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Ayreon - Ayreon Universe : Best of Ayreon Live CD (album) cover




Progressive Metal

4.37 | 24 ratings

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Conor Fynes
Prog Reviewer
4 stars 'Universe' - Ayreon (78/100)

As I first opened up Ayreon's Universe, slipped in the disc and pressed play, I came to the halting realization: I've been a fan of this band now for over ten years. Ten years. That may not be such a long time in the grand scheme, but looking at the way my taste in music has warped and changed in the time since, it's really something to behold that Ayreon's music still holds up as the progressive metal par excellence I remembered it as. I know it's actually been quite a bit longer than ten years too, but it's 2008 that stands out as my personal "year of Ayreon." I can still distinctly remember counting down the weeks until 01011001 was released, with the sort of naive enthusiasm that's only possible when you're fifteen years old and still new to the deeper end of the music pool. I remember reading announcements of the CD release party happening half a planet away in Tilburg (if memory serves) and trying to concoct some wild scheme to raise money enough to make it there in person. Music has remained a central motivating force in my life, but I do miss the days when I'd get hooked on a band like that.

In that sense, Universe feels very much like a sort of homecoming for me as a listener-- and that's not even touching on the significance it must have for everyone involved, not least of all Arjen himself. Universe feels both like a retrospective of Ayreon's career and one of its most triumphant moments all at once. Seeing music live tends to have that effect, but the demanding scope of the material has had the effect of keeping live appearances rare. Between scope and rarity; there's two reasons why Universe (but more importantly the event it captured) feels larger-than-life.

I won't delay with the obvious. Yes, Ayreon's Universe sounds fantastic. The performances are incredible across the board. Most important of all, the rock opera bombast on display really owes itself to a live setting. "Larger than life" in the studio sounds larger still on a theatre stage. There wasn't a lot invested in playing out the story action. Nonetheless you can tell the ensemble's confident enough to have some fun with it; Mike Mills' loopy role as MC comes to mind as a case of good humour in an undertaking that could very well have taken itself too seriously. Who could blame them if they had? Over a hundred people were reportedly involved in the production. There wasn't a ton of precedent to lean on outside the pilot Theater Equation from a couple years back. I've always been boggled by the amount of planning, networking and logistics that must be involved in recording an Ayreon album; that challenge rockets up an exponential curve in a case like this where it's all coming together in a single place and time.

I'm not sure how much distinction there should be made between Ayreon Universe, and the shows. As for the shows themselves, they turned out incredibly, and as much as I enjoy Universe I burn with envy for all those who got to see it in the flesh. I stand by the thinking that the Universe shows will go down as a bold- fonted chapter in the band history. The DVD release itself is competent in all the ways that matter, but lacks the jaw-dropping effect in of itself as a frame for the magic it captured. The visual direction and film editing feels bog- standard for a concert DVD, and the documentarian second disc disappointingly boils down to the sort of mutually congratulatory talking heads segments you get in every special features disc-- not the piercing Ayreon documentary I might have hoped for. The sound design and mixing are immaculate, but that was never in doubt to begin with.

I think Ayreon made the right choice in casting a wide net across all albums. Most of their songs work great as standalones anyway. The fact remains that they had a lot of excellent material to select from; I could repeat saying this because it's as much a burden as a boon to Universe. There were always going to be subjective essentials left off. But for whatever tunes with high stage potential left omitted, like "Journey on the Waves of Time" and "Carried By the Wind", there are bangers like "River of Time" to set things straight. My love of 01011001 was reaffirmed watching Hansi Kursch come on stage. Better still, the live setting breathed a new appreciation for the material on Actual Fantasy and The Theory of Everything; the two Ayreon records I had never been more than "meh" about. I've since returned to them and found new angles I hadn't quite heard before. Funny how live albums can do that.

Conor Fynes | 4/5 |


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