Into the Electric Castle (2001)
Another double CD space rock album from Arjen Lucassen. This is more mellower than “Star One” due to the acoustic guitars.
Reviewed by: courtesy Larry Daglieri
The long awaited disc from brainchild Arjen Anthony Lucassen is finally here. To those who don’t know Arjen, I consider him to be one of the best songwriters ever to grace progressive music, or any music for that matter. I consider Arjen to be the”Steven Spielberg” of music; he takes visions and sets them to music like Spielberg does to movies. Essentially, what Arjen Lucassen gives us is a”musical movie”; not to be viewed, but to be heard. As a movie sweeps you away visually to lands and places far, far away in your mind, Ayreon brings us musically to those places, except that the vision is left up to the listener. It’s an extraordinary experience that every music lover should get to be part of at some time in their musical journey.
As a lover of concept discs, and I can freely admit that concept discs are my favorite discs of all time, and I give my full attention to these discs as they transport me to places I’ve only imagined from movies, but now I am given the chance to create my own vision of those places, having the music as a platform to get there. In addition, I feel that the song writing takes on a new meaning when you have to create discs like Queensryche’s Operation:Mindcrime, Eternity X’s The Edge, Ayreon’s The Final Experiment and the many more concept discs that grace my player on a weekly basis regardless of the age of the disc. It’s inspiring to hear songs that musicians write that wreak of genius, but it’s truly inspiring to “hear” a man’s vision throughout an entire disc through the creation of a storyline. That said, I want to go back to the Dark Ages, and how it all began.
In a phone call, many galaxies away, many moons ago, I asked a certain individual named Ken Golden to recommend something that would make me shudder like Operation:Mindcrime did. I wanted a concept disc, a disc that I would play forever, and something like I’d never heard before. This request alone is certainly not an easy one to fill, but within a couple of days, a disc called The Final Experiment by a band called Ayreon appeared on my doorstep. The opening narration alone told me that this was the band I’d been looking for to fulfill my conceptual needs. An over-the-top, keyboard driven, magical, mystical journey boasting orchestrations, 13 different singers, and a story-line right out of the Spielberg category of great themes, this disc has never left my player, and I consider it to one of the finest concept discs of all time. Somehow, this disc appeals to all facets of listeners; metal, rock, prog rock, prog metal, and others all seem to have something they can grasp onto in this dis c. With a cast of characters that would make Hollywood proud, this gem should be up on a stage, or made into a movie. I’ve had the screenplay written for it in my mind, but Arjen has already stated that it will not go any further than on disc, so I had to scrap that idea. At any rate, this is undoubtedly one of the best “rock operas” ever created, and I was transformed into an Ayreon worshiper instantly.
Soon after I had absorbed all I could out of this disc, and still playing it months after I had gotten it, Ayreon had released another disc called Actual Fantasy. Like many other people do when they get their hands on the ultimate masterpiece, they immediately want another one from their favorite band, and upon first listen of Actual Fantasy, I was convinced that this was no Final Experiment, and almost dismissed it because of this. I managed to put The Final Experiment down, and give Actual Fantasy the time it deserved. Little did I know, that I was going to love this disc as well, despite my initial reaction to it. To sum up this disc, it’s what I deem a”heavy metal Pink Floyd”.
If you take the spacey, dreamy music of Pink Floyd, add in Arjen’s creative juices and crunching guitar work, and add a touch of Beatles background harmony, (yes, I cringe too, but you will learn), throw in enough computerized sounds and keyboards, and you have Actual Fantasy. Still not my favorite Ayreon disc, but a must have for sure. I’ve learned that visions are never the same, and I quickly learned not to expect the same thing twice from a band, especially when it comes to the great Arjen Lucassen and Ayreon.
My Ayreon thrills continued when I first learned that Ayreon would be putting out a double-CD, another concept disc. I couldn’t imagine what this would mean, since The Final Experiment could never be topped in my mind. Here are my thoughts on this disc.
