A small, personal preface before we begin: if you’re wondering about the slew of Ayreon related content on the blog lately, this album is the reason. Ayreon has always been of my favorite artists but I’ve had a rough time connecting with his latest releases. Spoiler: The Source changes all that and has allowed me to reconnect with one of my all time favorite musicians. There aren’t a lot of things as great as that out there, the rush of familiarity, nostalgia and enjoyment that breaks down the barriers of suspicion and anxiety that come before a beloved artist releases new work. Fortunately, in this case, my worries were completely misplaced.
The Source not only leaves behind the awkward missteps of the previous several releases by Ayreon and reconnects with what made the project great to begin with, it also (finally) adds new elements to the basic sound of the group. That’s perhaps the single greatest thing about it. Even avid fans of Ayreon will agree that there’s definitely an Ayreon formula running not only through the main project’s works but also the multitude of side projects as well. Soaring synths, vocal variation, progressive rock mixed with metal, all of these and more (an overbearingly intense feeling of longing for example, mixed with a sense of hope) run through the entirety of the project’s discography.
The Source is, at the end of the day, no different in these, the blueprints of what makes it work. Featuring the return of some of the most successful vocalists from the Ayreon back catalogue, namely James Labrie (Dream Theater) and Hansi Kürsch (Blind Guardian) among others (such as Tobias Sammet of Edguy or Russel Allen of Symphony X), the general flavors of the album will be very much familiar to long time listeners. The story is once again far-flung sci-fi and both instruments and vocals follow suit: guitars wail, synths rejoice, drums roll and everything is larger than life. This is, in part, what makes The Source so enjoyable. After the somewhat reined in (not to say lackluster) recent releases, it’s intensely endearing to hear Arjen Lucassen so unchained, writing the huge hooks and vocal parts for which he’s famous.
So far, business as usual; where is this innovation of which we spoke? Well, it consists of several parts. The first, and perhaps most admirable, is in the vocal parts of one Mike Mills (Toehider). Give a blank check by Lucassen, Mills integrated one of his largest influences into The Source, namely Queen. The result is some of the best choir parts in the history of the project and for a project which produced a track like “One Small Step” (with its body-chilling choirs), that’s saying a lot. However, on tracks like “The Day That The World Breaks Down”, Mills’ composition and execution is flawless. It’s also vividly original, sounding quite unlike anything else that’s so far been featured on an Ayreon album.
Such a centrally important vocal part taking a new approach is essential to giving the album its fresh feeling. But it’s by far not the only part. The second feature that makes The Source work is the track run-time. While it opens with the twelve minutes and a half of “The Day That The World Breaks Down”, it features a lot less lengthy tracks than a typical Ayreon album. And that’s a very good thing, this time around; something about the shorter track run-time has made the album much more powerful. It also gives the listener more character to hang on to, as each track has its own distinctive vibe and style.
This is in sharp contract to The Theory of Everything for example, where everything seemed to run together and it was hard to know where you stood within the overall album. The Source, building on the tried and true Ayreon method while also injecting plenty that’s new into the mix, does a much better job at reeling you in and reminding you where you are as you listen through to Forever’s origin story (more on that in my ongoing *prognotes series, of course). It does that by diverging from the past in exactly the right ways, taking the lessons that were needed in order to make it work and keeping them while throwing tradition and expectations to the wind. Couple that with a few more non-standard flourishes (like the heavy riffs of “Planet Y Is Alive!” for example, the almost pop-y buildup in “Everybody Dies” or the Arabic tinged passages of “Deathcry of a Race”, perfectly placed above a heavy riff) and you have an album that’s both accessible and interesting, surprising and approachable at the same time.
The result is, finally, an album that feels just as solid as the legendary Ayreon releases even though it leaves in the dust some of their pretension and scope. By honing in on the task at hand and injecting just enough new music, Lucassen has managed to (at such an advanced stage in his career) reconnect with much of what made his glory days all that glorious. The Source is a fantastic release in an already amazing discography, an experiment in core sound and permutations that puts many veteran artists to shame. Staying in one place is a choice and The Source, by moving forward in an intelligent and necessary way, proves that.
The Source releases on April 28th via Mascot Label Group. You can get it over here. Get ready for takeoff!