Review of Ayreon, THE THEATER EQUATION (Insideout, 2016; 2CD/1DVD).
Well, I should just come straight out and state it—there are few things (or perhaps no things) that I don’t love about Arjen A. Lucassen. Is there anything the man can’t do? Whether its composing, performing, recording, designing, or interacting with his legions of fans, Lucassen is the essence of idealized humanity, prog’s Philosopher King. Whether it’s Star One, solo, Guilt Machine, Ambeon, Gentle Storm, Stream of Passion, or Ayreon, I embrace everything he creates. My oldest son, Nathaniel, feels the same. And, now about a decade of students—whether at Hillsdale College, the University of Louisville, or CU-Boulder—have been introduced to Lucassen as well. I always bring in this music and proudly show the Ayreon timeline when I’m lecturing on science fiction, fantasy, and dystopian literature.
Which leads me to admit something else. Well, two somethings. When I first heard that Lucassen would be performing all of THE HUMAN EQUATION as a visual opera, I was thrilled. When I first saw the stills from the show, however, I was downright embarrassed. I thought it looked terribly cheesy. Smoke, a few vague figures, a hospital bed, and a crashed car. As soon as it came out, I purchased it, of course, but I only listened to the CDs. Astounding sound production, by the way. Indeed, my son and I have listened to the album now (both CDs) repeatedly for about 2 months. I refrained from watching the show, however, fearing that I would be sorely disappointed.
Then, for whatever reason, I finally popped the DVD in. Holy schnikees, I am SO sorry that I waited this long to watch it. Not only is the sound even better than on the CDs, but the show is absolutely riveting. Almost too many folks to count come and go on the set, and the singers do an incredible job not only in hitting their marks, but also of actually acting!
This is true opera.
I had assumed the production would be expensive and difficult, but I had no idea just how extensive, expensive, and difficult it must have been until watching this show.
So, I offer two thoughts.
First, Arjen, I’m terribly sorry I doubted you. How utterly stupid of me. You’ve never done anything without perfect excellence, so why I thought this would be different, I have no idea.
Second, for you the progarchy reader, do not fail to enjoy this prog opera as it is meant to be: watched. Get the DVD and immerse yourself. Believe me, there’s nothing better on your screen.
Thank you, Mr. Lucassen. Once again, you prove your absolute genius.
Everyone’s favorite Arjen has just released this on Facebook. Looks gorgeous.
I’m very proud to present you the front cover of our upcoming The Gentle Storm album with Anneke van Giersbergen! The album title is “The Diary” and the image was made by the very talented Alexandra V Bach. More about the concept soon!–Arjen Lucassen, November 4, 2014
Arjan Lucassen has just released the following on Facebook:
Time has come to finally disclose my new project… it will be a collaboration between my favorite female singer Anneke van Giersbergen and me! Expect an epic concept double album, a combination of ‘classical meets metal’ and ‘acoustic folk’. More details later!
A progarchist take: God bless the Dutch. Yes!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
More reflections from the past. This one from four years ago today, January 1, 2010. Still lots of love for Steven Wilson.
A Steven Wilson solo albums can only come out every so often, sadly. Technically, “Insurgentes” came out at the beginning of 2009. But, for us Wilson nerds who follow his career way too closely, “Insurgentes” came out in 2008, even only in Wilson’s self-proclaimed hated MP3. According to my iTunes stats, “Insurgentes” remains my most played cd of this past year.
It was closely followed, again according to my iTunes stats, by Guilt Machine, “On This Perfect Day,” Oceansize, “Frames,” and Riverside, “ADHD.”
Like the cat who adopted us in the summer of 2009 and with whom/which I fell in love, Guilt Machine has been a constant for me since its release in the summer.
There were however, two really, really disappointing CDs. So disappointing in fact that I’m embarrassed I own them:
Dream Theater “Black Clouds and Silver Linings”
Pure Reason Revolution “Love Conquers All”
Not sure what either group was thinking in the direction taken.
And, finally, a fun and novel album, but almost assuredly nothing that will stick with me for years to come:
Muse “The Resistance”
Lyrically, a great album, and moments of absolute musical genius can be found everywhere. But, excess whimsy mars the album, and everytime I doubted how serious the musicians were about this, I doubted my interest in their project.
[Additional note found: “Thus far, 2009 has been bleak. Dream Theater’s new album, “Black Clouds and Silver Linings,” serves as an incoherent exercise in notes chasing notes and embarrassingly written lyrics. Pure Reason Revolution’s “Amor Vincit Omnia” offers nothing but miserable sexual decadence and ridiculous Euro dance-type music. The title should’ve been Lust Conquers All, not Love Conquers All. How this could be the same band that released the captivating “The Dark Third,” I have no idea.”]
I like a variety of instrumentation in my music. In addition to the usual guitar, bass, and drums, I’m quite fond of a variety of keyboards, enjoy orchestral arrangements added where appropriate, and on occasion, woodwinds and brass. One of my favorite “unconventional” instruments is the mandolin.
