(2017) Ayreon: The Source

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Artist: Ayreon
Album: The Source
Release: 28.04.2017
Label: Mascot Label Group

 

In a glorious moment of complete ignorance, I only very recently found out that Arjen Lucassen has both switched record labels and is releasing a new album this month. I blame the former for me not knowing about the latter. Regardless, I was thrilled when I found out that this album was a continuation (or rather, a prequel) of the story of the Forever, which can be found in The Final Experiment (1995), Into the Electric Castle (1998), Universal Migrator, part 1: The Dream Sequencer (2000), Universal Migrator, part 2: Flight of the Migrator (2000), The Human Equation (2004), and 01011001 (2008). In fact, all of Ayreon’s albums save for two have been directly associated with this concept.

So what do you need to know about this album, right away? First of all, we’re going to hear a few familiar voices on this album, such as James Labrie as the Historian (Dream Theater; Me in The Human Equation), Hansi Kürsch as the Astronomer (Blind Guardian; Forever in 01011001), and Mike Mills  as TH-1 (Toehider; The Father in The Theory of Everything (2013) and Father/Rage in The Theater Equation). As well, the story is broken down into four chronicles and follows our human ancestors (the Alphans) as their world is thrown into chaos by giving control over to AIs that have surpassed humanity in intelligence, leading them to become the Forever from 01011001.

As for me personally, my favorite Ayreon albums are The Human Equation and 01011001, with the earlier material not quite grasping me as whole albums, and The Theory of Everything somehow not living up to the usual standard, regardless of how incredible the performances were. This left me in a place of hopeful optimism as I cracked open the album and put it on to listen. My only regret is having it so close to the release date so I can’t be more familiar with it than I am, because you and I both know that this is going to be intricate and deep, musically, vocally, and conceptually. That is the Arjen Lucassen guarantee!

This is an Ayreon review, so brace yourself for a long read, but with storyline spoilers marked at the end of each song so you can avoid them if need be.

Also, we have an interview with Arjen Lucassen coming soon, so stay tuned!

 

CHRONICLE I: The ‘Frame

01. The Day that the World Breaks Down
The first song released was none other than the first track, a 13-minute-long epic that features every major guest vocalist on the album, called “The Day that the World Breaks Down.” Frankly, if you’ve seen the video that was released with it, you’ll have a strong grasp on the concept and you’ll have met the (nearly) full cast. Watch this once and learn all you need to know from Mr. Lucassen himself:

Well, we’re off to a truly phenomenal start, which seems like a given when your first vocalist is James Labrie! I’ll say straight away that this song is a masterpiece on par with “Age of Shadows”; I can’t say that it’s better or worse because they are so stylistically different, but they’re both fantastic starter tracks and this lives up to its thematic predecessor, certainly. I love the new heavier metal sound they’re rocking, which blends so perfectly into the traditional Ayreon flute and strings. There’s some very Dream Theater-y prog in the beginning, and I also love the funky breakdown a little over halfway through, which accompanies the more hopeful parts of the story. The solo manages to be fairly light and airy, before the industrial/heavy parts continue, preceding Floor Jansen‘s (Nightwish) Biologist coming onto the scene. The song closes out with the sounds of screams and sirens.

Story spoilers: I’ve had a hard time placing when exactly this song is taking place, but I assume that Labrie’s Historian is explaining that the President (Russell Allen; Symphony X) has turned control over to the AIs and there is an ominous silence as technology begins shutting things down.
The Opposition Leader (Tommy Karevik; Seventh Wonder, Kamelot) expresses an ‘I told you so’ as he claims to have thought giving control to the AIs was a mistake. The Prophet (Nils K. Rue; Pagan’s Mind, Eidolon) says the solution will be in the stars, while the Captain (Tobias Sammet; Edguy) claims to have known this was coming and has a solution. Mankind enlists the help of a sole remaining sympathetic robot, TH-1, to help them find a way to save themselves after the AIs start shutting things down. The line of binary sung by TH-1 reads, “Trust TH-1” and could be construed as ominous or sincere, and really, knowing how things turn out by the time of 01011001, perhaps both are true.

