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It's often disheartening when I see other metalheads scoff at the Ayreon project as a nonsensical, pretentious, cheeseball borefest. And as a very self-aware prog fan, I can understand where they're coming from. However, that has never impacted my enjoyment of these refreshingly big, gaudy, byzantine productions of progressive metal opera, and my favorite of all of them is Arjen Lucassen's magnum opus, Into the Electric Castle.
The story is, admittedly REALLY cheesy and kind of ridiculous: eight humans from different eras in our history (An Egyptian, an Indian, a Barbarian, a Roman, a Knight of King Arthur, a Scottish Highlander, a stoned-out hippie, and a man from the future) snatched from their relative times to be put through tests of mind and emotion by an unseen guide, whose purposes are exceedingly blurry until the very end. Where this album shines is in how it takes this pretty weird concept and focuses on just how the either starkly different personalities interact and/or battle each other as their tests increase in peril and lives are put at risk. Each human is played by an A-class vocalist, from the likes of Sharon Den Adel to Damian Wilson to even the fairly famous Fish, making the lyrics/dialogue really come to life.
All these vocal theatrics are complimented exceedingly well by the score: a complex, layered gala of electric and orchestral instruments, a balance of organic and artifice that is most evocative of space. Too often when shooting for an atmosphere of outer space, musicians stray too far into the electronic effects and synthesizers, creating miasmas of computer noises that are okay for you local rave, but not for a place where actual good music is played. To really capture the majesty and enormity of outer space, it's important to keep in mind that it is both a natural occurrence and yet still very alien, so a balance of actual instruments and electronics is vital. In this album, that balance is struck so well, I doubt I could ever find a better benchmark.
The score also shines when not just flying through the cosmos, each piece of the orchestra melding to lift us up high in moments of triumph and cast us down just as quickly when dark times go by. Emotions run high and low and everywhere like a rollercoaster here before coming to a very cerebral, powerful climax and denouement. It is one of the finest examples of storytelling through music you'll find.
If Arjen weren't so geekily obsessed with prog and metal and if this album weren't handled as well as it was, it would be unforgivably pretentious. But every ounce of Mr. L's gleeful love of music shines through in this tribute to a time when rock was rock and prog was ridiculously larger than life. It's not for everyone, but if it's for you, you will love it.
Are you kidding me? Is this a fucking joke? THIS is the world-reknown Ayreon project? I can't believe my ears! Jesus christ. I mean, I'm not really a fan of prog rock/metal anyway, but I appreciate artistry when it's done well. I like old Rush, some old Pink Floyd, I love 'Images and Words' etc. 'Into the Electric Castle' is just hilarious though, my iPod died one day so I borrowed my brothers to take to work and decided to check up on some albums he'd been bugging me about, and this was the first one I came across. I've been meaning to check this out for a while but couldn't be bothered as it's too fucking long, and I'm certain that's why this doesn't have many negative reviews. All the people that would hate this can't be assed to take the time out and listen to the damn thing.
Okay, so the story is that seven people from different cultures (an Indian, a junkie/hippie, a barbarian, and I forget who else) get selected to go on this mad crazy adventure to the electric castle for no reason at all. The 'voice' that narrates the whole thing (along with the characters) is ridiculous. I used to have a tape when I was a kid called nursery rhyme time, and the dude sounds exactly the same as that. He talks all deep and metaphorical, but really cliche and silly..."you must meander through the verdant vines of the garden of emotions, succumb to it's lure, breathe deep the intoxication aroma of endless, entwined emotions"...he just introduces each new environment (tunnel of light, rainbow bridge, mirror maze...eugh) like the host of Knightmare, and the cast reluctantly follow. They don't quite seem to care very much about it though, coming to terms with their situation quicker than Leo Davidson in the Planet of the Apes 2001 remake. They don't really discuss much about what's going on either, they just talk about their insecurities and what's going on inside them..."please do not bring light to my soul, as it is only darkness I know" or whatever the hell he says, jesus man just go through the fucking tunnel already. Also, their vocals are pretty awful. They sing, but in a really clear, innunciated, story-telling voice, like it's very important for you to not miss a single world. The whole album comes across like Jesus Christ Superstar, except even more fixated on telling you the story.
Oh, and are you looking for metal? There's no metal here, look somewhere else. There are some metalish riffs every now and then, and funnily enough they happen to be the most annoying songs. One has two of the main characters arguing about who will lead the way, and they have this rockish/metalish riff presumably symbolising the conflict. It's weak and laughable to people that actually listen to metal, though. And besides that, most of this stuff just sounds like modern "progressive" rock like Porcupine Tree or The Flower Kings. There are electric flute solos all over the show, but hardly anything metal at all. No metal at all in the vocals, all just theatre voices, barely any metal riffs, the leads only occasionally come from the guitars and are mostly composed by all of the classical instruments that take turns playing a bit of improv, there's just nothing here with any heavy metal essence whatsoever.
