“Ayreon fans today can be very happy that the record company “Transmission” picked up and released this album. On the inside of the Special Anniversary edition (2005) you can see some reactions from the record companies that rejected it. Sales started slow, but luckily started growing. That was deserved of course, because although this isn’t Arjen’s best album, still it’s an amazing start of the Ayreon story.
It’s a bit of a shame that the vocalists on this album were not linked to one character and at times the music does not seem to fit the story that is told very well. Still the music is great and for a debut album there are some great vocalists contributing. Edward Reekers (Kayak) and Barry Hay (Golden Earring) might be the best known. Sail Away to Avalon”, with Barry Hay on vocals, even got airtime on the Dutch radio at the time. A well invested bottle of Whiskey I’d say!
“The Final Experiment” is an incredible debut with very little flaws, giving Arjen Lucassen a strong start to his Ayreon career. The drum production noticeably has lots of reverb, especially in the snare, giving that raw sound lots of rock and metal bands are known for using in the 90’s. The echoes do add a lot of atmosphere however, making the album more engaging musically.
This is also the only record to use more than one vocalist for each character in the story, so that can tend to confuse first-time listeners trying to follow along. Originally, the album was titled “Ayreon: The Final Experiment”, since the concept follows a blind minstrel who goes by the name of Ayreon. After continuing to write more albums that generally followed the timeline based on the events of this record, Arjen decided to name his project after the main character.
Actual Fantasy does not continue the Ayreon story that started with The Final Experiment. Instead it contains stories based on sci-fi and fantasy movies and stories from Arjen himself. Only three vocalists contributed to this album. And I must admit it did not rock my boat initially. In fact, it took me until 2004 before I fully appreciated this album.
That year the revisited version came out, with real drums performed by Ed Warby instead of a drum computer, which was of course a huge improvement. The new production does not sound as frail as the original, especially when you play the 5.1 version. Abbey of Sin brought tears to my eyes and goosebumps to my arms, the first time I heard it. Edward Reekers has such a clear and warm voice, he turns every song into something great.
“Actual Fantasy” is a great follow-up, although not particularly following a straight narrative. Each individual track has its own concept, either based on science fiction stories or Arjen’s own writing inspired by such to fit the overall theme of the album. The original production included electronic drums, which fit the record’s theme, but had mixed feelings from the listeners.
Arjen decided to remix the album in 2004, featuring Ed Warby behind the kit, and it was re-released as “Actual Fantasy: Revisited”. This remix was also made into a 5.1 mix, which was Arjen’s first time doing an entire album in that direction. When launching the original album, it didn’t quite sell as well as the debut, unfortunately. This is a heavily overlooked album, and has many strong tracks, but from that point on, Arjen had decided to make the following release the ultimatum for the future of Ayreon.
I always thought that there were two kinds of albums. The ones that you like immediately, but you get bored of soon – and the ones which need many hours to get into, but will never bore you. Into the Electric Castle proved me wrong. From the first listen I was intensely impressed by this album and today, after twenty years, this is still an album I regularly listen to.
On every level this album is perfect. The mellow and heavy parts, the balance of the chosen cast, the songwriting, the story, the drama and of course the best narrating voice I have ever heard. Nothing is overdone and the production sounds amazing.
Playing this album just pulls me into a musical world and it doesn’t let go until the last notes fade out. The way the characters battle with each other is amazing, especially the voices of Edwin Balogh (The Roman) and Jay van Feggelen (The Barbarian) on The Garden of Emotions. But also the amazing female voices of Sharon den Adel and Anneke van Gierbergen fit perfectly together. And there is no better choice of character for The Highlander and The Knight than Fish and Damian Wilson.
But I should not forget the Hippie! I never have been the biggest fan of the voice of Arjen Lucassen himself, but I can’t imagine someone else performing this part better than he did here. So yes, we can conclude here that this is my all-time favourite album and I don’t think anything will ever beat that!
“Into the Electric Castle” is, considered by many, Arjen’s masterpiece. This is an album that became an instant classic, and is still heavily talked about to this day whenever new fans are looking for a proper introduction to Ayreon or rock operas in general. It’s his first double album, in which this approach only increased his desire to write longer concept records.