02. Sea of Machines
The album continues with “Sea of Machines”, which has a rather mellow, lovely string introduction with continued hints of screaming and chaos and sirens in the background. The simple music helps to emphasize the budding panic that is slowly growing in the vocals and builds up nicely as the Prophet speaks in the chorus, offering a glimmer of hope, which the music nicely reflects. The Counselor‘s (Simon Simons; Epica) echoing vocals are haunting before she starts her part, while the music nicely balances the fear of destruction with hope for a solution as the chaos grows. This is a really emotional track – very cool!

Story spoilers: The Chemist and Diplomat (Michael Eriksen; Circus Maximus) explain how the AIs have been cutting mankind off from their technology, starting with phones, TV, and so on. The Prophet sees into the future, and predicts the move to another planet. The ‘Frame begins disconnecting mankind’s support systems and the leaders begin to wonder how to survive. The Captain offers to save humanity by taking some of mankind’s best onto the Starblade and leaving planet Alpha. The President, wracked with guilt over what he has done, promises to find a solution. The ‘Frame shuts down the power worldwide, and the Prophet alludes to other albums that take place in the distant future: 01011001 and Into the Electric Castle.

03. Everybody Dies
This song begins with a very industrial intro before it explodes into something that I can only call ‘Queen-like’ as Mills sings. I find this song actually pretty creepy on the whole, considering the music is really energetic, but dark and heavy, while simultaneously being really upbeat and perky… it works really well to create a gnawing feeling of anticipation and fear. Mike Mills’ vocal layering is again incredible in this track, and the trade-offs between the characters’ vocals are absolutely phenomenal. I assume the final growl must be done by the Chemist (Tommy Rogers; Between the Buried and Me), and I like it – there are some growls throughout and they’re easy to miss, so keep an ear open! This is one of my personal favorites.

Story spoilers: It seems now that TH-1 is panicking, as something in its unique programming seems to realize that destroying mankind does not save mankind, and now everyone will die. TH-1 encourages everyone to run, escape, but also realizes, ultimately, the planet will die along with everyone on it. The characters explain that they are running out of supplies and the core of the world is melting down (ultimately leading to a quantum supernova) – it doesn’t seem to be happening all too quickly though, as there are still a few songs before the plan is laid out. The Captain reiterates his offer to take their group of industry leaders off-world in the Starblade, and TH-1 agrees that this plan might work, even though the circumstances are hardly ideal.
If you want to see what I see when I listen to this song, well, imagine C3P0 from Star Wars reciting some version of the ‘Fuck!’ scene from Boondock Saints, and you’ll get a good solid idea of how I think TH-1 is reacting.

 

CHRONICLE II: The Aligning of the Ten

04. The Star of Sirrah
Before the leaders can leave Alpha, they need to find a destination, of course. There’s something so effective in the way James Labrie sings so gently and forebodingly, matching the image of a Historian who introduces each chronicle so well. The song kicks off after about a minute in true heavy Ayreon manner, with a great solo within the song by Paul Gilbert. The synth backing it up is so cool too. This is yet another song with good hopeful energy, but remains dark, as the characters discuss what must be done.

Story spoilers: The Aligning of the Ten refers a gathering of top leaders of their specialties to travel with the Captain to start a new world: the Historian, the Opposition Leader, the Chemist, the Counselor, the Prophet, the Astronomer, the President, the Diplomat, the Biologist, and the Preacher.
This track is about the above-mentioned leaders (chosen “for their skills and expertise”) accepting that there is no way to undo what the AIs have begun, and instead look toward the stars to find a planet to escape to, where they discover a place that could sustain life – a watery planet in the Alpha Pegasi solar system, orbiting the Star of Sirrah. Already they are coming to terms with the fact that they will be the only ones to go, while the rest must remain to die. The Chemist warns them that to survive on an ocean world, they cannot remain as they are, introducing Liquid Eternity (‘The Source’) at last, which they will use to evolve. The Captain sets the course of navigation and prepares for the journey.

