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Album review: Ayreon - Transitus (2020)

Ayreon - Transitus cover.jpg

Transitus

Transitus is the new chapter in AYREON's discography, and it is both familiar and innovative.
AYREON is the main project of Dutch multi-instrumentalist Arjen Anthony Lucassen, who over the course of about 25 years has built a narrative universe rich in science fiction themes that describes the technological development and the fall of mankind, intertwined with the events of the alien race responsible for the first spark of evolution of men. Transitus departs from this narrative strand, as had already happened with Actual Fantasy (1996) and The Theory of Everything (2013). During these 25 years Lucassen has carried out many experiments and excursions in the musical world, both under the moniker AYREON (where folk, classic and metal elements take over) and under other names: the AMBEON project, immersed in ambient elements, STREAM OF PASSION, symphonic / gothic, STAR ONE, more explicitly metal, and numerous others.

From this point of view, Transitus is both familiar and new: it contains many of the elements that we are used to expect in an AYREON album and while listening to it, passages from previous chapters came to mind several times, but I was also surprised by passages that from time to time reminded me of the best QUEEN (for example some moments in Dumb Piece of Rock, that reminded me of Bohemian Rhapsody, and the choir in Seven Days, Seven Nights) or the PINK FLOYD of The Division Bell, or even certain choral parts featured in Tobias Sammet's AVANTASIA (in particular the choir in Condemned Without a Trial.)

Another connection that frequently came to my mind is with Jesus Christ Superstar, but this perhaps also depends a lot on the overall style of the album: this is built much more on the model of a musical, with the singers definitely taking on a central role and the music that acts more as a support and background for the (brilliant) performances of the large cast. And yes, as is expected under the moniker AYREON, even in this case the cast is extensive, involving 17 singers in both prominent and support roles, a choir, and 11 musicians.

The work is structured as a 19th century feuilleton: it tells the story of the unfortunate love between the rich Daniel and Abby, a black maid. Clearly the family, in the figures of Daniel's brother and the authoritarian and distant father, is opposed to this union ... and as in the best 19th century tradition the couple is struck by tragedy and fantastic and gothic elements insinuate themselves into the story.

Daniel is played by Tommy Karevik (KAMELOT), a singer with a clear voice and capable of reaching very high notes with great confidence without sacrificing anything from the point of view of expressiveness, whose style finds a perfect complement in Cammie Gilbert (OCEANS OF SLUMBER), also endowed with a splendidly expressive voice that always maintains a warm and enveloping note both in the more subdued parts and when letting go in more lively parts.

Other very important roles in the drama are played by Paul Manzi (ARENA) as Henry, Daniel's brother, who opposes the couple's union and plans revenge against Abby, Dee Snider (TWISTED SISTER) as The Father, authoritarian and distant, Simone Simons (EPICA) as The Angel of Death and Amanda Sommerville (AVANTASIA, TRILLIUM) as the seer Lavinia. Secondary roles are covered by Johanne James (THRESHOLD), Abby's father, Michael Mills (TOEHIDER), as an imaginary friend / Roman’s statue observing Daniel's internal turmoil, while Marcela Bovio (MAYAN) and Caroline Westendorp (THE CHARM THE FURY) play the role of the Furies and collaborate with many other singers in representing villagers and other choral parts.

All the singers perform their roles flawlessly: as I have already written in the past I am convinced that a large part of Lucassen's genius is his ability to lead the artists who collaborate with him to outdo themselves. In particular, however, I was struck by Johanne James, who I knew was an excellent drummer having listened to Threshold for many years and even more so for having attended their live when they came to Italy on the occasion of 2Days + 1 Prog in Veruno but I did not know also be a skilled singer, and by Simone Simons. In her role as Angel of Death she manages to express many different facets and emotions: she is from time to time dry, impatient, sarcastic, indulgent, affectionate ... a truly impressive performance considering that is offered to us over the course of roughly three songs. Her character again reminded me of her alter ego created by Neil Gaiman in the SANDMAN series, DEATH, equally full of humor, impatience, warmth and indulgence.

