One of the most highly-anticipated shows of the year has finally come to pass: Arjen Lucassen‘s Ayreon Universe! With three shows promised in the fall of 2017, and recalling how earth-shatteringly fantastic The Theater Equation was in September 2015, fans from all over the world sold out the shows in mere moments. As Arjen Lucassen is notoriously uncomfortable with performing, we knew that this was an opportunity not to be missed, so Musicalypse boarded some planes and trains to Tilburg, Netherlands, in high anticipation for the last show of the weekend on September 17th.
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Seeing Lucassen’s shows has become somewhat of a thing for a friend and I. We made the journey to Rotterdam 2 years ago, so it felt fitting that we would make the journey again together, nearly exactly 2 years later. This show boasted an impressive host of original vocalists, and for those songs whose vocalists couldn’t make it, there were bound to be equally impressive replacements. I, for one, refused to spoil the setlist or even the guest list for myself beforehand. However, for ease of reading, I’ll include the cast list here, with the corresponding major Ayreon/Star One projects to which the singers have contributed (I may have missed a couple – forgive me):
Floor Jansen: Universal Migrator pt. 1 (2000), 01011001 (2008), The Source (2017); Space Metal (Star One, 2002), Victims of the Modern Age (Star One, 2010)
Damian Wilson: Into the Electric Castle (1998), The Universal Migrator pt. 1 & 2; Space Metal (Star One), Victims of the Modern Age (Star One)
Hansi Kürsch: 01011001, The Source
Tommy Karevik: The Theory of Everything, The Source
Anneke van Giersbergen: Into the Electric Castle, 01011001, The Theater Equation (2015)
Marco Hietala: The Theory of Everything
Jonas Renkse: 01011001
Mike Mills: The Theory of Everything, The Theater Equation, The Source
Marcela Bovio: The Human Equation, The Final Experiment (2005 reissue), The Theater Equation
Irene Jansen: The Human Equation, The Final Experiment (2005 reissue), The Theater Equation
Robert Soeterboek: The Final Experiment (1995); Star One, session vocalist on many other albums
John Jaycee Cuijpers: The Final Experiment (2005 reissue)
Edward Reekers: The Final Experiment, Actual Fantasy (1996), Into the Electric Castle, Universal Migrator pt. 1
Jay van Feggelen: The Final Experiment, Into the Electric Castle
Maggy Luyten: 01011001
Lisette van den Berg: The Theater Equation (choir), The Source (backing vocals)
We arrived in Tilburg in the early afternoon and the whole city seemed to have been alive with support for the Aryeon shows. Nearby the venue, there were cafes and restaurants littered with Aryeon dinner specials, as well as people from near and far in a wide variety band shirts – many of them already with their Ayreon Universe merch from attending multiple shows or ordering online beforehand! We sat down to an Ayreon Universe special burger in Grand Cafe Puur (which was overpriced for its quality) before having a drink and wandering over to the venue right around the time the doors would be opening. To the surprise of many, the entry queue wrapped nearly all the way around the block, and it’s a pretty large block, not your average suburban street.
Poppodium 013 in Tilburg has been in our gallery a few times, as one of the previous owners lived across the border in Germany, so it was a bit exciting for me to experience this known venue firsthand. It hosts about 3,000 people, give or take, and has a gorgeous set-up – a large main hall, stairs and the back, and a nice big balcony, also with steps to help people see optimally. I approved immediately on entry. There were two merch booths set up as well, the first of which was quite crowded, so we wandered a bit further in to pick up our shirts (which came with free posters and stickers – cool!) before my friend found a place on the steps and I made my way to the photo pit.
The show started at 20:30 sharp, with Mike Mills [Toehider] taking the stage in a rather bizarre and amusing android costume, with laser pointers and other decorations on his ‘head’. He did the intro to Ayreon’s first album, 1995’s The Final Experiment. We had to assume that this would also be his TH-1 costume from The Source (2017) later on in the show. The show officially opened with “Dreamtime” featuring Edward Reekers [Kayak] in an almost pastoral outfit. I’m entirely unfamiliar with Reekers or Kayak, which made the first track slightly underwhelming, not by any fault of Reekers – he was fantastic. Rather, I was maybe expecting something a bit bigger, like perhaps “The Day that the World Breaks Down” from The Source – something with a ton of vocalists to really get things going with a huge bang.
