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Once 'Into The Electric Castle' gained me as an Ayreon-fan, I checked out the back-catalogue, starting with this one. I was dissapointed of course, how could the first attempt match the awesome ITEC? Doesn't mean it's a bad attempt though!
'The Final Experiment - A Rock Opera' is mostly symphonic rock, not yet the mix of genres including metal heard on later work. This means a warmer more gentle sound than what one might used to from Ayreon, but also less variation.
Of course, like most of Ayreon's later works, this is a ....-opera, meaning a story is told using a wide array of singers. Ayreon wasn't that famous yet, yet he still managed to get an impressive list of vocalists. Some names that would be familiar with later releases, like Edward Reekers (ex-Kayak), Ian Parry (Elegy, Hammerhead), Jay van Feggelen (ex-Bodine) and Robert Soeterbroek. But this time, these are also the biggest names that appear on the record, with three exceptions. The first of these exceptions is Barry Hay, from Dutch rock legends Golden Earring; I was quite surprised by his appearance on one song. Then there's Jan-Chris de Koeijer from Gorefest fame. He's the only grunter on here, and it's a bit odd to hear him in the context of this album. Finally, there's Ernst van Ee on drums, and he's a minor drumlegend.
That said, when comparing this to Ayreon's later work, it can be summed up as: 'It's good, just not as good as the rest'. There's the same impressive line-up, and story-telling ambition, but that ambition isn't totally covered by the execution, leaving a bit of pretentiousness lingering around.
The story is about a blind minstrel bard from the 14th century named Ayreon, who receives visions of a grim future (one last attempt by 21th century humanity to change the course of history now the planet is doomed). Foretelling of this future he barely comprehends, he is confronted by Merlin. Merlin is, for a change, like all medieval people: a xenophobic bastard, only with power. ***minor spoiler alert*** Merlin silences him because he doesn't like what Ayreon says, and realizing his error, sends the message Ayreon received to other bards, living in the 20th century (that's you and me Bubba).
So the record ends on a slightly preachy note. With that in mind, it's still a good album however. The singers have very pleasant voices (with the exception of perhaps Jan-Chris de Koeijer from Gorefest), and the few characters are done by various singers, which is an interesting difference with later albums.
The music is bombastic sympho-rock, only this time each (sub-)song seems to be built around a single melody/theme. This means there's less variation, albethere more unity of sound. Since Ayreon wasn't going all space metal-opera on us yet, there's also less variation between songs. Still, there's a couple of very memorable songs in here (for example 'The Charm of the Seer' with added operatic vocals, and 'Sail Away To Avalon' with Barry Hay).
End result: 78. Very above average, just not among the greats. Recommended buy for Ayreon fans, but don't expect another ITEC.