One thing I believe common to all music lovers, especially when they are at the pub with friends who share the same passion, is to compose charts about the greatest bands and albums, the ones that left the deepest mark and that you would always take with you. These rankings are fluid: I don't know anyone, myself included, who over the years has not modified and adapted them following the evolution of tastes... yet, since 1998, AYREON’s Into the Electric Castle has remained firmly in the first place of any list I composed (with or without the aid of beer), the album that I always recommended to anyone who asked me for information on the kind of music I play, one of the albums that have shaped my tastes the most, even if not necessarily my style as a musician.
AYREON is the main project of the Dutch composer and multi-instrumentalist Arjen Anthony Lucassen, who over the course of about 20 years and 7 albums (from The Final Experiment in 1995 to The Source in 2017) has created a coherent and fascinating sci-fi narrative universe in which we witness the journey of the last surviving human being on Mars through time, space, incarnations and emotions, and his contact with the alien race that started our civilization after escaping from their planet (whose story is told in the albums 01011001 and The Source); Actual Fantasy (1996) and The Theory of Everything (2013) are the only two albums that don’t share this universe.
The style of AYREON is a mix of prog rock and prog metal with strong contaminations, especially folk (frequent is the use of strings, flutes and acoustic guitars) but also electronic and classic; most of the albums belong to the ‘rock opera’ genre, with complex and articulated storylines featuring numerous characters represented by different singers. The compositions are always very articulated and multilayered, with fascinating intertwining of melodic lines both in the instrumental section and between the singers; a staple in Lucassen’s work is the collaboration with a huge cast of different artists of renown (both singers and musicians), and I will argue that a part of his genius is the ability to choose the perfect role for each of them: even if they already are great, when they are part of AYREON they seem to shine even brighter.
Into the Electric Castle (1998) is AYREON's third album and probably the greatest; it was remixed spectacularly in 2018 and now comes out in this live version. It tells the story of eight human beings torn from various eras by a mysterious entity (The Voice/Forever of the Stars) who entrusts them with the task of reaching and overcoming the labyrinthine Electric Castle, with the ultimate aim of showing the various facets of emotions to the observer. Each song revolves around one or more of the characters and most of the personas are very well outlined, with their differences masterfully represented by their contrasts and their weaknesses unveiled in the various trials they face, while The Voice constantly urges them on with allusions, threats and warnings. The music complements the various moods perfectly, moving between passages more upbeat, epic and sometimes decidedly closer to metal during confrontations or some intense trials, and more subdued moments leaning on the folk or electronic elements of the opera during the times the characters are musing on the strange situation they are in or are facing their inner demons.
For this live release, the crew comprises 22 artists. Between the singers, happily most of the original cast resume their roles: Lucassen himself as the Hippie, Fish as the mournful Highlander, Edward Reekers as the Futureman, Damian Wilson as the Knight, Edwin Balogh as the Roman and Anneke van Giersbergen as the Egyptian; new addition are Simone Simons as the Indian, John JayCee Cuijpers as the Barbarian and the actor John de Lancie as The Voice/Forever. Among the many credited musicians are some of Lucassen's usual collaborators such as drummer Ed Warby, flautist Thijs van Leer and keyboardist Joost van den Broek, but the line-up is extremely wide and involves highly talented musicians such as lead guitarist Marcel Singor and Robby Valentine (who offers a nice piano interlude).
Those who already know and love this album will not be disappointed by listening to this release: the singers are extraordinary, and on more than one occasion I was excited and moved by listening in particular to Fish, Edwin Balogh or Damian Wilson replay their roles with the same skill and passion with which they enchanted me 20 years ago. I also liked John Jaycee Cuijpers: his Barbarian is not as powerful and threatening as the one played by Jay van Feggelen, that I absolutely loved, but his performance is great all the same. Also with regards to the musical performance, the level is extremely high: in certain moments it becomes almost difficult to believe that it is a live act, given the precision of the performances and the quality of the sounds! I just found the toms sometimes a little too present, but this is a really minor gripe.
A big difference between the original edition and this live that is worth underlining is John de Lancie's performance. In this show the character of The Voice / Forever has been greatly expanded, considerably increasing the more theatrical side of the opera, and de Lancie's interpretation of this figure is noticeably different from what we were used to. In the original, Forever is a cold character, certainly unpleasant but in an inhuman and detached way: in my opinion it perfectly gives the image of the scientist who subjects his guinea pigs to experiments without feeling more than superficially involved by their conditions. De Lancie's interludes are decidedly more articulated, in rhyme, and his Forever is sneering and judgmental: I was reminded of the figure of Puck, not in Shakespeare's original interpretation but rather in the much more Luciferian and threatening one pictured by Neil Gaiman in Sandman. This observation is not intended as criticism: personally I prefer Forever as the original inhuman entity, but de Lancie is an excellent actor and this interpretation has been surprising and interesting.
Marcel Singor plays his role as lead guitar excellently, colouring his parts with his personal style, almost liquid, with a great use of whammy bar, bend and legato: in most cases it is an added value, as in the extraordinary solo of Time Beyond Time or in Evil Devolution, but in other cases, such as at the beginning of Amazing Flight, the more square and direct style of the original in my opinion fits better with the mood of the song. But these are mainly matters of personal taste, it is undeniable that he is a superlative guitarist and he absolutely does not disappoint the listener.
The final part of the show sees a series of extras chosen from Lucassen's boundless discography, such as Songs of the Oceans from his Star One project or Out in the Real World from Stream of Passion, plus the cover of Marillion's Kayleigh.
Electric Castle Live and Other Tales is a work that will surely excite those like me who are long time fans of Arjen Anthony Lucassen, especially in the video version (which I can't wait to receive but I'm afraid that with Italy blocked by Covid-19 my pre-order will be delayed.) For those still unfamiliar with AYREON and Into the Electric Castle it can be a great way to become familiar with this fantastic work, although I would also suggest listening to the remastered version of 2018.
Ayreon - The Garden of Emotions (from Electric Castle Live and Other Tales)