I already took a deep breath during my intro post but, perhaps, I can be afforded one more, dear reader, in the face of the task at hand? OK, now that that’s out of the way (you’re too kind, really), we can see about getting this started. So, Ayreon‘s “The Forever Saga”. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, go read the aforementioned intro post. This sprawling epic begins in one place: The Final Experiment. It is perhaps the smallest album we’ll be dealing with here (because we’re cheating and skipping The Human Equation), in its scope and protagonists. However, it is crucial for the understanding of the whole, both in theme and music. What doesn’t echo elements within this album bounces off of them and is thus no less influenced by their directions and ideas.
Just to get it out of the way: yes, this album isn’t as good musically or lyrically as the following ones. It is very much an early album, which is natural for a debut album, when Ayreon’s sound was still being worked out. It doesn’t feature international vocalists (although some of the Dutch ones enjoyed local success, like Kayak‘s Edward Reekers), one of the trademark signs of later Ayreon albums. However, that being said, the album is still highly enjoyable, beyond the obvious importance it had on Lucassen‘s career. It also had a large impact on the scene as a whole, as it’s often considering one of the first metal opera albums ever released. As such, and for its own merits that shine through the somewhat rough delivery and production, it well merits our consideration.
Let us begin. May whatever is out there have mercy on my soul.
As the album begins with him, so must our post commence with Merlin. You might be confused at the selection of this character specifically to be a narrator for the opening chapter of a science fiction opera; after all, the basic facts don’t really make him a likely contender. At the surface of Merlin’s cultural portfolio are the following facts: he is a magician and a side character, albeit an important one, in the story of Arthur. He is the quintessential wizard, a consultant, spell-weaver, and general wise man who prophesies the coming of the king (naturally, the king is an allegory for Jesus returned and the wizard is often an allegory of the priest, but we won’t have the space to explore such themes here). However, digging into the cultural milieu of Merlin reveals an important version that makes a lot more sense.
First, the medieval origins of Merlin. These extend far, far earlier than the so-called “Arthurian Matter”, itself a mess of contradicting texts and information. Merlin, whose name probably stems from Welsh, was often depicted as a ne’er do well heathen and, more importantly for our case, a mad bard. Perhaps based on an historical figure, he was a war-leader as well as a grandiose figure of song, an interesting parallel with our blind minstrel Ayreon, himself a blind bard who will be considered mad by Merlin himself. As time went on, sometime in the 12th century, the Arthurian Matter began to coalesce into a series of canonical texts. In these more canonical texts, such as the famous Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory (published in 1485), Merlin was an inseparable part of the Arthurian myth and began to receive the common traits of wise wizardry.
However, and we are getting to my point, dear reader, even these later versions of the texts are rarely read directly by modern readers. Instead, they are translated by several modern renditions of the tales which do much to embellish, change, and utilize the middle-era versions of the tale. The most important, and wildly read, of these modern renditions is, without a doubt, T.H White’s The Once and Future King (personal note: if you haven’t read this book, please, please do. It’s an absolute masterpiece). Published in 1958, it basically contains the modern version of King Arthur and his tales, even if the person referring to them is unaware of their original point of egress into their minds. Most of the accepted traits of the modern Arthur come from this retelling as are many of the more apocryphal stories of the other knights (like Percival killing the Stag, or Lancelot and the dragon). It is also an inherently moral retelling of the story, focusing on the contrast between Arthur’s virtue, how people should handle changing times, and the virtues of courage and goodness.
And now we come to Ayreon’s Merlin and how he fits in with The Final Experiment. You see, T.H White’s Merlin is a wonderful and extremely weird character. In addition to Merlin’s regular powers (which mostly involved shape-shifting and general wizardry in the middle-era version of the Arthurian matter) Merlin remembers the future and forgets the past and lives time in reverse. Thus, meeting someone for the first time is a terrible tragedy for him, a goodbye forever. Goodbyes are matters of no real consequence. When he is caught unawares he can be heard, by knights and ladies, mumbling about strange things like the TV being on or the noise of cars. His prophecy is no real prophecy; he simply remembers what is to be. His powers deal inherently with time and what will come.
Thus, is he not the perfect messenger to the future? The Final Experiment utilizes Merlin to speak with us, the listener. He acts much as the choir did in classic plays, commentating on the story and moving it along. Thus, it is his words to use, as a surveyor of the future, which open the album and, indeed, “The Forever Saga”. They set the stage for the album and the entire story as a whole:
This is the voice of Merlin. Listen well,
For it concerns you. This chronicle commences in the year 2084 a.d.
Man-kind has virtually destroyed itself.
Its survival depends on ‘The Final Experiment’.
