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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.