The quality in songwriting is spectacular, the production is a huge step-up, and the roster of singers is perfect for their assigned characters and style of the music. This is also when Arjen started getting more well-known singers to take part in his project, including Fish (Marillion), Anneke van Giersbergen (The Gathering), Damian Wilson (Threshold), and Sharon den Adel (Within Temptation).
He knew that if he wanted this album to be an achievement, he would need an impressive lineup. And having a narrator helped guarantee a more engaging rock opera experience. This is also where the story introduces Forever of the Stars, which becomes one of the main focuses, not only in later Ayreon albums, but in the Ayreon universe as a whole.
Mellow and a little dark, “Universal Migrator – Part 1: The Dream Sequencer” is the start of this journey through time. The main character, The Colonist, is using the Dream Sequencer machine to go back to his youth on planet Mars and his previous lives.
I love this concept, where the songs start in the future and go back in time through Earth’s history until the first man on this planet. The story continues on Part 2 (Flight of the Migrator) with a journey further back into a fictional history.
This is the more mellow part of the Universal Migrator, not as good as his heavier twin, but very enjoyable nonetheless
“Universal Migrator” could be considered another double album; however, due to the overall difference in genre between both halves, Arjen thought that it would be a better idea to split it into 2 parts.
“Universal Migrator Part 1: The Dream Sequencer” is a full-on prog rock journey, completely moving away from what previous Ayreon albums sounded like.
Plenty of space rock and art rock to be found here, which fans of Pink Floyd, Alan Parsons Project, and Tangerine Dream would admire. It is quite an engaging journey unlike any other Ayreon album, although being 70 minutes in length, it can feel long over time.
The heavier part of the Universal Migrator and my first experience with Ayreon. Little did I know about the genre back then. Sure I had some Metallica and Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath and Ozzy stuff, even a Helloween album I got as a gift.
After reading in a friend’s Metal magazine the review of the Album of the month – Ayreon with the collaboration of Bruce Dickinson and Andi Deris – I instantly bought the album.
It still blows my mind to this day. One of the best intros I know, starting with a spoken introduction of the Dream Sequencer machine, a warning, after which this wall of sound explodes and does not let you go till it reaches the end. “Chaos” is the name of this instrumental start, damn what a rush!
Without knowing, I had already discovered how great Arjen’s talent is when it comes to getting the best out of artists. He knows which songs are best suited for them and never let them do things they can’t reach. I adore the vocalists on this album, while I can’t always manage to fall in love with them in their own bands. For me, this is the best introduction to Ayreon if you are a fan of progressive metal.
The two Universal Migrator albums were released separately, as Arjen claimed he didn’t expect his fans to love both the softer and the heavier side of the genre. Or maybe it was a smarter choice from a commercial point of view?
“Universal Migrator Part 2: Flight of the Migrator” is the total opposite from part 1, going back to prog metal at its fullest.
This album alone is still arguably the heaviest Ayreon record to date, and featured some of the most acclaimed singers to guest, including Bruce Dickinson (Iron Maiden), Fabio Lione (Rhapsody), Russell Allen (Symphony X), Andi Deris (Helloween), and Timo Kotipelto (Stratovarius).
From this point forward, you can begin to identify the signature sound and production that Arjen goes for, but that doesn’t stop the ongoing quality from being strong.
I remember when this beautiful package arrived. I took my headphones and was not approachable for 102 minutes. With the lyrics in hand, this album feels like listening to a book. Twenty songs that cover twenty days in the life of a man that is in a coma and needs to battle with his emotions. Just like Actual Fantasy, the story did not seem to continue the main Ayreon story, so what a nice surprise the end of the album is.
The characters on the album are the emotions the man has to deal with as well as his wife and friend. I think that the vocalists embodying these emotions fit perfectly. That is what makes this album vocally balanced.
The aggressiveness in Rage, the warmth in Love and Reason, the rawness in Pride and so on. And there are once again these vocal battles like we heard on Into the Electric Castle.
