I need to take a deep breath and muster my courage as I sit down to write these words. *prognotes entries are always a massive undertaking; inherently, they deal with the largest and most ambitious albums possible. They require hours of research and, even more challenging, original thought as the writer often analyzes albums which have received either no explanation or a very fragmented and lacking attempt at explanation. However, even given the always challenging undertaking which writing a *prognotes post entails, I’m now staring at an even greater challenge. My desire is to write a series of *prognotes, similar to the one which Nick started (and has yet to finish by the way, NICK) for The Dear Hunter. Their subject? None other than perhaps one of the most ambitious undertakings in the realms of progressive metal, Ayreon‘s “The Forever Saga”.
What is“The Forever Saga”? Technically, it doesn’t even exist; that name is mine, derived from the name of the alien race which prevades the story of these albums. Six albums, to be exact, most of Ayreon’s discography (if you separate it from Arjen Anthony Lucassen’s other projects, of course). These albums all take place in the same universe and, in starts and stops, tells the story of a race of aliens called “Forever” or “Forever of the Stars” and their interactions with humans and the Earth. It’s this story which I call “The Forever Saga”, taking its name from the race of aliens and adding “Saga” to denote its scope and ambition. As an intro to this, the first of seven posts in the series, I’d like to provide a quick guide to the main focus of each album, how it fits into the general story, and some general notes on the story before we dive into the first album in the next post. You might want to use this convenient legend as we move forward, to get a better idea of where we are, what’s still to come and how everything fits together. Here we go:
“The Final Experiment” (1995)
A blind minstrel in the 6th century by the name of Ayreon (yep) beings to receive visions, visions which he believes come from the future. He’s not wrong; in the year 2084 (yep), humanity is on the verge of destruction. Their only hope is a technology called “time telepathy” (yyyyeeeppp) which enables them to communicate with the past. They’re the ones sending the visions to Ayreon, attempting to warn someone from the past (and haphazardly aiming too far) so they can prevent the course which led to humanity’s destruction. Ayreon starts to spread his message and warning, believing that the destruction is imminent instead of over a millennia in the future, and gets cursed by none other than Merlin (I know, I know). His message falls on deaf ears but Merlin prophesies that, in the 20th century, a second minstrel bearing the message will appear (if you’ve guessed that this is an allusion to Arjen himself, you’re wrong. Or so he’s always said).
“Into the Electric Castle” (1998)
This double album is usually considered Ayreon’s best work. The story goes like this: some entity, (we still don’t know that it’s a part of a race or perhaps a personification of that race) transports humans from diverse periods in space and time (including modern day, the hight of the Roman Empire, our “future”, ancient Egypt, feudal Scotland and more) to “The Electric Castle”. This place is a maze of metaphysical and often very physical tests on the way to freedom. The humans strive against these tests and against each other and several of them die along the way, as they learn more and more about their captor (which initially communicates with them with a human voice) and finally learn that its called “Forever of the Stars”. Its goal is to learn more about the human race, for whatever reason, and find out what makes us tick. For that reason it has transported them into this series of tests. Those that survive end up back in their bodies, dismissing their experience as a dream.
“Universal Migrator – Part I: The Dream Sequencer” (2000)
Part of a double album, The Dream Sequencer and its compatriot have the largest scale of all the albums in “The Forever Saga” and supply much needed context for the rest of the series. The protagonist of the albums is the last man alive: when “the final experiment” in 2084 destroys all life on Earth, he and his sister are on Mars. When they hear of the Earth’s demise, the last man enters The Dream Sequencer, a machine which uses a mix of virtual reality and genetic memory (long before the first Assassin’s Creed game was released) to immerse the user in history and adventure. The last man travels back along his timeline, visiting various historical moments of importance. He goes all the way back to the first human to have ever walked the Earth, before he overrides the Sequencer’s safety protocols and dives even farther back into humanity’s past.
“Universal Migrator – Part II: Flight of the Migrator” (2000)
The second part of the album picks up right there, as the protagonist starts to trace humanity’s cosmic origins. Apparently, echoing conspiracy theories which have been around for at least a century, in “The Forever Saga”, humanity was “seeded” on planet Earth by an alien race which, you guessed it, turns out to be Forever of the Stars. Undergoing a momentous journey, the last human goes even beyond Forever’sorigins to discover The Universal Migrator, a seeder of life which is responsible for all life forms in the universe. Drawing heavily on the works of Olaf Stapledon, the album ends with a cosmic circle being drawn, as the protagonist and The Migrator itself becoming intermingled and the circle of time drawn to its neverending close (there’s a radical interpertation which we will explore in the post itself wherein the last human himself is The Universal Migrator and creates Forever who, in turn, create humanity leading to a wishy-washy time thingy).
