Entries in our Stepping Stone series (which gives us a stage to cover some of the albums which influenced and created our current taste in music) can often be complicated. While we are obviously covering albums we love(d), our current relationship with them might be more complicated, containing a fair share of criticism and retrospective aversion to some of their more…tasteless elements. But, more often than not if we’re being honest, these entries are “pure”, fond recollections of albums that make up beacons in our own personal histories, the stories we tell about our (often) lifelong journey with music. For me, there are very few albums which answer that criterion more accurately than Ayreon‘s The Human Equation.
While I’ve mentioned the album in the past (even promising a *prognotes series on the entire Forever Saga, to which the album tangentially belongs) I don’t think I ever recorded the story of my first time listening to it. I was in Paris with a then-fresh friend; we had come into town to see Within Temptation, Dream Theater, and Iron Maiden (check out the setlists, the show was insane). While walking about the more tourist-y part of town, we stopped at the massive Virgin Mega Store on Avenue des Champs Élysées, back when CDs and the stores which sold them were still a thing. One of my purchases from that jaunt was The Human Equation; my friend had already heard it (the album had been out for a year at that point) but what really drew me was the roster (naturally, James LaBrie was a big draw but also Devon Graves, since I was already listening to Psychotic Waltz and Deadsoul Tribe as well as Mikael Akerfeldt and Devin Townsend) and the promise of a concept album grandiose in nature unlike any other.
After the purchase, I was so giddy with anticipation that we immediately found a place to sit (we were 17, so the sidewalk across from the Arc de Triomphe sufficed), something to eat (again, 17, so some bread and sausages from the nearest supermarket was the meal du jour, pardon my French), and spun the CD on a portable player with a headphone splitter. Yeah. Honestly, it was a revelation. The scene itself was awesome by itself but the album simply blew me away from first note to last. I am naturally drawn to the over the top and the epic (this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has read my writing in the past) and this album was that and then some. The composition, the sheer amount of amazing vocalists, the progressive metal canvas, the concept behind the music, all of these immediately dug their hooks deep in me.
That latter part, the concept behind the album, became an obsession for me. The packaging the album came in, alongside the leaflet, were rife with images filled with hints as to the story. Even though it doesn’t seem such a massive literary accomplishment today (although I do think the Forever Saga as a whole is an ambitious project if nothing else), it was immensely more impressive fifteen or so years ago. I was drawn into the psyche of the protagonist, immediately relatable to a boy of 17. Charting the different emotions, which vocalist represented them, the difference in inflection, their mirroring in instrumentation, and how it all fit together was an undertaking that lasted me a lot longer than the trip to France itself. When I discovered the larger saga behind the album, and started to dive into The Universal Migrator and Into the Electric Castle, The Human Equation became a doorway, my ingress point into this marvelous sci-fi setting.
I am aware, here at the closing of this post, that I haven’t said much about the music itself. Do I really need to? The Human Equation is one of the most popular progressive metal albums of the last few decades. I’m sure most of anyone who’s reading this post knows what the album sounds like and has formed their opinion a million times over about the music therein. I will say, at the outset, that I feel that it still holds up; the thrilling synth lines, the over the top nature of the vocal performances, these performances themselves, all hold up even now, sixteen years after its release. But for me, there was no real question if it would. The album has been burned into my personal narrative, heated and remade each time I held that precious memory in front of my inner eye. It’s a part of me, a true stepping stone into what I am today.