Ayreon – The Source review and Arjen Lucassen Interview
Ayreon – The Source
Ayreon is a series of prog rock operas written by Arjen Lucassen. It features many of the most famous and recognizable singers and musicians in the prog and metal world. Since mid-90s, the stories that form the Ayreon Universe has given us many hours of entertainment and excellent music. Our own James LaBrie appeared on “The Human Equation” back in 2004, and subsequently appeared in the stage version in 2015. For the next album “The Source”, James LaBrie once again joined the ranks of the excellent vocalists on an Ayreon album, and it’s really a good one.
I won’t get into details of what the storyline is – it’s basically a Sci-Fi story about some alien races that existed in the universe since almost the beginning, and that are the origin for life on earth. The Source is a prequel to the stories that came before, in that it is the story of the Forever race and their fight for survival. It’s a prequel to the entire Ayreon universe. To read more details of the album itself, please read the press release here.
I wasn’t too big of a fan of the previous Ayreon album. I did enjoy 01011001, and I absolute love the Universal Migrator albums and The Human Equation, but “The Theory of Everything” never really stuck for me.
So imagine my surprise when the new album, “The Source”, owes more to my favorite Ayreon albums than anything else? It’s heavy, like the Universal Migrator, and it’s got some very excellent soulful and emotional singing, like The Human Equation. But at the same time, it brings in enough freshness to keep it interesting and fun. In particular the magic that is Michael Mills simply transforms the albums. “Everybody Dies” is an excellent depiction of this, with extremely multilayered vocals (queen like, somebody would say). And Michael Eriksen and Tommy Giles Rogers add some depth to the vocals that is truly enjoyable.
The music is diverse and well structured. Even with a 2 disc run time, it never slows down and feels too long. It is engaging and interesting all the way through. As with any Ayreon album, it mixes the heavy with the beautiful (flutes and violins and other fun instruments) excellently. I really enjoyed tracks like “All that was”, with the folk music inspired music and singing. Run! Apocalypse Run! gallops away like a crazy Iron Maiden song. Aquatic Race sounds like classic 80s prog rock like City Boy in the vocal intro, but goes into some mean guitars. It’s just fun to listen to.
It’s a great mix of metal, 80’s AOR rock, rock opera (it’s easy to see the influence from Jesus Christ Superstar, as Arjen himself mentions in the interview I did with him), folk music, and ethnic music. It engages the listener all the way through, with references back (or rather, if you think of it from a story perspective it’s foreshadowing) to the Ayreon catalogue, and a great mix of the familiar and the new.
The guest musicians are excellent as well. Paul Gilbert,Guthrie Govan and Marcel Coenen deliver some excellent guitar solos, and Mark Kelly does a perfect emotional keyboard solo. The other musicians Arjen has used (flutists, violinists etc) play fantastically as well.
This album feels inspired and fresh, and I would easily rank it among the best of Arjen’s albums. This album should be mandatory in any Dream Theater fans collection, and any music fans collection, really.
Arjen Lucassen: Hi Kim!
Kim Sakariassen: Hi!
AL: Hi man, how are you doing?
KS: Very good, very good.
AL: Jag har det bra! [I’m doing fine!]
KS: Heheh. Veldig bra! [Very good!]
KS: So, thank you for joining me on this interview.
AL: Oh, my pleasure man.
KS: So, I’m… I run the Dream Theater fan club for the world actually…
AL: Always a good thing.
KS: The reason I wanted to interview you is, because of course of our common friend, James LaBrie
AL: Of course.
KS: And he’s joined you again for this third collaboration actually.
AL: Yeah! True, yeah…
KS: So, just… Since this is a Dream Theater related fan site, I just wanted to, like, get some history of you, where… The easiest question and the hardest question to ask somebody is: Who are you?