05. All that Was
This song turns more personal, and we can now hear strong Celtic influences. It’s almost odd how upbeat and positive this song seems. Simons and Jansen star in this track, and if that isn’t a fantastic blend of voices, I don’t know what is. Jansen’s parts are so powerful on the album every time, that I wish there was a bit more of her on the whole. With a few exceptions, she mostly sings single-verse parts or comes in repeating feelings others have already expressed first, so this is a nice showcase of what she and Simons can do together. “I won’t be there when you die” is perhaps one of the harshest lines on the album.

Story spoilers: The Counselor and Biologist say their heartbreaking goodbyes to their loved ones as they must come to terms with the fact that not everyone is able to join them on the Starblade and they will leave their families behind to die. The Historian and Diplomat go on to talk about starting over and moving on. They say their farewells and leave their families behind.

06. Run! Apocalypse! Run!
Ah, this song starts sounding just like running and panic. The speed and intensity of the music perfectly backs up the mental image of chaos and apocalypse. The guitar, bass, and synth all blend to make the perfect panic anthem. The long solo suits the song, allowing the listener’s mind to to do the work, showing the madness that ensues the knowledge of a world’s destruction.

Story spoilers: And so the end begins on planet Alpha. As the world begins its descent into madness, the chosen few follow the Opposition Leader to the Starblade where the Captain awaits. The heroes make their way down the valley and up the hill to where Starblade awaits, as TH-1 helps the Captain prepare the systems. The Preacher declares that the devil has won on Alpha.

07. Condemned to Live
The music gets quite ominous in this song, as the characters reflect on what they were forced to do, with deep strings (likely the cello) building ambience. I find this part to be vaguely reminiscent of some of Iron Maiden’s epics, such as “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, in the way the music builds tension and a feeling of hopelessness. The song does rise up though, particularly during the solos, and at this point I just have to mention that Ed Warby on drums is a marvel.

Story spoilers: I imagine this song taking place right before or during the Starblade taking off, and a massive wave of darkness overtakes the characters as they experience their survivor’s guilt. The Historian and Chemist, as well as Counselor, become aware of the reality of what has happened, that they are forced to leave their people behind to fight and panic before the planet eventually explodes. They wonder why they get to live while billions die, while those left behind die alone with their hopes and dreams. The Diplomat encourages them to look to the future, to look at what must be done, and the Chemist reminds them of the Liquid Eternity.
There is a bit of ‘science’ here, as they explain that Liquid Eternity will alter and transform their genes. The Opposition Leader and Biologist try to let go of the past so they can focus on the future and escape their hellish guilt.

 

CHRONICLE III: The Transmigration

08. Aquatic Race
Here, what I believe is the Ship’s Crew starting things off vocally, though frankly, I had thought this was Mike Mills again, considering the proper high-pitched, layered, Queen-like vocals. It’s a bit confusing. A deep and dark, not-quite-industrial marching, chugging melody then takes off. I really love the staccato stops that preclude the Chemist’s part. As well, I think one of the coolest vocal pairings on this album has to be between the Biologist and Astronomer, because Floor Jansen and Hansi Kürsch are chilling when their vocal powers are combined.

Story spoilers: And so they take off from their ruined planet Alpha. It seems as though these chosen leaders will spend an eternity (the time it takes to reach the water planet, I would assume) in the Liquid Eternity, becoming infinite – planning their future, deciding to avoid all technology and machinery this time around to avoid making the same mistakes, and creating a world without death. The Chemist explains that the Liquid Eternity will allow them to become telepathic and will prolong their lifespans, allowing enlightenment and an existence beyond life and death, letting go of cares and fears.
This initially confused me a bit, because I had been under the assumption that the Forever on Planet Y had developed in a way that the aquatic race had developed tech and then it cured all illness, and that is how they became immortal and overly reliant on technology by the time 01011001 takes place. However, this seems to suggest that the Liquid Eternity is what made them immortal and already stripped their emotions down, though it appears that the result was the same nevertheless.

09. The Dream Dissolves
A wind-down transitions the songs nicely, with yet another darker intro, paired with some lovely flutes. A lot of the progression in this song is not unlike that in The Human Equation, thanks to the flute-violin combination, which I think will be a nice treat for fans of that album. There are some truly passionate and emotional solos in here, filled with longing and desperation. Marvelous!

