Finding The Source

Today’s post is going to be about something different from the usual discussion and writing about video games that I normally do here. Simply put, I need a place to ramble on about the thoughts, feelings and emotions that I’ve been subjected to by something — this something being a music album — and there’s fewer better places than a blog. Video game stuff will follow along shortly; feel free to skip this one if you don’t want to hear my thoughts on anything else.

Still with me? Alright. First, background information!

So once upon a time in the year 1995, a Dutch musician by the name of Arjen Anthony Lucassen released an album called The Final Experiment under a music project titled Ayreon. This was a progressive metal concept album which told a very interesting sci-fi story and had quite the narrative, with a number of guest vocalists brought on to play the roles of various characters.

The narrative itself concerns the titular Final Experiment occurring in 2084 when, with an apocalyptic war unfurling, humanity attempts to change history by sending a message back in time. This message appears as visions of the destruction to a blind bard in the Middle Ages by the name of Ayreon, who attempts to warn the populace and King Arthur’s court of what he sees.

It’s a pretty good album on its own, but what is truly significant is that it set in motion the entire Ayreon musical project. See, Lucassen wasn’t done there. As far as I’m concerned, Arjen is something of a mad genius of music, because he has since gone on to make a whole slew of various musical projects in a variety of styles while both singing and playing multiple instruments on these records (all while being unable to read music and playing by ear, purportedly). These projects and bands range from the “cheesy but awesome” Star Metal projects that homage a number of classic sci-fi stories, to the stand alone solo concept album Lost in the New Real which tells its own story of the future, to the more recent The Gentle Storm which is a more relaxed, classical, almost folk-like sound.

But it’s the Ayreon albums that really stand out to me the most, because each one has continued with that original theme of weaving narrative into the albums beyond the level of most other concept albums I’ve encountered. In addition, they’ve continued to grow in scope, becoming these ridiculously over the top experiences of monolithic proportions — since the third, each release has been a double album usually featuring as many as a dozen guest vocalists all of considerable recognition (Marco Hietala and Floor Jansen of Nightwish, James LaBrie of Dream Theater, Hansi Kursch of Blind Guardian, Devin Townsend… the list is virtual endless). And throughout these albums, a continual meta-narrative has been woven together to create one of the most powerful and compelling sci-fi stories I’ve ever encountered.

Fast forward to about 2009, which is about when I first discovered the existence of Ayreon. I don’t recall exactly who or what lead me to it (it was probably after learning about Avantasia, a similar project that instead does mostly fantasy metal opera concept albums), but I actually started at the end rather than the beginning; the first album I listened to was 01011001 (translation: Y) which was the most recent, and it completely blew my mind. Not only was there some seriously fantastic progressive metal songs unlike anything I’d heard, but there were recognisable singers all playing characters in a story… and that story was dark, haunting, and utterly fascinating. To this day it’s one of my favourite albums ever, but it had me retroactively going back and finding the rest of the Ayreon works, as well as generally acquainting me with Lucassen’s other projects and styles.

The more I listened, the more I grew fascinated with the albums I found. The music was almost always excellent, but it was made all the more uniquely interesting due to the combination of so many styles woven into a cohesive story. In particular, the 2004 album The Human Equation stands out as being particularly impressive, as it tells of a man in a coma having discussions with projections of his individual emotions or feelings, and together going back through his history to try and figure out the source of his despair and why he cannot break free of this coma. It also includes the characters of the man’s wife and his best friend in the real world at his side, trying to reach to him.

It sounds a bit different from the usual sci-fi theme of Ayreon’s albums — and it is — but it’s one of the most unique and fascinating albums I’ve ever heard. It deals with some incredibly dark themes at the core of human emotions, and to be completely honest, I haven’t been able to sit down and listen to it in its entirety more than once. I’ve listened to it piecemeal many times and regularly go back to various single songs on it, but the overall narrative is so powerful and depressingly impactful that it’s just not good for my state of mind to take in all at once.

That statement in and of itself should give you an idea of just how damn good the Ayreon albums are and what they’re capable of. Arjen Lucassen is my single favourite musician for good reason.

Despite how different The Human Equation is from the other albums, however, it still ties into the meta-narrative that’s being woven by all these individual stories. Again, you could listen to any one album with the Ayreon label and find a cohesive and complete story of excellent quality, but it’s only when you put them all together and see the threads linking them that it truly becomes a marvel.

Over the years, the Ayreon mythos has grown increasingly. Not only have we seen the Middle Ages that the Final Experiment projected back to, but we’ve gone all the way to 2084 and what lead to the apocalyptic war, with both internal human actions and even external, extra-terrestrial ones. We’ve dabbled in the lives and affairs of these aliens throughout history, and their inclusion or indirect actions are often the “OH SNAP” moment that ties all the stories together. All together, this is a science fiction story that would probably hold up quite well if presented as a book or television show… but as musical albums, they’re unlike anything else in the world. No matter how hard I rock out to a good song, nothing has ever compared to the feeling of wonder and intense emotions I have been subjected to by these stories.

Anyway, it’s clear by now that I’m quite enamored by Ayreon. I’ll bring the history lesson back to more recent times: the second last album to be released, that being 2013’s The Theory of Everything. This album had a relatively lukewarm reception to me; it’s honestly really good, but it has two minor flaws.