I’ve had it for weeks and weeks, and I haven’t had it long enough to totally immerse myself in it’s source of genius or meaning, but I don’t think I can get any more out of it unless I sat down with it daily for about 3 months with the booklet and played nothing else. So, up to now, this is what I am hearing:
It’s Ayreon – and that is so easy to let stand on that statement. It’s a double-CD, a concept disc as promised, except that this time the disc comes billed as a”Space Opera”. What is a Space Opera ? Well, it’s a version of a Rock Opera, except that it’s set within a time or place that has no physical boundaries. You can’t put your finger or your mind on what or where it is, you just have to close your eyes and imagine for yourself what is actually going on. Again, Arjen Lucassen has left us with the opportunity to create a world within our own mind to visit, with the help of the music as a guide. The music covers many facets of styles; from prog rock, to hard rock, to acoustic, folk, Celtic, blues-rock, and many others. It’s a who’s who of styles, but I will say that the ingredient that is missing here that is present on the others is the”metal” feeling that the others seem to invoke. While there are some heavy parts on this disc, it’s more in a”rock” tradition than it is a metal, and anyone who is not ready to give up their bonecrunching, electric guitar and replace it with acoustic, spacy acoustic and softer electric guitars need not venture further.
It’s keyboard driven, and I can’t imagine how many different keyboards are used on this disc. In addition, the sounds are”spaced out”, meaning that they take on a computerized sound at times, and it’s hard to pinpoint just what instrument is being used. Most of the time, the keyboards are accompanied by acoustic, spacy guitars, and believe when I say, that you will be transported to the outer reaches of space and time, you will not be able to pinpoint where you are or when you are, just that you are here. It’s really the ultimate in audience participation.
With the aid of 9 singers this time, including the likes of Fish (Marillion), Damien Wilson (Threshold), Anneke Van Giersbergen (The Gathering), and a host of others from past Ayreon projects, the story is presented like a play on stage, with each character taking his own part and bringing the story to us. You will need a dark room with a small lamp, a loud stereo, (or headphones cranked to the max), and this booklet Arjen calls a lyric sheet to get the most out of this disc. Please forgive any lack of other band comparisons here, because in no way, shape, or form does Ayreon sound like any other band. It’s always great to be able to give some bands as a basis for comparison, but when you have a mind like Lucassen, you don’t write songs that sound like anyone else. However, in the interest of those who have never heard Ayreon, or especially anything about this disc, the underlying sounds on Into the Electric Castle seem to bear at least a little resemblance to maybe some Marillion, Genesis, Pink Floyd, with the Ayreon sound leading the way. It’s what I call,”harder edged Neo-Progressive Rock meets Progressive Blues Rock”, and that is my personal creation of a new genre I can assure you.
Throughout the disc, you will be led by a narrator, who will guide you through the story, as you will be lost without him, never mind being lost while you’re with him. While you’re listening to his story, you’re anticipating the type of music that is going to follow, or you are focusing on the spacy sounds that accompany the narration. The disc follows NO particular pattern musically. One disc is not heavier than the other; one section contains no more acoustics than the other; one disc contains as much singing as the other; the disc is precisely laid out to spread out the wealth. Even my usual avoidance of lead female singers is put aside; yes, I can tolerate the female singers because it really enhances the story, and they are not singing in a metal format, which is my true problem with them. Prepare for more acoustic guitars than you can handle, more spaced out keyboards than you’ve ever heard, and even some Celtic tendencies along the way. I haven’t fully digested the lyrics, as it’s like reading a b ook. It cannot be called a lyric sheet and I will refer to “The Book” from here on in when I refer to the lyrics. For those of you interested in artwork, it doesn’t get any better than this. It’s absolutely beautiful, and I’d invest in a large version of the painting of the Electric Castle on the CD cover. “The Book” graces the inside of the double package, containing more lyrics than a Broadway play, and is easily read despite the tons of background colors used. If you love previous Ayreon, you will love this disc.
With 9 different singers, 6 people contributing keyboards, violins, cellos, sitars, guitars, mandolines, mellotrons, flutes, massive amounts of synthesizers, bass and drums, there is really no need for me to go into what the band sounds like. Arjen Lucassen himself contributes all guitar work, mandolines, bass, and keyboards in additon to the talent he has surrounded himself with. The mention of the above instruments gives you an idea of what this disc is going to sound like.
I thought that The Final Experiment sounded great, and I was told that it was recorded in a garage. Well, garage or not, the sound is incredible. Actual Fantasy sounded even better, and Arjen certainly wasn’t going to invest all of his creative time just to have some below average sound gracing his discs. Arjen himself produced and mixed most of the Ayreon discs, including this one. So after 2 discs, had Arjen mastered the mixing board as he has his music ? Without a doubt, this is one of the best recordings I’ve ever heard. I will not even go into what each of the instruments sounds like in the mix, as this recording is perfection. What I do notice that is different from the other recordings, is that the vocals are bit more clear this time out, and I imagine it must be tough to handle trying to mix 9-13 different singers, given their different styles and origins. This recording is nothing short of amazing, and how Arjen gets sound this good is a mystery, although I would imagine that t he budget this time around would be a bit more than in the past. Still, if Arjen is willing to share production thoughts, I’d be writing to him if I was a musician and asking “how the hell did you do that” ?