For a while, this was my favourite Ayreon album, but after a certain time, ITEC just wins it again. Nonetheless, the ending of this album still gives me goosebumps.
With the ending I mean the last four songs, building up towards the moment when the man finally beats his emotions and comes back to life.
“The Human Equation” is considered by many others (myself included), Arjen’s masterpiece. If I’m gonna be honest here, there’s more than one Ayreon masterpiece.
This album especially is a life-changing experience; one that was my introduction to the project about 10 years ago, and already being a Dream Theater fan helped me to grasp both the musical and conceptual aspects even more.
Not to mention with names such as James LaBrie (Dream Theater), Devin Townsend and Mikael Åkerfeldt (Opeth), you know it’s bound to be a historic release for progressive metal.
While the concept of this record doesn’t particularly continue the Ayreon story in some part of its timeline, it does have connections with emotions, which is a huge part of what was lost from the use of artificial intelligence by Forever of the Stars.
Speaking of emotion, “The Human Equation” has plenty of it, and yet again proves that Arjen can pull listeners into his concept albums in various ways. And while you can find very few similarities musically to previous records, this one succeeds in maintaining its own identity.
Four years we had to wait for a new Ayreon after The Human Equation and the expectations were, of course, high, though in my mind I knew there was just a small chance it could compete with its predecessor.
At first, it seemed to be a disappointment, with 17 vocalists it felt a bit too messy. But not every album can click with me immediately. And indeed, after more spins, the album really grew on me.
Of course, Arjen’s songwriting helps, but the amazing cast of vocalists really carries this album to certain heights. Tom Englund, Steve Lee, Daniel Gildenlöw, Jonas P. Renske, Anneke van Giersbergen and of course the amazing Jorn Lande, who is my favourite on this album. These vocalists are the upside of the album.
Still, I think the downside of the album is the high number of vocalists. That gives this album some fillers, with Web of Lies being my least favourite Ayreon song. But when you put Comatose opposite to it, then it makes up for those flaws. It’s a ‘love it or hate it’ song, but I love it so much! Overall 01011001 might not be his best work but definitely top 5.
“01011001” is another underrated piece that’s often under the radar, but I absolutely love it. The music on this one returns to the sound that was created on “Flight of the Migrator” with the amount of heaviness provided.
Although, while there still are some softer tracks to be found here, they are darker than their usual ballads, so the flow doesn’t feel interrupted or abrupt. With that said, the album holds true enough to its own identity.
Again, quite an exceptional lineup of guest vocalists, and one of my favourite ones as well, including the debut appearances of Jørn Lande (Masterplan), Jonas Renkse (Katatonia), Simone Simons (Epica), Daniel Gildenlöw (Pain of Salvation), and Tom Englund (Evergrey).
This record covers the story of Forever of the Stars and the timeline from how they created life on Earth to its inevitable destruction; essentially, the conclusion of the Ayreon concept.
As one of the lucky ones at the pre-listening session at Arjen’s manager’s home and with lyrics in hand, I discovered that this wasn’t as easy a read as The Human Equation. Musically there are many similarities between these two albums. The story is very different of course, as the original Ayreon storyline ended with 01011001.
The album consists of 42 short songs (yes the answer to the ultimate question) but is divided into four epics of over 20 minutes each. No vocalist on this album had ever performed on an Ayreon album before and there are way fewer singers than on the 01011001 album, which, to me, was a good thing.
Personal favourites are Mike Mills and John Wetton. The latter is the only one though, whose voice is not in the high range and that is too bad. On the earlier albums, there was more diversity in the range of vocals.
Standing against that, there are a great number of fantastic instrumentalists who make this album very enjoyable. The best part being the keyboard solo from Keith Emerson on Progressive Waves in Phase I.
“The Theory of Everything” is another outsider concept album, except this one doesn’t have any connections to the Ayreon universe. Aside from a different story, Arjen yet again made a new musical approach, except it’s not particularly the sound of the record; the structure is simply a collection of 20-minute epics, split into several tracks, and between these lengthy songs are gaps.
