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I Must Be Dead, or Stoned Out of My Head - 90%

Frankingsteins, July 15th, 2007

The double disc ‘Into the Electric Castle: A Space Opera’ is the third release from multi-talented Dutch prog enthusiast Arjen Anthony Lucassen, but essentially the second (after 1995’s ‘The Final Experiment’) to be of any note. Like its predecessor, ‘Into the Electric Castle’ is difficult to pin down to a specific style, but is mostly a blend of progressive rock, progressive metal and psychedelic rock in the form of a rock opera (though Lucassen opts for the somewhat meaningless term ‘Space Opera’). The diverse cast of characters are all performed by famous rock vocalists from across Europe, although Fish from Marillion is the only truly well-known one here outside of metal circles. Later Ayreon releases upped the ante somewhat to draft in the vocalists from Dream Theater, Opeth and Iron Maiden.

This multi-vocal effect is great, and also rather cheesy. In fact, even the briefest analysis of the album’s storyline makes it clear that this isn’t a work in the same serious psychological vein as the later album ‘The Human Equation,’ featuring a range of extraordinarily stereotyped characters from ‘throughout history’ that owe far more to Hollywood than any attempts at authenticity. Peter Daltrey provides the cold, mechanical, Hal-like narration that segues between the majority of songs, and wrote all the lyrics himself (which become increasingly convoluted, especially at the end). This disembodied voice has gathered myriad humans in a place of ‘no time, no space’ for a harrowing psychedelic trip through a fantastical landscape, the final goal being the Electric Castle itself that forms the basis of the second disc, a place embedded with emotions where the surviving characters must confront their own past misdeeds, and finally make a life-or-death decision. It’s mostly easy to follow, especially with the narration, but ultimately it doesn’t matter if the listener drifts off and forgets to pay attention in a specific section, they will still get the same out of it.

The cast are mostly distinctive, though some characters tend to be more prominent than others. Jay van Feggelen puts in an astoundingly melodramatic performance as ‘the proud Barbarian,’ roaring and mincing his lines, and even making the fittingly pompous decision to sing at his own pace, outside the melody. His confrontations with the other ‘men of swords,’ as the narrator calls them, are entertaining for all the operatic shouting they entail, although the Highlander (Fish from Marillion) is more restrained in his thick Scottish accent, and Ayreon staple Damian Wilson (ex-Rick Wakeman and Threshold) is calm and noble as the Knight with a Grail complex. The Gathering’s Anneke van Giersbergen fills the female spot that would go to Lana Lane on all future releases, often providing a soft chorus but mostly seeming too entrenched within her own thoughts to really interact with anyone else; aside from her solo spot in ‘Valley of the Queens,’ it seems she is essentially used to provide a female voice to the songs. Last but certainly not least is the most entertaining character of all, the Hippie performed by Lucassen himself whose pacifistic face-off with the Barbarian in track three provides only the first in a long line of great lines that either confirm the albums tongue-in-cheek nature (this is my opinion), or simply reflect incredibly poor writing (a possibility I don’t wish to entertain).

‘Hey dude, you’re so uncool, but hey – that’s alright,
but there’s no need to get uptight.’

It’s something of an acquired taste, but ‘Into the Electric Castle,’ along with a couple of Lucassen’s later releases, are truly accomplished works of modern progressive rock and progressive metal, rivalling even the big American names like Symphony X and Dream Theater. Unlike the latter, Ayreon’s concept albums rely on a song-based approach that makes each track stand strong and independent even when removed from the overall structure, avoiding the self-conscious repetition of a ‘main theme’ that characterises many concept albums of bands who feel it necessary to keep reminding the listener that the song they are listening to is related to an earlier song that sounded almost exactly the same, but in a slightly different key. Ayreon’s ‘The Final Experiment’ was guilty of this, overusing a faux-Medieval melody that was never that good to begin with, and only became more irritating the more diverse instruments it was piped through over the course of fifteen tracks. The musical style on ‘Into the Electric Castle’ is characteristic enough that no song sounds out of place, even the deliberate attempts to diversify, and the characters seem more than content to play through the different melodies and rhythms. This music is progressive in the sense that it seeks to expand beyond the boundaries of a typical rock album, and in its blending of disparate styles, rather than being a forum for Lucassen to show off his guitar and synth noodling abilities ad nauseam. Well, it is partly for that.