However, the impetus for this piece is not itself the fact that I like the mandolin. Rather, somewhere back in time I remember someone (I can’t remember exactly who) telling me the mandolin wasn’t a versatile instrument. I balked at this assertion then, and I still do now. Having a forum as I do here at Progarchy, I’m now going to debunk that assertion, using different pieces to demonstrate the versatility of this wonderful instrument. While each of these songs feature the mandolin to one degree or another, by the time you have progressed from the beginning to the end of the list, you will have encountered several different musical styles that are markedly different from one another. Despite that, I will have barely scratched the surface of the mandolin’s versatility.
So, let’s get to the list.
Ian Anderson, Water Carrier
This song appears on Ian Anderson’s solo album ‘The Secret Language of Birds’. As many know, Anderson’s main band, Jethro Tull, features the mandolin prominently on a number of songs (‘Fat Man’ is one of my favorites in that category). This song features an uptempo mandolin front and center from start to finish. Underneath though are some very prominent Middle Eastern motifs – not exactly the kind of music you initially think of when you think of the mandolin. And yet, here it is, integrated perfectly.
Led Zeppelin, The Battle of Evermore
This is one of two songs on Led Zeppelin IV featuring the mandolin (‘Going to California’ is the other). Like our previous entry, this song has a somewhat mystical feel to it. However, instead of the Middle Eastern influences, this piece is more folk-inspired. Throw in Sandy Denny’s vocals, some Tolkein-esque lyrics, and you’ve got yourself a great song.
Heart, Sylvan Song/Dream of the Archer
There are a number of songs by Heart that I like, but these two (or this one, depending on how you look at it) are by far my favorite. This is basically one song divided into two parts each having its own title. The first part is instrumental, the second part includes Ann Wilson’s incredible vocals. This song remains somewhat within the realm of folk music as the previous entry, but has more of a “renaissance” feel to it, right down to the sounds of the forest at the beginning before the mandolin quietly makes its entry. It’s quite different from our first two pieces on the list, and yet it’s probably not a stretch to say that it was influenced by ‘The Battle of Evermore’ … as witnessed by Heart’s performance of the same here.
Drive-By Truckers, Bulldozers and Dirt
Now we make a big, big shift. Geographically, we’re moving from the Pacific Northwest where Heart originated down to Northern Alabama, from where the Truckers originally hailed. Genre-wise, some people call this band southern rock, others call it alt-country, and still others call it Americana. Whatever you call it, it’s a great song. Steel guitar appearing later in the song gives it a bit of a country feel, but the mandolin remains the dominant instrument. The strong ties to its geographic region are evident throughout, as is the bright, upbeat tone. From their album entitled ‘Pizza Deliverance’ (one of my favorite album titles of all time), this mandolin-driven song about what amounts to an overgrown kid that likes to play in the dirt is a gem.
Black Oak Arkansas, Digging For Gold
Now we move from Alabama to Arkansas, and there isn’t much debate about whether or not Black Oak Arkansas or their music falls under the umbrella of Southern Rock. The song begins with a chirping bird, an acoustic guitar, and a barking dog before Jim Dandy’s raspy voice makes an entry. The mandolin enters at about the 0:51 mark and is persistent through the remainder of the song. As a bit of unrelated trivia, lead vocalist Jim Dandy, he of the long, blonde locks and flamboyant presence was alleged to be the inspiration for the stage persona of David Lee Roth. Watch any live video of these guys from the 70’s, and you’ll believe it.
Led Zeppelin, Boogie with Stu
Now we’re taking another significant shift in musical style – from Southern rock to the blues. Here Led Zeppelin brings us one of two blues songs from Physical Graffiti that utilize the mandolin, the other being Black Country Woman. The mandolin is more persistent in the latter than in the song posted here (it doesn’t enter the picture until the 2:38 mark). That’s beside the point though – in both cases, the mandolin – an instrument invented in Italy of all places – is being featured in blues songs, and fitting in as seamlessly as a harmonica.
Arjen Anthony Luccassen, When I’m A Hundred Sixty Four
We started this list with one of the giants of the classical period of progressive rock, now we’ll end it with one of the giants of prog’s current renaissance. Luccassen here gives us a nice little romp that includes the mandolin and acoustic guitar with some strong Celtic influences adding extra flavor. This is a great song, possibly my favorite off of this album, ‘Lost in the New Real’, which is chock full of great songs. And speaking of great songs, Luccassen pays homage to another song on this list by doing an excellent remake of ‘The Battle of Evermore’, which you can listen to here if you are so inclined.
So let’s recap the list a little bit here. We started with music that had some strong Middle Eastern influences, moved to a couple of different folk songs, then took a journey down South with some Americana/Alt-Country/Southern rock, moved onto some blues, and finally to some full-blown progressive rock. Quite a variety, and as I said predicted above, I’ve barely scratched the surface of different musical styles into which the mandolin can be easily integrated. So does anyone still want to tell me that the mandolin is not a versatile instrument? I didn’t think so … 🙂
Ayreon fans can rejoice: even though the official release date for the compact disc of The Theory of Everything is November 2, the digital version is available today (October 29). You can purchase it at iTunes, but the best deal is at Amazon. For $16.99, you can order the 2-disc album and get all 42 tracks in mp3 format to listen to now. If you prefer to go digital only, the price is a mere $6.99!