Arjen Lucassen's new Ayreon album, The Theory of Everything, was released a couple weeks ago. This was probably the album I'd been most looking forward to for the past year or so, ever since it was announced. So, some very high expectations riding on this one. Does it hold up to the Ayreon name? I think... it probably does.
A double CD, about 90 minutes of music. There's a lot to digest here. And, like all Ayreon albums, it's a concept album, a work you really need to immerse yourself in. So it's perhaps not one of the most approachable works out there.
Getting into the music itself, the first observation: it sounds like Ayreon. No doubt about it. All the familiar elements of the sound are there. But of course each Ayreon album has also been a unique work in many ways, musically and thematically, and The Theory of Everything is no exception. The most obvious way it differs from its predecessors is in structure. The album is made up of four long suits, composed of relatively short segments. There's very little in the way of repeated choruses or the like. It's all very... well, progressive. Listening for the first time, I kinda found the short segments just a little jarring. You need to relax and let the music flow together, form a larger whole, as intended. And there are some awesome moments in there, ranging from serene beauty to thrilling, fast-paced riffs. This is pure prog rock at its best.
There are 'only' seven singers on The Theory of Everything (which is a small number compared to the previous Ayreon album). The performances are, of course, top notch, as per usual. (Arjen Lucassen himself doesn't have a singing role on the album this time.)
Which brings us to the story. The Theory of Everything isn't directly related to any of the previous Ayreon albums. It tells the story of a young man who is exceptionally gifted, but emotionally and socially crippled. It's about his relationships with the people closest to him, and also about the dangers of psychoactive medication. And science, of course. There's a bit of a twist ending, too, that almost gives the story the air of a Gothic mystery, with its isolated location, and... well, no spoilers. Like something from Poe, or something, if he'd lived in the modern world and, like, been into quantum physics and stuff...
To be perfectly honest, I think I might have preferred another epic sci-fi adventure like Into the Electric Castle or 01011001, exploring the universe established in the previous Ayreon albums. But the story's still entertaining, and I particularly liked the ending, which, in some ways, was the real clincher for me, making the story something more than mere relationship drama.
Ayreon albums have always been described as 'rock operas', and this one is no different, perhaps even pushing a little more towards an operatic approach to lyrics. There are virtually no rhymes, very little in the way of what could be called choruses. It's practically entirely composed of the characters' dialogue. The booklet features short prose segments before each segment, explaining what's going on in the scene. This is a good thing, I think, and makes the story easier to follow.
I got the limited edition mediabook version of the album, which also features a bonus DVD with a making of documentary and extended interviews of Arjen and other participants. Which is a great bit of added value. Ayreon is such a unique music project in many ways, it's quite interesting to get a little peek behind the scenes.
So, all in all, The Theory of Everything is another epic, impressive creation from the very talented Arjen Lucassen. It's a big, complex work, that will require many listens to really appreciate, I think. It's not an album of catchy hooks and choruses, but it has lots of depth. I'll refrain from trying to rank it against other Ayreon albums, there would really be no point. But I expect to listen to this album plenty of times in the future.