At this point I could go through the whole show, song-by-song, but I feel like that would spoil things for those who want to see the DVD later, so I’ll just continue on with my personal highlights. First up, “River of Time” from 01011001 replaced Bob Catley with Marco Hietala [Nightwish, Tarot]. While I actually feel, to a small degree, that Hietala was not quite used as optimally as he could have been in this show, there was no question that he and Hansi Kürsch [Blind Guardian, Demons & Wizards] have a lot of fun interacting on stage with one another. They ‘acted’ a bit but mainly spent a lot of time being jovial and teasing one another, interacting as though they were long-time bandmates, though I’m not sure these guys have ever shared a stage outside festivals. This happened again later on in “Age of Shadows”, though of course that track also had Floor Jansen [Nightwish] joining in on the party, so it could only possibly be better.
Speaking of Floor Jansen and stage performances, one cannot but be absolutely astounded at this woman. When she came out for “Merlin’s Will” she simply took command of the stage. She’s such a performer! She roared out like a magnificent lion with… I can only call it a presence. When she came on stage, she and the band and the stage became one huge, glorious entity. It’s hard to describe – you’d have to be there to see it. I don’t even know that I’ve ever seen it like that with Nightwish, though I chalk that up to the fact that she is expected to be present in every song. In this track, she was substituting for the original vocalist, Leon Goewie, and so she clearly knew how to make an entrance. There was no arrogance in that presence either. It was perfect.
I got a great chill of excitement when Jonas Renkse [Katatonia] took the stage not long after. That man has such a unique and eerie voice, and even though much of the music he sings is gloomy, he himself never seems to quite be dreary, in spite of the fact that he’s always in all black and it’s nigh on impossible to see him without his hair in his face. As well, having him with Anneke van Giersbergen [Vuur], another legendarily haunting voice – for not only their original duet, 01011001‘s “Waking Dreams”, but also later on in “Comatose”, where he did a shockingly good job replacing Jorn Lande – was an absolute delight. I say shockingly, because anyone who knows both voices will know they have next to nothing in common on the surface. Disappointingly (and a minor disappointment at that, as there was so much else to adore about this show), he was only present for the first half of the show or so, and only for three songs, the last being “Ride the Comet.”
Another note I want to make about Renkse and van Giersbergen together was a sort of mystical effect, that whenever van Giersbergen came to the forefront to sing, even if there was no smoke or spotlights or anything to make this specifically happen, Renkse managed to just sort of turn into a shadow and fade into darkness. I’m not sure if that was an intentional trick of the lighting technicians or not, but regardless, it was a really cool effect, especially considering what Renkse sounds like when he’s singing.
To slow things down a bit and go nigh full-on vocals-only, “Valley of the Queens” was another glorious moment from this gig – it seems almost an oxymoron to suggest that there can be a silky soft gentleness combined with a furious power when you combine the voices of Floor Jansen, Anneke van Giersbergen, and Marcela Bovio [ex-Stream of Passion], but it’s true. I know I abuse the word ‘haunting’ a lot when I talk about van Giersbergen’s singing, but this is so much more when you combine her with the immense power of Jansen and the sheer beauty of Bovio. The combination left us breathless and covered in goosebumps.
“Ride the Comet” was the first song to introduce Maggy Luyten [Nightmare] to us. We had zero familiarity with this Belgian vocalist in spite of her performance on 01011001 and as soon as she opened her mouth, we knew that needed to change. She has the sort of ferocity known from old classic female vocalists like Doro Pesch, but I’ve never really been big on Doro if I’m completely honest. Luyten takes what’s good about Doro and makes it awesome. She replaced a few of the men throughout the show, in songs like “Star of Sirrah” from The Source and the ‘cover’ of “Intergalactic Space Crusaders” by Star One, and if I recall correctly, “Everybody Dies”, also from The Source. Did she do well by them? Honestly, she did better than the originals on more than one occasion.
