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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"