Arjen had never made an Ayreon album without seamless transitions throughout, but it does help to make these epics stand out, so the listener knows when each piece is finished. This direction could also have been led by the interest of making an album specifically for vinyl, with each epic taking up an entire side.
Musically, there are more similarities to previous albums; specifically with the fun instrumentals that are reminiscent to the style of “Into the Electric Castle” and having the versatility and emotion of “The Human Equation”. Overall, another wonderful record with every epic that’s just as good as the other.
Probably the least played Ayreon album I have. I actually had no clue what the album was about. Now that I’m writing this and searching for information about the album I see that we actually return to the original Ayreon story, but as a prequel. I wonder why this album did not have more rotations in my cd-player. Everything is available, good musicianship, top of the bill vocalists and we are back to the main Ayreon story.
Could it be the “I heard It all before” factor? I guess that can be part of it, but my best guess would be (again) that there are too many high (pitched) vocalists. The album seems pumped full with progressive metal and screams. It feels like Ayreon is turning into Tobias Sammet’s Avantasia, a project that sounded promising, but for the above-mentioned reasons has never been my cup of tea.
If Arjen does not change his style from the last albums, I guess I’ll just have to stay a fan of his old stuff and hope there will be a better balance again.
“The Source” is one last return to the Ayreon universe, and chronologically occurs before “01011001”. Listening to this album, you can tell that it even connects musically to each other, while throwing in more similar passages to “Flight of the Migrator”.
While the tracklist has returned to its usual form, they are split into chapters, so the musical aspect of the journey is reminiscent of how it felt when listening to “The Theory of Everything”.
Another all-star lineup of singers, with many from previous albums and others debuting, including Tommy Rogers (Between the Buried and Me), Tobias Sammet (Avantasia), Nils K. Rue (Pagan’s Mind), and Michael Eriksen (Circus Maximus).
At this point, Arjen has managed to get just about every big name in prog, power, and heavy metal, which in itself is a huge achievement. While in quality I feel it has been going down just a tad from “The Human Equation” onward, it’s still strong enough to be another worthy mention among the sea of brilliant Ayreon records.
Here in front of me is a beautiful piece of art, the earbook version of Transitus. I am quite used to this high quality of artwork from the Ayreon albums, but this time I think Arjen outdid himself, especially because of the included comic with the lyrics around it. I think that was a great move, commercially. The earbook has the same dimensions as the two live albums and the anniversary edition of Into the Electric Castle, so it lines up nicely on the shelf. Keep ‘em coming this way.
That is all great of course, but isn’t it all about the music? To be honest, before I got this physical copy, I had been listening to the album for days and my first impression was not that great. Okay, I was listening to the album in parts and perhaps not with the most focused mind. So here’s a tip: Sit down, put the DVD in your player, select the 2.0 or 5.1 version, get the lyrics and the comic book and listen to the whole thing without any distraction. It changed my opinion completely.
Like The Final Experiment and Into the Electric Castle, Arjen is using a narrator again and this is very much to my liking. Tom Baker really adds something to the story and I love how the songs have an intro with his voice. He reminds me of Merlin (Edwards Reekers) on The Final Experiment, but with more charisma. Also, War of the Worlds comes to mind.
With eighteen vocalists I was afraid there would be too many again, like on 01011001, but most are extras and secondary characters. There are only six main characters and of course Mike Mills, but he just appears as a Dumb Piece of Rock. We have two main characters played by Tommy Karevik and Cammie Gilbert. I probably will be lynched on the town square for this, but Karevik is not my favourite singer. Of course, he is an amazing vocalist, but his moans when starting a sentence gets on my nerves a bit.
Cammie Gilbert on the other hand is a discovery for me. She has this very nice soulful voice and I will surely go check out Oceans of Slumber. And what great singers are Paul Manzi and Dee Snider, the rawness in their voices fits perfectly with their characters.
Also performing is Johanne James, the amazing drummer of Threshold, who thought Arjen wanted him for his drumming skills. But I totally understand why Arjen chose him to sing. I already knew him from his band Kyrbgrinder and saw them live once. The way he was drumming and singing at the same time was really wonderful. I guess his voice could be the biggest surprise for many.
