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Ayreon - "The Theory Of Everything" (CD)

Ayreon - "The Theory Of Everything" CD cover image

"The Theory Of Everything" track listing:

Phase I: SINGULARITY - 23:29
(Tracks 1-11, Disc 1)

Phase II: SYMMETRY - 21:31
(Tracks 12-22, Disc 1)

(Tracks 1-9, Disc 2)

Phase IV: UNIFICATION - 22:20
(Tracks 10-20, Disc 2)

Reviewed by on January 22, 2014

"...Lucassen has hit a new height, but not a cold and calculated technical high point, as one would normally think would be the case in prog music -- he has reached a new height of human emotion."

Hailed within the prog continuum, Dutch composer Arjen Lucassen's Ayreon project has been devoted to making bombastic and fantastical music for twenty years from his studio, The Electric Castle. The constant influx of world-renowned guest vocalists and instrumentalists on each album, as well as the quality and consistency of Lucassen's own composition and playing, have made for some of the most tonally diverse but thematically coherent prog albums in modern history.

Keeping with tradition, Lucassen aims higher and higher with each album. As for "The Theory of Everything," which sounds like it could be a theoretical physics course, Lucassen has hit a new height, but not a cold and calculated technical high point, as one would normally think would be the case in prog music -- he has reached a new height of human emotion.

The lyrical story's center changes depending on how you view the characters, which adds a fascinating depth to the context of a concept album. Tommy Karevik of Kamelot and Seventh Wonder voices the character of the Prodigy, a cripplingly introverted savant who is beset upon by a cast of obsessed individuals in his life, starting with his own parents, voiced by Lacuna Coil's Cristina Scabbia and Toehider's Michael Mills, whose formidable upper vocal range is used as an awesome climax in the later part of the story. His father is a scientist who is completely devoted to illustrating a "theory of everything," and thus has a blind spot for his family. The father plays a pivotal part in the Prodigy's mental unlocking.

The other characters include the Prodigy's rival, voiced by Marco Hietala of Nightwish and Tarot, whose dramatic vocal subtlety makes for a nuanced and formidable foe, and a romantic interest of both the Prodigy and the rival, voiced by the very capable Sarah Squadrani of Ancient Bards, who becomes obsessed with breaking the Prodigy out of his emotional catatonia. Hietala's rival character is a self-proclaimed genius chemist with a narcissistic and criminal flair whose obsession with himself is only rivaled by his need to be better than the Prodigy. Two other characters influence the story in their own way: the morally-conflicted teacher, voiced by the strong baritone of JB of Grand Magus, and the amoral experimental psychiatrist, voiced by John Wetton of Asia, UK, and King Crimson, who pairs with the obsessed father to unlock the Prodigy's mind. The story at its core is as much about obsession as it is about being used.

Spanning a time period of eleven years, the lyrical story is assisted greatly by the instrumentation, which bends, jumps, and sways to the emotions on display, heightening their impact like no Ayreon album before. Due in large part to Lucassen's composition and playing, the instrumentation flows swimmingly with only minor thematic repetition, making for a perfectly easy listening experience. The musicians supporting "The Theory of Everything" include the constant Ed Warby on drums, Rick Wakeman of Yes, Jordan Rudess of Dream Theater, and Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer on guest keyboards, Steve Hackett of Genesis on a guest guitar solo, and Troy Donockley of Nightwish on Uilleann pipes and whistles. Other vibrant instrumentalists make contributions as well as Wilmer Waarbroek on backing vocals.

In traditional Ayreon style, the sound is straight-up classic prog where the main draw lies in its heavy use of all sorts of keyboards, guitars, and time signature shifts. What's untraditional about this album is that its story is made absolutely gut-wrenching by the music. In moments of despair, Lucassen's articulate lead guitar lines absolutely weep. In times of competition and excitement, Lucassen and Warby's bluesy stylings make you want to get up dance around. Even the contemplative parts are emotive. "The Theory of Everything" is a winning matching of story to delivery, as immediately accessible as a Broadway play and just as deep, especially with the twist at the end being left open to interpretation.

You have to remember that Arjen Lucassen is the same man who authored the sci-fi “Universal Migrator” series, which (spoiler alert) spans the double-disc of the same name, "The Human Equation," "01011001," and "Epilogue: The Memory Remains." As such, there are overt hints in the lyrics that "The Theory of Everything" is not without a science-fiction element, such as where the Prodigy describes himself as "like some alien machine," seeing things that don't belong "in this four-dimensional world." The father character describes the Prodigy as "staring into space" all the time, which may be much more literal than his dismissive tone implies that it's meant. Further, the ending twist will make a bold suggestion and provide what feels like a cliffhanger but may not be.

"The Theory of Everything" is absolutely comparable to the greats and will join their ranks on the top shelf of prog history.

Highs: The near-perfect matching of lyrical story to delivery in prog format.

Lows: The concept seems like a lot to take in at one time, but it's really not.

Bottom line: A fascinating and highly dramatic 8th album of prog metal, centered around the depths of obsession.

Rated 5 out of 5 skulls
5 out of 5 skulls

Rating Description
Rated 5 out of 5 skulls Perfection. (No discernable flaws; one of the reviewer's all-time favorites)
Rated 4.5 out of 5 skulls Near Perfection. (An instant classic with some minor imperfections)
Rated 4 out of 5 skulls Excellent. (An excellent effort worth picking up)
Rated 3.5 out of 5 skulls Good. (A good effort, worth checking out or picking up)
Rated 3 out of 5 skulls Decent. (A decent effort worth checking out if the style fits your tastes)
Rated 2.5 out of 5 skulls Average. (Nothing special; worth checking out if the style fits your taste)
Rated 2 out of 5 skulls Fair. (There is better metal out there)
< 2 skulls Pretty Bad. (Don't bother)