Ayreon Universe (Blu-ray)
When it comes to merging immaculate songwriting, wildly imaginative progressive metal instrumentation, and dense sci-fi concepts, no one tops Dutch visionary Arjen Anthony Lucassen. Renowned for his ability to continuously craft masterworks that are then brought to life by the genre’s best vocalists and musicians, Lucassen astounds with each project. Granted, his records under the guises of Star One, The Gentle Storm, and Guilt Machine are each remarkable in their own ways, yet the crowning achievement of his career is easily the Ayreon series.
Consisting of nine interconnected studio concept albums thus far, the Ayreon catalog is packed with gems, which is why the recently issued Ayreon Universe concert Blu-ray is such an important and enjoyable package. Featuring many of the original performers replicating nearly thirty selections that span the entire discography—from 1995’s The Final Experiment to last year’s The Source—as well as some strong bonuses, it’s a must-own release for Lucassen devotees and a fitting testament to the Ayreon legacy.
Ayreon Universe was filmed across three nights in the Netherlands in September 2017 (at the Poppodium 013). In our recent interview for PopMatters, Lucassen revealed that it took two years to put the shows together (with “over 100 people involved”); he adds that it was really keyboardist/arranger Joost van den Broek who “made it come alive.” Although several original players return to recapture their magic—including Mike Mills, Anneke van Giersbergen, Damien Wilson, Floor Jansen, Jonas Renkse, Marcela Bovio, Maaike Peterse, Marcel Coenen, and of course, Ed Warby—a few don’t (such as singers James Labrie and Russel Allen). Thankfully, Lucassen told their replacements to “have fun” and make the songs their own. As a result, the entire sequence feels remarkably faithful to the studio versions while also affording plenty of room for some unexpected and refreshing alterations (none of which I’ll spoil here).
In terms of the setlist, each record is represented, yet not chronologically; rather, Lucassen arranged the order to “constantly move between an epic song and a shorter, quieter song.” For instance, openers “Prologue,” “Dreamtime,” and “Abbey of Synn” signal the first two LPs but are then followed by “River of Time” (from 2008’s 01011001). Other highlights include “The Theory of Everything,” “Waking Dreams,” “Age of Shadows,” “Day Eleven: Love,” “And the Druids Turned to Stone,” “Loser,” “Amazing Flight,” and “Everybody Dies” (which Lucassen called “a total bitch of a track to play"). Surprisingly, there are two Star One tracks as well—“Intergalactic Space Crusaders” and “The Eye of Ra”—that fit well alongside the other material.
As you’d expect, Lucassen’s speech near the end of the roughly two-and-a-half -hour show is very amiable since his genuine humility and appreciation shines through. He even jokes, “[I’m] so sorry for not playing live more often. I think you know it’s not my favorite hobby. In fact, it scares the shit out of me. There’s only one thing that I fear more than playing live: talking in public.” In an industry where egos aren’t always proportional to talent, it’s endearing to see someone with such creative brilliance divulge such candid modesty, insight, and humor.
Visually, Ayreon Universe offers appropriate spectacle. In addition to constantly shifting light schemes and projections on multiple screens (including album covers, lyrics, thematic imagery, and contributor names), there are occasional elemental complements (like pyrotechnics and smoke) that help make it highly epic and theatrical. (Mills even appears periodically as a futuristic storyteller to provide an overarching narrative link.) Best of all, the direction never strays from displaying how much passion and fun the players put into their performances; it’s clear from beginning to end that every one of them possesses as much gratitude and joy for the music as the audience. It’s truly a celebration for all involved.
Outside of the show itself, the Blu-ray offers two supplements: a seventeen-minute reel of “tryout highlights” (in front of a small crowd) and a ninety-minute behind-the-scenes collage. The former is obviously not elaborate, offering only a few camera angles and some simple lighting changes; nonetheless, it’s still a very worthwhile look how the final line-up came together (especially since it showcases some vocalists who didn’t appear in the actual show, like Stan Verbraak and Paul Glandorf). Likewise, the behind-the-scenes feature contains an in-depth yet lighthearted hodgepodge of band confessions, rehearsal footage, and fan interviews that reveals not only how much work went into every aspect of Ayreon Universe, but also how much inviting admiration Lucassen and company have for each other. (There’s even a booklet filled with pictures and gushing tongue-in-cheek commentary from Lucassen that further exemplifies just how lucky he feels to work with so many superlative artists.)
Ayreon Universe is everything fans could hope for—and Lucassen deserves—in a live celebration of the Ayreon catalog. While the music and visuals during the show itself are flawless, what really makes it outstanding is the charming camaraderie everyone displays throughout the set. Coupled with the equally enthralling extras and top-notch physical assets, it’s an essential release for any genre fan. After all, Arjen Lucassen is undoubtedly one of the most ambitious, distinguishing, and reliable artists in modern progressive metal, and Ayreon Universe is the perfect commemoration of his genius.