Disc 1

1. Welcome to the New Dimension
2. Isis and Osiris
...a) Let the Journey Begin
...b) The Hall of Isis and Osiris
...c) Strange Constellations
...d) Reprise
3. Amazing Flight
...a) Amazing Flight in Space
...b) Stardance
...c) Flying Colours
4. Time Beyond Time
5. The Decision Tree (We’re Alive)
6. Tunnel of Light
7. Across the Rainbow Bridge

Ayreon is a largely synthesiser based musical project, they keyboards and occasional Hammond organs (gak) taking their cues from 70s bands such as Pink Floyd (particularly ‘Wish You Were Here’) and, in the instance of this opening track in particular, Jeff Wayne’s ‘War of the Worlds,’ which itself seems to have been a large inspiration on Lucassen’s approach. The narration dominates this opening track, and whatever the keyboards are attempting to convey in terms of ‘no time, no space’ is lost on me. Track two is where the album really gets going, and is a real tour-de-force featuring almost all of the characters as they struggle to come to terms with their predicament. The folk elements are introduced, largely in the form of brief lapses into woodwind and mandolin passages that crop up in many songs, and this is the first song to really fuse the prog rock and heavy metal elements, setting the mid-tempo rhythm that will continue through the entire album. Prog band Camel seems to be an influence on the synth here, something that will become even more evident in later songs, and although this song goes through a lot of movements in its 11:11 running time, the only section that truly drags is an extended synthesiser section in the more atmospheric section (c).

‘Amazing Flight’ is one of the most memorable songs and the best of the multi-part ‘epics,’ not only for the embarrassing Hippie dialogue quoted earlier. It starts off sounding like a 60s rock song, with the same guitar sound and those dreaded Hammonds creeping in for the first time, creating a comparatively sparse atmosphere after the volume of the previous song that moves it more towards the psychedelic end of the spectrum. The Pink Floyd influence is more obvious here than anywhere else, as a sub-David Gilmour guitar solo whines melodically before revealing a quiet choir of male and female voices that almost sounds lifted from Pink Floyd’s ‘Atom Heart Mother,’ and a wailing woman in a passage evoking ‘The Great Gig in the Sky.’ The Hippie’s name-dropping of Pink Floyd and The Who lyrics in a later song implies that these links are more commemorative and nostalgic than theft, though I certainly hope for Lucassen’s sake that Roger Waters doesn’t listen to Space Opera. A later flute section first evokes Jethro Tull, and then seems to be lifted straight from Camels’ ‘The Snow Goose’ album. Overall, this is a great song despite all the debts it would seem to owe, but in the context of the album is perhaps a little excessive in its ten minute duration after the previous long song. Thankfully, the ones that come after are all shorter.

‘Time Beyond Time’ is another song that moves from a quiet, reflective opening led by acoustic guitar to loud, electric, heavy metal middle, and is nicely simplistic after the aural overload of the album so far. The Knight is granted a nice Medieval sounding guitar solo, the likes of which dominated the earlier album ‘The Final Experiment’ but which works much better alone, and Wilson’s soft singing is pleasant. The end sounds a little too similar to that of the previous song, to the extent that I always expect the flutes to come in, but this is mostly a relaxed start to the more ‘easy listening’ part of the album. ‘The Decision Tree (We’re Alive)’ is where the events and obstacles of the plot start to take precedence, beginning with the thrum of synthesisers that musicians as far back as Vangelis decided was the most accurate sound to represent the vacuum of space. The keyboard melody that follows sounds a little too much like a Sega MegaDrive game for me to take it seriously (I’m specifically thinking of ‘Ristar,’ for anyone interested in such things), and the happiness remains in the song even after it becomes faster and the guitars dominate, despite the seemingly contradictory ;every man for himself’ attitude of the vocals. A jam section comes in towards the end before a final reprise of the verse and chorus: this will become the template for most songs to follow.