After 'the voice' tells us the story's opening (seven people gathered to enter the electric castle or something) we get a long, epic intro. Let me tell you now that you'd better be really into epic music to like this album. Every melody, every segment is designed to be epic, and the first main songs 'Isis and Orisis' and 'Amazing Flight' demonstrate this well. They lead you on to think that you're going to go on this big crazy fucking life-affirming, mind-blowing mission through space and dimensions and shit, and they spend about twenty minutes between them with lots of build up. Very epic, I guess. We also have some commentary from the stoner, who has a horribley annoying (possibly fake) British accent, and every time he sings his lyrics are filled with tangerine-dreams-and-marmalade-skies type imagery while psychedelic Beatles worship plays in the background. The general formula is that one character sings a vague verse about their surroundings and events, then lots of solos on all different instruments play featuring arpeggios and what not, and then another character sings about their environment and feelings, then more solos, then the first character repeats their original verse, then solos, then the second character etc. and they manage to make the songs about ten minutes long just using this method. There are shorter songs, and they're awful. 'The Decision Tree' and 'Tunnel of Light' are sickly, sappy pop songs full of happy synths and joyful strumming, as the narrator congratulates the characters for passing through the last area into this one. I don't know why, nothing happens to them in each environment. WE'RE IN THE GARDEN OF EMOTIONS and then they pass through without any conflict or events and then FUCK YEAH WE'RE IN THE CASTLE HALL where nothing happens at all again.
I guess what bugs me the most about this album though, other than the annoying theatre vocals, the constant noodling on every instrument known to man, the Asia-style riffs, the fact that the one good riff is bastardized from a recurring riff used on W.A.S.P.'s 'The Crimson Idol' (now that's a real metal opera!), the fact that the music used to represent each character (60s psychedelia for the British stoner, Indian music for the Indian etc.) are ridiculously cliche etc., is the fact that the story and concept is just so stupid. There are no childrens books this ridiculous. Heck, I have friends that are really into RPGs and there's nothing this silly there too. Just the fact that the story opens with an onmipotent voice telling these characters that they must enter this giant electric castle, and then the story consists of said token characters going through all these sickeningly cliche space-fantasy environments...I mean just look at the song titles, I've listed some already but they're all really, really silly...'Tower of Hope', 'The Two Gates', 'Forever of the Stars', 'Welcome to the New Dimension', how can anybody, sci-fi/fantasy fan or not, actually get excited by this shit? It's like Star Wars meets Labyrinth meets The Crystal Maze meets Narnia meets Naruto meets Final Fantasy meets Fort Boyard. Sounds like a childish insult, but this album is simply meant for geeks. And not just any kind of geeks, oh no. I'm talking trading card geeks, warcraft geeks, star trek geeks. Except it takes all of those themes to new levels of absurd, mixing them all in and then some. If this sounds like you, you'll love this album. Where else can you find a musical epic regarding dimension-hopping, space travel and magic, where even Merlin and Death make guest appearances.
To the rest of you, don't be so fucking stupid. Quit kidding yourself, this is not cool music. It's not intellectual, it's a stupid, over-ambitious, plotless story with weak music to back it. Yes, there are lots of instruments, lots of noodling, lots of musicians. Is any of it good? No. I actually like Rush and I&W-era Dream Theater because they wrote fantastic songs, with melodies and hooks that really drew you in. A simple concept like 'A Passage to Bangkok' was easily transferred into music, you actually felt the emotions of going on this journey, it hits a spot inside you, almost makes you feel excited. There's none of that here. They put in every element of fantasy and sci-fi ever invented, and then put in every element of prog, pop and rock in and hoped that it would be enough to make the "story" come to life. It wasn't enough. And if you are a geek turned on by the idea of every fantasy you've ever been interested in coming to life on one 2-disc album, then you'll like this. For the rest of you, you'll laugh. Hard. But it's just not worth wasting your time over. Don't bother with Ayreon.
Often seen as being Ayreon's first major breakthrough after the release of two more obscure albums, "Into The Electric Castle" brought in a few changes to the project's sound and image. The music itself goes into more eclectic territory than in the past and instrumentalist/mastermind Arjen Lucassen managed to recruit a few bigger name vocalists to sing for the album. The storyline is also pretty unique compared to other efforts and is often considered to be one of the band's most developed and light-hearted.
Musically, it is a major stretch to refer to this as being a metal album. There may be a few louder guitar riffs and chugs present and even a series of death metal growls on "Cosmic Fusion," but they aren't exactly heavy and are often overlooked in favor of other styles stretched across the musical realm. Just a few sounds that are played with include spacy Pink Floydesque passages ("Welcome To The New Dimension," "Forever Of The Stars"), blues ("Amazing Flight"), acoustic ballads ("Tunnel Of Light," "Valley Of The Queens"), and a number of epic combinations ("Isis And Osiris," "Across the Rainbow Bridge"). Thankfully the songwriting and instrumental performances are strong enough to pull off every different sound with skill and style.
Like every other Ayreon album, the biggest highlights are the vocal performances contributed by several different singers. While Fish, Within Temptation's Sharon den Adel, and The Gathering's Anneke van Giersbergen may be the only "big" names on here, every singer gives their best performance and reinforces the strength of the project's eclectic nature through their excellent interactions with one another. Fish gives a loveable performance as the Highlander with his thick Scottish accent, Arjen provides some successful comic relief as the perpetually stoned Hippie, and Peter Daltery delivers many chilling spoken performances as the ominous Forever of the Stars. I also enjoyed the bluesy performance of Jay van Fegellan as the Barbarian but I must admit that I was expecting a singer of that role to be a little more savage...
In spite of some great performances, I also noticed that a few singers never seem to develop on an individual basis and are often grouped together with a similar character. The Roman and the Knight are both great singers of their own terms but they spent more time shouting out prayers to random deities and historical figures respectively than making names for themselves as individuals. The Egyptian and the Indian have a similar fate and don't seem to do much for the story besides add in some pretty female vocals and then get killed off shortly afterwards. Then again, I might just be reading into this a little too much...
The album's storyline is also nicely done and shows an interesting blend of dark and light in the characters' development and events. The protagonists' strong performances make you want to root for them during their journey and the story's events are intriguing and somewhat twisted at times. In fact, this whole story reminds me of Saw with more trippy sci-fi stuff and less violence...
