(2018) Ayreon: Ayreon Universe

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Artist: Ayreon
Album: Ayreon Universe (Best of Ayreon Live)
Release: 30.03.2018
Label: Mascot Label Group

 

Ayreon is known for many things: epic concept albums, great vocalists from all walks of the world, and of course, Arjen Lucassen‘s fear of playing live. However, following the success of The Theater Equation back in 2015, it was clear that Ayreon needed to return to the stage yet again, this time with a best-of set at 013 Poppodium in Tilburg, NL.

After attending the third day of the show, and declaring it the best live show I’ve ever attended, it was only natural that I was particularly impatient for this release to be announced. The rumors behind the poor live DVD quality of The Theater Equation, at least that I had heard on the streets of Tilburg, were that the Luxor Theater had been rather uninterested in allowing the band/label to film the show as they, laughably, didn’t think the show would be a big deal. I was sure that this time around (if that was true), no venue would deny them as many cameras as they wanted. So strap on your seatbelts, this is going to be a bit of a read.

You can listen to the studio tracks from our Spotify playlist here:

 

The first thing that I want to say is that I am not a big live DVD watcher. I maybe watch two per year at most and only with friends on a party night. So keep that in mind when I tell you that I have already watched this DVD a solid ten to fifteen times, on my own.

This live show presents a proper best-of, and right off the bat, I will say that my opinion is that the show is not flawless, but it is nigh on perfect nevertheless, if that makes sense. There are a few songs I’m less enthusiastic about than others, but that’s okay (and totally subjective). There are a few vocal pairings as well that I’m not 100% on board with too. However, the overall feeling, quality, and impression that this show leaves after watching it is unparalleled, on another level from any other live show I’ve ever seen, and that’s what makes this show essentially perfect to me.

I have literally nothing to complain about for the first third of this DVD, up until and including “Comatose.” The lights, the mix, the performance, they all bring me back to that show, and on a big enough screen in the dark with surround sound (if possible, that is what I would consider the optimal way to view this show). During “Dreamtime”, Edward Reekers‘ [Kayak] final note is chill-inducing. In “Abbey of Synn”, the completely unknown-to-me Robert Soeterboek [Star One] absolutely crushes it on all fronts. The timing and performance of all the musicians is astoundingly good.

“River of Time” was the first track I was familiar with at the show, and Hansi Kürsch [Blind Guardian] and Marco Hietala [Nightwish] are fantastic together. In fact, this might very well be Hietala’s best song from the show, which is interesting because it’s one of the only songs that wasn’t his originally – Bob Catley was the original.

Marcela Bovio [ex-Stream of Passion] and Mike Mills (who also opens the show in a TH-1 costume) are truly gorgeous together in “Blackboard” and “The Theory of Everything”, and I would go so far as to say that Bovio’s performance in this song is superior to the original, done by Cristina Scabbia [Lacuna Coil]. If I was to take a guess as to why that is, based on the interview we did with Scabbia last year, it sounds as though she showed up and did her part, as written already, whereas Lucassen has spoken of many vocalists thoroughly putting themselves into the character. Perhaps Bovio did this, and Scabbia did not? And before I move on from this track, Joost van der Broek’s keyboard solo at the beginning of that track also gives me chills all over my body every single time.

I have nothing to add to “Merlin’s Will” that I didn’t already say about Floor Jansen [Nightwish] in the live report. She utterly destroys the original song, which is a great song, and she is just so fucking cool. She owns the song like she was born with it and it’s been begging to get out all her life. Case in point, “I’ll have you know that I can / charm you with a wave of my hand / you bow to my command.” A wave of her hand and the crowd is wrapped around her little finger.

And if you want the ultimate, supreme combination of haunting voices, look no further than Jonas Renkse [Katatonia] and Anneke van Giersbergen [Vuur] in “Waking Dreams” – a song that I have come to love a lot more than I did before thanks to this show. I think if those two ever did an album together, just the two of them on vocals, I could die happy.

Another complete unknown to me was John Jaycee Cuijpers [Praying Mantis], who takes a song sung by Russel Allen and Damian Wilson – two of Ayreon’s best vocalists in my opinion – and just belts it out like it was his own. Props here also to the choir, Bovio, Jansen’s sister, Irene Jansen, and Lisette van den Berg, who help take this already great song and make it amazing with their absolutely incredible harmonization.

“Valley of the Queens” is a song that has the power to blow out your brain. If you loved this on the album, you will love it here, I’m sure. Jansen, van Giersbergen, and Bovio all harmonizing together is… tear-inducing. Jeroen Goossens on flute needs a mention too – he can be anything a song needs him to be. Fun, gentle, anything. He’s just great.

