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After listening to Ayreon's previous effort Into The Electric Castle, I already knew his next album was going to be dissapointing; there was simply no way he could repeat that performance. And I was't dissapointed in that expectation alas.
Arjen 'Ayreon' Lucassen wanted to do two things: he wanted to take it easier, make it less ambitious, and he wanted to try something different after ITEC, namely do one softer album and one album focussing on the straight on metal.
Those are also the two points where it went wrong.
Instead of the mix of stomping metal bombasto and gentler elements, we only get the softer parts this time around (Universal Migrator part 2 is the heavier one). You could say this is like an album full of balads, except they're not balads, they're a step up from that, but still it doesn't do much for dynamism in the album as a whole.
The lack of ambition is also killing for this album. We still get a central theme, accompanied with the really cheesy intro's and stuff, namely a story about the last human, on Mars, spending his final days in a Dream Sequencer, a device for entertainment purposes allowing a person to relive past lives. Then track by track, we get a different time and setting in history worked into a track (starting off with two set in the future), sung by a single singer. Yup, no duet's, only backing chorus by Ayreon veteran Lana Lane and a guy named Mark McCrite. The songs themselves suffer from the lack of ambition. There's a distinct lack of spark. It's not often that you can say that an album lacks direction without abusing the cliché.
For example there's a song about the shooting company of France B. Cocq, the shooting company featured on Rembrand van Rijn's famous Nachtwakers painting. Original concept..but it doesn't go much beyond a description of their attire and vagueries about a mystic sky etc. And to talk about the music for a bit: I have to admit that the musical quality is high as ever, with well-laid out guitar structures consisting of marriages of acoustic and electric guitar, and supported with just enough synths, hammonds, mellotron and keyboard as is custom with Ayreon songs. The drums on the other hand are some times muffled in the background to fit the album's overal sound better, and more importantly: there's a distinct lack of build-up, of dynamism in the vocal melodies.
Temple of the Cat for example has Jacqueline Govaer, from the in Holland wildly popular (at the time at the least) pop-rock band Krezip, singing a beautiful vocal line, on an up-beat tune about a girl at a Mayan temple; it's wonderful, except that it's 'jogging in place'. Very minimal build-up, very little progression, more like going through the motions.
Most of the songs are like that, except for two notable exceptions: Carried By The Wind and The First Man On Earth. The latter song could easily stand on it's own, recreating a typical Alan Parson's Project sound, with Spock's Beard's Neal Morse on vocals. In contrast with some of the other songs it builds up tension in the verses, sufficiently venting it int he choruses, all the while building up momentum. A great song reminding me of some of the better work of British 70s radio-rock. Neal Morse puts a lot of feeling in his performance, and shows off various vocal styles.
The other notable song is sung by Arjen Lucassen himself: Carried By The Wind. Surprisingly(?) it harkens back to his first album, which told the tale of a blind bard called Ayreon who had a vision of a bleak future, and vainly tried to warn his contemporaries of what was to come. It's one of the few songs that seems to have that spark of passion, or perhaps ambition, that most of the other songs lack, and really showcases Mr Lucassen his song-writing talent.
It starts with a somewhat ominous sounding morphing synthline (mellotron-line? He's used such before), that evolves into the main guitar-theme, which is a more sophisticated form of the guitar-melody he actually used on his first album a number of times. The playful melody merges into a hopeful sounding vocal line, and after the verse, takes on a prominant forward role again, while chased by a rugged bassline and accompanied by an acoustic guitar playing along. The song evolves and flows as one whole, instead of the morose verse-chorus-verse-chorus work in for example the following song, 'And The Druids Turn To Stone'.
However, it must be said, and my score up there is there to indicate it: this is not a bad album. It's above average (or at least severely above bland), and for metal fans who have a soft spot for seventies rock and hearing moogs and mellotrons over their music, this is an appreciatable album (one could consider Ayreon as a 70s rock andearly 80s guitar heroism-inspired band).
And it must also be said: the line-up on this album is as great as ever: Floor Jansen from After Forever, Jacqueline Govaert from Krezip, Johan Edlund from Tiamat, and a couple Ayreon veterans like Lana Lane, Edward Reekers, Damian Wilson; all great voices and great talent.
But well...too bad that talent is a bit wasted. One could say that a lack of ambition was bad for Ayreon. One could also say that intending to do a softer album was what was wrong with this album in the first place. All in all, it's an album I don't dislike after I put it on, but there's nothing that really motivates me to put the album on in the first place, except wanting to remember what it sounds like.