Approaching Olympus: Ave, Aryeon!
What would happen if Led Zeppelin and Queen joined forces to write not just a soundtrack but a full-fledged movie with a story told in the grand tradition of Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984, or, the best of all, Walter Miller’s Canticle of Leibowitz? Maybe Vernor Vinge might contribute as well. Or, what if all five authors came together to produce one absolutely huge science-fiction story dealing with life, death, amusement, boredom, hypocrisy, statism, ideology, eco-destruction, godlessness, and every other issue that really matters but which we more often than not find convenient to ignore?
And, what might happen if you found Ridley Scott or Chris Nolan or Alex Proyas to direct?
Maybe you could throw some elements of The Island or Dark City or Equilibrium or Brazil into the film? The serious issues raised by the first, the film noir of the second, the violent intensity of the third, and the dark humor of the fourth.
And, maybe you might be able to get the man who made replicants feel so very, very real to lead this surreal dark descent into an ideological and inhumane dystopia (it’s worth remembering that when Plato used the Greek word, “utopia,” he chose the word because it meant “no where”)?
And, what if instead of Led Zeppelin and Queen you found a man who could not only write compelling space operas but who also had the courage to state some really uncomfortable truths about the post-modern world and where we might, as a species, be headed? And. . . who could also sing well and seemingly play very well every instrument known to the rock world?
And not just well, but really, really, really well?
If you could bring all of these disparate things together, you might find at the center of this eccentric collection one of the most interesting and original science-fiction story tellers of our day, a perfectionist by the name of Arjen Anthony Lucassen. Or, as he playfully puts it in the liner notes: “Recorded, produced, mixed and mastered by Arjen ‘I’m not a control freak’ Lucassen at the Electric Castle.” Oh, I like this man, and I’ve never had the grand privilege of meeting him.
And, you might find that all of his previous work–with the prog operas of Ayreon, the theatric romance of Ambeon, the prog metal of Star One, and the driving Goth prog of Guilt Machine–led to this most recent story, “Lost in the New Real.”
Lucassen has created a prog and science-fiction masterpiece with this brand new release. Every thing is perfect–the story, the lyrics, the narration (by Rutger Hauer, of Blade Runner fame), and even the CD booklet. Every thing. Perfect.
And, what an over-the-top bombast of thought–all connected, all meaningful–a trip through so many emotions and realizations. A blast, to be sure.
In his video promo for the album, Lucassen states the “Lost in New Real” is a culmination of every thing he’s done before in terms of musical styles: a mixture of psychedelic, of prog, of power pop, and of metal. But, the story is so compelling and immersive and the types of music so appropriate to each respective part of the story, all feels like one centric whole, no matter the style changes.
With Hauer’s narration and Lucassen’s flawless delivery, I happily journeyed down this rabbit hole.
The story revolves around a Mr. L, revived in the future and guided by an omnipresent “hardheaded shrink” (Rutger Hauer) to help this man of the past adjust to the future.
The future, known as “The New Real,” hasn’t worked out too well. For one thing, their history is totally off: Ronald Reagan won numerous Oscars; the Rolling Stones never touched drugs; and Madonna was actually a virgin.
At some point in the not so distant past of this future, Yellowstone blew, spewing toxic fumes around the world. Now all that remains of western North America is, presumably, a plaque to commemorate “Yellowstone Memorial Day,” the day that the human race finally learned that Mother Nature ultimately always trumps technology.
The e-police (a wonderful play on Cheap Trick’s famous song of yesteryear) watch over every thing and privacy is a thing long forgotten. Humans live to 164 and find life incredibly boring. Thankfully, though, Dr. Slumber will happily euthanize you into the next world, complete with pretty nurses and bouncy Beatle-like music.
Most interestingly, though, the government has instituted a “Parental Procreation” policy, and parents must submit official forms to the state for approval to bring children into the world. (I can guarantee the reader that should Mr. Lucassen’s vision ever become reality, your current reviewer and his family would be in serious trouble.)
In the end, Mr. L cannot determine if he’s human anymore or if he has become mechanized beyond recognition. “I’m alive . . . But in a dream. Am I only. . .a machine?” Whatever Mr. L’s fate, the story ends with his despair. Even the narrator seems to have given up after giving a bit of a tricksterish chuckle.
Ok, so let’s bring in not just Bradbury, Huxley, and Orwell (who appears in the story–he “was hot!”) but also every important critic of modernity, postmodernity, and extreme glorification of technology: from Romano Guardini to Russell Kirk to Marshall McLuhan. All of this can be found in this magical mystery tour through the whirligig of our post-modern abyss.
But, it’s not over. Disk Two (yes, Lucassen seems constitutionally incapable of doing any thing only partially) is full of really interesting covers (Pink Floyd (an absolutely stunning metal cover of “Welcome to the Machine”), Led Zeppelin, Alan Parsons, and Frank Zappa) as well as glorious original tunes–vignettes, if you will–of the world of the “New Real.” After exploring the essential questions of our humanity on Disk One, Lucassen asks the larger existential questions respecting the universe. The most intriguing question he asks (“Our Imperfect Race” and “So Is There No God?”): would it be better for aliens to exist or not? Wouldn’t it actually be the more horrible of the two possibilities if all of existence and life and purpose really did rest on us–and us alone–in the entirety of existence, time, and space?
As I stated earlier, this two-disk affair is one seamless, intelligent, and mischievous blast of sound and ideas. As many times as I’ve listened to it already, I can’t stop smiling. Every line, every transition just makes me thankful such a thing as this exists.
I’ve enjoyed every thing Lucassen has done over the past fifteen years, though he’s often much heavier in his music than I would have thought I would have liked–I being a Big Big Train, Talk Talk, Genesis, Marillion, Tin Spirits, Gazpacho, Matt Stevens kind of guy. (Still, I’m a huge Rush, The Reasoning, Riverside, and Oceansize fan–so maybe there’s more heaviness in my tastes than I often think).
But, I like every thing Lucassen has accomplished, and I’m certainly not alone. There’s a strong following behind Lucassen, and, I assume, it will grow only much wider and much deeper with this latest album. He is a man willing to take any number of chances, and, thus far, the deities of prog have been faithful to him.
With “Lost in the New Real,” Lucassen approaches as closely to Olympus as the gods will allow. Ave!
[A slightly different version of this appeared on my personal blog this past summer--ed.]