“Ride the Comet” brings back Renkse and introduces Maggy Luyten [Nightmare] as an unusual but incredible pairing. Luyten was yet another unknown to me and my first impression was… holy shit, who is this amazing rocker lady? She’s unbelievable. And every time Renkse utters the word “extremophile” I am filled with joy.

One of the songs with the most replacements is “Star of Sirrah”, with Mills in the place of both James Labrie (the Historian) and Tommy Rogers (the Chemist), and Luyten replacing Russell Allen as the President. The Captain’s (Tobias Sammet) parts are merged into the Astronomer’s, so Kürsch performs both. Luyten doesn’t perhaps improve on Allen’s parts, but she does a great job of them nevertheless. I don’t have an issue with Mills in this song, but the phantom expressed some annoyance that Mills cuts the “adapt” note in half, leaving a few seconds in the song where nothing happens, then runs off to chuckle with Johan van Stratum, which results in the choir having to cover for him for half a moment when his next line starts. I probably wouldn’t have noticed if the phantom hadn’t been hovering over my shoulder commenting on it. We had quite a long debate about whether it was an issue, but reached no agreement in the end, so we’ll have to leave it to you to decide. And before anyone goes crucifying anyone for hating on Mike Mills, we did agree that the first half of his lines are absolutely perfect – he manages to mimic the echoing quality of Tommy Rogers’ voice, and I have never been sure if Rogers used any effects to get that sound on the album – if he did, huge props to Mills for that.

Rob Snijders makes a cameo on drums, starting with “Comatose”, and if you don’t know him by name, you might know him as van Giersbergen’s husband. This is a longstanding favorite song of mine, and something special about it is that every version I’ve heard has been amazing in its own way. Jørn Lande is again the original singer, replaced by Renkse in this video, but Lucassen himself also performed it with van Giersbergen on the acoustic tour (which you can find on YouTube if you’re so inclined). I’ve never heard a song that has each alternative singer do so well with it. It’s hard to imagine anyone shining as brightly as Lande, but Renkse’s eerie, echo-like vocals make this song a pure chill-inducing delight. And of course, he’s with van Giersbergen again, which is always wonderful.

At “Day Sixteen: Loser”, we hit the song I’m not okay with. Here’s my issue with this song, which will echo my thoughts on The Theater Equation: I don’t think Mills’ version of the character works for me. In my head, the Father in The Human Equation is a dark character – abusive, drunk, mean. I don’t see him as a jester, which is how Mills portrays him. I see why it works for some – he’s mocking and sarcastic, and it’s one way of showing an abusive person, but it doesn’t match my personal image of the character. Mills has changed the personality into something that could have worked, but he’s overacting. As well, I don’t think Mills has any business singing Rage’s parts – it’s ridiculous to me that he is singing essentially to his own character, when it should’ve been left to the choir and Luyten. So for me, this is the one song that I actually really don’t like from the show, but I know I’m nit-picking because I’m so invested in the lyrics and story, not just the performance. However, I know that’s a pretty unpopular opinion, so again, I’ll leave this to you guys. And it’s not like I’m saying Mills isn’t amazing, but I just think this wasn’t the place for his theatrics. Though it was very sweet that he shouts, “We miss you Mike Baker!” at the end [the original vocalist, sadly now deceased].

Damian Wilson [Headspace] makes his first of many appearances in “The Druids Turn to Stone”, starting strong and seeming to just get better with every song. This version is somehow far more touching and moving, perhaps more dynamic, than on the album. He starts so gently and then just explodes with passion, then just as smoothly returns to the gentleness. It’s gorgeous. Wilson was another unknown to me before this show, and was perhaps my favorite of them all (though really, how do you pick?) once it was over.

Cuijpers takes over for Jay van Feggelen as the Barbarian, as well as Wilson’s Knight (for the most of) “The Two Gates”, a song that already hypes me to high hell on the album and does so doubly live. This song, as the halfway point, brings an interlude with Irene Jansen, who introduces the choir and band during the echo-y part of the song – a great place to include such a thing. Jansen is very charismatic, cute, and charming, so I can see why she was picked for this role. Wilson, however, does return for his part once Jansen leaves to take over his own role in the C-part, with Cuijpers finishing the last chorus. I want to give props to the pyros in this song as well – I think they’re some of the most effective in the entire show during the motorcycle sounds toward the end.