Scientists from the 21st century have developed
A new computer program called ‘time telepathy’.
By using this technique, they have sent visions of humanities’
Decline back in time. These transmissions have been received by the mind
Of a blind minstrel who lives in 6th century Great Britain. His name
And so, we have our basic timeline (although future albums will extend it greatly). On one end, humanity stands on the brink of destruction, for unknown reasons (we’ll have to wait until 2008’s Y to learn the reason) and, in a last, desperate attempt so save themselves, conjure up “The Final Experiment”. This experiment allows them to send back warnings of the future across time, using the ill-named “time telepathy” (try not to groan every time to you see that term). Inadvertently, since the method isn’t perfect, these visions land with Ayreon, a blind minister from the 6th century. After “Prologue”, which the above quote is from, Ayreon is introduced with medieval fanfare on “The Awareness”. Like all of the tracks on The Final Experiment, this track is divided into parts. Its second one, “Dreamtime”, tell of Ayreon’s basic problem:
A cry in the silence
a shine in the dark
like a rising star
the dream is coming
images of violence, a flight through time and space (you’d do well to remember these lines -EK),
it’s such a lonely place
the dream has started
the smoke is rising
the vision’s getting clearer
and words become a song
in the dream-time
I’ve lost control
marooned and cold
I suffer the fears
of a future untold
I cannot change
the shape of things to come
Ayreon’s problem is the classic problem of the man given visions of the future in science fiction: what is he supposed to do with them? If the future has already happened, which is implied by the very ability to send messages from it, how is he to change it? More than that, setting aside the philosophical issues, how can one man divert the entire course of humanity or, more inherently, how is someone from the 6th century even supposed to understand what he’s saying? This classical science fiction dilemma essentially dooms both humanity and Ayreon. It dooms humanity because The Final Experiment is essentially useless (and more than that, but that will be revealed later) and it dooms Ayreon because his contemporaries have no choice but to deem him a madman.
The next track, “Eyes of Time”, opens with what will become the signature “heavy” Ayreon riff. As the guitars chug along and the synths hang over them, Ayreon tries to come to terms with the conundrum we listed above; is he crazy? Is this really the future he is seeing? And from whence this power and why him? Naturally, he reaches out to the people around him and converses with them, trying to come to terms with what he is undergoing, with their help. Putting his words into song (as “The Awakening” tells us: “the future’s getting nearer / and words become a song”) forces him to try and explain what is happening to the outside world. He, of course, can’t really do that and so, danger begins to form:
Tell me what you see
I cannot tell you now
I see the world through the eyes of time
Tell me what you feel
I wouldn’t know how
I cannot free my mind
from the eyes of time
I’m still trying to understand
why do I see the things I see
could it be a future world
that’s warning us through me
I’m still trying to understand
why do I know the things I know
does it mean I’m a god
will nobody tell me so?
That last notion is perhaps Ayreon’s mistake. While the 6th century isn’t really the time where witch hunts existed, blasphemy was still very much on people’s mind. Leaving aside the question of Lucassen’s historical accuracy (which, you must admit, is a slightly ridiculous demand of a rock opera), the blanket term “the dark ages”, should give us all the foreshadowing we need of what the villagers’ response is likely to be here. And, indeed, “The Banishment” (being the next track) sees the conflict between the villagers and Ayreon come to a head. Containing not only one of the repeating musical lines that will echo in later album (listen for the flute which introduces it at the start of the track, right before the humming begins and along the first vocal lines of the villagers. Those familiar with Ayreon will recognize the later notes from The Electric Castle) but one of the best moments on the record, “The Banishment” contains another interesting conflation between Merlin and Ayreon:
You’ve betrayed your own,
now you have to pay
It has been foretold
in days of old
an evil soul
will corrupt the world
to achieve his goal
He’s the devil’s seed
an evil breed
he’s gonna make you bleed
he’ll take all he needs
with uncontrolable greed
Leaving aside the somewhat amateurish writing in this part, we’d do well to note that early versions of Merlin place him as an attempted Anti-Christ going awry: his mother wises up to the conspiracy and manages to save him from the clutches of those who planned for him to be “the devil’s seed”, as the villagers call Ayreon. Unfortunately for our protagonists, his escape is not as elegant; driven from the town, he wanders the nearby forest. He is stripped of all but his sense of personal pride and sense of Providence (as Merlin says, through the liner notes: “completely exhausted, Ayreon roams through the forest, only an indistinct sense of accomplishment sustains him“). Instrumentally, this is one of the best parts on the album. Lamentably, Ayreon’s thoughts are, for some reason, conveyed via growls. Their delivery is lacking but the ideas are worthy and illustrate Ayreon’s state of mind:
If I have died, then this must be hell
if I’m alive, I cannot break this gruesome spell
I am seeking relief and finding none
I have fallen into oblivion
A force within dominates my tormented soul
and empowers me to regain absolute control
I shall not yield, for I am the chosen one
who shall rise from oblivion
Anyone even slightly versed in fairy/folk tales, should be able to recognize what comes next: our hero is lost in a forest, driven from his home and down on his luck but determined to go on. What comes next can only be refuge (albeit it, true to the trope, a temporary one). In the Arthurian tales, refuge for those lost comes in one major form: Camelot and, with Camelot, must come Avalon. These two places, like much of the places and concepts in the Arthurian Matter (and, indeed, any folk tale) are referred to in often contradictory ways; usually, Camelot is Arthur’s castle and town, his base of operations. Sometimes, it is on Avalon and Avalon is simply a place. Sometimes, it is on Avalon and Avalon is an island from which Arthur assails. Sometimes (as here) Camelot and Avalon are separate places. Sometimes, Avalon (as here) holds the Holy Grail and sometimes it is where the druids live.
