Released By: Inside Out Music
Release Date: October 29, 2013
Genre: Rock Opera, Progressive Metal/Rock
Arjen Anthony Lucassen – Guitar, Bass, Keyboards, Analog Synthesizers Mandolin, Hammond, Solina Strings
Ed Warby – Drums
JB Christoffersson (Grand Magus) – Vocals (“The Teacher”)
Sara Squadrani (Ancient Bards) – Vocals (“The Girl”)
Michael Mills (Toehider) – Vocals (“The Father”), Irish Bouzouki
Cristina Scabbia (Lacuna Coil) – Vocals (“The Mother”)
Tommy Karevik (Seventh Wonder, Kamelot) – Vocals (“The Prodigy”)
Marco Hietala (Nightwish) – Vocals (“The Rival”)
John Wetton (Asia, ex-King Crimson) – Vocals (“The Psychiatrist”)
Steve Hackett (ex-Genesis) – Guitar
Keith Emerson (ex-Emerson, Lake & Palmer) – Keyboards
Rick Wakeman – (ex-Yes) – Keyboards
Jordan Rudess (Dream Theater) – Keyboards
Troy Donockley (Nightwish) – Whistle, Uillean pipes
Ben Mathot (Dis) – Violin
Maaike Peterse (Kingfisher Sky) – Cello
Jeroen Goossens – Flute, Bass Flute, Piccolo, Bamboo Flute, Contrabass Flute
Siddharta Barnhoorn – Orchestrations
Phase I: Singularity
1. Prologue: The Blackboard
2. The Theory Of Everything Part 1
4. The Prodigy’s World
5. The Teacher’s Discovery
6. Love And Envy
7. Progressive Waves
8. The Gift
9. The Eleventh Dimension
11. The Theory Of Everything Part 2
Phase II: Symmetry
12. The Consultation
14. The Argument 1
15. The Rival’s Dilemma
16. Surface Tension
17. A Reason To Live
19. Quantum Chaos
20. Dark Medicine
22. The Prediction
Phase III: Entanglement
26. Side Effects
27. Frequency Modulation
29. Quid Pro Quo
30. String Theory
Phase IV: Unification
32. Mirror Of Dreams
33. The Lighthouse
34. The Argument 2
35. The Parting
36. The Visitation
37. The Breakthrough
38. The Note
39. Uncertainty Principle
40. Dark Energy
41. The Theory Of Everything Part 3
42. The Blackboard (Reprise)
I can still remember my introduction to Ayreon: It was the song “Love” from The Human Equation, and once I got over my excitement at hearing James Labrie and Mikael Akerfeldt on the same song, I was instantly blown away by just how complex and expertly crafted this seemingly simple song was, featuring many voices representing different roles within a story. It didn’t take long before I decided to check out the full album, and on my first listen I was so emotionally invested in the story that I actually started crying during the last track. I have heard many albums over the years that have blown me away, but nothing else has ever caused as strong an emotional response as that album did. The more I listened to it the more I was blown away, and I now consider it my favorite album of all time. Other Ayreon albums, as well as other projects by mastermind Arjen Lucassen, have impressed me, some of them I’d even consider masterpieces like Into The Electric Castle and the second Star One album Victims Of The Modern Age, but while I’m always impressed by the music and vocal performances he can gets out of his often very famous guests, nothing else he’s done has ever quite given me the kind of experience The Human Equation did. Until now, that is.
Ever since I first heard The Human Equation I’ve been interested in rock operas, and I’ve gotten plenty of enjoyment out of projects like Avantasia and Soulspell, but I think the one thing everybody else in the field lacks is the ability to strike the perfect balance between telling a strong story and also having memorable songs. Many can write memorable songs but fail to tell a coherent story in the process, while some can tell a good story but fail to deliver any standout moments from the music. Arjen is different, because at least on his best albums, he manages to balance everything out in such a way that listening to it feels like you’re watching a high quality musical, and that’s the kind of thing you simply can’t find from any other genre. With his eighth Ayreon album (or seventh if you count both parts of The Universal Migrator as one album) The Theory Of Everything, Arjen has once again demonstrated why he’s the very best in the world at what he does, creating another unforgettable masterpiece that rivals even The Human Equation.
In fact, this album feels like a spiritual successor in many ways, not the least of which being that it’s the only other Ayreon album that moves away from his typical Sci-Fi and Fantasy themes to tell a story more grounded in reality, focusing on the human mind. I usually don’t write much about lyrics, because while I do care about them they usually don’t effect my enjoyment of music in any way, but there’s always an exception to any rule, and this is one. Here we have the story of an extremely intelligent and talented young man working on a mathematical mystery that if solved would change the world, a supposed “Theory Of Everything”. And no, I’m not an expert in either science or mathematics, so even after reading about the subject matter this album deals with, I can’t even begin to explain how this is supposed to work, but what I can understand and appreciate is the series of events surrounding this character, and how well his story is told.