Story spoilers: The escapees appear to be in suspended animation now, in the Liquid Eternity, evolving and dreaming of their future and what life will be like when they eventually reach their destination, as their dreams relate to being under the water. Their souls evolve as they see these dreams of their utopia, but the dreams dissolve; foreshadowing, perhaps, or the dissolving dream could be them slowly awakening.

10. Deathcry of a Race
This song starts out with the strong flutes yet again, and I particularly enjoy the hint of Arabic musical stylings in the beginning of this track, which rise and fall as the song progresses – it’s hard to pick favorite riffs, but this song has a few that are simply great. As well, we get a bit of Simons’ operatic vocals properly for the first time here – glad to see they were neither over- nor under-used on this album.

Story spoilers: The characters are awakening and can see their new planet approaching in the distance. The Opposition Leader reiterates how wonderful it will be, to live forever without technology, and this time they will do it right. The Preacher (Zaher Zorgati; Myrath) sings in a few different Arabic languages, perhaps of hope? The first line reads something along the line of, “He said there should be no light and there was light.” The second line, unfortunately, I haven’t yet been able to decipher. If someone can name the language and the meaning, I’ll update this!
As they awaken, they realize that in their long sleep-travel, their planet has been destroyed and everyone and everything the knew is now gone.

11. Into the Ocean
I strongly appreciate the very Deep Purple-esque organ parts in this song, which has yet to fail to bring a big stupid smile to my face. This is perhaps the most hopeful and positive song on the album and it’s so goofy and power metal-y, that I can’t not grin like an idiot and dance around when I hear it. The music certainly backs up the overarching feeling of hope and life.

Story spoilers: They approach their watery planet with great, great enthusiasm. This question seems to answer my question as to whether the new race can breed, to which the answer appears to be yes – they’ll start a new telepathic race and share with them their dreams and goals. This planet is untouched by both man and machine, so they begin anew and build a future without death.
I’m not sure my lyrics are accurate when they claim the Preacher sings the last part – I’m quite sure it is the Prophet, as it foresees a future rise of technology; a dark future.

 

CHRONICLE IV: The Rebirth

12. Bay of Dreams
The music turns slightly ominous yet again, gently flowing like waves. The song remains fairly constant throughout, with 80s-like synth for TH-1’s parts. The beat changes for the Diplomat’s parts, but remains fairly dark throughout.

Story spoilers: The Alphans arrive on their new planet and name their landing site the Bay of Dreams, where they start to rebuild. The guilt over abandoning planet Alpha still remains in the Chemist, while the Historian realizes that the star of Sirrah is too hot to face, and so they must stay submerged to survive. TH-1 wonders how he will fit into their new world, and what will happen when they don’t need him anymore. As they settle in and sink into their eternity of life, the Preacher (again, I think this might be the Prophet, mislabeled) foresees what is later to become planet Earth and its subsequent failure as well.

13. Planet Y is Alive!
This fast-paced power metal track brings life to the new aquatic planet. There’s something interesting in Hansi Kürsch’s parts in the chorus, as the music feels reminiscent of some Blind Guardian styles here and there. I also think there’s a part in here during the solos that must reflect some parts from 01011001, because they sound so familiar, yet not quite the same. The song builds to an epic conclusion with Floor Jansen taking over Kürsch’s part, again proving that those two sound shockingly cool when paralleled.

Story spoilers: The Opposition Leader still clashes with the President, distrusting his ability to make important decisions. They plan to build a new society based on their mental collective, always connected and working toward a common goal. The Opposition Leader seeks to start a new race of aquatic beings free of machines and science. The Captain sees the sun through the waves and remembers the planet they left behind. TH-1 backs up these sentiments.

14. The Source will Flow
How are there so many ominous songs on this album without it getting bogged down? I’m amazed. The music sounds so aquatic, yet the bits of industrial ambience mixed in feel so dark and foreboding. James Labrie is haunting paired with the strings, while Simons is similarly eerie as hints of industrial sounds reemerge.

Story spoilers: As the Alphans continue to merge with their new planet and The Source (Liquid Eternity), they begin to forget their past on Alpha as they focus on the future. They do this willingly, as it allows them to let go of their pain and grief. This song hints that the Forever will go on to forget what happened on planet Alpha as they spend an eternity as a new race, yet they will retain some part of their past selves that longed to expand and simplify, and will eventually redevelop technology in the future.