Tommy Karevik [Kamelot] makes a late entrance as a substitute for Bruce Dickinson in “Into the Black Hole”, and as I’ve said many times, it’s pretty fucking hard to replace Dickinson, but Karevik does an incredible job of this song. I tip my hat to him. The choir again too… damn.

“Actual Fantasy” brings back Reekers and acts as an opening to “Computer Eyes”, where he is joined by Soeterboek. Ferry Duijsens swaps out his electric guitar for an acoustic briefly, allowing for a nice blend of sound with Marcel Coenens. The vocalists layer in a seamlessly magical manner. I keep thinking that this is one of my least favorite tracks, but in the end it’s actually the original that I find a bit dull, and the live version is great.

Moving on to “Magnetism”, the first thing I want to say is that Ben Mathot on violin is incredible. The Theory of Everything may not have quite clicked for me, but musically the album is astounding. Karevik comes out to sing with van Giersbergen, who is replacing Sara Squadrani as the Girl. When van Giersbergen’s voice almost seems to crack during, “we were always meant to be,” you really feel the character – funnily, I’d say she actually outshines both Karevik and Hietala in this song. I’ve struggled to figure out why I’ve never been 100% on board with Hietala’s parts in this song, and perhaps it’s because Karevik and Hietala’s characters are rivals, but Karevik backs Hietala up in the “don’t you believe it” parts. Either Karevik should not be singing or they should both be going full force, almost competing to be the loudest. As it stands, perhaps their harmonization (if it is harmonization – seems like they’re both singing the melody) is a bit weak. It feels like neither of them is quite being used to their full potential.

Things get epic when the industrial intro starts up “Age of Shadows”, with Hietala again in Lande’s parts, and I find that perhaps he wasn’t the guy to replace Lande in this particular song. It feels like the song wasn’t written for his voice, and he’s not quite sure if he wants to take the notes up or down or stay level, and it ends up feeling like it goes nowhere, wavering unsteadily in the middle. However, he and Kürsch are amazing together in the first two choruses, where he feels more like he’s in his element, but at the end he gets awkward again. Jansen comes out once more to show off how awesome she is, and then Hietala’s final line is perfect. However, again it just feels like Hietala wasn’t quite optimal for this song.

Peter Vink makes his very stylish bass cameo (a neon pink bass cameo at that) for “Intergalactic Space Crusaders” – if you read the review, you know that I was in the photo pit doing my utmost not to lose my shit and dance and headbang like crazy to this song. Now that I can watch this at home, I am free to let loose, and I do, pretty much every time. Wilson and Luyten are so fun to watch together, as they are acting their parts as much as singing. Luyten replaces Russell Allen, and is (in my opinion) quite a bit better than the original (and that says something) – her final scream is purely awesome. However, this song has been sped up quite a lot and it does take a while for me to get into the new, faster speed, though once I do, it’s great. Still though, this is easily one of my very favorite songs on this whole DVD.

“Collision” brings Hietala and Karevik back to the stage for another slightly awkward song. It’s essentially the same issue as with “Magnetism” – they should be rivals and equals, but because Hietala has a powerful and unique voice, it consistently overpowers Karevik’s beautiful but less unusual voice. They should be harmonizing, but they’re singing pretty much the same part in the same style. As well, if we’re talking about the story, really, Karevik should be totally equal or maybe even slightly stronger. Ultimately, I do think that if you want Karevik to be the main character in your story, you don’t pair him with Hietala, because Hietala’s voice tends to simply push Karevik’s into a backing vocalist’s place, and perhaps it should’ve been someone else in that role. I also think these two songs were a bit too close to one another in the set and should’ve been separated by more than two songs.

Okay, time to give Mike Mills the love he deserves at last. “Everybody Dies” puts him back in his TH-1 outfit yet again. As the phantom puts it, Mills has a sort of live joker-like character, and it’s very likely that the song was written around who and what Mills is with Ayreon: fast, playful, dramatic, and oh so high-pitched. It suits Mills and his style to a T. Karevik and Kürsch reprise their album roles, and they perform the vocal trade-offs perfectly. The choir (I think it’s van den Berg that I’m hearing) nearly completely overpowers Kürsch in the, “in the end when all is silent,” part (originally Allen’s), but at least she sounds great doing it. Luyten comes in to do the Michael Eriksen’s (the Diplomat) gritty hardcore parts, taking it to yet another level. She also sings a couple of TH-1’s lines prior to that, which I assume was due to her voice just fitting in there so well. The only thing that I’m iffy about in this song is that Karevik plays both the Opposition Leader and the Captain (replacing Tobias Sammet), and if I’m being totally honest, I think that should’ve been done by Hietala, as he and Sammet share a high and unique voice. Karevik does a very nice job, but he doesn’t stand out the way Sammet did, and I think Hietala would’ve done it perfectly (and also would’ve corrected my nit-picky character issue).