Overall I am quite pleased with the new album and glad I played this entirely with lyrics and comic in hand, as that is essential. Maybe I should do the same someday with The Source and my opinion might change on that one too. Though I have to say that Arjen made the same mistake on this album, by using too many singers in the high range. I really hope Arjen will choose more mellow and warm voices in the future, but I guess we will have to wait for a few years to find out.
The Human Equation was my full introduction to the Ayreon Universe, so when I read that Arjen A. Lucassen was taking the big jump and bringing a part of Ayreon to the stage (finally!) and precisely THIS album, it was a dream come true for me. To this day, The Human Equation is on my top list of Ayreon albums and to have witnessed this show from the audience was one of the best moments in my life as a fan of progressive music.
To see these musicians and singers acting their roles on the album (some of them so naturally!) took the music and the story to a whole new level. Even if Arjen himself did not participate directly. To see him appear at the end was unforgettable.
Sadly, technical problems and I guess some naïveté and hiring the wrong team, made this incredible experience fail when brought into its video form The sound and filming are in one word: terrible. But still, it is worth the effort to pass through these failures and wonder with the sheer quality of the musicians and above all, the singers on stage. Every single one of them did a superb job, not being actors they represented their roles with such ease, and you can really see the little twinkle of happiness on the corner of their eyes at the enormous energy and love they received from the audience. I was there and it was an evening I won’t ever forget.
There are concerts that make you leave work earlier. There are concerts that are worth driving in your car for six hours or take a short trip on a plane. And then there are those concerts that can not be missed, that make you cross half the globe. That’s the kind of concert that Ayreon Universe was. An incredible show for years dreamed of by many Ayreon fans, singers and musicians. Three unforgettable shows including massive displays, robotic lights, a lights and lasers jacket and helmet, fire, fireworks and smoke!
People from all over the World, from more than 50 nations, witnessed what truly was a once-in-a-lifetime experience: The music of Arjen Anthony Lucassen, celebrated on three consecutive nights by the finest dutch musicians, an armada of 16 singers, many of them singing their original roles from the Ayreon metal operas. Almost 10000 people went to Tilburg (NL) for a weekend to be part of an outstanding moment in rock history!
When Arjen, the man who makes great singers sound even better, summons such an army of vocalists, expectations have to be high. And yes, they were fulfilled. Each singer brought her or his own personality and spirit on the stage, from Mike Mill’s (Toehider) brilliant TH1-personalisation (a computer, mind you, but with a sharp tongue, guiding the audience through the show), until the final gathering on stage with ‘The Eye of Ra’ – from Star One, not Ayreon – performed by the complete cast singing as one.
Arjen and his “right hand”, keyboard player Joost van den Broek, who also was the guiding hand behind 2015’s “The Theater Equation” show in Rotterdam, selected no less than 27 songs, ranging from the very beginnings of the Ayreon project (‘Dreamtime’ with Edward Reekers from the 1995 debut “The Final Experiment”, causing the first wet eyes right from the start) through the complete library up to the 2017 release “The Source” and filling two and a half hours. Click here to read our full review and find the photo gallery for “Ayreon Universe”.
Of course, this moment of prog-metal history was filmed and released as Blu-Ray in 2018. Directed and produced by the master Hippie himself, aided by Joost van den Broek, and with added backstage documentary and interviews, little did we know that the fans would be spoiled again only two years later…
Van and Matt
After the much-celebrated “Ayreon Universe” shows, it was barely surprising to see the announcement of another Ayreon live event. So, two years later, the fans of Arjen’s music once again gathered in “Ayreon city” Tilburg, at the 013 for three days of “Electric Castle Live and Other Tales” – a full show of one of Ayreon’s most popular metal operas with almost the complete full original cast and selected guest musicians. As a bonus, Arjen added a selection of songs from all his other musical projects.