The shortest song on this disc, ‘Tunnel of Light’ is also the most accessible, based on a repeating acoustic guitar that never collapses into a jam or solo. The narrator sounds oddly jolly as it begins, congratulating the survivors for passing the tree (Fish was forced to stay behind), and the vocals here are interchanged between the conflicting voices of the Egyptian and the Barbarian. ‘An incandescent span of tears’ in the narration of the next track indicates, along with the murky sound of dripping water, that things are about to take a turn for the worse, as the group cross the rainbow bridge. The music moves from a gloomy down-tuned acoustic effect, similar to the Bruce Dickinson band, to a louder metal style that comes and goes with intensity. Not a lot is resolved in this closing song, and in a commendably modest move, the song simply fades out at the end without another unnecessary note from the narrator. At just over six minutes, this is a reasonable length and one of the album’s most authentically ‘prog metal’ songs, despite the psychedelic lapse towards the end.

Disc 2

1. The Garden of Emotions
...a) In the Garden of Emotions
...b) Voices in the Sky
...c) The Aggression Factor
2. Valley of the Queens
3. The Castle Hall
4. Tower of Hope
5. Cosmic Fusion
...a) I Soar on the Breeze
...b) Death’s Grunt
...c) The Passing of an Eagle
6. The Mirror Maze
...a) Inside the Mirror Maze
...b) Through the Mirror
7. Evil Devolution
8. The Two Gates
9. “Forever” of the Stars
10. Another Time,. Another Space

The second disc harks back to the epic opening of the first disc, as the narrator essentially tells the gang ‘we’re here,’ and the weird fantasy continues. A bombastic keyboard melody that could almost be the album’s ‘main theme,’ if it were falling back on such a bad idea, provides an effective structure for the beginning and end of this diverse song, which mostly belongs to the Hippie and the Egyptian. Lucassen delivers the verses through a distorted water sound effect, proclaiming, ‘it’s kinda groovy in this world of fantasy / where no one else can go,’ before van Giersbergen emerges crystal clear for the chorus. The second movement takes on a male aggression stance, highlighted by the heavier (i.e. manlier) guitars and bellows of the Barbarian, while the third is more restrained and progressive to suit the ‘stand together as a team’ mentality of the intellectual Futureman of the bunch. If you happen to be of the opinion that overblown synthesisers can be a little annoying in large quantities, this probably isn’t the song for you. Fortunately, I think it can be a really good thing, when done well, and the final repetition of the opening chords makes it all worthwhile. Not as effective a monster track as the first two on the previous side, but the first section is very notable.

Anneke van Giersbergen is finally granted a solo spot to show off her talents in ‘Valley of the Queens,’ and Lucassen is content to provide a melodic background of keyboards and effective violins, commendably resisting synthesising an Egyptian-style theme or anything like that. It’s pleasant and quite short, and acts as the most radio-friendly song on the second disc, much like ‘Tunnel of Light’ earlier. With the Egyptian woman singing about her inevitable death, and mourning the apparent non-existence of her gods, it’s actually quite sad, and this comes through in the music; this isn’t all a camp parody.

Synthesised monster sound effects open the next phase of the album, as the Electric Castle begins to be explored in earnest, and the narrator gleefully draws attention to one of the album’s repeated morals, targeted towards the fighting men. ‘I pity the men of swords,’ laughs the narrator, ‘for here, blood runs cold,’ and they must confront their pasts. This at least allows for some slight characterisation of the Barbarian beyond his testosterone-fuelled arguments with Hippies and Highlanders, as he dwells on ‘the men I’ve killed, the women I’ve raped.’ Then again, he doesn’t sound too broken up about it, making his later fate all the more deserving. The main guitar riff is quite heavy and slow, a nice combination, but this is primarily a vocal-led song from the two surviving male warriors, backed by some Super Mario Bros.-esque dank and drippy sound effects. A short melodic break interrupts three-quarters of the way into the song, including some long-overdue flutes, before the verse and chorus repeat once again. It’s a good song, if unremarkable, and begins what can be seen as a heavier section of the album, fitting to the predicament.

