AYREON – A Kind Of Prog Metal Magic
May 2, 2017, a year ago
Ayreon mastermind Arjen Lucassen has returned to form with his progressive metal opera project's ninth album, The Source. In 1995 he introduced his "more is more" mindset with The Final Experiment, setting the tone for each future production stamped with the Ayreon name, garnering a loyal cult following and high expectations from those fans. It was the third album, Into The Electric Castle released in 1998, that laid a solid foundation for Lucassen's multi-vocalist epics, and The Human Equation in 2004 that put him on the metaldom map as a creative force to be reckoned with, or respected at the very least. There have been a few missteps along the way depending on who you talk to - 01011001 from 2008 and The Theory Of Everything from 2013 are not the easiest albums to get into - but the fans are responding well to The Source. In fact, the constant comparisons to The Human Equation and Into The Electric Castle suggest that Lucassen may have struck musical gold once again.
"I know what you mean," Lucassen agrees. "I had that feeling a twice before because everything came together so easily. The cast came together, the music came together, the story was easy, which are things I had with The Human Equation and Into The Electric Castle. Sometimes that happens and I just try to steer things in the direction they need to go."
The ease with which the material The Source came together could have and probably should have been a bit frightening for Lucassen. How many musicians have boasted about new music coming together effortlessly only to be carved by the press once it goes out to the public?
"I'm insecure as hell about that," he admits. "I start with 50 ideas and I hate most of them, really (laughs), because I figure they're not good enough. The ones that I do like, I'll play them to Lori (Linstruth / girlfriend, ex-Stream Of Passion guitarist) and she'll be like ‘Well, yeah, okay...’ So, I'm completely insecure until the very last moment, which is what makes me a perfectionist. That's what makes me work so much harder, especially when I hear other stuff like the new Opeth or the new Devin Townsend. That's when I'm thinking 'Oh my God, my stuff doesn't even get close to that...' (laughs). The reactions to The Source have been so good that the insecurity is gone, and usually it's always there."
Lucassen has always let the music dictate whether he'll release it under the Ayreon name. Over the years he's opted not to do so because it didn't suit his vision of what Ayreon is all about, leading to projects like The Gentle Storm, Star One, Guilt Machine, Stream Of Passion, Ambeon, and a solo album. He reveals that the music for The Source was never earmarked specifically as Ayreon-worthy.
"Not from the very beginning. Basically, I always want to do a solo album because that's the easiest; I don't have to invite singers, I don't have to send stuff, I can do everything on my own. But, at some point the music started to get too heavy for that and I can't sing heavy music. Then I was thinking it might be a Star One album, but there was one song with this folk part with violin and flute, and folk doesn't fit in Star One. As always, I kept changing my mind, but it's good to be open for that. In the past I was more like 'I want this and I will do this...' but now I just leave things open and let it come naturally."
Ayreon fans are well versed in Lucassen lore about how his songwriting traditionally starts with a guitar and a relaxed setting rather than getting down to work because he has to. He broke tradition on The Theory Of Everything and the reactions to that record made it clear that if something ain't broken one shouldn't try to fix it.
"I can't just sit down and write music," says Lucassen. "I did that with The Theory Of Everything; I went into the studio without anything and just started recording, and I liked it and enjoyed it, but the result was a very difficult album. You really have to give it time to get into it because there wasn't really a selection of songs. Everything I had was put on that album. This time there is a selection of songs. I had 50 ideas, I threw away 30 and used 20. The sales and the reaction to The Theory Of Everything were lower and less positive, and I was getting sick and tired of hearing people saying 'Oh, uh, I have to get into it...' I was pulling my hair out because I wanted people to hear the album and like it, especially these days where there's so much stuff out there. Albums don't really get the chance to be great anymore. So, I think the time was right for an album like The Source."
The singers invited to participate on this particular Ayreon album weren't clear cut choices at the beginning of the production. According to Lucassen, he let the music decide for him.