Each chapter is introduced by the ‘Storyteller’, played by Tom Baker, who gives context and little behind the scenes and guides the listener by introducing the various characters, in a style that strongly reminded me of The Hound of the Baskervilles by Nolan and Wakeman: his performance is excellent, and personally I would never tire of hearing his warm, deep voice.

A couple of aspects that I think it is right to underline are that, even within the limits of the time allowed by the run time of the album, Lucassen manages to give the characters an interesting depth: in addition to the aforementioned Angel of Death, also the characters of Henry and his the father are not two-dimensional villains, but in their own way they show that they feel the connection with Daniel, even if not at the expense of safeguarding their social position. This is the real antagonist of the story, even more than Lavinia or Daniel’s family: even if in a couple of points in the story the colour of Abby's skin is remembered, in reality all the opposition seems to derive more than anything else from the social difference: an aspect that I found interesting and realistically cynical.

Among the musicians too there is a long list of extraordinary artists: in particular alongside Lucassen's long time collaborators such as keyboardist Joost Van Den Broek, violinist Ben Mathot and flutist Jeroen Goossens, the role of drummer is assumed by Juan Van Emmerloot, and although I was surprised not to see Ed Warby in this role his performance is truly remarkable and perhaps more appropriate to the style of the songs. Guitar heroes Joe Satriani and Marty Friedmann participate with solos worthy of their fame respectively in Get Out! Now! and Message from Beyond.

In addition to being the creator and composer behind this work, Arjen Lucassen also plays most of the instruments (guitars, bass, keyboards, dulcimer), proving his versatility and creativity if still needed. One thing I feel like saying is that I personally love the way he plays the guitar (as in the solo for Two Worlds Now One): in all these years that I have been a fan of his and have followed his work I have had the opportunity to listen to solos recorded for him by some of the greatest guitarists out there, many of them among my favourites like Michael Romeo or Gary Wehrkamp, but I would recognize his touch and expressiveness everywhere... I admit that I am sometimes less impressed by the big names that collaborate with him than by Lucassen himself, but this firmly goes into the ‘personal tastes’ section.

As you would probably expect, the production is of a high standard, with considerable depth and breadth in the soundscape; all instruments and effects are represented perfectly and it is easy to hear the layers in the structure of the songs.

From a compositional point of view, the musical-style structure is highlighted by the fact that in many places the music becomes very thin to leave almost completely free field to the singers, and there are far fewer sections devoted entirely to the musicians. The story is told through numerous chapters, many of which are under 3 minutes in duration, and this also deepens the theatrical aspect of the work.

In the various songs the style varies from passages more metal-oriented, others more folk, others more explicitly rock, but compared to the past there are perhaps more excursions into other genres that sound new in an AYREON opera, with the use of brass that recall more explicitly the soundtracks of films and musicals, and epic choruses closer to what can be heard in rock operas leaning on power metal such as the aforementioned AVANTASIA.

Even if the quality of all these aspects is undoubted, and ensures an excellent evaluation of this new chapter of the history of AYREON, from a more personal and less objective point of view I cannot say I love this album as much as previous works. This basically depends on two factors, one structural and one thematic: personally I don't really like the musical-like structure, and the predominance given to the singers over the instrumental parts is a bit tight for me; the story didn't really click with me because I never felt a true connection with nineteenth-century stories of gothic love while I never tire of consuming science fiction books. As I said, these criticisms are exclusively related to my tastes and can be ignored, and I must say that I admire the continuous desire to innovate and try new ways and styles that Lucassen demonstrates: it would probably be much easier for him to sit on his laurels and repeat without variations the formula that led him to success (as unfortunately many do.)

Transitus is an album that I would definitely recommend to AYREON fans, even if perhaps it will not satisfy 100% the more traditionalists and those linked to works like Electric Castle or The Source, on the other hand perhaps precisely for this reason can reach a wider audience and excite fans with more varied tastes.