All in all, this may be one of the strongest Ayreon releases to date and is worth for just about every kind of music fan. You'll find something on here to enjoy.
1) Variety of different music styles represented and great songwriting
2) Powerful vocalists
3) Intriguing storyline
1) A few vocalists don't stand out as often as others.
2) May be too much to take in one listen for some listeners.
My Current Favorites (Disc 1):
"Isis And Osiris," "Amazing Flight," "The Decision Tree (We're Alive)," "Tunnel Of Light," and "Across the Rainbow Bridge"
My Current Favorites (Disc 2):
"The Garden of Emotions," "The Castle Hall," "Tower Of Hope," "Cosmic Fusion," and "Mirror Maze"
If there’s one thing I can count on in my existence, it can be an ability to find amazing music through plain old curiousity, never hearing a sample track and going by my gut; going to my local music store, grabbing some random album by some random band, bringing it home and loving every minute of it. Granted, that ability isn’t perfect (I learned the hard way the prevalent untalentedness of bands like VASARIA and ENTWINE), but I’ve had more victories than losses, like SOILWORK, CHILDREN OF BODOM, CRADLE OF FILTH, OPETH, and MORBID ANGEL, among plentiful others. So that gut-check was needed when I went to said music store for a new album and came face-to-face with “Into the Electric Castle” by a group called “AYREON”. I didn’t know what to expect, but bought it anyway.
My views of music were forever changed that day...
This is, by and large, my absolute favourite album, and I’d go so far as to call it the best album ever made. This was my first entry into the wonderful, brilliant world of Arjen Anthony Lucassen, he of unparalleled musical genius, and over the years I’ve owned this, I’ve never grown tired of listening to it. Many bands and musicians attempt to meld different styles together, and only on rare occasion does such an experiment pay off; other times, they come off as a complete mess of half-baked ideas. Not so in this case. Mr. Lucassen takes metal, prog rock, electronica, folk music, bits of blues and a little jazz, threw them into a blender and serves up a delicious dose of intentional rock opera cheese that sticks to your ribs. What makes this such a great album is mostly in the music as well as the obviously incredible talents of the singers he got to perform their parts, both singers I’ve heard of (Anneke von Giersburgen, Sharon den Adel) and singers new to me (Damien Wilson, Edward Reekers). There is not ONE singer on this album who performs his or her part half-assedly or at a lack of talent; everyone is a cog working in a well-oiled machine, helping deliver two discs of prime musical amazement that never grows stale over time.
Speaking of the music, up til this point I've never owned a disc that has wowed me as much as this (there have been a number that I found quite exciting, but NOTHING like this), and each successive listen makes me stand up and notice little parts I hadn't noticed before. A world where metal guitars, woodwinds, techno synths, and massive Hammon organ abuse mold together, all having their own, clear voice amidst the clamour of percussion and singing. The music is less of a "wall of sound" and more like an amorphous blanket that surrounds and embraces you, swallowing you whole in the process...but dammit if you don't want it to let you go. It's also one of those albums in which you get so absorbed in the music that time flies by as if it were nothing (this is versus, say, bands that can perform what feels like ten minutes, only to look and see that only three have passed), and before I knew it, I had to change discs...but that's ok, as I was really swept up and was dying to see how the story ends. And obviously, the story isn't NEARLY as serious as other AYREON outputs (intentionally, of course), but that only adds to the charm of the seer...er, album.
So, in the end, I know this isn't everyone's cup of tea (I recall one review title fitting it best; "Special music for special people"), as not everyone would enjoy, or rather "get", it...but for all of us who do love every second of it, including me. And I doubt I'll ever find another album as perfect as this.
The double disc ‘Into the Electric Castle: A Space Opera’ is the third release from multi-talented Dutch prog enthusiast Arjen Anthony Lucassen, but essentially the second (after 1995’s ‘The Final Experiment’) to be of any note. Like its predecessor, ‘Into the Electric Castle’ is difficult to pin down to a specific style, but is mostly a blend of progressive rock, progressive metal and psychedelic rock in the form of a rock opera (though Lucassen opts for the somewhat meaningless term ‘Space Opera’). The diverse cast of characters are all performed by famous rock vocalists from across Europe, although Fish from Marillion is the only truly well-known one here outside of metal circles. Later Ayreon releases upped the ante somewhat to draft in the vocalists from Dream Theater, Opeth and Iron Maiden.
This multi-vocal effect is great, and also rather cheesy. In fact, even the briefest analysis of the album’s storyline makes it clear that this isn’t a work in the same serious psychological vein as the later album ‘The Human Equation,’ featuring a range of extraordinarily stereotyped characters from ‘throughout history’ that owe far more to Hollywood than any attempts at authenticity. Peter Daltrey provides the cold, mechanical, Hal-like narration that segues between the majority of songs, and wrote all the lyrics himself (which become increasingly convoluted, especially at the end). This disembodied voice has gathered myriad humans in a place of ‘no time, no space’ for a harrowing psychedelic trip through a fantastical landscape, the final goal being the Electric Castle itself that forms the basis of the second disc, a place embedded with emotions where the surviving characters must confront their own past misdeeds, and finally make a life-or-death decision. It’s mostly easy to follow, especially with the narration, but ultimately it doesn’t matter if the listener drifts off and forgets to pay attention in a specific section, they will still get the same out of it.
