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Ayreon Blind Us With Science on The Theory of Everything

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Review by Sir Robert

Let no one ever accuse Dutch progressive-metal maestro Arjen Lucasson of being an underachiever. After completing a seven-album cycle detailing the creation and subsequent destruction of mankind by a race of immortal aliens who lost their emotions because of science (no, really), and after the final release of the saga (the preposterously-titled 01011001) drew criticism even from longtime Ayreon fans for being a bit too far up its own ass, one might expect the next Ayreon release to be a bit more down-to-earth. Or one would, if one thought Arjen was some kind of pussy.  Instead, we have The Theory of Everything, an album about the quest to unify the contradictory theories of quantum physics and relativity. One would have to have a pretty hefty pair of Higgs Bosons to undertake such an endeavor. But in a way, the subject matter is fitting, as every Ayreon album is a unifying theory of its own, joining together widely disparate sonic elements into a cohesive and satisfying whole. The Theory of Everything is no exception, weaving driving metal, soaring prog, enchanting folk, and spacy electronics into a seamless, dynamic tapestry that is both diverse and unmistakably Ayreon.

The Theory of Everything is prog with a capital P, and thus owes a great deal to the genre’s architects. Throughout the album’s 89-minute run-time, you’ll hear folky minstrel ditties reminiscent of Jethro Tull (Mirror of Dreams), vintage 70’s keyboard patches culled  from Yes (Progressive Waves, which features a keyboard solo from Yes’ Rick Wakeman), and atmospheric passages that bring to mind classic Floyd (Side Effects). Some of that might make you headbanging folk nervous, but don’t worry. The Theory of Everything is still very much a metal album, with big beefy rhythm guitars embiggened by Arjen’s pristine production. The title track is a fine example, sporting a muscular but agile riff that grooves admirably without resorting to the ubiquitous post-Pantera tropes we’re all sick of. But regardless of the instrumentation involved, the album’s greatest strength is in Arjen’s knack for writing huge, inescapable melodies. Compulsive air-keytar moments abound on Theory.

As is now standard practice for Ayreon, Arjen’s songs are brought to life by a cast of some of the best metal has to offer. Though lacking the kind of massive all-star ensemble seen on 01011001, Theory still draws upon a deep talent pool. The brightest star is undoubtedly Swedish phenom Tommy Karevik, vocalist of Seventh Wonder and Kamelot and one of the finest metal vocalists of his generation. Any douchebag in leather pants can sing high notes if they squeeze their balls hard enough, but Tommy’s strength is his ability to convey emotion more effectively than just about any other metal vocalist on earth. He knows when to sound fragile and when to wail his ass off. Tommy’s greatest contribution to Theory is a vital one for any narrative-driven concept album: he makes you believe in the song. However, this is a far from a one-man show, as Tommy is joined by the powerful croon of JB from Grand Magus, the throaty rasp of Marko Hietala from Nightwish and Tarot, and Christina Scabbia of Lacuna Coil, who demonstrates what an incredible vocalist she can be when not saddled by mediocre material. The wild card here, though, is John Wetton, formerly of King Crimson.  He’s got one of those cool gravely old-man voices, and thus adds considerable gravitas to the proceedings.

It’s good that so much incredible vocal talent has assembled on this album, because that’s what it takes to make some of these lyrics work. As previously mentioned, The Theory of Everything is a concept album, and thus, different vocalists portray different characters in a narrative. Unfortunately, these characters all say exactly what they are feeling at any given moment, with no metaphor or ambiguity. The result will surely turn off many listeners, regardless of how great the music may be. As to whether you will be one of them, it depends on the degree to which you can enjoy stanzas like “Oh no, I can’t believe/You’re falling for this loser/Oh no, I thought you knew/That I am so much cooler” with a detached irony while still enjoying the music legitimately, a practice enjoyed by American fans of European metal for years now (it’s pretty much the only way to enjoy Hammerfall).

The other weakness of this album can be gleaned from how many times I’ve used a synonym for “typical” in this review. Truly, this is as close to a “standard” Ayreon album as we’ve ever seen, a remarkable development from an entity whose output has never before been predictable. Several musical ideas trigger strong deja vu. The title-track’s main riff, for instance, can’t help but recall “Day Two: Isolation” from The Human Equation. “Mirror of Dreams” is a female-fronted folk ditty in much the same fashion as “Valley of the Queens” from Into the Electric Castle. And the sliding, serpentine phrygian riff from “Transformation” sure sounds a lot like the title track from Victims of the Modern Age by Star One, Arjen’s other project. Perhaps the lukewarm reaction to Ayreon’s last album has made Arjen more conservative in his approach. But to long-time Ayreon fans, it may be troubling to see the once-adventurous Arjen slip into the comforting embrace of formula.
However, a predictable Aryeon is still better than the vast majority of prog-metal, or really anything-metal, on the scene today. Just sit back and let Arjen take you through the twists and turns of his insane prog roller-coaster. Much like Yes’ mammoth opus Tales from Topographic Oceans, The Theory of Everything is comprised of 4 lengthy songs over 2 discs, though in this case broken up into 42 bite-sized chunks. In a music business ruled by the mp3 paradigm, Theory is a bold argument for the album format. Putting this stuff on an iPod Shuffle would be confusing as hell. No, this is an album you put in your stereo, sit down, listen to for 89 minutes, and come out the other end a changed man. Now get this album and prog the fuck out.

Ayreon’s The Theory of Everything is out now. You can stream the title track (technically tracks 2 and 11 spliced together) below. If after reading this review, you suspect you and Sir Robert may share similar taste in music, you may want to check out his power-metal band Noble Beast by clicking HERE.

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