I won’t go too far into spoiler territory, because your first time hearing this album should be something special, but I can give a very brief description of all the characters: So, we have the aforementioned main character (Tommy Karevik), a brilliant man whose mind is clouded and out of focus, his selfish father (Michael Mills) who seemingly only cares about his own work in solving the mystery, his mother (Christina Scabbia) who feels her husband is neglecting her and their son, we have his teacher (JB Christoffersson) who is in awe of the young man’s talent and wishes to help guide him along his way, while also gaining himself fame, we have his rival (Marco Hietala) who’s jealous and wishes to prove himself as the better, smarter man, we have his love interest (Sara Squadrani), who simply wants to live a happy life with the main character by her side, and we have the psychiatrist (John Wetton) who offers an experimental drug that hasn’t been fully tested and may have side effects, but promises it will help focus the mind. Clearly, there is enough material there to make a great movie out of, and that’s only scratching the surface. I won’t go into any more details, except to say it has several twists and turns and is every bit the emotional roller coaster ride The Human Equation was. And yes, it did in fact make me cry before the end.
But I’ve spent so much time talking about the concept and not about the music, so let’s move on. As you’d expect from an Ayreon album, The Theory Of Everything is an extremely varied album with a wide mix of many different elements, often within the same song. The biggest difference between this and other Ayreon albums is how it flows: You may have noticed the insane amount of tracks. No, this isn’t the longest album I’ve ever heard, or even the longest by Arjen (it is in fact just under 90 minutes, which actually makes it only the fourth longest individual Ayreon album). Instead, it’s been split into four parts (or “phases”), each with 9-11 tracks, with the tracks ranging from 25 seconds to just under 4 minutes. Needless to say, that’s a much shorter average track time than any other Ayreon album. At first I was concerned, but by the end of my first listen I realized this album works in a unique way, in that each track feels like a scene in a musical, where we have our main scenes that advance the story, as well as instrumental pieces that serve as those little breaks you sometimes get when they need to change scenery. Thinking about it in that way, it almost feels like even more of a rock opera than any of his other albums. Regardless, the tracks flow into each other seamlessly and the album moves at a very quick pace, without losing focus on the songwriting, and without having to sacrifice either the complex arrangements nor the typically epic vocal interplay between multiple characters that you always expect from an Ayreon album. In fact, while the first act mostly serves as setup, with just a couple big stand out tracks, once the album gets going the vocal exchanges get more and more epic, and the instrumental sections more and more diverse and impressive until the very end, when it has become a truly magical experience.
Musically The Theory Of Everything is as diverse as any Ayreon album, if not more so. Arjen always uses these albums to show off every aspect of his music in one place, and on this album you can hear everything from crushing guitars to various types of keyboard sounds, big sweeping orchestrations, and many different folk instruments. There’s heavier, faster pieces like “The Collision”, instrumental showcases like “Progressive Waves” (which includes an epic solo by Jordan Rudess), there’s some very nice instrumental interludes, the best of which is probably either “Quantum Chaos” or “Frequency Modulation”, there’s some classic sounding progressive rock tracks like “Diagnosis” and “Transformation” and there’s some nice folk influenced songs like “Magnetism” and “Mirror Dreams”, plus many other surprises, and many songs which mix multiple sounds together, in traditional Ayreon fashion. Needless to say, anyone hoping for one of Arjen’s more diverse albums after the darker, more metal oriented 01011001 should be absolutely delighted with this album. There’s still a ton of metal here, but instead of being dominant it’s simply one of many ingredients in this most delicious dish. I won’t even begin to list favorite songs, because that would be impossible with the amount of big highlights this album has, and also because it simply flows so well and tells such a compelling story that it really is all about the full experience, and in no circumstance should anyone ever listen to less than the full album in a single sitting, because this album requires you to listen to it from the beginning straight to the end to get the full experience.
One last important aspect of all Ayreon albums is the vocals. Over the years Arjen has featured some of the most well respected rock and metal singers as guests, including Bruce Dickinson, Russell Allen, Devin Townsend, Daniel Gildenlow, Jorn Lande, Floor Jansen and Simone Simons (plus the two mentioned earlier), as well as many other stars. Suffice to say, his fans have come to expect the best of the best when it comes to his vocal casts. Well, I wouldn’t say the group he’s assembled this time is his one of his absolute best, but it’s still very good. I have been a fan of Tommy Karevik with both Seventh Wonder and Kamelot, plus I love Sara Squadrani, Marco Hietala and John Wetton, and all four of them sound great on this album, with Sara and Tommy being particularly memorable in large roles. Out of the other three, I have a love/hate affair with Cristina Scabbia (mostly because I like her band’s early works but hate their new stuff), and I hadn’t heard either Michael Mills nor JB Christoffersson before. Thankfully, Cristina is in top form here, Michael does a fine job and displays a nice range, and lastly JB sounds absolutely fantastic and gives perhaps the best vocal performance out of the group. Really, though, everyone sounds great, and one thing I love about this album and The Human Equation in comparison with some of the other Ayreon albums, is that they both give each singer tons of space and strike the right balance between having enough voices to tell a compelling story, while keeping the cast small enough so it never seems overcrowded, and so no one is relegated to only singing on one song like many guests were on 01011001.
With The Theory Of Everything Arjen has delivered another masterpiece, filled with many different musical styles, seven strong guest singers, many guest musicians, and an unforgettable story that’s sure to take you on an emotional ride. In short, it delivers everything an Ayreon album should deliver, then it goes one step further and enters rare territory: The Human Equation is my favorite album ever, and this album is only a tiny tiptoe behind it. That’s the ultimate compliment I could ever give an album, and one that’s well deserved.
Written by Travis