The cast are mostly distinctive, though some characters tend to be more prominent than others. Jay van Feggelen puts in an astoundingly melodramatic performance as ‘the proud Barbarian,’ roaring and mincing his lines, and even making the fittingly pompous decision to sing at his own pace, outside the melody. His confrontations with the other ‘men of swords,’ as the narrator calls them, are entertaining for all the operatic shouting they entail, although the Highlander (Fish from Marillion) is more restrained in his thick Scottish accent, and Ayreon staple Damian Wilson (ex-Rick Wakeman and Threshold) is calm and noble as the Knight with a Grail complex. The Gathering’s Anneke van Giersbergen fills the female spot that would go to Lana Lane on all future releases, often providing a soft chorus but mostly seeming too entrenched within her own thoughts to really interact with anyone else; aside from her solo spot in ‘Valley of the Queens,’ it seems she is essentially used to provide a female voice to the songs. Last but certainly not least is the most entertaining character of all, the Hippie performed by Lucassen himself whose pacifistic face-off with the Barbarian in track three provides only the first in a long line of great lines that either confirm the albums tongue-in-cheek nature (this is my opinion), or simply reflect incredibly poor writing (a possibility I don’t wish to entertain).
‘Hey dude, you’re so uncool, but hey – that’s alright,
but there’s no need to get uptight.’
It’s something of an acquired taste, but ‘Into the Electric Castle,’ along with a couple of Lucassen’s later releases, are truly accomplished works of modern progressive rock and progressive metal, rivalling even the big American names like Symphony X and Dream Theater. Unlike the latter, Ayreon’s concept albums rely on a song-based approach that makes each track stand strong and independent even when removed from the overall structure, avoiding the self-conscious repetition of a ‘main theme’ that characterises many concept albums of bands who feel it necessary to keep reminding the listener that the song they are listening to is related to an earlier song that sounded almost exactly the same, but in a slightly different key. Ayreon’s ‘The Final Experiment’ was guilty of this, overusing a faux-Medieval melody that was never that good to begin with, and only became more irritating the more diverse instruments it was piped through over the course of fifteen tracks. The musical style on ‘Into the Electric Castle’ is characteristic enough that no song sounds out of place, even the deliberate attempts to diversify, and the characters seem more than content to play through the different melodies and rhythms. This music is progressive in the sense that it seeks to expand beyond the boundaries of a typical rock album, and in its blending of disparate styles, rather than being a forum for Lucassen to show off his guitar and synth noodling abilities ad nauseam. Well, it is partly for that.
1. Welcome to the New Dimension
2. Isis and Osiris
...a) Let the Journey Begin
...b) The Hall of Isis and Osiris
...c) Strange Constellations
3. Amazing Flight
...a) Amazing Flight in Space
...c) Flying Colours
4. Time Beyond Time
5. The Decision Tree (We’re Alive)
6. Tunnel of Light
7. Across the Rainbow Bridge
Ayreon is a largely synthesiser based musical project, they keyboards and occasional Hammond organs (gak) taking their cues from 70s bands such as Pink Floyd (particularly ‘Wish You Were Here’) and, in the instance of this opening track in particular, Jeff Wayne’s ‘War of the Worlds,’ which itself seems to have been a large inspiration on Lucassen’s approach. The narration dominates this opening track, and whatever the keyboards are attempting to convey in terms of ‘no time, no space’ is lost on me. Track two is where the album really gets going, and is a real tour-de-force featuring almost all of the characters as they struggle to come to terms with their predicament. The folk elements are introduced, largely in the form of brief lapses into woodwind and mandolin passages that crop up in many songs, and this is the first song to really fuse the prog rock and heavy metal elements, setting the mid-tempo rhythm that will continue through the entire album. Prog band Camel seems to be an influence on the synth here, something that will become even more evident in later songs, and although this song goes through a lot of movements in its 11:11 running time, the only section that truly drags is an extended synthesiser section in the more atmospheric section (c).
‘Amazing Flight’ is one of the most memorable songs and the best of the multi-part ‘epics,’ not only for the embarrassing Hippie dialogue quoted earlier. It starts off sounding like a 60s rock song, with the same guitar sound and those dreaded Hammonds creeping in for the first time, creating a comparatively sparse atmosphere after the volume of the previous song that moves it more towards the psychedelic end of the spectrum. The Pink Floyd influence is more obvious here than anywhere else, as a sub-David Gilmour guitar solo whines melodically before revealing a quiet choir of male and female voices that almost sounds lifted from Pink Floyd’s ‘Atom Heart Mother,’ and a wailing woman in a passage evoking ‘The Great Gig in the Sky.’ The Hippie’s name-dropping of Pink Floyd and The Who lyrics in a later song implies that these links are more commemorative and nostalgic than theft, though I certainly hope for Lucassen’s sake that Roger Waters doesn’t listen to Space Opera. A later flute section first evokes Jethro Tull, and then seems to be lifted straight from Camels’ ‘The Snow Goose’ album. Overall, this is a great song despite all the debts it would seem to owe, but in the context of the album is perhaps a little excessive in its ten minute duration after the previous long song. Thankfully, the ones that come after are all shorter.
‘Time Beyond Time’ is another song that moves from a quiet, reflective opening led by acoustic guitar to loud, electric, heavy metal middle, and is nicely simplistic after the aural overload of the album so far. The Knight is granted a nice Medieval sounding guitar solo, the likes of which dominated the earlier album ‘The Final Experiment’ but which works much better alone, and Wilson’s soft singing is pleasant. The end sounds a little too similar to that of the previous song, to the extent that I always expect the flutes to come in, but this is mostly a relaxed start to the more ‘easy listening’ part of the album. ‘The Decision Tree (We’re Alive)’ is where the events and obstacles of the plot start to take precedence, beginning with the thrum of synthesisers that musicians as far back as Vangelis decided was the most accurate sound to represent the vacuum of space. The keyboard melody that follows sounds a little too much like a Sega MegaDrive game for me to take it seriously (I’m specifically thinking of ‘Ristar,’ for anyone interested in such things), and the happiness remains in the song even after it becomes faster and the guitars dominate, despite the seemingly contradictory ;every man for himself’ attitude of the vocals. A jam section comes in towards the end before a final reprise of the verse and chorus: this will become the template for most songs to follow.
