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Ayreon's second full length output is a quite unique piece of music from this project. For the first and last time, the Dutch mastermind Arjen Lucassen decided to not invite a high number of guest musicians but did something like a solo project where he played all instruments and invited one main singer as well as one supplementary vocalist. The project feels more like a band in here and this album sounds quite homogenous. It's also the project's shortest full length release and gets quickly to the point. Everything sounds coherent and seems promising. To keep it short, the new project's project happens to be a band project. That's a pretty original statement, isn't it?
But the final result is by far not as brilliant as it could have been. The songs are all very long and surpass all the six minute mark apart of the short introduction. I feel that some of the tracks are artificially stretched and are not varied enough to justify such a length. That wouldn't be much of a problem if the songs had at least a great atmosphere, a gripping passage and some catchy elements but that's just not the case. The songs are mostly calm and slow paced and copy the progressive rock acts of the seventies without reaching the subtle intensity of calmer bands such as King Crimson, Genesis, Pink Floyd, Tangerine Dream or Gentle Giant. "Abbey Of Synn" for example could have been a solid opener if it would have been about five minutes long as everything is already said at this mark. The album closer "Forevermore" has the same problem and instead of finishing the record on a great note, the grand finale turns out to be a quite pointless and mellow stumbling towards the end of the line. The single "The Stranger From Within" shares the same fate. The shortened single version sounded like a tribute to the commercial progressive music of the late seventies and early eighties in the key of Yes and was rather catchy but the album version is twice as long and offers not much more than the short version. Progressive fans might find some interesting musical details from time to time but especially the metal fan section of Ayreon will quickly be turned off by the numerous unnecessary lengths. Let's also add the revisited edition of the album doesn't add anything appealing and actually sounds less coherent than the original release.
There are still a few highlights that keep the record away from sinking into boring mediocrity. The rather modern and catchy "Computer Eyes" is a good effort, the diversified "Beyond The Last Horizon" unites progressive passages, some thrown in metal riffs and catchy hooks and offers everything Ayreon usually stands for and "Back On Planet Earth" has an interesting story, atmosphere and some refreshing heavy passages. The latter is easily the best and most dynamic track on the record and stands out.
In the end, this release has been an interesting experiment from Ayreon and offers something we haven't heard before and afterwards from him. The project sounds like a band in here and offers a rather short and homogenous record. The songs are though artificially stretched and lack of energy, atmosphere and originality so that the final result is Ayreon's weakest release. Many promising ideas and attempts have not led to a satisfying, intriguing and coherent release. While progressive music fans could like this calm tribute to the past of the genre, metal fans might quickly get bored and should skip this album to continue with the great "Into The Electric Castle" which marked the band's stunning breakthrough where Ayreon also found its own style.
Ayreon second release is the only one which does not stick to the plot that is gradually developed on the other six albums made by Arjen Anthony Lucassen, and namely that science fiction story about the alien species called Forevers and their pursuit of rediscovering their lost emotions. This album, “Actual Fantasy” also develops science-fiction and social themes, but they are taken separately. That said, this release can be regarded as the easiest to listen from the Ayreon catalogue, not only because of the independent songs, but also because this is the less progressive work Lucassen has developed in the Ayreon project.
Highlights? “Abbey of Synn” is one of them, not only because Arjen gets his inspiration from Umberto Eco’s novel “The name of the rose”, the song, despite its length, manages to capture the listener’s attention due to its atmospheric and vocal passages. The next two songs, “Stranger from within” and “Computer Eyes” follow the same manner. I like very much the electronic passages that are intertwined throughout the album, “Computer eyes” and “Far side of the world” are full of them.
Arjen has never been the man for outstanding guitar solos, so this album kind of lacks this component, but it’s compensated by the strong use of electric sounds, acoustic guitars, the overused layer of synths and of course, the metal incorporated. Added to this, there are the lyrics which treat, as mentioned, various themes, such as: mental fantasies, criticism on the inappropriate and excessive use of computer games and virtual reality, post-death experiences and so on. I cannot complain of the vocalist, but I cannot praise him either. He is there and does his job well.
The album starts well but it fades into repetition and boredom towards the end, but overall, this is not a bad release. This is highly recommended for the Ayreon fans and for those that want to set themselves free from the virtual reality of the virtual games industry and to enter an actual fantasy. Only for 53 minutes!
I'm standing in line at Disneyworld, and this is the music they're playing in the background.
Seriously, this is probably the strangest and undoubtedly the cheesiest prog band I've ever heard in my life. The entire thing seems like an overblown excuse for a guy to play around with keyboards and space sound effects. It's all very prog, with lots of complicated rhythms, strange sound effects and melodies that don't seem to make much sense at first and make even less sense as the song goes on, although it definitely has its moments. The keyboard work is all decent, and the guitar playing and drums are pretty good, although there's nothing really mind-blowing here (as is often the case with prog). The song structures are often very convoluted, and you won't find anything extremely headbanging here (foot-tapping may be the more appropriate word). When all is said and done, however, this is pretty cool in its own weird little way.
The songs are long and tend to blend together, as is typical of many Progressive Metal bands. Actual Fantasy is stupid and cheesy beyond belief, but Abbey of Synn is pretty good, and The Stranger from Within is very catchy and pretty fun--definitely the best song on here. Computer Eyes takes a while to get warmed up, but we really start to get somewhere around 3:00, with a great rhythm and a pretty cool little guitar solo. Beyond the Last Horizon is a strange combination of harmony and dissonance that kind of works out in the end. It is perhaps the most prog-rock-ish song on here. Farside of the World is a really ambient industrial song à la Aesma Daeva, while Farside of the World sounds like somebody tore the brutal underlying riff out of a The Kovenant song and stuck the rest on the album. Forevermore is this lame orchestral epic that just ends up falling flat on its face, as is The Dawn of Man. Finally, the single version of The Stranger from Within isn't really that different from the original.
It's not always the most exciting stuff you'll ever hear, but it's solid prog. A good buy for fans of the genre.