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Ayreon - Into the Electric Castle CD (album) cover




Progressive Metal

4.14 | 802 ratings

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5 stars From beginning to end, this album is truly fantastic, ranking only behind last year's The Human Equation, and just above the excellent Universal Migrator set. For those who have only heard the two most recent AYREON albums, the semi-upbeat tone of the music throughout may come as a surprise. Musically, the sound of The Electric Castle looks much more to the past than the other two, with the greatest influence appearing to come from the Beatles (but with much better vocals and sound quality). It's probably AYREON's most accessible work to non-metal fans, even though there are a few spots of metal every now and then. This is also a wonderful album who cares about amazing-sounding synths and a dizzyingly good "you-are-there" kind of production quality.

The concept is simple and completely "over the top", as AYREON mastermind ARJEN LUCASSEN puts it in the liner notes of the 2004 reissue: a group of eight people from various time periods are put to the test by a mysterious entity for purposes unknown to them. The concept appears to be critical, though, in understanding later albums--at least if the liner notes to the Universal Migrator reissue can be trusted. A few clues are indeed evident in the music--the voice of the experimenter (PETER DALTREY) should be familiar to all who have heard The Human Equation. The line "Remember Forever!" should also be significant to all who have heard Universal Migrator. Finally, Futureman's vision seems to figure into the concept of The Final Experiment...

Probably the most distinctive vocalist on the album is PETER DALTREY, who ironically enough, never sings. Yet the way he captures the role of the emotionless Forever of the Stars is amazing. He very clearly conveys the notion from the very beginning of a being trying to fake what he lacks. This sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant inappropriateness of tone shows best in "The Decision Tree (We're Alive!)" as Forever "cheerfully" announces that it's time for someone to die, and that the eight need to do the choosing--and then he laughs as lightly as if he'd just heard an amusing joke. And then on "Across the Rainbow Bridge", things just get downright weird, with Forever going from showing a strange weakness to chattering excitedly like a carnival barker as he eggs on the (now) seven across the bridge...which, of course, he's already reminded them, may or may not hold their weight. The other most notable vocalists are ANNEKE VAN GIERSBERGEN as the Egyptian, EDWARD REEKERS as the Futureman, SHARON DEN ADEL as the Indian, and ARJEN LUCASSEN himself as the Hippie. And then there are the two Death-vocalists, ROBERT WESTERHOLT and GEORGE OOSTHOEK. All of these in addition to the rest of the crew (though at times I don't care for the Barbarian as much) make even the most ridiculous-looking lyrics come fantastically alive.

Probably the first truly remarkable song on Into the Electric Castle is "Isis and Osiris", which sets the tone for the entire album. The Eastern vocals on this and the next song, "Amazing Flight", are absolutely mindblowing. "Amazing Flight" is mostly a tribute to the past, most especially the Beatles, but the second half is superb. "Time Beyond Time" is more of lyrical interest than anything, introducing the Futureman's arrogance; this will come into play later. "The Decision Tree" is mainly interesting for its dark synth opening, and also for the Highlander's apt, but thankfully apolitical, words about the horrors of war. "Tunnel of Light" is a shorter song--another Beatles-for-people-who-hate-the-Beatles track. But at last, on "Across the Rainbow Bridge", we get a truly fantastic metal moment. Suffice it to say that this is probably the best song on this side second to "Isis and Osiris", as the guitars take on the pace of a headlong dash into the great unknown.

Things really pick up pace on the second disc, and most of my absolute favorite tracks of all are there. "The Garden of Emotions" takes a similar approach to "Dawn of a Million Souls", but that doesn't detract from it at all. This song is excellent, in parts reminding me of the reverb-soaked OPETH album Orchid--thhe same technique accompanies the premonitions of death, but needless to say, with a much better sound quality. Still, the overall effect is the same chilling foreboding as OPETH's "Under the Weeping Moon", right down to the ferocious guitar explosion at the 4-minute mark and the rhythm in the "Aggression Factor" section. As for "Valley of the Queens"...well, it's pretty and I like the instrumentation, but it almost might have done better as a short bridge to "The Castle Hall" rather than a full song of its own. "The Castle Hall" has a dark tone...a bit silly in a haunted-house kind of way, but nonetheless interesting.

The next song, though, is frighteningly addictive: "The Tower of Hope". It's every bit as intoxicating as the lyrics would suggest, and I most appreciate the driving metal-style guitar complementing this display of giddy optimism...a must-listen for all who mistakenly think metal is always grim and "soulless". The only "problem" with this song is that I wish it could go on forever! "Cosmic Fusion", though, is an unbelievable spiraling of emotions, culminating in fantastic, swan-like death throes from the Indian, and an invasion of death-metal (literally!) that somehow merge into one gorgeous torrent of music. "The Mirror Maze" is another Beatles, the Hippie and Futureman begin to realize what their "fronts" (escapism for the Hippie, arrogance for the Futureman) have been hiding from them.

"Evil Devolution" delivers the final blow to Futureman's arrogance...and is easily the best, most unsettlingly thoughtful set of lyrics I've ever heard out of ARJEN LUCASSEN. The questions truly force us--modern humanity--to figure out exactly what we truly seek out and value. The world portrayed is Ray Kurzweil's computer-world vision gone awry (yes, it's THAT Kurzweil, too, progheads!) becomes a dangerous potential reality. Positivism, naturalism, empiricism, determinism, and a series of other destructive "isms" of the modern age all come under withering fire...yet from such unassuming, accessible lyrics! The odd string arrangement of the chorus--something like an evil chamber orchestra--serve well, but don't overshadow the lyrics. The vocoder-altered final chorus suggests a dangerous parallel between the fate of the human race and the numb suffering of Forever of the Stars. "The Two Gates" is musically fun...although I don't like the Barbarian's low mumbling. "Forever of the Stars", on the other hand, is all about the vocals. Forever, fatigued, reverts dramatically back to his true nature. This song may be inspired by PINK FLOYD's "Sheep", but with a much less offensive variety of lyrics, of course! "Another Time, Another Space" closes the album well, with perhaps some hope for the souls of the dead.

Overall, this album comes highly recommended; even the slight flaws that hold it back from equalling The Human Equation aren't enough to detract from a hard-earned five stars for Forever of the Stars!

FloydWright | 5/5 |


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