"I start with the music and I let the music inspire me to come up with the story, and then it's a case of deciding which singers fit the concept. I always have a huge wishlist of singers, and in this case it was like 'I hear James LaBrie (Dream Theater) on this song...' and 'this chorus has to be Hansi Kürsch (Blind Guardian).' I decided not to have a limits or rules on this album and asked whoever came to mind. I wanted the best singers in the world and it was pretty easy to get them, I have to say. They were all really excited to do something for this album. Maybe one or two didn't work out in the end but it was pretty easy overall this time getting the singers together."
"Unfortunately, this time not too many people came to my studio to record. I prefer to fly them over to Holland and have them in my studio because there's always chemistry, there's always magic going on, but as I said, I wanted the best singers in the world on this album and they're all very busy with their own band and projects, and when they have a week off they want to be with family. This time a lot of them couldn't come but I have to say it worked out really great. I had a couple of really good guide singers (for the demo material) who really raised the bar, and it gave the people I asked to participate more time to work on their parts. Not everything had to be done in one or two days in my studio, so luckily things worked out."
LaBrie was the first person Lucassen approached about contributing to The Source based on his involvement on The Human Equation and the stage production of that record, The Theater Equation, from 2015.
"I asked him about doing vocals for The Source a long time ago," says Lucassen. "It was during The Theater Equation at the after party. I said 'I'm working on a new album, would you...' and he wouldn't let me finish my sentence (laughs). He told me that, of course, he would love to do it. Just send him the material and he would be there."
Many of the other vocalists featured on The Source share a history with Lucassen, as Hansi Kürsch, Tommy Karevik (Kamelot), Simone Simons (Epica), Russell Allen (Symphony X) and Floor Jansen (Nightwish) have all appeared on previous Ayreon albums, with Allen and Jansen being two of the main voices of Star One as well.
"I wanted the voices to be as distinctive as possible," Lucassen says of the contrasting voices. "Sometimes you hear rock operas and there are five singers all going 'Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!!!!' doing all that high stuff, and they all sound alike. I can't tell the difference between them. I love having James LaBrie and his warm, soft voice, Tommy Karevik and his soulful voice, and Tommy Rogers (Between The Buried And Me) with his very clean voice. I love contrasts because that keeps the whole thing interesting."
This time out, Lucassen also brought in Edguy singer Tobias Sammet, who is the mastermind behind the ongoing metal opera project, Avantasia. Certain press outlets have tried to portray Lucassen and Sammet as rivals, which backfired and resulted in the duo covering the Alice Cooper classic "Elected" together in 2008 on an official EP release.
"When we did 'Elected' together it was more of a joke," says Lucassen, "and I contributed a solo to his Avantasia album The Mystery Of Time, but I always wanted to give Tobi a bigger part on an Ayreon production. I had the perfect part for him on The Source and I must say he's such a great guy. He worked really hard on the tracks and sent me lots of options to work with, and he has such a distinctive voice. I think Tobi is underestimated as a singer because as you hear on the album, he did such a great job."
For all the talk and focus on Lucassen assembling a cast of world class metal singers for The Source, the album is also noteworthy in that he has returned to riff-monster form, making for a heavy guitar-oriented album. Lucassen has a distinctive sound and approach as a rhythm player, something he has teased people with since Into The Electric Castle, and is severely underrated as a guitarist.
"(Laughs) Thanks, but if I look at the other guitar monsters I have on this album, like Paul Gilbert (Mr. Big, Racer X) and Marcel Coenen (Sun Caged), that's definitely not the case. Guthrie Govan (ex-Asia) sent me two options as if it was nothing, and I really had tears in my eyes when I heard the solo. The same with Marcel; he did the solo in my studio and I saw it happening in front of me, and I really can't get close to that. I know it's not all about technique and speed, but I still really have to work for it. For those guys it comes easy and it's scary to see, really (laughs)."
"But yes, it all starts on guitar," he adds. "That's where I write the songs, and indeed, The Source is much more guitar-oriented than The Theory Of Everything. Last time I went into the studio and write with keyboards or acoustic instruments, but the new one is really a guitar album. That's very true."
(Photos by: Lori Linstruth)