The shortest song on this disc, ‘Tunnel of Light’ is also the most accessible, based on a repeating acoustic guitar that never collapses into a jam or solo. The narrator sounds oddly jolly as it begins, congratulating the survivors for passing the tree (Fish was forced to stay behind), and the vocals here are interchanged between the conflicting voices of the Egyptian and the Barbarian. ‘An incandescent span of tears’ in the narration of the next track indicates, along with the murky sound of dripping water, that things are about to take a turn for the worse, as the group cross the rainbow bridge. The music moves from a gloomy down-tuned acoustic effect, similar to the Bruce Dickinson band, to a louder metal style that comes and goes with intensity. Not a lot is resolved in this closing song, and in a commendably modest move, the song simply fades out at the end without another unnecessary note from the narrator. At just over six minutes, this is a reasonable length and one of the album’s most authentically ‘prog metal’ songs, despite the psychedelic lapse towards the end.
1. The Garden of Emotions
...a) In the Garden of Emotions
...b) Voices in the Sky
...c) The Aggression Factor
2. Valley of the Queens
3. The Castle Hall
4. Tower of Hope
5. Cosmic Fusion
...a) I Soar on the Breeze
...b) Death’s Grunt
...c) The Passing of an Eagle
6. The Mirror Maze
...a) Inside the Mirror Maze
...b) Through the Mirror
7. Evil Devolution
8. The Two Gates
9. “Forever” of the Stars
10. Another Time,. Another Space
The second disc harks back to the epic opening of the first disc, as the narrator essentially tells the gang ‘we’re here,’ and the weird fantasy continues. A bombastic keyboard melody that could almost be the album’s ‘main theme,’ if it were falling back on such a bad idea, provides an effective structure for the beginning and end of this diverse song, which mostly belongs to the Hippie and the Egyptian. Lucassen delivers the verses through a distorted water sound effect, proclaiming, ‘it’s kinda groovy in this world of fantasy / where no one else can go,’ before van Giersbergen emerges crystal clear for the chorus. The second movement takes on a male aggression stance, highlighted by the heavier (i.e. manlier) guitars and bellows of the Barbarian, while the third is more restrained and progressive to suit the ‘stand together as a team’ mentality of the intellectual Futureman of the bunch. If you happen to be of the opinion that overblown synthesisers can be a little annoying in large quantities, this probably isn’t the song for you. Fortunately, I think it can be a really good thing, when done well, and the final repetition of the opening chords makes it all worthwhile. Not as effective a monster track as the first two on the previous side, but the first section is very notable.
Anneke van Giersbergen is finally granted a solo spot to show off her talents in ‘Valley of the Queens,’ and Lucassen is content to provide a melodic background of keyboards and effective violins, commendably resisting synthesising an Egyptian-style theme or anything like that. It’s pleasant and quite short, and acts as the most radio-friendly song on the second disc, much like ‘Tunnel of Light’ earlier. With the Egyptian woman singing about her inevitable death, and mourning the apparent non-existence of her gods, it’s actually quite sad, and this comes through in the music; this isn’t all a camp parody.
Synthesised monster sound effects open the next phase of the album, as the Electric Castle begins to be explored in earnest, and the narrator gleefully draws attention to one of the album’s repeated morals, targeted towards the fighting men. ‘I pity the men of swords,’ laughs the narrator, ‘for here, blood runs cold,’ and they must confront their pasts. This at least allows for some slight characterisation of the Barbarian beyond his testosterone-fuelled arguments with Hippies and Highlanders, as he dwells on ‘the men I’ve killed, the women I’ve raped.’ Then again, he doesn’t sound too broken up about it, making his later fate all the more deserving. The main guitar riff is quite heavy and slow, a nice combination, but this is primarily a vocal-led song from the two surviving male warriors, backed by some Super Mario Bros.-esque dank and drippy sound effects. A short melodic break interrupts three-quarters of the way into the song, including some long-overdue flutes, before the verse and chorus repeat once again. It’s a good song, if unremarkable, and begins what can be seen as a heavier section of the album, fitting to the predicament.
‘Tower of Hope’ is perhaps my favourite song on the album, and is dominated by a simplistic staccato riff that turns on and off like a switch. It seems that all characters get a say in this one, their voices overlapping and pre-empting each other and driving the whole thing along, before a crazy, jazzy jam section takes over towards the end. A soloing guitar and noodling keyboard alternate in a game of one-upmanship for about one minute, demonstrating a level of self-restraint not seen in the previous songs that makes a great difference, and again, the verse and chorus repeat. The next couple of songs follow a more epic, progressive vein than these shorter segments, ‘Cosmic Fusion’ beginning with more Richard Wright style synth such as that which opened the album, before van Giersbergen’s singing is overtaken by the voice of Death, predictably handled in a guttural roar fashion typical of death metal, though a little more restrained and audible here. Fittingly, and by this point very predictably, the guitar becomes louder in this second section, while the third section is yet another guitar solo section, better than some of the others but quite out of place and distracting by this late juncture.