These many versions of Camelot and Avalon stem from the dubious historical meaning we may assign them. What is the basis for Camelot and Avalon? This question is one of the hardest to answer of all the ones surrounding the Arthurian Matter. The most likely candidate for Camelot comes from Alfred the Great, one of the most important kings of the early English kingdoms (specifically Wessex) who is often considered one of the main progenitors of England itself and, indeed, one of the historical prototypes for Arthur himself. His life is rich with legend and fact but the important one for us concerns his early battles against the Danes. Defeated, his army in tatters, his brothers and father dead at Danish hands, Alfred retreated into the marshes of the southern parts of England.
From an unnamed and un-located castle in those marshes, he gathered what force he could and, with his ragged band of knights, defeated the Danes time and again, finally containing them in what will in time became the Danelaw. That castle is the most likely source for the Camelot of Arthurian myth and its conflation with Avalon. Marching from the mists of the bogs, seemingly appearing from out of nowhere to secure victory, it would have seemed that Alfred came from nowhere; perhaps an island floating in the mists, as Avalon is often portrayed, fading in and out of reality to protect his location? Couple this with the druid legends about the Isle of Man (located between England and Ireland) and you have the basis for Arthurian Avalon.
As we said, in Ayreon’s version of the tale, Camelot and Avalon are separate. Welcomed in the Arthurian court as a young bard, albeit it a very talented and proficient one (“A child’s sadness / sweet dreams, oh princely boy / let thine eyes reveal the madness / ye courtyard minstrel boy” from “Ye Courtyard Minstrel Boy”), Ayreon begins to weave the tale of Avalon for the Arthurian court. The court itself, as is told in “Ye Courtyard Minstrel Boy”, is currently decadent and willing to focus mostly on the court’s internal affairs (“o dance thee ’round the table / for conquerors and kings / thou must /win the heart of Gwenhwyfar / fair maiden of the king”, I wish I had the space here to go into ideas like the “Court of the Heart” and the significance of Romantic Chivalry”, but we’ve had enough historical asides methinks) and it is Ayreon himself who first sets their heart ablaze with the idea of the quest for the grail:
sail away to Avalon
the journey has begun
sail away through the night
sail away, never die
the gods are at your side
sail away through the night
ride on the road to glory
find the holy grail
and learn the ancient story
it’s more than just a fairy tale
about the key to life
and all its mysteries
you’ll find the grail within you
slay the dragon in your dreams
After regaling the court with tales of Avalon, and apparently winning their favor, Ayreon retires to the mystical/faerie garden which surrounds Camelot. As it will in many more points along The Forever Saga, Nature plays an important role; it awakens Ayreon both to idealistic dreaming of being normal and to accepting his fate. No matter how much he’d like, he isn’t like everyone else. Once, he was removed because he is blinding. Twice, he was removed because of his future vision. The time then has come to accept these visions and finally give voice to his future dreams, describing the three disasters that will lead humanity to their doom. Remember well this, the first reason, since it will be revisited much later in The Saga:
I see a future cold as ice
where all the love has gone
I see a race that pays the price
for everything it’s done
I see shadows of giant machines
cast upon the land
I see a world where kings nor queens
but chips are in command
I see a planet die in space
and slowly fade away
I see the end of the human race
there has to be a way
The ambiguity of “I see a planet” rather than “I see Earth” deserves a moment’s consideration. Throughout the Saga, there will be a relationship between Earth, Planet Y (from which Forever came to Earth) and Forever’s unnamed home planet. The imagery of a planet succumbing to machines fits every single one of these planets, each in their own way and reason. Could this original ambiguity, all the way on “Computer Reign (Game Over)” from The Final Experiment, already hint towards the future of the series? That may be a bit too much to assume but it definitely points towards the fact that Lucassen already had many of the themes that would later inform his career in mind as he wrote this album.
