metal talk
Ayreon: 'The Source'
Released: 28th April 2017 (Mascot)

ian sutherland
Words: Ian Sutherland


Epic science-fiction double concept albums with massive lists of guest stars, complex storylines and progressive rock, Metal and folk elements fused together into a massive sound. Sold in lavish packages with artwork and lyrics. Commercial suicide in the twenty-first century you might think? Not at all when you are Arjen Lucassen, the multi instrumentalist wizard behind projects like Star One, Guilt Machine and many more.

The albums he makes under the Ayreon banner are not just bombastic, over the top creations with all the attributes listed, but the most successful of his projects and he sells enough to allow him the luxury of not having to go out on tour but to stay in his home studio to create more music.

The release of a new Ayreon album creates excitement then among his large and very loyal following and 'The Source' is no exception. The previous Ayreon release 'The Theory Of Everything' was a comparatively low key affair(only in comparison mind) with more of a progressive rock vibe and a storyline set in the real world. This time he has returned to the Forever universe story that we thought had come to an end in '01011001' and come up with a prequel.

The basic outline of the story is that a planet has been taken over by an artificial intelligence and a group of humans make an escape in a spaceship to go and start afresh elsewhere. That is a VERY basic outline but I won't go into any more detail as half the fun for most people who love Ayreon is sitting and working out the story for themselves when playing the album.

To tell a complex story like this requires a cast of characters and the Ayreon way of dealing with this is to assemble a group of singers who can each stamp their personality on the character they play. Over the years this has resulted in some stellar ensembles but 'The Source' must have the best yet.

This line-up is so good it's worth listing in full: James Labrie (Dream Theater), Tommy Karevik (Kamelot), Simone Simons (Epica), Hansi K├╝rsch (Blind Guardian), Michael Mills (Toehider), Russell Allen (Symphony X), Floor Jansen (Nightwish), Tobias Sammet (Avantasia), Tommy Rogers (Between The Buried And Me), Nils K Rue (Pagan's Mind), Michael Eriksen (Circus Maximus) and Zaher Zorgati (Myrath). Add to that musicians including Paul Gilbert (Mr Big) and Mark Kelly (Marillion) alongside Ayreon stalwarts like drummer Ed Warby and you have a high, high quality basis to start from.

What's needed then is great music and quality songs to hang all this on. I initially enjoyed 'The Theory Of Everything' but eventually I found it a bit fragmented and it didn't really stay around as an album I played a lot. This time Mr Lucassen has gone back to a bigger, more guitar dominated sound and the twelve minutes plus of opener 'The Day That The World Breaks Down' sets the tone for the album. A truly epic song with fast Metal sections, bluesy interludes, a beautiful balance of power and melody and vocals from all eleven main singers. It hangs together nicely as a song and is both epic and memorable. This is just the first song on a double album remember.

Elsewhere due to the subject matter of a dying planet there is a dark tone used to carry some really heavy and powerful musical ideas. Even when some folk sounds and jaunty keyboard sections are included, songs like 'Everybody Dies' and 'Condemned To Live' never lose their air of threat and menace. The almost power Metal style riffing on 'Star Of Sirrah' and the wonderfully titled 'Run! Apocalypse! Run!' are reminiscent of his Star One albums but there are always layers of keyboards and vocal combinations here to change the vibe and sometimes the amount of ideas in each and every song is quite staggering.

There are plenty of quieter and more thoughtful moments around too and I have to give a special shout out to Ayreon regulars Jeroen Goossens on flute, Maaike Peterse on cello and Ben Mathot on violin. These skilled musicians are often overlooked in the epic scale of things on an Ayreon release, but any time they are called on to add layers of beauty and atmosphere they are absolutely brilliant.Check out 'All That Was' for example. There is a reason that pretty much any time someone in the Netherlands needs flute or cello or violin, it's these two that get the call.

I could go through everything on this album track by track for you but I don't need to. If I have whetted your appetite then simply check out the videos at the end of this review (the video for 'The Day The Earth Broke Down' is particularly entertaining)and after that you will hopefully be heading somewhere to get yourself a copy of the album.

Superb stuff. I don't think there has ever been a truly disappointing Ayreon record but for me 'The Source' is one which over time will come to stand beside the best this franchise has ever produced. Arjen Lucassen at the top of his game and with the largest pre-orders of any Ayreon album to date in the bag, another triumph over modern music industry thinking.

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Ahead of the release of 'The Source', MetalTalk caught up with Arjen for the lowdown on his latest concept album.

It seems you have gone back to the full blown epic Metal side of Ayreon with 'The Source'?