Finally with ‘The Mirror Maze’ comes that rock opera staple: a piano! Lucassen’s Hippie confronts his childhood and domineering parents, followed by memories of feeling alienated from adult society (‘so he grows his hair’). The song begins dream-like and acoustic, eventually becoming a cacophony as the other characters relate their own experiences inside the Mirror Maze. ‘Evil Devolution’ is another of the album’s highlights, introducing elements of electronica in presenting the world of the future, and beginning the final phase of the album’s storyline concerning evolution beyond emotional awareness. The Futureman (Edward Reekers) puts in a great performance in this slow, downbeat song, both singing melodically in the chorus and more dramatically in the verses. The bass is also present here, in one of the few instances throughout the album. The main riff itself undergoes a process of evolution (or devolution) as it translates to further electronic instruments, most prevalently the guitar. Ending abruptly, the surviving characters face their final challenge with ‘The Two Gates,’ one of which leads back to their lives, and the other of which leads to a void of oblivion. One is gold and sparkling, the other is decayed and humble. You know, a bit like the grails in that Indiana Jones film, and loads of other stuff. The keyboards are reminiscent of Camel again, and the staccato rhythm similar to ‘Tower of Hope’ earlier, but this is the first song to feature a truly heavy metal chorus in terms of delivery, a really nice touch. With the marching rhythm, this could almost be a power metal song if the overpowering keyboards were removed and the tempo sped up a little. The Barbarian’s arrogant death, which you can work out for yourself, has been a long time coming, but it’s still a little sad to hear his echoing bellows from a vacuum of nothingness.
The final two songs flow together, to the extent that they could really be considered the same song, especially as so many other songs incorporate disparate movements. ‘“Forever” of the Stars,’ written by the narrator Peter Daltrey, attempts to put the album’s rather silly plot into some kind of grander context, explaining how his species populated the Earth with humans to analyse their emotions, or something along those lines. The final song resists sounding too victorious, despite some optimistic soloing, as the survivors awaken back in their own realms, uncertain what to make of the experience that they partially retain in their memories: some, such as the Knight, finally feel a sense of satisfaction, but the Hippie wonders whether it’s all been one big, groovy trip. We’ll never really know, but this is a pretty nice song, and maybe that’s the point.
‘Into the Electric Castle’ certainly isn’t an album for everybody, requiring a certain degree of open-mindedness to appreciate, and either a sense of irony or failing that, an appreciation for cheesy fantastical storylines to really get into. Regardless of the lyrics, the music is an accomplished and effective blend of genres in a way that’s never really been attempted before within progressive metal, adopting a 1970s attitude with the benefit of modern technology and musical styles. Arguably Ayreon’s finest album, this is less strictly ‘metal’ than ‘The Final Experiment,’ ‘Flight of the Migrator’ and ‘The Human Equation,’ but more hard-edged than the largely ambient ‘The Dream Sequencer’ and the disappointing ‘Actual Fantasy.’ Of these, ‘The Human Equation’ most closely follows the style established here, with more effective overall results and some better singers, as the main problem with ‘Into the Electric Castle’ is the repetition of structure and musical ‘quirks’ that cease to be such when repeated over and over again.
That said, this album could easily have fallen into a great many traps of the rock opera and concept album formats that would have affected the end result significantly, yet Lucassen’s focus on creating a series of strong songs, effective when taken inside or outside of this crazy context, makes it an essential purchase for prog metal enthusiasts. An earlier version of ‘Amazing Flight’ can be heard on the later compilation ‘Ayreonauts Only,’ which heavily implies that the Original Hippie’s dialogue did, indeed, form the basis for this psychedelic trip through non-time and non-space. It only remains to wonder how closely Lucassen associates himself with the character.
Arjen Lucassen has written concept albums before, but the Into the Electric Castle project was far more ambitious than anything he'd previously done, comparable to the classic rock operas of the 70's. This album is epic; musically, lyrically, and conceptually, featuring masterful soundscapes, a stunning variety of mood and atmosphere, and one of the broadest incorporations of genres in progressive metal. Like his other albums, It also features a number of guest vocalists, keyboardists, and other instrumentalists to give the album a unique sound. Musically and compostionally, this is a masterpiece, displaying a level of instrumental perfection generally unseen, even in prog. Unfortunately, the lyrical concept that it's paired with is just too damned out there, even by Lucassen's standards, and keeps this album from being an undisputed classic.
The concept is thus: eight different characters from varying time periods are transported to an otherworldly dimension by a mysterious cosmic being. Their goal is to traverse this dangerous terrain and meet their destiny inside the halls of the Electric Castle. I think. Without ruining the plot, the overall theme is the interacting emotions of the various characters (male and female) as they face the perils of their quest. The characters are somewhat stereotypical, such as a Roman, a Barbarian, an Egyptian, etc, and their conflicts are somewhat intersting, but the overall concept just fails to appeal to me. It's that really cheesy style of science fiction; like something you would read in those novels they sell at the bus station or something you'd see on one of those shows that runs for years on afternoon network television. The vocalists deliver their lines with conviction, but the lines are pretty dull. The point of the album is human emotions, yet none of it really makes a significant impact, especially when you need to read along with the lyrics just to follow them.