AL: Hehe… I’m an incredibly tall hippie bastard from Holland. Hehe. I’m an old bastard, I’m 57 by now.. I think, yeah, I just had my birthday. God damn, 57… I started… I’ll start at the beginning. I started playing guitar when I was like about 15. And then I joined a couple of playback bands, which was in the early 70s and it was like the glam rock periode, you know, with Alice Cooper, David Bowie, stuff like that. Uhm, until one of the pupils gave me an album of Deep Purple, it was “Made in Japan”, and I heard Ritchie Blackmore play and I was like “Oh my god!”, you know. “That’s what I want”. So then I started playing, and after like 3-4 years I joined a professsional band at the end of the 70s. A band called Bodine. Which was, eh, before I joined it was a blues rock band. But those were the days of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, you know, with guitar tandem, so I told them “Hey man, you guys really need the guitar tandem and become a metal band”, you know… So I joined Bodine, and they turned into a metal band. I made two albums with them. After that I joined Vengeance, which was also.. Well, in those days it was more like a hard rock band. And in Vengeance I played like 9 years or something… So yeah, I’d been touring the world for like 15 years in these rock bands, and… They were pretty successful, I mean, we didn’t get rich or anything, but I mean, we played a lot. We played three times a week, and toured a lot. And with Vengeance I made like, I don’t know, I made like 6, 7 albums. And then at some point we split up.
And I did a solo album which totally flopped, because it was weird music. It was, like, poppy music, and I just tried to do what I thought that people wanted, and that’s totally wrong. You know, it’s totally wrong. So at some point I thought; Let’s do something that I want, and that I like, and everyone will probably hate it but I’m gonna do it anyway, if it’s the last thing I do. And I started the Ayreon project, which is a Rock Opera with lots of guest musicians from all over the world, and it has many different styles: Rock, metal, prog, folk, electronic, classical, classic… Everything. Industrial. And I thought people would hate it, and I was right. It took me, like, a year to get a record contract. I was turned down by 30 different record companies. And finally I got a deal in Japan, and… The album was called “The Final Experiment”. I really thought it would be my final experiment. I thought, who is gonna like this crap. Heheh. But to my surprise, and everyone’s surprise, it started selling, and started entering charts. That was the start of Ayreon, and since then I’ve made 8 Ayreon albums, and a lot of side projects. So, eh… Sorry for the long answer! Probably more than you bargained for!
KS: No, that’s perfect, because Dream Theater people probably know some of your work, but they don’t know the full extent of it, so..
AL: Right. Well, in between Ayreon albums I did a lot of side projects, that are a little bit different from Ayreon, like Star One, and Guilt Machine, Ambeon, The Gentle Storm, Strange Hobby etc etc.
KS: So, when you start writing an album, when does it actually become an Ayreon album?
AL: Good question! Good question. Actually, when I start writing, I have NO idea what it’s gonna be. And I learned to do this, I learned to keep everything open. In the beginning I was like, my mind was set on something, you know, and I had to stick to it. But nowadays, I just start and let it come to me. All very naturally. And then, it slowly grows, you know. Usually, I start… I wanna do a solo album. ‘Cause that’s the easiest, you know. Then I don’t have to hire any other musician, I can do everything on my own. I love it. Then… This time, it started to get a bit to heavy, and I’m not a metal singer, so I couldn’t sing it. And I was like, “Well, maybe this is gonna be a Star One”, cause Star One is my metal project. But then suddenly all these violins and flutes and chellos started coming in, you know, and I thought “Oh, no no. Folk doesn’t fit into Star One”, so it will probably be an Ayreon. And at some point I start hearing voices, you know. Like, I want… in the beginning of these songs I want this, like , really emotional voice who’s introducing the story, kinda like a narrator, but then singing, who’s introducing the songs, and of course I heard James voice there. And at that point I knew that, “Ok, so this is gonna be another Ayreon.”
KS: Right. So, did you actually ever think that you’d still be doing Ayreon albums now 22 years later since the first one?
AL: Absolutely not! Really, I… Really. No. Really. It really was called “The Final Experiment” and it was really, I wanna do one album that I’m proud of, you know. That I’m totally proud of, that is totally me, you know. And I can play it to my kids, which I will never have. Heheh. Anyway, I’d tell them “This is the album that is 100% Daddy, and that Daddy is proud of”. So, I never expected people… Other people to like it. And now, this album “The Source” is, so far, the pre-sales are the best I’ve had in my life, in my history. They’re the best that record company has ever had. Some versions already even sold out. It’s weird. It’s kinda surreal for me that this is happening. You know, when I see great bands that are, in my opinion, way better than me… That I got so much success right now, it’s still very, very weird, but I’m not complaining.
