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Ayreon - Universal Migrator, Part 1: The Dream Sequencer CD (album) cover

UNIVERSAL MIGRATOR, PART 1: THE DREAM SEQUENCER

Ayreon

 

Progressive Metal

3.60 | 471 ratings

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SonomaComa1999
3 stars REVIEW #16 - "The Universal Migrator Part 1: Dream Sequencer" by Ayreon (2000):

Dutch multi-instrumentalist Arjen Lucassen's Ayreon project is one of the foremost outfits in the prog metal sub- genre, with many of his albums receiving critical praise on this site. Ayreon is best known for its elaborate rock opera album structure, which are concept albums that for the most part are set in the same fictional universe. Lucassen takes care of pretty much all the instrumentation, with the vocal parts of each character in the story being played by various "guest musicians" that have included icons such as Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson and Dream Theater's James LaBrie.

Ayreon's 2000 album "Universal Migrator" is split into two parts; now one could interpret this move as good marketing on Lucassen's part, but it seems that the music on parts one and two are thematically different. The first part (Which I will be reviewing) features more traditional melodic prog while the latter is more of what we would expect in an Ayreon album with a strong prog metal sound. Personally I prefer the slower, calmer and more intricate tendencies of classic prog, so I was excited to see what Lucassen could do in this vein of the genre. As is the case with Ayreon albums the guest vocalists return, but this time we see each vocalist take up a part in each song. The concept behind "Universal Migrator Part 1" is very interesting; following a war in the year 2084 which wiped out all life on Earth, the surviving humans set up a colony on the nearby planet Mars, which eventually collapses due to a lack of supplies, leaving one person remaining who is the last human being alive. This protagonist enters a contraption called the "Dream Sequencer", which allows one to revisit past lives and essentially live through human history, before he perishes just like the rest of humanity. Each of the protagonist's past lives are catalogued through their own individual songs - from the present day in 2084 all the way down to the dawn of humanity (we go even FURTHER back in time in the second part of the album).

We begin in the present day, where the protagonist enters the Dream Sequencer. I do have to say that I was unsatisfied with how the album started - we get this extended introduction where the voice of Lana Lane (playing the Dream Sequencer) basically goes through the instructions on how to start the machine up. Eventually the music officially begins on the title track; there are obvious parallels between this and the music of Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour's solo work, with spacey guitar solos and an ethereal background atmosphere. It's nothing too exciting, but I suppose it serves as a fine introduction into "My House on Mars", where the story begins to reveal itself. We learn about the protagonist's life on Mars, having been raised there from a child and never getting to truly experience life on Earth (at least in this incarnation). Although his father promises to bring him to the home planet, he never comes through as he is killed in the carnage of the war, and the protagonist realizes that he will never see Earth. This is an improvement on the opener; we get some grand musical passages, even though I consider the vocals by Swedish doom metal frontman Johan Edlund (playing the protagonist) of Tiamat to be sub-par. Backing vocals are provided by Nightwish vocalist Floor Jansen (playing the protagonist's sister), but are only provided on the chorus. I will have to say the chorus and the musical interludes are pretty fun and grand, leaving for one of the album's decent highlights. More Gilmouresque guitar parts are featured in the solos, but the vocals largely dominate this track. In fact, the first four tracks on this album are pretty strong in their own right; continuing onto the next piece "2084" we get more information on the war that has essentially led to the end of humanity as we know it, and its exodus to Mars. We start off with a pretty long sinister instrumental opening before the guitar re-enters; so far this album sounds like a metal version of Pink Floyd's "Division Bell" with more vocals and a concept. In the lyrics, we get some allusions to "The Final Experiment" album, as well as the character of Ayreon himself - musically I wasn't too impressed with this song, as it prods along following a painfully slow instrumental opening. I appreciate the use of synth and more traditional prog structures, but so far I have not really been blown off my socks.

The fourth track "One Small Step" changes that. Featuring the vocals of late-70's/early-80's Kayak vocalist Edward Reekers, we finally begin our journey back in time through history. As the song title may indicate, we go to the year 1969, on the morning of July 20 as the world watches American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin become the first humans to ever land on the Moon. The protagonist is a young child who like many others was awake in the wee hours of that day just to watch one of humanity's pivotal achievements. I find this song evocative on a personal level given the background of the concept; this is the epoch of space travel in our world, but by 2084 in the story all that progress and hard work is erased by war. I think that this is my choice song on the album; the lyrics make a needed transition to a symphonic style, with Lane backing up Reekers to make for some very great choruses. We get some interspersed samples of various real-life conversations between astronauts, including Armstrong's famous "one small step for man, one giant step for mankind" recording as he becomes the first human to ever walk on the Moon. Everything about this song is solid; we move away from the Gilmour guitars and over towards this retro 70's sound with chant and a prominent synth solo. As I have mentioned before, I am not too fond of prog metal, so the inclusion of a 70's vocalist and a generally 70's sound immediately intrigues me. Moving on we go back a few centuries for the song "The Shooting Company of Captain Frans B. Cocq" which obviously is a reference to Rembrandt's 1642 masterpiece "The Night Watch". Of course, we saw this work of art the subject of a King Crimson song on that band's 1974 album "Starless and Bible Black" which I am very fond of; we get off to a very good start until we get to the vocals, accredited to Mouse of the band Tuesday's Child. Not only do we get this digitalized and distorted voice, but it sounds like some sort of fusion between John Lennon and Noel Gallagher. Personally the vocals were a huge turnoff on this tune - it isn't necessarily bad musically, and the concept is rather cool with the protagonist now being a part of the crowd immortalized in Rembrandt's painting, which of course is a very seminal moment in Dutch history. The middle instrumental section is pretty good, aided by the presence of the immortal mellotron which is set up in tandem with a guitar solo and a synth solo. My major gripe with this song are the vocals; they really don't match with the time period; if there was ever a time in this song to use a vocalist with a thick Dutch accent, now was the time to use him.