‘Tower of Hope’ is perhaps my favourite song on the album, and is dominated by a simplistic staccato riff that turns on and off like a switch. It seems that all characters get a say in this one, their voices overlapping and pre-empting each other and driving the whole thing along, before a crazy, jazzy jam section takes over towards the end. A soloing guitar and noodling keyboard alternate in a game of one-upmanship for about one minute, demonstrating a level of self-restraint not seen in the previous songs that makes a great difference, and again, the verse and chorus repeat. The next couple of songs follow a more epic, progressive vein than these shorter segments, ‘Cosmic Fusion’ beginning with more Richard Wright style synth such as that which opened the album, before van Giersbergen’s singing is overtaken by the voice of Death, predictably handled in a guttural roar fashion typical of death metal, though a little more restrained and audible here. Fittingly, and by this point very predictably, the guitar becomes louder in this second section, while the third section is yet another guitar solo section, better than some of the others but quite out of place and distracting by this late juncture.

Finally with ‘The Mirror Maze’ comes that rock opera staple: a piano! Lucassen’s Hippie confronts his childhood and domineering parents, followed by memories of feeling alienated from adult society (‘so he grows his hair’). The song begins dream-like and acoustic, eventually becoming a cacophony as the other characters relate their own experiences inside the Mirror Maze. ‘Evil Devolution’ is another of the album’s highlights, introducing elements of electronica in presenting the world of the future, and beginning the final phase of the album’s storyline concerning evolution beyond emotional awareness. The Futureman (Edward Reekers) puts in a great performance in this slow, downbeat song, both singing melodically in the chorus and more dramatically in the verses. The bass is also present here, in one of the few instances throughout the album. The main riff itself undergoes a process of evolution (or devolution) as it translates to further electronic instruments, most prevalently the guitar. Ending abruptly, the surviving characters face their final challenge with ‘The Two Gates,’ one of which leads back to their lives, and the other of which leads to a void of oblivion. One is gold and sparkling, the other is decayed and humble. You know, a bit like the grails in that Indiana Jones film, and loads of other stuff. The keyboards are reminiscent of Camel again, and the staccato rhythm similar to ‘Tower of Hope’ earlier, but this is the first song to feature a truly heavy metal chorus in terms of delivery, a really nice touch. With the marching rhythm, this could almost be a power metal song if the overpowering keyboards were removed and the tempo sped up a little. The Barbarian’s arrogant death, which you can work out for yourself, has been a long time coming, but it’s still a little sad to hear his echoing bellows from a vacuum of nothingness.

The final two songs flow together, to the extent that they could really be considered the same song, especially as so many other songs incorporate disparate movements. ‘“Forever” of the Stars,’ written by the narrator Peter Daltrey, attempts to put the album’s rather silly plot into some kind of grander context, explaining how his species populated the Earth with humans to analyse their emotions, or something along those lines. The final song resists sounding too victorious, despite some optimistic soloing, as the survivors awaken back in their own realms, uncertain what to make of the experience that they partially retain in their memories: some, such as the Knight, finally feel a sense of satisfaction, but the Hippie wonders whether it’s all been one big, groovy trip. We’ll never really know, but this is a pretty nice song, and maybe that’s the point.

‘Into the Electric Castle’ certainly isn’t an album for everybody, requiring a certain degree of open-mindedness to appreciate, and either a sense of irony or failing that, an appreciation for cheesy fantastical storylines to really get into. Regardless of the lyrics, the music is an accomplished and effective blend of genres in a way that’s never really been attempted before within progressive metal, adopting a 1970s attitude with the benefit of modern technology and musical styles. Arguably Ayreon’s finest album, this is less strictly ‘metal’ than ‘The Final Experiment,’ ‘Flight of the Migrator’ and ‘The Human Equation,’ but more hard-edged than the largely ambient ‘The Dream Sequencer’ and the disappointing ‘Actual Fantasy.’ Of these, ‘The Human Equation’ most closely follows the style established here, with more effective overall results and some better singers, as the main problem with ‘Into the Electric Castle’ is the repetition of structure and musical ‘quirks’ that cease to be such when repeated over and over again.

That said, this album could easily have fallen into a great many traps of the rock opera and concept album formats that would have affected the end result significantly, yet Lucassen’s focus on creating a series of strong songs, effective when taken inside or outside of this crazy context, makes it an essential purchase for prog metal enthusiasts. An earlier version of ‘Amazing Flight’ can be heard on the later compilation ‘Ayreonauts Only,’ which heavily implies that the Original Hippie’s dialogue did, indeed, form the basis for this psychedelic trip through non-time and non-space. It only remains to wonder how closely Lucassen associates himself with the character.