Mills stays in his outfit to do the Forever’s spoken parts at the beginning of “The Castle Hall.” At last, Lucassen appears on stage! He joins in on guitar, and I’m really wondering why he’s so nervous about playing, because he’s really great at it. Soeterboek takes over for van Feggelen as the Barbarian this time around; I find myself wishing van Feggelen sang it when I listen to the original, but every time I put on the DVD I take it back – Soeterboek is fucking incredible, really taking the role and making it his own with little embellishments. His deep, low voice is pure magic, and when either he or Wilson harmonize with the choir, those goosebumps come back to overtake my entire body. This song is a full 100/10 score, better than the original (and the original is already one of my favorite songs ever), amazing in every possible way. Even the guitar is so much more lively than on the album. If I have any complaint, it’s that it’s too short.

Lucassen then gives his long speech, which was, I was delighted to find, actually quite different from the one he gave the next day when I was present. He then makes a great joke about the following song, “Amazing Flight”, which I won’t spoil for you. Naturally Lucassen stays to do the Hippy’s part, and he’s very cute and sings very nicely. This is again one of my favorites, and the biggest problem I had with it was that they cut out the C-part, which is the best part of the song, or at least the most powerful, and the song ends after the first big solo part. Jay van Feggelen makes his first and last appearance in this song, and he is amazing. I keep thinking I’d want to hear him sing “The Castle Hall” because he’s so great in this song, but the behind the scenes tells a bit about why he didn’t perform more than this one track.

The show begins to wind down with “Day Eleven: Love”, with Reekers interestingly as the replacement for James Labrie. Another odd note is that Bovio replaces Irene Jansen as well, changing the perspective of the lyrics. I have been wondering why, since Jansen was there, and they were both in the choir. Don’t get me wrong, Bovio is amazing as always, but if Jansen was present and never got a place in the vocal spotlight, I would’ve liked her to do her own part. Nevertheless, Bovio did a great job. As well, Ed Warby (drums) sings Fear’s part, which was interesting. He’s got a very nice voice and sings it beautifully, but part of me wishes van Giersbergen had reprised her role as Fear for that, because the haunting voice just suits that part so well (Renkse would’ve also done a great job of it). However, in the context of a best-of, this really isn’t an issue. It’s a great rendition.

The show closes out with “The Eye of Ra”, another Star One song, which may at first seem like an odd choice to end the show (especially considering it’s not an Ayreon song, technically), but they add vocalists so smoothly that it works; starting with Wilson, followed by Cuijpers, the Jansen sisters finally singing together properly and wonderfully in the, “oooh the eye of Ra parts”, and then everyone just comes on stage to sing together for the choir parts. Let’s bring those chills back one more time, eh? It’s a weird choice on the surface, but it’s actually kind of perfect due to the choir part at the end, where all the vocalist have the opportunity to come out and sing together. After they all take their bows, the show ends with a voice saying, “Remember Forever” and fades out.

 

The DVD also includes the practice gig with a few vocalists you’ve likely not heard before if you’re not Dutch, as well as all of the interviews with the cast, which was very interesting and completely worth watching, and explains some of the casting choices and other show quirks.

 

In summary… if you like Ayreon even a little, you’re not going to want to miss this DVD. It has its flaws, but not everyone will agree with me on the things that bothered me. And really, in spite of these things, I just love the whole thing. I want to give it a full score in spite of that, but my inner logic tells me that I shouldn’t. I’ll put it this way, that the show is 95% perfect, with a few things here and there, but ultimately, it’s still the best live DVD I’ve ever seen.

Rating: 9½/10, 5 stars

Tracklist:
1. Prologue
2. Dreamtime
3. Abbey of Synn
4. River of Time
5. Blackboard
6. The Theory of Everything
7. Merlin’s Will
8. Waking Dreams
9. Dawn of a Million Souls
10. Valley of the Queens
11. Ride the Comet
12. Star of Sirrah
13. Comatose
14. Day 16: Loser
15. And the Druids Turn to Stone
16. The Two Gates
17. Into the Black Hole
18. Actual Fantasy
19. Computer Eyes
20. Magnetism
21. Age of Shadows
22. Intergalactic Space Crusaders
23. Collision
24. Everybody Dies
25. The Castle Hall
26. Amazing Flight
27. Day 11: Love
28. The Eye of Ra

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