AYREON – Human Equations And Horror Stories
October 11, 2020, 3 months ago
In 2004, Dutch multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and über-nerd Arjen Lucassen released his ongoing Ayreon project's critically acclaimed sixth album, The Human Equation. It was yet another concept album featuring a line-up of guest vocalists and musicians, but unlike its predecessors The Human Equation was not a sci-fi based metal opera. The record became a fan favourite, so much so that it was brought to the stage as a full production in 2015 under the name The Theater Equation. Lucassen returned to his science fiction stomping grounds for the three albums that followed - 01011001 (2008), The Theory Of Everything (2013) and The Source (2017) - but 2020 sees him exploring new territory once again on new album, Transitus. Boasting a cast that features performers including Tommy Karevik (Kamelot), Cammie Gilbert (Oceans Of Slumber), Simone Simons (Epica), Dee Snider (Twisted Sister), Amanda Somerville, Marty Friedman, Joe Satriani and The Hellscore Choir, the record is far more down to earth - close to it, at any rate - and was originally imagined by Lucassen as a movie soundtrack. Three years in the making, Transitus is the Ayreon album that almost wasn't.
BraveWords spoke with Lucassen, Keravik and The Hellscore Choir's founder / conductor Noa Gruman (Scardust vocalist) about the making of what is being regarded by many fans as Ayreon's strongest album since The Human Equation.
BraveWords: You're going to hear a lot of comparisons between Transitus and The Human Equation, largely due to the fact Transitus is the warmest album you've done since then. It's a lot more open than some of your previous albums, far less dense on the musical side of things.
Lucassen: "It's cool that you say 'warmest' because that's exactly what I wanted to do. The previous Ayreon album, The Source, is not a warm album. It's a pretty cold subject, it's a prog metal album, it's very guitar oriented, and this time I only wanted to use real instruments. I'm so glad you said that..."
BraveWords: Transitus has a similar feel and flow to The Human Equation, and even Into The Electric Castle. The character roles being played by the singers, the songs, the story.... it all draws the listener in quite easily.
Lucassen: "Transitus was set out to be a movie so drawing people in was the intention. I'm a huge movie fan and I wanted to realize one of my dreams, which was to make a movie of my own. So, I set out making Transitus with that in mind."
BraveWords: What was the inspiration behind the Transitus story? It's a not-so-simple love story at its core.
Lucassen: "I wanted to do something new, so I decided not to do sci-fi this time. And ever since I saw The Omen and The Exorcist I've been a huge fan of horror - not the splatter stuff, the unseen - and always wanted to do something with it. Somehow that didn't fit into the Ayreon concept. I set it in the 19th Century because there were no mobile phones (laughs)... and because it was just a cool century for things like Jack The Ripper and things like that. I watched a lot of ghost movies and horror movies to get inspired."
BraveWords: It's a twist on what you usually do; Arjen stepping out of his comfort zone.
Lucassen: "I like to think so. On the one side that's good, but on the other hand I'm worried about whether the fans will like it. It's not complicated or heavy, there aren't a lot of long instrumental parts, but we'll see."
BraveWords: How could this not be an Ayreon record to your mind? It checks off all the boxes for the fans as far as what they want to hear. Again, that's an opinion based on the similarities between Transitus and The Human Equation, which was a huge success for you.
Lucassen: "Because it's so different from the last few albums, especially different from The Source. It was just my feeling. I played it to people and they said 'Yeah, it sounds like typical you.' I think the previous Ayreon albums are more like rock operas, and this is more of a rock musical. That's the big difference. The album was finished. I had plans for the movie and I had spoken with people would have filmed it, I was getting there in terms of funding, it was going well, and then the whole Corona thing started. So, obviously, nobody was going to invest millions of euros in a film. Also, shooting big scenes with a lot of people in them wasn't possible. The movie wasn't going to happen but I wasn't going to put the music on a shelf - I'm way too impatient for that (laughs) - so I decided it wasn't going to be a movie, but I should make it an Ayreon album instead."
BraveWords: How the hell did you get Dee Snider to sing on Transitus?
Lucassen: "(Laughs) I had this role of the Father, and as in all my stories the father is an evil bastard. I needed a really arrogant dude - and I was still thinking about the movie, with the idea that the singers on the album would be the actors in the movie - who comes in to the scene and chews the scenery (laughs). He had to be really charismatic. I always make lists of favourite singers that I want to work with, and in this case I had Dee Snider, Alice Cooper, Rob Halford, Jack Black... I contacted them all because I thought they would be perfect for the role. Eventually, I got through to Dee Snider's management and luckily he loved the song. I heard his latest album, For The Love Of Metal and it was like... 'Oh. My. God.' Most singers lost their voices by 50 but his voice is stronger than ever. Also, when you see Dee Snider on stage he's powerful. That was the voice that the song needed. I got the recordings after about six months of negotiations and it was so worth it."
BraveWords: Tommy, you're playing the main character, Daniel, in the story. Did you feel any pressure going in knowing that?
