Ayreon: A Dutch Progger in King Arthur’s Court
I often joke with my students that I can still remember the days when listening to progressive rock and watching Dr. Who could get a kid beaten up. Yes, 1981. I remember it well. Seventh grade at Liberty Junior High in Hutchinson, Kansas. Yet, it’s now 2013, and I’m still listening to Rush and watching Dr. Who. Obviously, I survived the bullies
But, I can get even nerdier. Much nerdier. I was also a huge Dungeons and Dragons guy. Yes, 1981. I remember it well. Yet, it’s now 2013, and I’m still playing DnD. Now, with my kids.
My love of all things progressive (music; not politics!), science fiction, and fantasy have come together quite nicely in a number of direct ways: Rush, Roswell Six, Rush again, Ayreon, more Rush, Cosmograf, Glass Hammer, The Tangent, Rush, Kansas, Star One, Spock’s Beard, and even more Rush.
Surprisingly, though, only a few rock bands have really explored the Arthurian legends. Those artists that have–such as Rick Wakeman and Gary Hughes–have gone all out, making nothing less than elaborate rock operas. While Wakeman’s Arthur seems rather French, Hughes’s remains very Celtic.
The French legends, generally centering on the love affair of Lancelot and Gwenivere, usually reflect the medieval notions of courtship as inherited from the Moors. The Celtic legends are almost always more mystical, suggesting strong relations between the Celtic gods (a twilight) and the Christian God. Famously, one Celtic god, Bran the Blessed, even went so far as to sacrifice himself so that the Christian God could reign supreme. How often does this happen in pagan myth?
The most elaborate and best employment of the Arthurian legends is, of course, Arjen A. Lucassen’s phenomenal long-term project, Ayreon. So far, the story includes The Final Experiment (1995); Actual Fantasy (1996); Into the Electric Castle (1998); Universal Migrator, Parts 1 and 2 (2000); The Human Equation (2004); and 01011001 (2008).
I don’t think I could ever really offer enough praise of Lucassen or his music. His very complicated story of Aryeon ties the Arthurian legend and science fiction together in a way that defies description–at least easily by me. Even his three-disk compilation and retrospective, Timeline, only gives more depth to the story itself. Compilations aren’t supposed to do this. And, the accompanying poster wonderfully connects the events of the Ayreon universe from right before the Big Bang to Merlin’s prophecy to 2112! So, the Ayreon albums become not just a coherent Lucassen vision, but a coherent prog vision.
The first album, The Final Experiment, offers the strongest tie to Arthur in the Ayreon series. In the story, a person from 2084 sends a message back through time, warning of the impending doom of the planet. Should someone in the past listen, the destruction might be avoided. Essentially, the men of our generation and the next have mechanized too much, depriving man of his humanity and the earth of its vitality.
Sent back through time, the message of 2084 reaches a blind bard by the name of Ayreon. He does not desire the visions, and those of his village believe him a demon for receiving them. King Arthur offers him sanctuary, but even Merlin is skeptical.
After a struggle, Merlin comes to realize that Ayreon is telling the truth.
Admittedly, I’m probably not doing justice to the excellent story.
But, I can I state without exaggeration that I think Lucassen is probably an unsung genius. Though I’m sure he (who seems as humble as he is kind and gifted) would not have put it this way, his creation, Aryeon, has much in common with him. Each is a bard, each is captured by visions, and each is deeply concerned with humanity.
As someone who has made his career writing and teaching about men who have delved into the deepest realms of imagination, I can readily place Lucassen among them. Indeed, I think anyone could compare his latest outing, Lost in the New Real, at the level of some of the best dystopian literature written by R.H. Benson, Aldous Huxley, or Ray Bradbury. I don’t claim this lightly. And, if I embarrass Lucassen, I offer no apologies for doing so!
Who wouldn’t pay good money for a science fiction book tying together the entire Ayreon story? It has everything any scifi person could want. And, of course, if Hollywood ever did anything with it, it would already possess one of the greatest soundtracks ever written.
Plus, as mentioned above, Lucassen’s as gifted as he is kind. When I asked him recently through Facebook (he’s probably wondering why some goofy American keeps writing him?!?!) why he decided to tie his own rock opera/prog opera concept into the Arthurian legends, he graciously responded. “ I always let the music inspire me to come up with a story/concept. And there were a lot of medieval parts in the music which automatically led me to the king Arthur saga” (January 12, 2013). A true cinemaphile, Arjen found inspiration in movies as diverse as Excalibur and Monty Python’s Search for the Holy Grail. Despite the radically different types of Arthurian movies, the Ayreon saga always takes itself seriously, which is an immense part of its charm and success. Arjen also wrote: “Before I wrote the story I actually went to the UK for some weeks and visited all those (also secret) places related to the Arthurian legend. Not just the touristic places like Tintagel Castle, but also Cadbury Castle, Slaughterbridge etc. It was amazing…”
And, that depth of inspiration as well as research shows in every aspect of The Final Experiment.
I know we at Progarchy encourage the purchase of a lot of music. And, I do it again. For any professed lover of progressive rock, the seven Ayreon albums are must owns. It’s hard to imagine in any way, shape, or form the current golden age of progressive rock without Arjen Anthony Lucassen as a central figure.
And, we’re all blessed by this.