15. The Journey to Forever
A clever title, this one – it refers to how they will live forever, but it also alludes to how they become the Forever of 01011001. This is the second time the Ship’s Crew appear on vocals, and my problem remains that they sound really similar to TH-1, thus making it a little hard to differentiate between them. The strong Celtic influence is present again in this lively power metal anthem – if you want a positive song, power metal is surely the way to go!

Story spoilers: The Alphans have become a collective mind, living forever. They’re slowly forgetting what they once were as time goes on, and accept their future with joy and enthusiasm as they forget what happened on Alpha. An eternity of life on Planet Y separates them from their history. They’ve evolved into something new and are losing what it was that brought them to this new world. They become the Forever.

16. The Human Compulsion
The penultimate song brings the industrial fear back into the music, as if it’s inescapable somehow. The music in this song is wonderfully powerful, pairing with each of the main character’s fears and hopes as the song builds to its finale.

Story spoilers: The Forever wonder what Liquid Eternity will do to them in the long run, with each of them expressing some fear about what is to come – can they repress their desire to expand and explore, can they remember their mistakes so as not to repeat them, can they evolve without predators, will they survive, will their race succeed?

17. March of the Machines
The album closes on a horribly dark note, as it comes nearly full-circle in this dark and industrial horror story that is the final track. It’s a chilling way to end the album, leaving you cold down to your bones. This song feels like it comes straight out of my nightmares.

Story spoilers: With the Forever turning complacent, TH-1 predicts that they will come to rely on him again, and he too will evolve… to become the next Mainframe.

 

And so we have reached the conclusion of what has turned out to be an incredibly nuanced and thorough album. The music, the vocal parts, and the story all work very cohesively to create a masterpiece of a concept album.

If I am to compare this to other Ayreon works, I don’t think there has been such a fluid album since The Human Equation. The story in The Source is equivalent and even parallels that on 01011001, but rather than having a few long songs with many solos and repetitions, there are more songs that drive the story more thoroughly (yet not too quickly). The first half of the album centers around leaving Alpha, while the second half looks toward the future – even though the progression of time is vastly different in the second half, it progresses naturally, without rush or lag. As such, I’ll go so far as to deem it an improvement over 01011001, which is hard to imagine, but there you have it.

Without any background, the story can appear convoluted, and you certainly will need to listen to it a few times before you catch all of the little bits and pieces, and figure out the individual personalities and desires of the vocalists. The vocal lines in this album are particularly well-crafted, finding tons of rhymes to blend together masterfully, in songs like “Everybody Dies” and “Run! Apocalypse! Run!” Truly, there are some of the best vocalists/composers out there on this album. The music is essentially flawless, sounding very distinctly ‘Ayreon’, but still much evolved from the past albums.

What I think is truly the greatest part about this album though, is the overall existential theme, surrounding mankind’s nature – their desire to expand and ultimately ruin themselves every time. Mankind destroys their planet (Alpha), and moves on, to try again. They fail (Planet Y) and send their DNA on again to create Earth. This fails again, and the last remaining human goes on to become the Universal Migrator yet again. Likely, the pattern will continue in the future as well. It’s a dark theme, but it feels awfully close to home these days, no?

At this point, I’m feeling my usual hesitation at assigning a full score, yet I cannot come up with a particularly good reason to deny this album even a half point, so…

Rating: 10/10, 5 stars

Tracklist:
Chronicle I: The ‘Frame
1. The Day that the World Breaks Down
2. Sea of Machines
3. Everybody Dies
Chronicle II: The Aligning of the Ten
4. The Star of Sirrah
5. All that Was
6. Run! Apocalypse! Run!
7. Condemned to Live
Chronicle III: The Transmigration
8. Aquatic Race
9. The Dream Dissolves
10. Deathcry of a Race
11. Into the Ocean
Chronicle IV: The Rebirth
12. Bay of Dreams
13. Planet Y is Alive!
14. The Source will Flow
15. Journey to Forever
16. The Human Compulsion
17. March of the Machines

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