"I guess Ayreon has always been epic and always been pretentious crap [laughs]. From the beginning you know, it was always huge and bombastic and over the top. I think that's been the way with almost every Ayreon album but yeah, I think it's definitely a rockier album. Every album I do is basically a reaction to the album before and the Ayreon album before this was 'The Theory Of Everything' which was very much my prog album. It featured members of Yes and Genesis, King Crimson and Emerson, Lake And Palmer. It was very keyboard oriented with Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson, Jordan Rudess and as a reaction I think this is my rock album. Or Metal if you like. It's more guitar oriented and features guitarists like Guthrie Govan so yes I decided to go back in that direction."

'The Theory Of Everything' had a storyline which wasn't part of the universe you created through the previous Ayreon albums but in 'The Source' you have gone back to that. Did you feel you had unfinished business?

"Not at all because it WAS finished [laughs]. When I did the '01011001' album I finished the story. It was getting really complicated. I didn't understand it myself any more! I had to ask fans at some points 'Do you remember if this and that...' you know? So I really finished the story on '01011001' and I swore to everyone that I wouldn't go back to it. The last song was even called 'The Circle Is Complete'. Then I did 'The Theory Of Everything' which was in a completely different universe.

"This time I decided to get inspired by artwork. Usually I chose the artwork right at the end of recording an album when I'm finished with everything. This time I thought let's look at art, let's see if I can inspire myself. You see that's what happens to me when I look at the old Yes album covers, the Roger Dean stuff, it really inspires me. So that's the way I did it now and I found this guy on Google Images who can design sci-fi art, a French guy called Yann Souetre. Yann had all this great industrial stuff, very detailed and at some point I saw an image of his of this girl underwater with all these tubes, and it just reminded me of the Forever race. What if that is Forever and what if the Forever race was once human and what if we are descendants of the same race? That's how it got back to the old story and it's a prequel really. It's the source, the start, where does mankind come from? Where does the Forever race come from?"


Moving on to the cast you have on this album, I think that this is a very, very strong line-up of singers even by the high standards of previous Ayreon releases. Did you deliberately aim high, aim for the very best on this one?

"Yes! I felt this album was a new start, that's why it's also called 'The Source' I guess. I'm on a new record company, it just felt like a new start. With the previous album I had a rule that I want to work with new singers but this time I said 'no, I want to work with the best singers in the world'. It sounds arrogant but I got them, you know. I just thought I want very distinctive voices and I made this wish list like what if I could get these people together, and I did. So yes, I really, really aimed high for this one.

"The previous album didn't sell as well as the albums before that too so I thought this one really has to work for me so getting these singers together was definitely deliberate."

How is the process of you writing a song and choosing who to sing it connected?

"I always start with the music, I think the music is the most important thing, more important than the story and the lyrics. Once I've got the music, I let the music inspire me for the story or for the concept and then once I have the concept and I have the music then I start looking for singers who fit the concept and fit the music. Then I make a list of usually ten, twenty singers that I think would fit this album and I contact them. They can't all do it, some are just too busy, can't do it or for whatever reason and this time I ended up with ten, eleven singers who luckily said yes."

Do you ever get a refusal which leaves you having to change the material?

"No, because I first have the music and then I choose the singers and then I write lyrics. I write the lyrics and the characters even based on the singers. So that's great, that works a lot easier than the other way around because when I already have a certain character... a good example is Fish. I did not have a Highlander in the story on the album he did with me, no Scottish person but I had Fish and that's why I wrote a Highlander into the story. So the characters are based on the singers so that's the way it works.

"Sometimes there are singers... well I rarely have them say no, that rarely happens but mostly if I aim really high, you know if I aim for the Paul McCartneys, the Robert Plants, the David Gilmours of this world then I just don't hear anything or I get a polite message from their manager saying 'sorry, they're too busy or whatever'. So yes sometimes singers say 'no'. Most singers that have said 'no' are from outside the prog and the Metal world, because for a lot of people those are still dirty words unfortunately. Also concepts you know, 'Oh it's a concept album, I'm not interested' [laughs]. It does happen. It's a shame that it's so hard to get people from outside the rock and metal realm because that would be cool."


Although you have been very successful at what you do, it's still looked on as so unfashionable by most of the music business.

"Of course it's unfashionable [laughs], but that's what makes it timeless. It's not mainstream music I make you know, but nevertheless I gathered a really, really loyal audience which enables me to keep on doing this successfully so I'm not complaining at all."

We've talked about the great array of singing talent on the album like Simone Simons, Tobias Sammet, Floor Jansen, Russell Allan and more. However I heard that as well as these established stars you gave some newer singing talent opportunities to provide guide vocals and do backing vocals on the album?

"Yes, that's right. I'm always looking for new talent, and often I also give them a place on the album. Every album I did so far there are always one or two unknown people on it. The previous album had Mike Mills from Australia who's amazing and it had Sara Squadrani from Italy who was amazing. This album there was no room, I asked eleven big names and they all said yes so there was no space for someone unknown.