The first is more musical — the double album is presented as four very long songs cut up into smaller parts. While this works for the narrative, it made the music extremely fragmented, meaning that there was no real stand out song or moment that lasted more than a minute or two before jumping away to a new part. An Ayreon album should ideally be experienced whole, sure, but all the past albums had numerous different songs that worked well even as stand-alone singles to jam out to; The Theory of Everything lacked this, and so it was harder to come back to over time.

The second is arguably not a flaw at all, but it does nonetheless detract from the album as a whole. Simply put, it’s unconnected from the main Ayreon story. This kinda made sense, as 01011001 was more or less the “conclusion” of the multi-album long meta-plot and tied up all the loose threads and themes together in a truly epic finale. But with that major plot wrapped up, The Theory of Everything was starting from scratch with nothing to build from. The narrative it tells ends up being really good and quite interesting in and of itself, but since it stands alone, it didn’t really capture that awe-inspiring, over the top and massive impact that the overarching Ayreon project has accumulated.

As such, the album never really stuck with me, and while I can tell you the general outline and some of the characters, I couldn’t tell you the name of a single song (fragment or whole) on it. It kind of faded into obscurity, and so I settled largely for reliving the feelings I got from the older albums for the past few years.

And now we fast forward to about a week ago, when I first learned the existence of a new Ayreon album titled The Source. Somehow, I hadn’t heard about it at all from my time on the internet, and nobody alerted me to it. I didn’t know about the drop of the single The Day That The World Breaks Down in January and the sheer volume of amazing vocalists on it. I didn’t know of the scheduled release date of April 28th. All of this was completely news to me until my friend linked the aforementioned single with the message of “HOW DID WE NOT KNOW ABOUT THIS?”

I listened to the single and was blown away by how good it sounded, and how it definitely bucked the trend of fragmented songs from Theory (it’s over 13 minutes long!) and set a really good framework for the rest of the album to build on. Better yet: the track listing for the full album made it absolutely clear that yes, we were going back to the meta-narrative and continuing the Ayreon story. And learning all about this literally the day before the album was to be released meant that I got to circumvent all the anxious waiting and drip feed of information.

Today, I finally sat down and listened to the album. I booted up FF14, started some grindy content that I could just do without focusing, and then put on The Source while listening from start to finish.

Well… if Persona 5 is my Perfect Game? The Source is my Perfect Album.

All throughout and after my listening, I was gushing to anyone I could type to about how incredibly good it was, trying to convey the sheer flood of emotions and excitement the music was putting me through. I was caught up in the story from start to finish. Though I knew it was connected to the meta-narrative, the actual way in which it was done was like writing a prequel for everything that had come before in a way that absolutely floored me the moment I realised what was happening. And, in a way, there was an almost “deep in my soul” feeling of dread because as a prequel that sings of hope and freedom and a new beginning where the cast learns from the mistakes that got them there… I knew exactly where that path would lead them and what would happen in the long haul.

I felt a huge array of emotions and was swept up by a number of single songs in addition to the album as a whole. I was really impressed by the vocalists that I both knew and didn’t know, enough that I’ll have to go digging for some of their other work. I was blown away yet again at how much of a mad genius Lucassen is for somehow constructing these massive spectacles of music with such deft, finely controlled detail for both the songs and the story.

Never was this more apparent than the final two songs on the album, which (without spoiling for anyone who follows the Ayreon narrative) are almost entirely powered by throwbacks to familiar melodies from past albums, once more tying everything together like a prequel. The final sounds and melodies of the final song, including the lyrics, segue practically perfectly into a set-up for the very first song on 01011001, almost serving as an extension to it. That is perhaps the most miraculous accomplishment of The Source: not only is it an amazing album on its own, but it even serves to make the already magnificent album that came before it even better!

Despite my best efforts here, I really don’t have all the words to properly express what this album did for me. Indeed, I stopped what I was doing completely for the final two songs and kind of… held my head in my hands as the realisation of everything that was happening and all the familiar melodies played out. When it was over, I just put my headphones aside and walked away to get a drink and just… muddle through my thoughts and feelings for a while. Once I was back, I immediately started gushing some more to everyone, while putting on 01011001 to continue listening to.

The Source is amazing. Fantastic. Spectacular. Or at least, in fairness, my first listening of it was such. First times through an album are important, but I’ve been listening to the other Ayreon albums for years and keep on doing so. I don’t yet know if The Source will maintain that lasting allure, but it should be pretty clear that I find it unlikely that it won’t.

As a fan of Ayreon, this was the album I was truly waiting for ever since I discovered the project nearly a decade ago. This was what I had hoped for and sadly didn’t get from The Theory of Everything despite its qualities. This was the ultimate gift to listeners and those who have followed the narrative to this point. It’s the kind of intricate dedication you don’t get very often from writers in books or video games, so to find it in a music album is truly astounding.

In the post-Persona 5 funk that I continue to be caught up in, the fact that what is likely my favourite game ever was to be followed up with a strong contender for my favourite album ever just a month later is incredible. But there it is, and it was such an impact that I had to come along and write more than a couple of thousand words about it in a blog that’s primarily dedicated to video games. I can’t get it out of my head.

Nonetheless, I think I’ve said my piece for now. For those of you who are familiar with Ayreon, I seriously recommend you go have a listen to The Source. And anyone who isn’t, well, go check out The Final Experiment and start from the beginning. Or maybe don’t even do that — go have a listen to Into the Electric Castle or The Human Equation, which bear the fruits of Lucassen getting better at his craft, and take your first step into a larger and more insane narrative. I’ve yet to encounter anything quite else like this in the music world.

I’ll continue my usual video game posts from here on out — thanks for your patience if you’re still here!

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