The excitement-inducing sound of didgeridoo could only mean one possible song, “Day Sixteen: Loser” from The Human Equation (or The Theater Equation, since Mike Mills has already taken over the role of the late Mike Baker once before). Since seeing the latter, I can’t say that I was overly on board with Mills’ portrayal of the Father. However, this version was, in fact, an improvement over the theatrical version. One of my major complaints about the theater version was that Mills played both Father and Rage. However, in this version, Luyten, Bovio, as well as Irene Jansen [Ayreon] and Lisette van den Berg [Scarlet Stories] (both from the choir) acted as Rage, coming out to chase Mills around the stage. While it wasn’t exactly the screaming force of Devin Townsend, it was easily a more effective way of expressing the imagery from that album. As well, it was just fun to watch Rage chase Father around and torment him.
Speaking of “Day Sixteen: Loser”, Jeroen Goossens is easily the coolest flutist in the universe. The way that guy can make a flute somehow look badass and spritely at the same time is nothing short of magical and hilarious all in one. He prances about like a regular metalhead without looking remotely silly, in spite of what you’d expect. He also plays flawlessly and brings a certain degree of childlike joy to my face whenever I see him take the center stage. Also, the ability to rock a didgeridoo is something that few people can do, and I appreciate that greatly.
Damian Wilson’s [Threshold] first appearance was solo in “And the Druids Turn to Stone” from Universal Migrator part 1: The Dream Sequencer, though his best performances came later on, alongside Luyten in “Intergalactic Space Crusaders” – which was far better live than on the album, if I may say so – and “The Castle Hall” from Into the Electric Castle – also one of the best less-familiar songs of the night for me. He has a very strong, solid presence on stage, he looks very cool, and if I may throw a few more points towards him, he seems like a very nice fellow – when everyone was queuing outside to get into the venue, he popped out for a moment to greet people, shake their hands, and take the odd photo. Incidentally, my friend was of the opinion that he could die happy now that he had seen “Intergalactic Space Crusaders” live.
“The Two Gates”, incidentally, was another neat track that I wished I was more familiar with. Alongside Wilson, it featured John “Jaycee” Cuijpers [Praying Mantis], another unfamiliar singer who looked like a cool old rocker and definitely had a voice to show off. He took over Jay van Feggelen’s part as the Barbarian, which was a bit of an odd move considering van Feggelen did show up later on in the show. Also replacing van Feggelen in his Barbarian role was Robert Soeterbroek [Star One]. His first appearance was early on in “Abbey of Synn”, which didn’t do much for me because I didn’t know the song nor the singer, but after getting a further feel for him “Computer Eyes”, I was glad to hear him try out this role and do well with it.
The lights dimmed and the first notes of “Into the Black Hole” from Universal Migrator part 2: Flight of the Migrator started, and I was overwhelmed with a sense of apprehension. Who, oh who, had they chosen to replace Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson for this song? I knew it was too much to hope that Dickinson himself would be here, and I’m notorious for hating Maiden cover bands because no one can do what Dickinson does. However, I had a jolt of excitement when Tommy Karevik [Seventh Wonder, Kamelot] came on stage. This guy has a voice like no other and if someone was going to replace Dickinson, he was a great choice. While I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say he topped Dickinson, he undoubtedly did him justice and I hope if Dickinson ever hears his version, he’d approve of it. It was a bit surprising that Karevik didn’t sing on the earlier Theory of Everything songs, but I suppose they were keeping him for a surprise “Into the Black Hole”… and why not?
Much like Kürsch and Hietala, Karevik is also a pure delight to watch on stage. He’s stylish and cool, and he doesn’t hesitate to have fun with the guitarists and just get up there and pose. He was by far one of the most fun people on stage to aim a camera at. Like Karevik, Marcel Coenen – who just looks like a guy who was born with a guitar in his hands – also seemed to notice whenever a camera was pointed at him, so there was always something different or silly or fun or cool to see when you made an effort to capture his image.