The music, on the other hand, is fantastic. Heavily layered with synthesizer textures to give it a "space-opera" feel, the songs incorporate a variety of styles, from progressive metal to 70's rock to folk to synth pop. I've never heard of any of the vocalists on this, but they're all phenomenal, each possessing a wide range and a unique sound that adds to the compositions. They often deliver their lines back and forth, to give the impression of the characters conversing. The music evolves with the mood, adjusting itself to each particular singer and the tone of the lyrics. It almost seems like you don't need the lyrics, as the music displays more emotion than any of the lyrics do. The songs vary in complexity and heaviness, but they're all pretty catchy. The great irony of the album is that while the entire album needs to be listened to straight through to really get a sense of the story line (lyrically), many of the songs can be listened to individually, without needing the surrounding songs to be pertinent. Every song here is great, but I usually just listen to the better ones rather than the entire thing.
Arjen Lucassen isn't necessarily the greatest guitarist ever, but he manages to write some amazing songs here, with an impressive sense of tone and musicality. Whether his lines are acoustic lines reminiscent of 70's prog and folk or heavy distorted chords and melodic leads, he writes with feeling and a sense of purpose. The keyboard work is just as good; there's incredible use of atmosphere, a variety of synth tones, and some of the best keyboard leads around. And the vocalists perfectly complement the music. It is this glorious sense of composition that makes this album a great listen at the end of the day. The lyrical concept is interesting, but not involving enough to garner attention over the music. But most people generally buy albums for the music rather than the lyrics, so anyone that's a fan of progressive metal (without being aversed to non-metal) or fans of 70's prog rock should find a lot to love in this album. Just don't take the lyrics too seriously and this becomes a lot more enjoyable.
Well, to the date I really don’t know why I bought this album. The cover just attracted me, but I haven’t heard about Arjen Lucassen, neither Ayreon. Maybe the words “space opera” were the trigger for buying an album from an artist unknown for me. The only thing clear is that Into the Electric Castle is something different special. It’s not music for everyone, I must say, and for the first times I listened to the album I really couldn’t like it or understand it, and then I realized that you must be in certain mood to listen to this album from beginning to the end in just one session. And after that I liked the album, but only in a few and special occasions. Lucassen can be taken as a musical genius, but I think his music is for musicians, that’s why no everyone can get it. Metalheads may push the stop button from the very beginning, prog-lovers may give Lucassen a little chance… but it doesn’t matters, let’s talk about the music…
With Into the Electric Castle, Arjen Lucassen succeeds in transmitting the essence of the characters along with the musical parts that involve them, and the selection of the voice for each one was interesting. I really didn’t know the singers before listening to this album, except for Anneke and Sharon, but everyone does a great job. The musicians all fit perfectly in each song. They are too many, so I can’t mention all of them… The guitar works are delivered by Lucassen himself, and I think part of the highlights of the album is driven by the guitar riffs and solos. The drums sound just the way they must sound according to the style of the song, and the innumerable synth sections give the special atmospheres, without forgetting the solos and duels between the guitars and the synths. One point that deserves a special mention is the fact that the instrumental parts are just great (pay special attention to Amazing Flight and Cosmic Fusion), they’re not metal, not rock, not prog, but a strange fusion of them that I can’t describe. You must listen to it.
I didn’t want to talk of each song separately because Into the Electric Castle is one concept and the disadvantage of this is that sometimes one song loses its meaning when it’s alone, and lyrically (not musically) that’s the problem with this album and many others. As a complete album is a good choice if you want something extremely different that needs a lot of listening before getting it. But don’t get confused, it’s great music, with a great concept, unfortunately misunderstood by many people.
Into The Electric Castle is the album that brought Ayreon into the spotlights for good. Before this project was somewhat known for the rock/metal opera 'The Final Experiment' which involved a number of semi-big names (mostly famous dutch vocalists) and a couple of smaller ones. Then came what I'd almost call 'a normal album', a non-rock opera, Actual Fantasy, involving mainly the 'regular' Ayreon crew.
And then came Into The Electric Castle. And what an album it is.
Not content in making just another rock opera (it's not like there was much competition in either the rock or metal opera genre), Ayreon summoned a number of (relatively) big names, and undertook a massive project that would span 2 cds.
You'd expect a project like this to drown in it's own ambition; Ayreon showed signs of campyness in his earlier work, and The Final Experiment suffered, albeit only slightly, of a bit of moralism. To my joyous surprise Into The Electric Castle came out just right.
The concept of Into The Electric Castle is relatively simple. Eight poor souls (each performed by a different vocalist) wake up to find themselves in a strange place that defies all they know; some sort of weird dimension, and before them looms what is called 'The Electric Castle'. These eight people are known by the stereotypes they represent.
Jay van Feggelen, known from Bodine and The Final Experiment, with his slightly bluesy voice that's fitting for American rock, is the Barbarian. Edward Reekers, with his warm voice, a regular on Ayreon albums except Actual Fantasy, and ex-Kayak, is the futureman. Damian Wilson (ex-Rick Wakeman, Threshold, Landmarq) is the noble knight with his clear strong voice. The steadfast Roman is done by Edwin Balogh(ex-Omega)'s strong voice with a raw edge. Fish, a relatively big name in prog (of Fish and ex-Marillion fame), does the Highlander. Let's just say Fish has the perfect accent for it, and a pleasant voice. Filling in the female side are two, dare I say, big names; Anneke van Giersbergen, of The Gathering fame, fills in the role of Egyptian with her strong straightforward voice. And then there's Sharon den Adel, with her beautiful voice from Within Temptation, playing Indian.
Interestingly, Robert Westerholt (also of Within Temptation), and George Oosthoek (of befriended band Orphanage), the grunters of their respective bands, do a guest appearance as Death.