THE COMMENTS: Well, yeah, it’s a great disc. Everyone who wants to know about this disc has the same question:”how does it measure up to The Final Experiment”? It’s not that easy a question to answer. It’s definitely a preference. First, let me say this. It’s Ayreon. To me, that means no matter what it is, I’m buying it. There is no question as to what it is, what it sounds like, or is it better than other Ayreon discs. It’s a blind purchase all the way folks, and believe it or not, it costs less than most double-CD sets that come out in America. This one is from overseas and it costs less; and I’ll tell you,”you get what you pay for” doesn’t apply here. You get much more than you pay for with an Ayreon disc. It’s a standard of music. It’s a given that some of the best songwriting and musicianship in the world is going to be found on an Ayreon disc. Into the Electric Castle is no different; it’s simply brilliant.
Ok, so do I like it better than The Final Experiment ? No, actually I don’t. Given the two discs hand in hand, and asked to spend 1 whole month playing nothing but either of these discs, The Final Experiment will win out for me. Now, this is NOT to say that Into the Electric Castle is not a great disc. It is !!!! It is also entirely different in style than The Final Experiment. Musically, The Castle is certainly more adventurous and wild, but The Final Experiment has the perfect combination of guitars and keyboards in song structures that I find totally right for me. It’s also a bit heavier than ItEC. I will say that metal heads might have a tough time digesting this disc, more so that TFE. If you are flexible and listen to any style of music, then by all means grab this. As a matter of fact, anyone who listens to music in general will love this disc, except for people who will only listen to metal, and want it heavy and crunchy, and t hese are the only ones I would warn off this disc. Other than that, the disc is brilliant. It’s like nothing you’ve heard before, I guarentee it, but just be prepared to tone it down somewhat from previous Ayreon projects. This disc serves to prove that Arjen Lucassen is one of the most creative song writers the world has ever heard. The man has a mind that I’m sure Hollywood would envy, and it’s great to have a great mind like his to give us what we want in the musical world. Ayreon = brilliance in every sense of the word.
Label: Transmission (division of Double Dutch
Record Service BV) (Cat. No. TM-014)
Track Listing: Disc 1: Welcome to the new dimension (3:05) / Isis and Osiris (11:11) a) Let the journey begin, b) The hall of Isis and Osiris, c) Strange constellations / Amazing flight (10:15) a) Amazing flight in space, b) Stardance, c) Flying colours / Time beyond time (6:05) / The decision tree (we’re alive) (6:24) / Tunnel of light (4:05) / Across the rainbow bridge (6:20)
Disc 2: The garden of emotions (9:40) a) In the garden of emotions, b) Voices in the sky, c) The aggression factor / Valley of the queens (2:25) / The castle hall (5:49) / Tower of hope (4:54) / Cosmic fusion (7:27) a) I soar on the breeze, b) Death’s grunt, c) The passing of an eagle / The mirror maze (6:34) a) Inside the mirror maze b) Through the mirror / Evil devolution (6:31) / The two gates (6:28) / “Forever” of the stars (2:02) / Another time, another space (5:20) Total Time: 102:35
Arjen Lucassen – guitars, mandolin, bass,Minimoog,
Mellotron & keyboards
Roland Bakker – Hammonds
Jack Pisters – sitar
Robby Valentine – pianos, synth solos on IIa, IIIa
(disc 1) and IV (disc 2), mellotron on VIa (disc 2)
Ern” Olah – violins
Clive Nolan – synth solos on Vc (disc one)
Rene Merkelbach – synth solos on V (disc one) and
VII (disc 2), harpsichord on II (disc 2)
Tom Scherpenzeel – synth solos on Vc (disc 2)
Ed Warby – drums
Taco Kooistra – celli
Thijs van Leer – flute on IIIc, IV (disc 1) and II &
III (disc 2)
Fish, Damien Wilson, Sharon Den Adel, Anneke
van Giersbergen, Edwin Balogh, Arjen Lucassen,
Jay van Feggelen, and Edward Reeker – vocals