And if you can’t tell from the photos, a huge throwout has to go to the lighting techs, the costume designers, everyone who set up the stage, who worked the robot light arms… well, everyone really. The sound was fantastic – some of the best I’ve heard – and the pyros and CO2 were gorgeous as well, and there was absolutely no shortage of it. We were booted from the pit approximately every third song because there was some extra visuals that were dangerous up close. They seemed to have spared no expense on the production of this event, and it seemed worth every penny!
Lucassen didn’t make his appearance until after “The Castle Hall” was over. He spoke fervently for nearly 20 minutes, having his personal assistant even come out (and stand on a chair so she could reach his ear) to whisper people that he should remember to thank. There were a lot of inside jokes in there that the crowd was surprisingly familiar with, such as knowing that his biggest thank-you would go to Joost van den Broek; they went on to explain an ongoing joke that ended in van den Broek getting the whole crowd to call Lucassen a “Lul” [presumably that’s Dutch slang for ‘cock’ – please feel free to correct me if that’s wrong though]. Nevertheless, there was a lot of love and happiness during that speech. And I haven’t even mentioned the guest musicians who showed up, like Rob Snijders (drums) in “Comatose” and Peter Vink in “Intergalactic Space Crusaders”… I’m sure there are more than I wasn’t able to make note of. It really was just a phenomenal gathering of talent!
Lucassen couldn’t leave without playing a song though, so finally Jay van Feggelen [Bodine] made his appearance, and they did their duet, “Amazing Flight” together. You have to appreciate Lucassen for his hippy performance and van Feggelen for just being a cool rocker with a great voice. And in spite of Lucassen not enjoying live performances much, he certainly made the most of the time he had, bouncing around and generally looking like someone who enjoys being on stage, even if that’s not strictly true!
And then suddenly, it seemed like everyone was out on stage. I can’t recall if it was Reekers or Soeterboek who took over for James Labrie as Me for “Day Eleven: Love”, but Bovio was able to alter the lyrics for Love’s part to be the Wife’s, so she could sing it herself. It was nice to get Irene Jansen in the forefront as well, as the biggest role she had had otherwise seemed to be introducing the band earlier on. Unfortunately, when compared to the unbelievable performance of The Theater Equation, this didn’t quite stand up. I couldn’t say what exactly it was, but perhaps the song simply shines better in the context of the original with its intended vocalists? Nevertheless, it was a nice track to hear due to the chorus in the end, if they wanted to have one more song off The Human Equation included in the performance.
I suppose that the other Star One ‘cover’, “The Eye of Ra”, was meant to be an encore, but it really was more of a grand finale as they didn’t leave the stage and wait to be cheered back – instead, the Jansen sisters, Wilson, and Cuijpers got things going, and then the rest of the cast coming out to finish things up with them. I wasn’t familiar with the song so I can’t say how the did with it, but it certainly sounded cool and seemed like a great way to end the night.
In the end, how do you really describe a show when the words ‘mind-boggling’ and ‘earth-shattering’ seem like feeble adjectives? How do you eloquently word it when your opinion is pretty much incoherent joy-screaming? This was a great show and easily the best I’ve seen perhaps since The Theater Equation. Again though, how do you compare a regular gig with this sort of gathering of incredible performers? When you just have so much talent crammed on stage at once, how could any other band even begin to create something superior? It should come as no surprise then that this has an easy nomination for show of the year. Let’s see if Devin Townsend’s Bulgarian orchestra can compete later this week, shall we?
3. Abbey of Synn
4. River of Time
5. Prologue: The Blackboard
6. The Theory of Everything pt. 1
7. The Theory of Everything pt. 2
8. Merlin’s Will
9. Waking Dreams
10. Dawn of a Million Souls
11. Valley of the Queens
12. Ride the Comet
13. Star of Sirrah
15. Day Sixteen: Loser
16. And the Druids Turn to Stone
17. The Two Gates
18. Into the Black Hole
19. Actual Fantasy
20. Computer Eyes
22. Age of Shadows
23. Intergalactic Space Crusaders (Star One cover)
25. Everybody Dies
26. The Castle Hall
27. Amazing Flight
28. Day Eleven: Love
29. The Eye of Ra (Star One cover)