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Ayreon - Actual Fantasy CD (album) cover




Progressive Metal

3.21 | 258 ratings

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3 stars This is a fantastic piece of musical art in pretty much every respect. Arjen Anthony Lucassen follows up on critically-acclaimed The Final Experiment with another powerful aural experience, full of mystical images, towering guitar flights of fancy, and richly detailed tales of imagination and mystery. This is without a doubt almost by definition a progressive music classic. The minor quibbles I have are largely a result of comparing this with other even more impressive Ayreon epics.

First, this isn’t a true concept album in that it doesn’t tell a contiguous story from start to finish. Rather, the songs make up a number of parallel but discrete tales. Other albums like Salem Hill’s Mimi’s Magic Moment, Kansas’ Song for America, and Alan Parson’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination are similar in this respect.

Second, there are only three vocalists here, all of them male Dutch performers who do an admirable job of carrying each song, but they do not offer the range of sounds and emotions found on later Ayreon works.

Finally, and this is a point to be made of Ayreon works in general, one has to become accustomed to the heavy use of keyboards and synthesized sounds on this and other Lucassen works. While the guitar pyrotechnics are plentiful and striking, this is without a doubt largely a studio-enhanced effort. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does serve to set this and all other Ayreon albums apart from more traditional metal works, so the listener must be prepared to make the auditory adjustment.

With the disclaimers aside, a look at the songs themselves show this to be a very worthwhile listen, and a unique musical experience with few comparisons except to the other Ayreon albums.

The title track is little more than a prologue, leading to the first tale, “Abbey of Synn”, where clerics in a desolate abbey perish in pursuit of secrets found in a book that details the essence of humor. Kind of a weird theme, but pretty much self-contained since one of the clerics burns down the abbey and destroys the book in the end. Musically there is a complex thread of keyboards and synthesized sounds including thunder, anguished cries, and orchestral instruments that runs through most of the work, interspersed with Lucassen’s piercing guitar arpeggios and extended riffs to emphasize the more tense moments in the story. This is a first-rate work that might have been improved by slightly more dynamic vocalists, but again this is only an observation of a listener spoiled by The Human Equation and The Universal Migrator series.

“The Stranger from Within” starts off with an edgy tempo and guitar lead-in, and aside from some keyboards that are probably a Hammond, the hypnotic drum tracks and guitars pretty much dominate the song. Here the harmonic male vocals fit the theme perfectly, as the voices here are the ones inside the central character’s own head. This may be the birth of the main character in The Human Equation, as he is also either in a coma, a trance, or at least asleep. The three-part vocals are also similar to those in the aforementioned work. Like some of the other songs on the album, this one seems to leave the door open for a sequel, as there really isn’t any kind of closure to the story once the main character realizes he is hearing voices that come from inside him.

In “Computer Eyes” our character is locked into some sort of synthesized world that is surreal and confining, kind of Max Headroom with a sense of rhythm. The theme may be intended to represent progress, technology, or perhaps simply an evolving sense of detachment with reality and self-awareness in an increasingly impersonal world. The word-morphing lyrics are kind of clever –

“I'm locked in this universe; the real world will disappear.

Where fantasy dies you will see our dreams –

Material lies; materialize; computer eyes - computerize”.

This song also features repetitive drum tracks and frightful guitars, kind of a contrast between the digital (impersonal) and the analog (abstract, emotional) worlds. The keyboards are slightly distracting here, especially in the middle where Lucassen seems to be simply playing chord progressions that don’t quite fit the mood, but otherwise a pretty solid track.

“Beyond the Lost Horizons” is the story of a warrior pierced with a sword in battle and going through his death throes, vacillating between two sides of the otherworld – one framed in light and the other a dark chasm. Creepy stuff. I don’t like the chanting vocals here all that much, but they do accentuate the morbid mood of the tale. This is a much simpler composition than most of the rest of the album, with largely straightforward guitar chords and some pretty basic keyboards mixed with the sinister vocals.

An abrupt time change occurs with “Back on the Planet Earth”, some radio headset ‘space command ground control’ type of chatter that is terminated with some tight and intense guitar and an irregular tempo set with drums tracks and synthetic bass. This song borders on black metal in many respects, specifically the tempo, dense guitar, and dark mood. The voices are synthesized to give realism to their coming from space-elders of the future on another planet reminiscing about the days back on Earth before it was destroyed. The basic premise to the song is a younger, space-born youth who is using computers to create a simulation of the former Earth so he can experience the joy of walking through the flowers. It’s unclear if the destruction was man-made or not, so I’m not sure if this is supposed to be some sort of social statement, but probably not.

“Forevermore” is the closing piece and the tale of the Great Hope, the young lad who has the power (and perhaps the calling) to be the one who saves us all from chaos and destruction. This is the Ayreon equivalent of ELO’s “Hold on Tight (to your Dreams)”, and the tempo and synthesized strings actually remind me a bit of that earlier work. It’s a mild and largely inconsequential work, a predictable but decent way to bring the album to a palatable close.

This is a great feat of musical composition, arrangement, and technical precision in the production. Finding an appropriate rating is kind of like when the school teacher gives the nerdy brainiac kid a lower grade than the class bumpkin though, and explains the decision by stating “well, I expect more of you because I know what you’re capable of”. That’s how I feel about this Ayreon work. For most artists this would be an A+ for effort, but having heard how much further Lucassen would go on future albums, this one gets a bit of a dig for underachieving. 3.49 stars.


ClemofNazareth | 3/5 |


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