As this is a metal opera, the vocalists 'act out' a story lyrically. The above-mentioned eight characters, as said, wake up to find themselves in a strange place. Noone understands where they are, or why. After an intro with spacy sounds, and The Voice cryptically tells the main characters they are to head into The Electric Castle. One by one the characters relay their puzzlement lyrically. The Highlander suspects this realm to be created by the Devil ("The Deil's ane hand", gotta love Fish his Scottish), while the Knight thinks he's entering Avalon ("The isle of spirits, in search for the grail"), and the Indian believes she's on a spiritual journey. Meanwhile the Roman fears he's trapped in the Underworld, and the Egyptian elatedly prepares for her soul to be taken in by the gods. The musical style shifts as each character sings, reflecting the widely differing vocal styles, but still continues the central theme of mystery and excitement. This becomes even more apparent in the next song, where the Barbarian wakes up, already boasting he will overcome whatever this is, before he even knows what. As Jay van Feggelen sings, the music turns rock, as in American bluesy rock, perfectly fitting to his Barbarian's boastful and brash character. Bluesrock turns to 70's psychedelic sympho-rock, as Arjan Lucassen, aka the Hippie cuts in ("Hey dude, you're so uncool, but hey, that's allright."), who thinks he's on some weird trip ("amazing flight in space"). Finally we have the Futureman (cue the more sci-fi esque 70s sympho-prog-rock), who doesn't understand why he doesn't understand this strange world, suspecting it to be a virtual reality. Of course the Knight (back to prog-metal) doesn't understand Futureman's words, but reiterates he's sworn to get the holy grail, and the Roman attempts to convince the others they're really stuck in the Underworld.
I can understand if it sounds a bit campy so far. Stereotypical characters, singing one by one, and the music changing to reflect them. However, what seperates this album from say, Tobias Samet's Avantasia metal operas, is the masterful execution.
The characters might seem like simple stereotypes on the surface, but they can be seen as metaphors for their underlying character traits. As the group of 8 people are heading into the Electric Castle, these traits come into different situations, and interact with eachother. The music reflects the characters only partly; it also reflects the situation, what the characters feel, and the music simply makes sense story-wise. Although the story is relatively simple, it's one I can listen to again and again, something that can't often be said of albums involving a continuous tale. Often, a composer wants to put in exciting plottwists and a story that's a mystery until the end. That only works once of course. On Into The Electric Castle are a couple of plottwists so to speak, but since they basically consist of the interaction between metaphorical characters with the changing (unravelling) setting, the plottwists take on the shape of archetypes that are long-lasting in their enjoyment (if not eternally locked into our subconscious..). Here there is not a simple theme straightforwardly translated into music, it's a whole complex of themes interwoven into music that simply sounds good.
The characters do change as the story develops. It becomes clear the Barbarian will go over corpses to escape his predicament, and he has an argument with the Roman over leadership. Meanwhile the Egyptian starts losing hope, and the Indian seems to become ever more oblivious to what happens to the others. With most double-albums I don't feel like I have to immediatly follow listening disc 1 up with listening to the second disc. With ItEC I often do.
On to commenting on the music:
The instrumentalists on this album are well picked in my opinion. Ed Warby, Ayreon's usual drummer, is does rythm tightly as ever, Arjen Lucassen, the man behind Ayreon, knows how to wield his guitar. Add to that several appearances of Thijs van Leer, who is actually pretty famous among middle-aged Dutch (and possibly abroad as well); Thijs van Leer achieved fame in the 70s as part of 70s rock outfit Focus and solo. He plays some nice flute parts.
Arjen, besides being fan of Thijs van Leer, has a taste for various metal, progressive or traditional heavy, and a taste for 60s and 70s rockmusic. This reflects heavily on this album. When you mention in a review a band utilises keyboards, normally the asociation with cheesy cheap synth-sounds is summoned up. On ItEC however, Arjen goes beyond: he has has synths, piano's, hammonds, harpischords, mellotrons, keyboards and even a minimoog. This allows him to build an incredibly rich sound, ranging from 70s psychedelica, to spacy effects, to a whole lot of interesting sounds to make music with. From my description you'd almost suspect metal to take a background seat to all this; it couldn't be farther from the truth: progressive metal remains the basis. I'm not happy with applying the term prog metal here, the music is so much more than that. This is music a large part of my friends can actually apreciate, only part of them actually able to stand metal in general. Heck, even my parents liked it (probably for the 70s rock elements). This is one of those rare albums that manage to reach out across genre boundaries and interest a wide range of people, while being far from simple easy-listening music. Part of this no doubt because of the variedness of the album. It's not often you find 70s sympho rock mixed with traditional heavy metal mixed with modern progressive metal (and make no mistake, the music can get pretty heavy, all the way up to bombastic guitar chugging!) mixed with 80s rock elements, all in one coherent package. This metal/rock opera, called a Space Metal Opera, is particularly well-suited to this mix as the story involves characters of times ancient and new finding themselves in a strange and mysterious dimension. What I like most about this album is the interaction between the various vocalists. Each vocalists has their own character, voice-wise I mean. Vocal-wise, there's several interesting aspects. For example the part where the steadfast Roman and the Knight (of the Romantic Period style) are finding their common ground, and the ending word of one's line makes up the first word of the other's line. ("I have to pay, I can't go on"/"Go on and persevere...etc").
This is one of the few albums I have that touches me emotionally. Somehow the characters' tribulations move me in a way. And I simply enjoy listening to this album, over and over again. This is by all means a classic album. It made Ayreon's subsequent 2 Flight Of The Migrator albums dissapointing (not to mention make Avantasia seem like a half-hearted attempt), and I don't think there are many 'rock/metal opera' albums that can live up to the standards set by this album, either from Ayreon or anyone else within rock or metal.