“The Human Equation” (2004)
Including this album in this series is a problematic thing; most of it appears to be completely unrelated to the Saga, focusing on the tribulations of one man and his conflict between love and desire for power. However, the very end of the album hints towards the fact that the psychological drama of the album is all a part of The Dream Sequencer, a program run by Forever to try and remember what emotions are alike. The cold, logical, machine race apparently hoped the experiment described in “Into the Electric Castle” would help achieve that but, once that didn’t come to pass, created another, more intimate program, to try and solve “The Human Equation”. This series will not feature an analysis of The Human Equation since it is by far the most analyzed Ayreon album.
01011001 (or “Y”, which is what the binary translates to and how we’ll call it from now on) is the first deep exploration of Forever’s perspective of the events of the Saga. While Universal Migrator features them as well, it’s not as intimate and doesn’t go in as much depth into their motivations. Here, we discover that Forever were somehow trapped in their existence; tied to machines, made immortal by their hardware, their society has stagnated. There’s no progress without death and Forever seek a way to escape their self-imposed imprisonment. Thus, they start to send out their genes via comets (yeah) to distant planets. Their comet wipes out the dinosaurs and “seeds” Earth with humanity. From there, Forever attempt to understand the race created, to communicate with them in dreams and experiment, and to try and save them from making the same mistakes Forever themselves had made. They are, of course, unsuccesful and their meddling leads to The Final Experiment and the Earth’s death. Their last hope is the last human of Universal Migrator and his exploration into their past wherein the ultimate encounter with The Universal Migrator will take place.
“The Source” (2017)
This year’s release by Ayreon sheds more light on the period of time between Forever’s rise to power on their own world, how they ended up in their aquatic/immortal prison, and what led them to search out Earth and seed it. We learn that they had a powerful, non-immortal civilization which had put all of its eggs in one AI based basket. When that AI wiped them out (via the Staple Factory problem), a few of them fled to another planet (Planet Y, which is featured in several of the other albums as well) and tried to start a new civilization there. However, they were tricked by their onboard computer/robot assitant into relying once again on hardware, a state which made sure they would never reach a state where they no longer need their robot compatriot and shut him down. Thus, playing on their fears of failure, the robot leads Forever into their own technological prison and creates the background which will launch their journey towards Earth.
Wew! There we are, the full series laid out in bullet points. All that this introduction post lacks is a brief discussion of the overall themes we’ll be discussing as we dive into the Saga. The first is obviously space opera; if you’re looking for super somber an heavy headed discussion of futurism, you’ll be sourly disappointed. The tone of The Forever Saga is tinged with sometimes childish extravagance of the space opera genre, utilizing a broad and epic brush to portray its characters (such as they are) and its ideas. However, once you learn to embrace that, it has some strikingly beautiful moments and clever, internal references that more than justify it’s initially simplistic seeming exterior.
The second theme is that of emotion. Throughout the entire work (and not just on The Human Equation, which features emotions as characters), The Forever Saga places a heavy emphasis on the importance of love, familial ties and friendship. Whether in the humans undergoing the trials and tribulations of the end times, the Forever clawing at a place for themselves in the universe, or simply the historical and “smaller” stories of the multitude of characters contained within the story, emotions are both the main tools for survival and the goal for the characters. This ties in well with the last theme which is a classic “where do we belong” question which has echoed through science fiction since its inception.
Unraveling these albums and themes will obviously take time, but I’ll aim towards posting one of these every two weeks. Each post will focus on first describing the internal story of the album and then the larger place it has in the Saga, pointing out similarities and internal references. It’s going to be one hell of an undertaking but it will be worth it; “The Forever Saga” is one of the best stories told in metal. It obviously draws heavily on the space opera genre (which I have explored elsewhere) so expect plenty of cheese, familiar tropes and the like. However, beneath it all lies an intricate and interesting story, one which explores both cosmic and basic, human stories. I’ll hopefully have the first post ready next week; you’ve been warned! See you in space.