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CD Review: Ayreon – The Human Equation

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Nearly two years ago, Arjen Lucassen released The Human Equation. Back then I praised it as one of the greatest prog-rock operas I had ever heard, and it easily was my album of the year for 2004. So, how does it stand up now, a couple of years later? I thought it would be fun to take another critical look at this album.

Arjen Lucassen has built quite a reputation for himself in the realm of progressive rock/metal. Frequently called a genius by fans, the buildup on the net for the latest Ayreon release was nothing short of monumental. The release of names of some of the guest vocalists was stirring up quite a buzz, long before the album ever reached stores. And with good cause. As background for the unfamiliar, Ayreon is one of many musical projects headed by musical mastermind Arjen Anthony Lucassen. The music of Ayreon can often be categorized as rock opera, with many vocalists playing varied parts in the work. The Human Equation is no different, and in fact represents the most ambitious use of guest vocalists to date on any Ayreon project.

As with all Ayreon albums, truly appreciating the work includes comprehension of the story. Arjen carefully crafts an interesting, powerful story that is often poetic without becoming incomprehensible. Too often lyricists dress their stories up in confusing metaphors, but not here. This doesn’t mean the story is simple though. Quite the opposite is true. The Human Equation takes place over two discs, nearly two hours of music, and 20 tracks, each representing a day. The album tells the story of a man in a coma and his struggle back to life. Told from two perspectives, cleverly woven lyrics and music take us from his bedside where his wife and best friend stand vigil, to the inside of his mind where his demons are haunting him. He must confront his emotions: Rage, Pride, Fear, Reason, Love, Passion, and Agony, all brilliantly sung by some of the most talented vocalists in the industry, in order to fight his way back to life. As he confronts these inner demons we discover what led to the coma in the first place, and some of the fears and trials that await him outside his own mind.

Musically, The Human Equation truly runs the gamut of styles. Everything from acoustic folk, hints of orchestral arrangements, spacey psychedelic prog, and powerful metal finds the appropriate place on the album to move the story forward. Most of the instruments are played by Arjen himself, but he wisely pulls in some truly talented musicians to flesh out the sound. As we have come to expect, Ed Warby does a masterful job on the drums, and guest instrumentalists bring their talent to the table on the keyboards, cello, violin and flutes. There really is something for just about everyone on this fine album. And while often clumped into the category of progressive rock/metal, Arjen tastefully refrains from the self-indulgent displays of technical virtuosity that is often associated with the genre, while still displaying excellent musical ability.

It is the amazing melding of apparently incompatible styles of music that makes The Human Equation such a fascinating experience. Not only do we never know what the next song is going to sound like, each song can surprise the listener, with artistic, coherent transitions from metal to folk, psychedelic prog to orchestral arrangements. Each instrument contributes to the story, and helps to pull the listener in, to the point that it is simple to begin to empathize with the characters.

Similarly, the styles of the different vocalists are melded together to create a singular listening experience. James LaBrie (vocalist of Dream Theater) sings the part of Me, the protagonist. Wife is sung by Marcela Bovio (of both Elfonia and Stream of Passion), and Best Friend by Arjen himself. Once inside the protagonist’s head, things really start to get interesting. Mikael Åkerfeldt (of the inimitable Opeth) is Fear; Eric Clayton (Savior Machine) is Reason; Devin Townsend is stunning as Rage; Heather Findlay (of Mostly Autumn) is a breath of fresh air as Love; Magnus Ekwall (from The Quill) epitomizes Pride; the stunning Devon Graves (aka Buddy Lackey, now of Dead Soul Tribe) sings the part of Pain; Irene Jansen (formerly of Karma) is Passion personified; and Mike Baker (Shadow Gallery) puts in a chilling performance as the psychotic figure, Father. It is an impressive list of vocalists, but what is more impressive is the way in which Arjen brings them all together, uses their unique talents and styles, and tells a powerful story with each one. This is rock opera perfected.

Tracks to catch: “Day Two: Isolation” is our first real glimpse into where the album is going, and it displays not only the musical diversity of the album, but also showcases the voices of James LaBrie, Eric Clayton, Magnus Ekwall, and Irene Jansen in particular. “Day Eight: School” explores some of the past trauma of the protagonist and is brilliant. “Day Eleven: Love” is particularly moving and powerful. “Day Twelve: Trauma” is a dark, disturbing journey that unleashes the full fury of Mikael Åkerfeldt’s brutal growl. “Day Sixteen: Loser” confronts us with the psychotic figure of Father, sung by Mike Baker, as the final barrier to fully coming back to life. Finally, “Day Twenty: Confrontation” powerfully resolves the epic album.

Rating: 10 out of 10
I believe every artist is entitled to a perfect album. Whether or not they produce that is another thing. But among such a stellar catalog of albums, Ayreon’s The Human Equation is perhaps the quintessential example of what a prog rock opera can and should be. The writing is stunning, the performances unparalleled, the production clean, crisp, full, and flawless, and the lyrics fascinating. Even the cover artwork is stunning. This is an amazing album, and I recommend it to any music fan without hesitation, no matter what genre they prefer. As I mentioned, it was my top album of the year 2004, and continues to be my top album of the decade so far. I don’t know if it can be topped. Two years later, it still shines as a singular work of art.

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