Arjen Lucassen has built quite a reputation for himself in the realm of progressive rock/metal. Frequently called a genius by fans, the buildup on the net for the latest Ayreon release was nothing short of monumental. The release of names of some of the guest vocalists was stirring up quite a buzz, long before the album ever reached stores. And with good cause. As background for the unfamiliar, Ayreon is one of many musical projects headed by musical mastermind Arjen Anthony Lucassen. The music of Ayreon can often be categorized as rock opera, with many vocalists playing varied parts in the work. "The Human Equation" is no different, and in fact represents the most ambitious use of guest vocalists to date on any Ayreon project.
As with all Ayreon albums, truly appreciating the work includes comprehension of the story. Arjen carefully crafts an interesting, powerful story that is often poetic without becoming incomprehensible. Too often lyricists dress their stories up in confusing metaphors, but not here. This doesn't mean the story is simple though. Quite the opposite is true. "The Human Equation" takes place over two discs, nearly two hours of music, and 20 tracks, each representing a day. The album tells the story of a man in a coma and his struggle back to life. Told from two perspectives, cleverly woven lyrics and music take us from his bedside where his wife and best friend stand vigil, to the inside of his mind where his demons are haunting him. He must confront his emotions: Rage, Pride, Fear, Reason, Love, Passion, and Agony, all brilliantly sung by some of the most talented vocalists in the industry, in order to fight his way back to life. As he confronts these inner demons we discover what led to the coma in the first place, and some of the fears and trials that await him outside his own mind.
Musically, "The Human Equation" truly runs the gamut of styles. Everything from acoustic folk, hints of orchestral arrangements, spacey psychedelic prog, and powerful metal finds the appropriate place on the album to move the story forward. Most of the instruments are played by Arjen himself, but he wisely pulls in some truly talented musicians to flesh out the sound. As we have come to expect, Ed Warby does a masterful job on the drums, and guest instrumentalists bring their talent to the table on the keyboards, cello, violin and flutes. There really is something for just about everyone on this fine album. And while often clumped into the category of progressive rock/metal, Arjen tastefully refrains from the blatant displays of technical virtuosity that is often associated with the genre, while still displaying excellent musical ability.
Tracks to catch: 'Day Two: Isolation is our first real glimpse into where the album is going, and it displays not only the musical diversity of the album, but also showcases the voices of James LaBrie, Eric Clayton, Magnus Ekwall, and Irene Janssen in particular. 'Day Eight: School' explores some of the past trauma of the protagonist and is brilliant. 'Day Eleven: Love' is particularly moving and powerful. 'Day Twelve: Trauma' is a dark, disturbing journey that unleashes the full fury of Mikael Akerfeldt's brutal growl. 'Day Sixteen: Loser' confronts us with the psychotic figure of Father, sung by Mike Baker, as the final barrier to fully coming back to life. Finally, 'Day Twenty: Confrontation' powerfully resolves the epic album.