KS: You did try to take a break from the Ayreon universe a few years back, right?
AL: Uh, just story wise, never… I will always continue with Ayreon. It’s a great misconception. Maybe it’s something that’s on wikipedia, I would have to check it. But I will never stop with Ayreon, because that’s my baby, you know. That’s… I can put everything I have in Ayreon, you know. Keep doing it until really people don’t want it anymore. Or till I drop down, or stop breathing, so… But yeah, I took a break from the big Ayreon… I kinda… Through the years, I built this Ayreon Universe, because all the albums started to be connected. This whole story started to form about Planet Y and the Forever race and about dependence on technology. And at some point at the album 01011001, a very nerdy title I know, I… The story was getting too complex, and I said to everyone, “listen, this is the end, the story is finished now, the circle is complete, I will do something else.” Then I made an Ayreon album called “The Theory of Everything”, which was a different universe, it was a different story. But yeah, I totally lied, because with this album I got back to the story again.
KS: Which… This album is the prequel for the entire “Universe”?
AL: Yes, yeah yeah. As the word “The Source”, the title “The Source” refers to the source of mankind and it’s also the source of the Forever race, the source of everything, really. The source of Ayreon. So, I felt, you know, if I do a prequel, it can justify the fact that I’m coming back to the story.
KS: Eh, so, with the “Planet Y” amd the Forever race, there’s a lot of, like, sci-fi – eh, the entire concept is scifi oriented.
KS: And the best sci fi is always the ones that connected to the real world in some points
KS: So I’m guessing you’re kind of viewing this political climate that we’re having today and putting that into your music?
AL: I try not to, because I don’t think it’s my… I don’t think musicians should be involved in politics. I don’t think it’s my task to force my personal opinion upon people. I feel that very strongly. So I… I always try not to do that, but you can’t help it, you know.
KS: Of course
AL: Basically I want to offer escapism and sci-fi is great for two things. It’s great for escapism, you know. What’s a better way to escape than to leave the planet. And on the other hand sci-fi is great for making references to what’s happening on earth, you know, without pointing the finger. So basically that’s what I’m doing; I’m offering escapism on telling the story but between the lines there is definitely things that I noticed in the world. Like the dependence on technology.
KS: So, eh, most of the Ayreon albums, they’re rock operas. Is that a format that you feel very close to.
AL: Yeah, yeah. It is. Ever since I heard Jesus Christ Superstar in the early seventies. I was sold, you know. that’s for me is still the best rock opera ever made. I can’t even get close to that, you know, that’s holy ground. You know, the original with Ian Gillan and later on the movie with to Ted Neeley.
That’s where it all started, and that’s where I noticed that music can have an extra dimension, you know, by putting story to it, you know. And the same, of course, with Tommy and War of the Worlds, and Operation: Mindcrime and later on, of course, Metropolis and stuff like that. So yeah, I just love it. I love to the extra dimension. I love the adventure, you know. For me, music should be adventurous.
KS: Yeah. So, rock opera means that you also have to have a lot of different singers… So when you pick the guests vocalists, do you typically rewrite the songs that you’ve already written to fit their tone?
AL: Yes, definitely. I start with the music. Then I let the music inspire me to come up with the lyrics, and once I have the lyrics and the basic concepts. Then I go through my wish lists which is like a hundred singers or something. And I choose the singer that I think fit best to the music and to the concept. Then I contact the singers, and once they are confirmed, I divide them over the album. So that’s step one. And then step two, the last step basically, is too write lyrics and characters and I choose the characters for the singers. And I write the lyrics and the melodies especially on the singer’s.
