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Ayreon is a very unique and unusual band in the metal universe that seems sometimes too abstract to be easy to digest or to approach. It took some time and patience to get deeper into this project that takes its main influences from the progressive music of the seventies that can include electronic and folk sounds rather than heavy metal touches. This first album already establishes a sound that is proper and unique to the band even though there are so many guest musicians working on the project. The way the mastermind Arjen Lucassen writes, composes and structures its music is one of a kind. The project has the same concept as "Avantasia" but focuses on science-fiction topics and sounds. The members of the project are well chosen and have technical skills comparable to progressive acts such as "Dream Theater". The sound of this first album of the project has the epic structures and majesty of a mixture of "Falkenbach" and "King Crimson" and the sound and atmosphere of a mixture of "Rush" and "Tangerine Dream".
The whole first album is full of diversity and well arranged details. The record covers a big spectre from acoustic guitars to flutes and from epic female choirs to heavier growls. The enjoyable fact is that Ayreon takes the time to establish an intriguing atmosphere that fits with the story line instead of heading for the technical perfection and complexity. That's an error many progressive bands commit including Ayreon himself with some of his future works. This album here is smooth and has an enjoyable flow. It focuses on the right melodies and coherent structures and that sounds vivid, human and authentic to me. Don't expect three minute long keyboard solos. Arjen Lucassen doesn't want to be the center of the own universe he created. He rather let his guests be part of it and shares the stage with them on almost equal levels.
It’s difficult to point out any songs on the record because it works as a whole. Let’s mention that the first couple of songs are quite huge and complicated and not easy to digest. I didn’t immediately fell in love with them and rather began to appreciate the album towards the second and especially the last third. In the end, the only problem of the album is that after a promising beginning the less impressing and memorable tracks are right in the beginning of the record and it still takes me some time to get into it. But the further the record goes the more interesting the pieces get and the more I get into the whole concept even if there is a clear lack of a truly memorable hit on this album. The powerful and yet quite diversified orchestral single "Sail away to Avalon" is the closest one to in this kind of category.
Nevertheless, the true highlights can be found in the smoother songs and mostly in the middle or second half of the record. First of all, there are some really calm songs influenced by natural sounds. I could mention the very ethereal atmosphere of the relaxing "Nature's dance". Another highlight is without a doubt the dreamy progressive rock killer "Listen to the waves".
Second, there are some more bombastic and fast paced tracks that present another side of Ayreon’s universe. The harmonies and the energy of "Merlin's will" and the majestic closing finale "Ayreon's fate" are the highlights I want to mention concerning this concrete style of the album.
In third place, there are also some truly experimental tracks on the record that give a hint of what the band would try to install on later releases. The best example on this record is the quite modern and electronic approach that is used in the visionary “Computer-Reign”.
In the end, anybody that likes calm and inspiring metal albums, conceptual projects or the whole spectre of progressive music from “Amon Düül” to “Frank Zappa” should check out the entire discography of this diversified composer and this record is a pretty great start to it. It’s actually amongst the best Ayreon releases and establishes the basis of what would come later with “Into the electric castle” and the other parts of the same saga that begins in here.