Fans and followers of Arjen’s music know the story of this classic, of course: A selection of humans from different times is picked, and John de Lancie (who brilliantly serves as narrator, The Voice) sends them to The Electric Castle – which not all of them will reach. As mentioned, most of the singers already performed on the original album back in 1998: Fish (Highlander), Damian Wilson (Knight), Edwin Balogh (Roman), Anneke van Giersbergen (Egyptian), and Edward Reekers (Futureman), George Oosthoek (Death) and of course Arjen Lucassen himself as The Hippie (who else). They are accompanied by Simone Simons (Indian), John Jaycee Cuijpers (Barbarian) and Mark Jansen (Death). Backing vocals are added by Marcela Bovio, Dianne van Giersbergen and Jan Willem Ketelaers.
A fine selection of instrumentalists completes the line-up on the stage with its huge castle built of metal and fabric: Focus’ Thijs Van Leer, who also added his iconic flute solos to the original record, original drummer Ed Warby, Johan van Stratum (bass), Marcel Singor (guitar), Ferry Duijsens (guitar), Bob Wijtsma (guitar), Ben Mathot (violin) and Jurriaan Westerveld (cello). Last but not least, throning behind this mountain of keyboards and pulling the strings is Arjen’s long-time partner in crime Joost van den Broek. Everyone’s performance can only be called fantastic.
It’s difficult to name highlights in the songs with their different combinations of singers. It’s the performance of the complete opera, the long-time dream of many an Ayreon fan coming true, and the remarkable chemistry between everyone on stage and in the crowd, the feeling of family is what makes this show so unique. The Blu-Ray (released in 2020) does a great job to capture this special atmosphere and also gives a great look behind the scenes of the show. Click here to read our full review and see the photo gallery.
Van & Matt
A letter to Arjen
“Arjen and I have exchanged possibly 10,000 words over emails across a span of a few decades. Almost every sentence was playfully hurtful, deprecating, and funny. (Including a few of his replies). We planned to release a book, knowing that we would be misunderstood. Thankfully, we did not.
While we were always testing each other’s wit, the true test was when we decided to play on each other’s records. This is where I believe we both rose to the challenge.
Arjen has an amazing ability to compose amazing parts and play them amazingly. I use this word a lot because it is his favorite word and I can always picture talking to him and when he likes something he would slow the speed of his spoken speech down about 30 per cent and raise the pitch of his voice a few notes while lifting his chin slightly, to say the word, as if it was the first time he was using the word.
When he first used it to describe my solo on the song “Through the Wormhole” I knew that he was no longer just a funny man, but a nice one. He played on some Shadow Gallery experiments (his word) and also on a Pink Floyd tribute song, where he also lent his beautiful voice.
Somehow he asked me to appear on additional projects, or experiments (my word) he did. He had me do a “duelling” solo section on “Star One” with the greatest keyboard player ever, Jens Johanssen. I was so mad that Arjen would put me up against him, as I knew I would lose the contest even though I never view music that way. One of the greatest compliments I received was when Jens told me he considered it a “draw”. This is what Arjen does. He brings out the very best in everyone he works with. When you are sharing your talents alongside his, there is no alternative but to elevate your playing.
Arjen has an innate sense of composition. He knows how and when to alter a part or change the mood of a song. He understands when it is important to deviate from the norm and introduce a new variety of music. He can inject any style in any song and find a way to make it magic.
As much as I could go on about his obvious and numerous talents, I always light up when hearing his name because of the man he is. Having had the opportunity to have dinners with him in more than one country, I can’t even count the laughs and smiles I experienced in between telling him he had some food on his face… and shirt… and in his teeth. I would continue to laugh even when I got asked (by him) to be moved to a distant table elsewhere in the restaurant.
In the end, I always paid. Not the check. But the price of knowing that I was the inferior musician in the group. (There were other musicians there besides the two of us.) See? I am trying to be serious, but he has made me laugh so many times I can’t help but try to be funny.
He made me believe that the nicer a person you are, the better the musician you are because he has proven that point to me every time I am worthy enough to talk or interact with him. Arjen, you are the best of the best and I am so much better for knowing you. Long live your everlasting emotional songs and performances and I know someday you will be as funny as you think you are.”
Gary “Gayreon” Wehrkamp