KS: Cause that’s something I’ve noticed that a lot of times when you have these guest singers, they usually sing with music that’s quite familiar to the way they usually sing in their main bands. You can kind of identified their…
AL: Right, yeah yeah yeah. Well, that’s the way I work, like “okay this this part should be great for James”, you know, let’s put… I work with little pieces of paper. I got pieces of paper of the singers, and then I got the songs and then I just switch them around; all these pieces of paper. And then I put this piece of paper here – I would love to hear him sing here, I think his voice or her voice would sound the best on this part. And so really the choice of singers and the music, they guide to story. So it’s not the other way around [where] I got the whole story and the lyrics finished and I’m looking for singers who fit. It’s the other way around.
KS: And sometimes the guest vocalist even though write their own stuff like Devin did on “The Human Equation” and I guess I guess Michael Mills did on “The Source”?
AL: Absolutely. Yeah, yeah. It’s very different with singers. Some singers, they follow the guides you give them exactly. Some singers changes a little bit, and some singers, like Devin Townsend, totally ignore all the instructions I’ve given them. Totally go for it themselves and… You know. I had to learn this. Again, when I started Ayreon I was like, “Hey man you’re changing the melody, I don’t want that. It’s my melody and I wrote it like that, and you have to sing it like that.” But then you work with people like, like Bruce Dickinson, you know and they do their own thing, you know, and you notice like “oh my god, you know, it’s way better than what I had” too. Same thing with Devin Townsend, it was so much better than what I sent to him. And then you are like “okay man, let’s let’s open my mind it’s all about the results”. And some singers you should give a lot of freedom, and just let them go for it.
Yeah. So, um, when you pick a guest musicians and vocalists how do you actually decide on who to go with. Do you have to be a fan of their work? Do you pick people that you think will have a good reaction from the listeners?
AL: Both! A bit of both. At some point I asked… On Facebook, I asked people like “who would you like to hear on the album of mine”. And that was interesting, you know, because I got like, I think, six or seven thousand replies. We actually… With my girlfriend; together we wrote down all the names that they sent in a thing, you know, so I had this whole list of singers who are most popular and stuff. And also for me to find out, you know, to discover singers that way and… But yes. I do have to be a fan of the singer. If I ask him. Not specifically of the music, maybe, but I have to be a fan of the voice.
AL: The voice is very important for me. Not even… If someone is technical or not, I don’t care about that. Or if someone can sing really high or can… Someone can sing really… I don’t care about that. For me, it’s the sound of the voice. If I like the sound of the voice, I asked him. Because there’s a couple of, like, amazing, great singers. Like like Glenn Hughes, he’s fantastic singer, one of the best singers in the world. But for some reason I don’t like his voice. I would never ask him and it’s purely personal. It has nothing to do with the quality of singer. It’s really like, like, like James voice is a very good example. I just… You know, when he sings warm and soft and it’s like “oh my god”, you know. It really touches me and it’s so emotional and, and, it’s, it’s a… I immediately hear that in my own music.
KS: Yeah. So, since we were mentioning James, there’s quite a lot of Dream Theater connections in the Ayreon albums. Now, we had James on “The Human Equation”, “The Theater Equation” and “The Source” and you had to Jordan Rudess on “The Theory of Everything”
KS: And you also had the previous member of Dream Theater, Derek Sherinian on that archer in.
AL: True, yep.
KS: On the zero one zero one one zero zero one album.
KS: Is Dream Theater something you’ve been a fan of or been following.
AL: Yeah, absolutely. It was, I think in the early nineties of course, when I started The Ayreon project. It was around the same time, I guess. Everyone’s talking about Dream Theater, and I loved the name, you know. The name Dream Theater, it was like “oh my god, this sounds exactly what I would like”, you know. It sounds adventurous and dreamy and theater and I love theatrical stuff, you know, I’ve always loved it ever since Alice Cooper and nowadays stuff like Rammstein, you know. I love theatrical stuff. Yeah, so straight away from the beginning, I loved the stuff they did. You know, and always followed every album. Love the musicians in it of course and… Yeah definitely.
KS: So for Jordan and Derek, in that they’re keyboardists… How do people like that become involved in your projects?
AL: Well, again, I have a list of people I would love to work with. And I work the same basically with singers… As with singers. It’s not like “I want a keyboard solo here, I have to look for someone”. It’s like – I want to work with this keyboard player, and if someone says yes then I find the perfect spot for this person on on the album. It was funny with Jordan Rudess, I had two parts for him and I said “well, you can pick yourself”. “This is, like, a part in this song, and this is the part you play immediately after the solo of Keith Emerson. ”
KS: Right, heheh.
