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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.