Tommy Karevik: "It's a great cast on Transitus, the music has a specific vibe through the whole album - which is what Arjen is known for - and with the comic book and everything it's just a really great package. Also, Arjen is a really awesome composer, and the songs on Transitus reflect that. And it is work; I don't want to record just anything for him, I want to give him my best. I know that fans of the Ayreon universe want to get to know new singers, so I hope they'll be happy with me appearing on an album for the third time."
BraveWords: Doing an Ayreon record must take you out of your comfort zone, even if you have worked with him three times. It's a completely different environment from Kamelot, and they're not your songs. You're playing a role created by someone else.
Tommy Karevik: "I like it because, as you said, I have to interpret this character and figure out what he's going to be like. Because I recorded my tracks at home I had the chance to review my work and change the stuff I didn't like. But, it was some else's vision so I had to tap into that and try to do my best. I had guide vocals so I knew what the melodies were, so my thing was to sing them and maybe change them into how I would naturally do it. I kept the basic ideas but tried to embellish them.
"I always have a standard for myself. There are very few releases that I've done that I haven't been happy with in hindsight. I always have a little bit of self-doubt when I'm working on stuff, but maybe that's what makes me sound the way I do. In the end I want to be happy with it."
BraveWords: Arjen, you've worked with actors John de Lancie and the late Rutger Hauer as narrators for your work (on Electric Castle Live And Other Tales, and Lost In The New Real respectively). How did you end up working with yet another legend, Tom Baker of Doctor Who fame?
Lucassen: "There was no narration on the album when it was done, and with the first track ('Fatum Horrificum') being 10 minutes long and going from one extreme to the other, I was told it was hard to get into. So, I decided to go back to the idea of a narrator like on Electric Castle, but if I was going to do that I needed the best (laughs). I wanted a voice like Richard Burton when he did The War Of The Worlds (1978), that voice you were just waiting for. As a huge Doctor Who fan, Tom Baker was at the top of the list, so there was a lot of negotiating with his agency and we finally worked it out. I wrote the narration for his voice, like a grandfather telling a story to his grandchild, because I want people to enter the story. Tom really put himself into the role, including the humour he brought to Doctor Who. He told me 'I didn't have to play that part; I was the Doctor...' and I found that out. That was one of the best days of my life, meeting Tom Baker."
BraveWords: His voice adds to the warmth of the album I mentioned...
Lucassen: "Oh yes, definitely. Tom draws you into the story with his voice, which is friendly yet sarcastic and... it's got everything."
BraveWords: Bringing Mr. Baker into the production after it was complete... that was you working backwards from how you normally would, wasn't it?
Lucassen: "It was weird doing that because Tom's voice was over a part that I really like. That part was my Tubular Bells (Mike Oldfield) and John Carpenter's Halloween theme and I was so proud of it, but the only place to put the narration was on top of the music, so that was hard to do. It was like a sacrifice because suddenly the music was secondary. But, when I hear it now it makes total sense; the 10 minute instrumental at the beginning was too much."
BraveWords: During the promotion for Transitus you showcased Noa Gruman and The Hellscore Choir. What made you decide to work with her?
Lucassen: "I talked about The Omen, which is my favourite horror movie and my favourite music of all time. The choir in that music is so huge and I wanted to get that feel, and right at that time I got a mail from Noa mentioning she would be interested in working with me. I was blown away by what I heard. So, I sang the guide vocals with Lori (Linstruth / manager), and I made it very clear to Noa that I wanted that chanting monk feel. She totally understood what I wanted and auditioned people for the parts, and she was the key figure here. She understood the arrangements, she knew which people she needed, and when I heard the final tracks I really cried. It was so impressive and exactly what I wanted."
Noa Gruman: "I formed Hellscore around the previous Scardust album (Sands Of Time), and the initial idea was to do metal a capella. Every few months I would finish a new arrangement and we would add it to our repertoire, which consists of 12 songs now. I try to write for as many sub-genres as possible, but how could I not want to participate on an album with the legendary Arjen Lucassen (laughs)? Most of the Hellscore singers are big Ayreon fans, we've recorded for Scardust obviously, for Amorphis, Orphaned Land, Therion, so there was no question that we really wanted to be on an Ayreon album. He sent me the demos as he imagined the music should sound, and if I had some suggestions or wanted to change something I just recorded my own demo to show him what I was thinking. We worked that way to the point where we were both happy with the results. And then we practiced it with the Hellscore Choir."
BraveWords: Did you participate in the vocal parts or did you just focus on the scoring / conducting of the vocal parts?
Noa Gruman: "I always prefer to focus on the conducting for Hellscore. I think we had 40 singers participating so I didn't feel my voice was needed in any way... but I may have slipped my voice in there for some takes (laughs). But when I conduct I prefer to just focus on that."
BraveWords: Arjen, what's next for you? You're a recluse by nature so the global pandemic hasn't had a traumatic effect on how you live your life, and you can't really go on vacation anywhere right now...
Lucassen: "I haven't had a vacation in 25 years. It's just not my thing; I want to be creative. I want to dive into the next project. I do have an idea for it but, as I've told you a million time before (laughs), I keep changing plans. And as I always tell you as well, each album I do is a reaction to the previous one, so I want to do a heavy album after Transitus. I want to do a colder album now (laughs). I think the last Star One album was 10 years ago, so I think it's time for a new one."
(Arjen shots by Lori Linstruth)