The second reason of man’s destruction if, of course, war. The track itself, “Waracle”, is to my taste one of the rougher points on the album. At the very least, even defenders of it can agree that the lyrics are nothing to boast about. They are a pretty standard take on war and its dangers. In addition, the idea of war being the demise of humanity is somewhat forgotten at the end of the Saga (except for a few, brief lines on the second disc of Y) but the following track, “Listen to the Waves” is much more interesting. The importance of oceans and water to The Forever Saga cannot be underestimated; they are the home and prison of Forever. Once again, assigned the young Lucassen motivation in writing this track as a foreshadowing of what’s to come is a bit too much, but it is certainly interesting that, while the track almost doesn’t mention water at all, waves play such a big part in its name:
the seas are red, the skies are grim
the soil is filled with graves
the earth is dead, the sun is dim
listen to the waves
we befoul the air
and burn a hole in the sky
from outer space
cause our race to die
standing at the crossroads
a choice of life and death
we’ll take more care
and clear the air
or take our final breath
This environmental destruction, coupled with the technological threat of two tracks ago, will be much more central as we slowly learn of humanity’s demise in The Forever Saga. For now, and perhaps meaningfully so, Ayreon ends his “song” with a choice: we can decide whether to continue to destroy the environment and, in doing so, destroy ourselves. Immediately after, Ayreon is torn back into his own life, where he despairs once again (perhaps from being so heavily exposed to the travails of the future and the death that awaits humanity). In a novel and somewhat absurd dialogue, he feels his demise now that he has fulfilled his destiny and begs his future tormentors/allies to grant him a “magic ride”, one last bang before dies.
That term might seem out of place but it will return to us in the next album. It will also lead us to an interesting theory of mine (which I will unravel as we go along) about the identity of Ayreon’s reincarnation in the 20th century and a few other characters in the Saga. For now, Ayreon goes unanswered. He himself knows it’s impossible to converse with his future counterparts; their communication is one way (“did you ever care / how I could feel / as you dreamt up / this one-way deal /my lords of time”). For now, someone is listening and that someone is Merlin. Threatened by Ayreon’s strangeness or his powers, he declares that the young minstrel will be forgotten:
Ayreon, you’re in my domain now
Ayreon, I renounce your name now
no one will know who you are
you’ll fade out like a star
This is an interesting choice of a curse; is it possible that the reason that Ayreon’s prophecy fades away unfulfilled is, in fact, Merlin’s curse? Could it be that the wizard, who later regrets the curse and promises that someone (that is, us) will hear of Ayreon’s words in the 20th century, is responsible for making sure that the prophecy won’t be able to prevent the future disaster? It would certainly fit in with the literary device of hubris which pervades throughout the rest of The Forever Saga; in his pride and personal fear, Merlin strikes out at the one chance of salvation which humanity has. Ayreon, in turn, is left with no choice but to bow before Merlin’s power. In fact, that surrender has some appeal for him: Merlin is willing to give him that last spark of life he longed for before he is finally released from his less than easy existence.
The final passage of the album pains Ayreon in this act of final surrender; even as he buckles underneath Merlin’s power, he reaches through to him and makes him see that, for all his fear, Ayreon was never a threat to him (“misguided Merlin / you fail to understand / I could never be your rival / I was just a pawn / in a future masterplan / for the purpose of survival”). Furthermore, Ayreon’s words cement our suspicion from earlier: it is Merlin’s spell which subdues his prophecy and prevents the message from 2084 from reaching out to humanity and averting the disaster:
I forgive you Merlin
for you don’t know what you’ve done
even for you, it was all a mystery
one day you’ll see
that I was the one
who could change the course of history
That “one day” comes quicker than Ayreon might have expected. Merlin immediately realizes his mistake, struck with a vision of Ayreon’s sincerity. The final passage of the album sees Merlin essentially turning to us, the listener, and telling us that Ayreon’s message has been given to us. It is up to us, the “humanity” of Ayreon’s future, to either embrace or decline his message. In a sense, since Merlin tells the entire tale, he uses himself as a negative example; don’t be as foolish and prideful as me. Take heed of Ayreon’s message and try to avert the end. Much of the later Saga attempts to drive this message home: it is in our hand, and balanced on our pride and willingness to change, that the fate of the world relies. In that sense, and most in that sense, The Final Experiment is the true and important beginning to this entire Saga.