"Singers did some guide vocals here for me, and they did such a great job. They really, really raised the bar for the real singers. Some of those singers told me 'Oh my God, I've never had such great guide vocals, I don't know if I can do a better job'. I also gave the guide singers their moment on this album, they have the chorus to 'Journey To Forever', at the beginning that's all the guide singers and the intro of 'Aquatic Race' is also the guide singers so they have their moment. It's fantastic when you can give people a chance like that."

Nowadays most bands have to constantly tour to make any money from their music but you have managed to buck the trend and be successful with hardly any touring. How do you do it?

"I toured the world for fifteen years, ever since 79 when I started. I joined a professional band. Out of school, joined a band, never worked a day in my life [laughs], so I joined a band called Bodine and after that I joined a band called Vengeance and we were quite successful. We could live from the music because we played three, four times a week and we toured a lot.

"At some point though I found that wasn't really the life I wanted. In the beginning I loved it, all the attention and the girls and the fun but at some point I was like no, I'm a composer, I'm a producer, that's what I like doing and that's what I do best. I don't really see myself as a performer. It's so repetitive, you play the same songs each night, it's not creative at all. Then I decided to do the Ayreon project when I was about thirty-five in 95. Basically so I wouldn't have to tour any more.

"I never thought it would be successful with this really eclectic music style going from prog to Metal to folk to electronic to classical etc. It suddenly worked though and up to today the sales are increasing. As I said I have built up such a loyal fan base and they still want the real thing.

"We have these beautiful packages, this time we had an earbook with forty eight pages and five CDs in it, beautiful artwork. People want to have the real thing still which is amazing. I really sell a lot of stuff all over the world and it's entering charts everywhere and the 'The Source' is already the biggest Ayreon pre-sale ever so I can't complain at all. I earn enough to make a living from it and I don't have to play live."


Having said that you are going to be doing three shows in Tilburg in September. What made you decide to do these? Was it last year's 'The Theater Equation' shows?

"Yes. 'The Theater Equation' was definitely the catalyst to do these shows. Those theatre performances were arranged by someone else because I know nothing about the theatre. It was my idea but someone else directed everything and arranged everything. That was a big success, it was sold out four times . I was there of course and I was looking into the audience and i saw these incredibly happy faces of the people. It was amazing the reaction, so emotional, crying and smiling and laughing. That's when I decided 'damn it, we have to do a real Ayreon rock show, a best of show'. Let's see if it's possible to arrange it, so together with a friend of mine, Joost van den Broek who also plays the keyboards on my stuff, we thought 'let's put it together, let's see what happens'.

"We have been working on it for a year, it's extremely hard to put this together of course, we have sixteen singers, and ten musicians and then there's all the effects and lights and sound. I think it just had to be done though, it's for the fans... and I hate it [laughs]. I am already nervous as hell now. I'm not a part of the band but nevertheless I have to make my appearance on stage and at least play some stuff.

"It's hard when you really haven't played live in twenty years and I have terrible stage fright as well. However the band is great and it's great working on this, it's great to put it all together and to imagine what the reaction of the audience is going to be."

Will a lot of 'The Source' be played or will it be a best of kind of set?

"It's going to be a 'best of' so we will play a minimum of two songs per album and that's about nine or ten albums!"

Is it going to be filmed for a DVD?

"Absolutely! There are so many people who can't come. We did not expect it to sell out this fast. We thought we hope we can fill Tilburg's O13 once, maybe twice. The venue said let's take an option for a third show and within two hours we sold out the first two shows and within the same day we sold out the third. I really, really did not expect that otherwise we would maybe have done some more. So we definitely have to film it for all those people who can't come."

You've written the album, recorded it, produced it, done all the promo work and interviews and then on April 28th it gets released. What then? Do you go and lie down in a dark room for a week?

"No, I have a lot of work to do for the Ayreon universe. So much to arrange you wouldn't believe it. We're making a whole video story board now of the whole show, the whole two-and-a-half hours or however long it's going to be. From second to second you know, this has to happen here, this has to happen there, the the lights have to do this, he has to come on stage, he has to go off stage, this happens on the screen. This is a lot of work so we're working on that, we're working on the visuals. Working on the backing tracks, working on the rehearsals.

"We already started rehearsing. So that's going to take up a lot of time until September. Then of course I'm going to have to work on the DVD, I'm going to have to work on the audio for the DVD which I know from 'The Theater Equation' takes three, four months. So I think the next year will be pretty full and I hope in the meantime I'll get some new ideas for the next project but I really have no idea what that will be right now. Even if I did I'd change my mind anyway [laughs]."

Check out more of Ian Sutherland right here.

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