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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.