AL: And he was like; “I don’t have to hear it, I want that solo after Keith Emerson”.
KS: Well, he was one of the biggest sources of inspiration for Jordan, so…
AL: And it worked perfectly, you know, because first you have – in that song, you have the huge, huge sound of Keith Emerson with this big modular moog, you know. And then afterwards you get like the crazy, crazy pyrotechnics of Jordan after that, you know, it’s a beautiful contrast, and it works perfectly.
KS: So on “The Source” this time you have a whole lot of Norwegian people involved as well.
KS: Michael Eriksen and Nils K. Rue from Circus Maximus and Pagans Mind. Have you been aware of their music before?
AL: Long time, long time. Yeah, yeah. I’ve been emailing with the guys from Circus Maximus for ten years now, I think. Especially Truls the drummer.
AL: I’ve been messaging with him for a long time, and I’ve always wanted to work with Michael and he’s always been on my list, but you know, I have to find the perfect spot for someone and it’s… Not every album works, you know, and on this album I was like – okay, now I really… I need this very positive, melodic voice on the album and… So yeah, I asked him and he was like – of course man, when do you want me to be there? Tomorrow?
And same with Nils, you know, of course I’ve known Pagans Mind for a long time and he’s got such a distinctive voice, you know, you recognize it from everywhere. And also, he’s such a nice guy also with him I’d been e-mailing for years and years… So we always knew that one day we’d work together.
KS: And you also work with… eh… I don’t know how to pronounce his name : Zaher Zorgati
KS: That’s quite a different type of singing that you usually don’t have on an Ayreon album?
AL: Well I love the exotic stuff, you know, too. The oriental stuff. I’ve always loved it. I think it’s… Ever since Kashmir of Led Zeppelin, you know, that’s where it started where I… Love that kind of arabic scale of singing and of music, and yeah… Kashmir. Gates of Babylon, later on from Rainbow. And I’ve always had that in my music, basically. I did with my band, [Vengeance], Arabia – in the eighties, we had a song called Arabia even, [Arjen sings arabic style singing]. So no, I always had that influence and I’ve always loved it.
So people told me “Hey, check out this band Myrath”, and I heard the band and I loved, LOVED, the tracks. It was really good compositions and the singer. And then I went to a Symphony X show here in Holland and Myrath was supporting. So I talked to Zaher and he said “Oh, I know your music” and “cool, I would love to be on the album.” And basically, he would have had a bigger part but he was very slow with answering my messages. And I’m terrible. I have no patience, you know, it’s like “okay man, if you don’t answer my messages then I’ll work with someone else”, so I asked someone else.
And then he came back to me and said “I’m sorry, man. Sorry, I’ve been so busy, but I want to do a part on the album anyway” and I said “I’ll find a part for you”, so I found the perfect part for him where he could like just go for it. I said, just go for it, just do something arabic, and sing arabic too, you know. I wanted it to be as natural as possible. And just sing a quote from the Bible and I think what he sings means “let there be light” or something like that. And yeah it fits perfectly in that song you know he’s he’s the preacher and its like an eulogy for the dead, so…
KS: So, you used to have a self imposed rule that you wouldn’t reuse vocalists, but on this album you use several vocalists that you’ve used before on previous albums. What made you break your own rules as such?
AL: Well that rule only applied to two albums, it was only on “The Human Equation” and on Theory of Everything. Those were the two albums where I am working with only new singers. Basically, I did that because it keeps it fresh for me, you know. It’s interesting to work with new singers and also to show off to people, you know. To keep it fresh for everyone, basically, and on this album I already told you I had some parts where I just heard James. And at the end of the Theater Equation, we had this party. And I went to James and I was like “hey, James, I’m working on a new album and he didn’t even have me finish my sentence and he said like “Of course, man”. “Of course I’ll be part of it”. So basically he was the first choice I had for this album. And he already broke the rules because I’d worked with him twice, so I thought “what the fuck”, you know. I want the best singers in the world on this one, and I’ve already worked with a couple of them like James and like Russell and Floor and Tommy Karevik and all these guys. Hansi Kürsch. So I was like “I want the best in the world on this one and I don’t want to limit limit myself”, so… In the end, it’s about fift- fifty on this album: fifty percent people I have worked with, and fifty percent people haven’t worked with.