"Dragon on the Sea" brings us to the year of 1588, and one of the protagonist's past lives is revealed to be that of England's Queen Elizabeth I, who is giving her Speech to the Troops at Tilbury just prior to the Royal Navy's stunning defeat of the Spanish Armada. Of course, the title refers to the English naval leader Sir Francis Drake, who led the Protestant English (and Dutch) into battle against the Catholic Spaniards. The Spanish defeat in this battle opened up the gates for British colonization of the New World as Elizabeth realized the abilities of her empire. Lane takes over on vocals once again, and just like the previous song, I am not entirely impressed with the end result. One thing that immediately struck me was the use of Hammond organ - I really liked that, but the vocals are once again a bit of a turnoff. I really have to say that I am enjoying the concept as a history buff, but so far outside of "One Small Step" the music has been mediocre - not bad, just unimpressive. This doesn't change with "Temple of the Cat", which is the track's lone single. We go across to the Western Hemisphere, namely modern-day Guatemala where the protagonist, now a young girl of the Mayan Empire, travels to the Jaguar Temple in the ancient city of Tikal. Lucassen this time recruits Jacqueline Govaert of the Dutch pop rock band Krezip to do vocals here; with the Abbaesque thick foreign female accent, it seems that the music becomes even more detached from prog. Overall this is a very mellow song with its own fair share of flute and dreamy soundscape, but at this point I have pretty much given up on the vocals on this album. Given that this is a concept album that is heavily reliant on vocals, it becomes rather annoying, especially since we saw in "One Small Step" how great this album can sound with the right vocal style.

For the eighth track "Carried by the Wind" we enter this sort of medieval-inspired metal where Lucassen enters the fray on vocals, playing the character of Ayreon and making several allusions to "The Final Experiment". Arjen's voice isn't bad at all; it's a bounceback from the previous three songs, and I sort of wish it were a bit longer. Most of the songs on the album to this point have been in the eight minute range, but the length begins to taper off as we go on. "And the Druids Turn to Stone" officially takes us before the Death of Christ to somewhere around 2800 BC. Damian Wilson of Threshold comes in on vocals to provide fantasy-inspired lyrics on the creation of the monument of Stonehenge in the UK. It is stated that it was actually created by Druids who were transformed into stone to make the monument we know today. I really did not focus as much on the concept at this point as I did the music, which is beginning to improve once more; Wilson is a fine vocalist with a great range and the thematic elements of the music are beginning to return to that classic style that I enjoy. We cap things off with "The First Man on Earth", which features Spock's Beard vocalist and founder Neal Morse as we finally reach the dawn of humanity in 50000 BC to investigate the origin of our species. Once again, we have a competent vocalist who can handle the music as we approach more modern territory. While this song has been regarded as a takeaway on the album, I just am not very accustomed to this newer take on prog, and will simply acknowledge that this is a good song; it does fine at wrapping up our story before the protagonist goes even further back in time in Part 2. The album is book-ended by a reprise of the "Dream Sequencer" instrumental song that we heard at the very beginning of the album.

I have listened to a few Ayreon albums in the past, but those were more of his better-known works such as "The Human Equation." Even as a guy who isn't that infatuated with prog metal, I still appreciate Lucassen's music and contributions to the genre. I really enjoyed the concept on this album, with us going back in time every song - of course, the more recent history stuck out to me, and even the song "One Small Step" was emotionally moving. I see that song as the major takeaway on this album, and a track that I may revisit once again in the future. "The First Man on Earth" and "My House on Mars" are two other standout tracks that are objectively good, while the rest is largely average and mediocre works. One big problem this album has is that it rarely deviates or changes sound; we get largely the same type of melodic prog throughout the entirety of an album which goes on for over an hour. That unto itself makes this album very repetitive, but I was able to fill the gap by researching the various historical passages and the concept itself. There are many other Ayreon albums which are better suited to get you into Lucassen's music; "Universal Migrator Part 1" is hardly one of his masterpieces, even though it is a fine album in its own right. With that all said and done, I will give this album a 3-star (78% - C+) review; definitely an album for Ayreon fans and any generic prog fan as a whole. It is definitely worth a listen for the aforementioned three songs I referenced in this conclusion. It gets rather dull through the middle of the album so do beware.

SonomaComa1999 | 3/5 |

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