note, let’s venture into the music itself. After all, that’s why you’re reading this review isn’t it?
Cutting swiftly to the chase, it is fair to say that long term fans will be left feeling very happy with the results, wrapped safely in the comforting arms of the familiar. The die has been cast on previous Ayreon albums and by-and-large, there are no major deviations from the norm on ‘The Source’. It is over-the-top, pompous and at times, a little silly. Pick your cheese of choice and you’ll find a morsel or two of it here without question. My toes occasionally curl and I wince at certain points. The Celtic, folky ‘All That Was’ for example, does not fare well in my estimations, neither does the operatic injection within ‘Deathcry of a Race’ which is simply too much and a little ‘nails down a blackboard’ for me. As a result, ‘The Source’ is not the perfect, blemish-free release.
And yet, there is no escaping the fact that ‘The Source’ is a hugely enjoyable album for the most part, with plenty of stand-out moments where my imagination is fully captured and my enthusiasm ignited. And it must be said that much of my enjoyment comes from listening to the various vocalists who guest on this record. There are still those out there who dismiss heavy metal as just noise, overlaid by shouty blokes who can’t sing. Well, if there was ever a record to expose this ignorant view as the huge falsity that it is, it’s this one. The talent from across the gender divide is just off the scale and as absurd as the concept is in places, the vocalists breathe life into it, giving it a genuine credibility in the process.
In fittingly bombastic style, the record begins with a 12-plus minute epic that introduces just about every singer that features on the album. I’m not the biggest James LaBrie fan but even he sounds great, floating through an eerie and post-apocalyptic, dystopian soundscape at the outset. The song twists and turns throughout, never settling, as the groundwork for the concept is laid. Tommy Karevik is the early show-stealer thanks to an incredibly passionate and powerful performance, but the surprisingly heavy chugging riff pushes him close. Lucassen himself refers to this record as more guitar driven and heavier, a point that is underlined here right from the outset.
But the undoubted star of the opening act, surrounded by the likes of Nils K. Rue, Tobi Sammet and Hansi Kursch has to be Mike Mills. It’s a cliché as old as time to say that you could listen to certain vocalists singing the phonebook. But in the case of Mills, he manages to send shivers down my spine by singing something as dull as the binary code atop some moody, futuristic synths. ‘Zero, one, zero’ etc. has never sounded so utterly captivating and emotive, believe me.
I’m not such a fan of the funky, bluesy sequence that follows, although ‘Sir’ Russell Allen lends it a certain undeniable panache and swagger. There’s even time right at the death for Floor Jansen to lend her impressively huge vocal chords to see this opener out in rousing style. Had the entire record remained at this level, we’d have been staring down the barrel of a near-perfect score, it’s that good. In fact, I’d venture to suggest that it is one of Lucassen’s best under any of his various monikers.
Elsewhere, I’m a huge fan of ‘The Dream Dissolves’ with its killer lead guitar solo and the extended keyboard flamboyance. Aside from the aforementioned operatic section within ‘Deathcry of a Race’, it is a brilliant song thanks to its Middle Eastern melodies, heavy riffing and Zorgati’s distinctive vocals. And ‘Into The Ocean’ is a storming up-tempo rocker with overt 70s overtones created by the chosen keyboard sounds.
More heavy riffs and forceful drumming feature within the immediate and insanely catchy ‘Planet Y Is Alive!’ which evolves into something far more soundtrack-like and preposterously fun in the mid-section.
There are plenty more positives within this lengthy endeavour but for the sake of brevity, allow me to conclude with my joint-favourite piece, ‘Star Of Sirrah’. Heavy, melodic, over-the-top, this is Ayreon on top form. The song opens in moody but melodic and dramatic fashion with an acoustic guitar and bold synths before another huge, killer riff sweeps everything aside. It chugs and growls with real intent, complimenting all of the various vocalists who take a turn at delivering this part of the concept. If I had to nail my colours to the mast, I’d have to say that Nils K Rue offers the most compelling performance, closely followed by Tobi Sammet. It’s not a simple song by any means but it shows how superb Lucassen can be as a songwriter when he dials down the crazy and pens something a little more straightforward and rocking. Because boy does this track rock.
One of the nicest artists I’ve ever crossed path with is also one of the most openly insecure musicians in the business. Self-doubt riddles the psyche of Arjen Lucassen, something with which I can most definitely identify. The guy has an army of fans though and he always manages to attract great musicians to assist him with his music, so he must be doing something right. And there’s ‘The Source’ to further underline this conclusion. It might be a flawed record in places but regardless, ‘The Source’ is a triumph of which Lucassen should be rightly proud.
The Score Of Much Metal: 8.25
If you’ve enjoyed this review, you can check out my others from previous years and for 2017 right here:
Until Rain – Inure
MindMaze – Resolve
God Dethroned – The World Ablaze
Bjorn Riis – Forever Comes To An End
Voyager – Ghost Mile
Big Big Train – Grimspound
Lonely Robot – The Big Dream
Firespawn – The Reprobate
Pyramaze – Contingent
Shores Of Null – Black Drapes For Tomorrow
Asira – Efference
Hologram Earth – Black Cell Program
Damnations Day – A World Awakens
Memoriam – For The Fallen
Pallbearer – Heartless
Sleepmakeswaves – Made of Breath Only
Ghost Ship Octavius – Ghost Ship Octavius
Vangough – Warpaint
Telepathy – Tempest
Obituary – Obituary
Fen – Winter
Havok – Conformicide
Wolfheart – Tyhjyys
Svart Crown – Abreaction
Nova Collective – The Further Side
Immolation – Atonement
The Mute Gods – Tardigrades Will Inherit The Earth
Ex Deo – The Immortal Wars
Pyogenesis – A Kingdom To Disappear
My Soliloquy – Engines of Gravity
Nailed To Obscurity – King Delusion
Helion Prime – Helion Prime
Battle Beast – Bringer Of Pain
Persefone – Aathma
Soen – Lykaia
Exquirla – Para Quienes Aun Viven
Odd Logic – Effigy
Mors Principium Est – Embers Of A Dying World
Firewind – Immortals
Slyde – Back Again EP
Sepultura – Machine Messiah
Deserted Fear – Dead Shores Rising
Kreator – Gods Of Violence
Borealis – World of Silence MMXVII
Pain of Salvation – In The Passing Light of Day