KS: And this fall you’ll have the first actual concert of Ayreon music?
KS: How will that be for you?
KS: Because I know you don’t like being on stage, and…
AL: No, not at all. I totally hate it. I mean, the moment I’m on there, and it’s going okay, it’s fine, you know. But it’s just, you know, I could have such stage fright and I see myself as a composer / producer, and that’s what I do well. And performing, I’m just not good at. Not exceptionally good at it. And I don’t like… I’m kind of a recluse, I don’t like to travel, I don’t like to wait, I don’t like to socialize , I don’t like to repeat the same songs every night too, because I did that for fifteen years. I want to be creative, you know. So it’s really not my thing but “The Theater Equation” was such a big success. And people loved it so much, you know, I was looking into the audience. People crying, people laughing. And I said to Joost, the keyboard player… let’s arrange, like, an Ayreon best of show and… Let’s see what happens. And we went to the venue and they said “well, you can, you know, you can sell it out maybe once or twice” and we were like, “really? really?” and they said “yes, of course ,let’s even take an option for a third” and we were like laughing “yeah, yeah, you know – nine thousand people, forget it ”
And then we started the pre-sales and within an hour the first show was gone, within two hours second show was gone – only in the pre sales.
AL: So then we quickly added the third show which was gone later that day. Amazing, amazing. Never, never ever expected that.
KS: There’s actually a funny connection between the “Theater Equation” and the fan club as it were because. When I started with working with dream theater stuff it was on the official dream theater site. I was chat moderator on the IRC channel.
KS: And on this channel there was another moderator called Yvette [Yvette was the director of “The Human Equation”]
AL: Okay, yeah, yeah, yeah…
KS: So that’s my connection to…
AL: Okay, cool. Yeah she told me about that. I knew she did that, yeah.
KS: Yhat’s kind of funny because…
AL: Okay, funny….
KS: Everything is connected in some way…
AL: Oh, yeah it’s a small world with us proggies
KS: As a musician that do not tour; how do you see the music industry working now and going forward. Isn’t it hard to… ?
AL: Not… Not for me because, as I said… The pre-sales of the new album, you know, they’re the best I ever had and I’ve always spoiled the fans, you know, I’ve always given them beautiful packages and extra CD’s and DVD’s with “making of” and beautiful artwork and stuff. And they still buy my shit, you know, it’s incredible. They really still want to have the original, and they wanna have the most exclusive package often and….
So it it doesn’t affect me yet, but… I can imagine that for a new band, it must be horrible, you know, if you try get attention. because there’s so many bands who wants attention now. And also, of course, the streaming…I don’t know if you know, but artists get like 0.00029 cents per stream which means you have to be downloaded like a million times a day to get minimum wages or something, and that’s, you know… That should really… They should really do something about that because, you know, that’s just silly.
But yeah I’m lucky, now the prog fans and metal fans are so loyal and they support the artist and the… So I’m not complaining, but you know… Like an old fart, it used to be so much fun in the old days, you know, with the vinyl and having to go to the record shop and buying. It was all magic, you know. I hope that there is still magic for for the kids nowadays, you know.
KS: It’s harder because there are no record shops anymore.
KS: At least not in small towns
AL: No true. But I just hope that they enjoy the music the same way that we did you know, and that it doesn’t become a background noise or something.
KS: So I see the time is almost up. I just wanted to, like, thank you for your time.
AL: You’re very welcome, man, I enjoyed it
KS: So I will recommend everybody to listen to “The Source”, it’s a very good album. I’ve been listening to it for
KS: For a couple of weeks now so.
KS: It’s really cool, among your better works.
KS: Okay thanks.
AL: Thanks again and keep up the good work with the dream theater.
KS: Thank you.
AL: Okay, Goodbye.