Sunday, December 2, 2018

Concept Corner: 01011001

There is a fine line between genius and insanity. Breaching the limits of our current paradigm can often be seen as lunacy before its time. On the other side, something lauded as revolutionary could be the product of madness. Unless we know the mind of the person creating it, this will always be a mystery to us. In fiction it becomes more nebulous. What happens if an author starts to believe the stories he is telling? What if he's believed them all along? Could we even tell?

That brings us to Ayreon.

Concept Corner: Ayreon - 01011001

Ayreon is a progressive metal project created by Arjen Anthony Lucassen. which began in 1995 with its debut album, The Final Experiment. It is now comprised of nine albums, each with its own unique cast, setting, story, and even style. 01011001 was released in 2008, featuring seventeen singers including Lucassen himself, along with nine other musicians on instruments as varied as flute, synth, cello, piano and electric guitar. Every album, save for two, are part of one large overarching story, though when they take place and how relevant they are differs. The story is told almost entirely through the lyrics, though once in a while there's a spoken framing device, primarily at the end or beginning of an album.

The Story

I, uh, I'm not sure how to get into this. As I said before, the Ayreon story is told across seven albums, so just contextualizing one of them can be tricky. 01011001 is both the easiest and the most difficult to start with, because although it is one of the latest albums, its timeline extends far before The Final Experiment all the way to the ultimate end of the story. What I'm saying is that this may get a bit messy. (Note: The characters in the lyric book are either referred to by the singer that plays them, or in the case of the Forever, various symbols.)

Disc 1: Y

We begin over 6 billion years ago, on the Planet Y, in orbit around the star Alpha Andromeda, where live a race of beings called the Forever. They are an immortal race, and after eons of life they have grown emotionally sterile. There is no strife, but no hope. They have entered a dark age, aptly called the Age of Shadows, partly because they built machines to shield them from the deadly rays of their sun. Despite being an aquatic species, they have moved themselves to dry land by encasing themselves in cybernetics, which protect them but prevent them from feeling the outside world. A growing portion of the Forever begin to reject their current state, and long for the bygone days of their ancestry. [1. Age of Shadows] An existential malaise pervades through the species, in particular a Forever known as 🦅 wonders if an existence without highs or lows is better than death. [2. Comatose] As time goes on, a debate rears its head, on whether their previous life was better than the sterile, mechanical shell of a life they inhabit. [3. Liquid Eternity] We cut to modern day Earth, showing disturbing echoes of Planet Y, as a man coasts through his life, dulling his senses with films, video games, and pharmaceuticals, ignoring any disturbing information about the state of his world. [4. Connect the Dots]

Back on Planet Y (and the past) the Forever all start to regret their development, pining for the past when they swam free in the waters of Y. They realize there is no undoing what they have done to themselves and their planet. [5. Beneath the Waves] In the midst of despair, they come upon an idea. To send a seed of their DNA to a compatible planet, bringing forth a new species they could vicariously live their previous lives through, using their highly developed powers of telepathy. All rally to the idea, save for 🦅, who questions the wisdom of playing God. [6. Newborn Race] They implant their DNA in extremophiles and send them spaceward on a comet that passes their planet, and hope for the best. [7. Ride the Comet] Then for some reason it's back to contemporary Earth, where we get a chatlog(?) about a woman trying to find love on the internet(?) which doesn't really connect with anything, but I guess they needed a ballad. [8. Web of Lies]

Disc 2: Earth

The Forever guide their comet through space, on a trajectory towards ancient Earth. Too late, the Forever realize there is already life on the planet, that being the dinosaurs. Too low on time or regret, they have no choice but to let the comet collide with their chosen planet, eliminating its inhabitants. Viewing the extinction as a necessary sacrifice, they look to the future with hope. [1. The Fifth Extinction] Humanity begins to develop from the seeds of Forever DNA, while the Forever use their telepathy to experience the emotions they lost so long ago and influence the minds of the people they have created. [2. Waking Dreams] Jumping forward, we find ourselves in a mental hospital, with a man referred to as Mr. L, who has recurring dreams connecting him with other characters from the Ayreon mythos. In some he is Ayreon, a blind minstrel cursed with visions of the future, as told in The Final Experiment, in some he is the Universal Migrator, the progenitor of all life as featured in Universal Migrator Part II, and finally shares the experiences of the Forever, has seen their mechanical life and feels their presence in his mind. Of course, he tells all this to a nurse who urges him to take his meds. [3. The Truth Is in Here]

Humanity, having evolved and expanded, finally bring to the Forever the emotions they have long since lost. However, to protect their creation, the Forever influence the scientific development of humanity, and can do nothing but watch as each time they provide knowledge it is used for ill. The humans build bombs, wage war, enslave, and now seem on the brink of disaster. [4. Unnatural Selection] In desperation, the Forever decide to give humanity a secret they have been holding back, a way to send messages back in time, to change the conditions of the present. [5. River of Time] A scientist, in the wake of a dream, develops what he calls the Time Telepathy Experiment, to send visions of their world in decay to someone in the past in the hopes the future will change. This is detailed in The Final Experiment, as their signals are sent to Ayreon, who is too far in the past and not influential enough to make a difference. Nothing changes, the path of humankind continues its descent. [6. E=MC²] With all attempts to fix the fate of mankind failed, the worst occurs. Global thermonuclear war reigns, and all life on Earth is extinguished. The Forever can do nothing but watch as people die by the billions, with the knowledge that they have caused this to occur. The only human left alive is a man, alone on Mars, the son of colonists, left alone. He uses the Dream Sequencer, as detailed in The Universal Migrator Part I and II, and as the Forever watch he connects to his preincarnation of the Universal Migrator, and through some process I don't understand, becomes the next incarnation of the Migrator. The Forever deactivate their machines, ready to accept salvation from the second coming of the universal soul. [7. The Sixth Extinction]

Now that's a lot of coverage in one album, especially considering the others we've looked at thusfar. The Sci-Fi story is a breath of fresh air in this genre, considering most power metal concept albums skew primarily towards Fantasy. It seems to draw from innumerable sources, reminiscent of writers like Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick and Frank Herbert. Aliens, telepathy, and extraterrestrial colonies are all things I love to see, and when they're in a concept album? I'm SOLD.

This album is easily the darkest of Ayreon's ouvre, considering it ends with the elimination of humanity. The themes from previous albums are tied in, with a strong anti-war message, concern for the environment, and an aversion to blinding oneself to these problems. It's the moral to The Final Experiment magnified, instead of postulating that harm might befall us if we don't change, he lays it out, the direct threat of extinction.

Of course, there's another layer here with the Forever. They haven't destroyed their planet or their people, but they've declined in a different way. Despite their immortality and technological achievements, their anhedonia makes them feel empty and restless. They reminisce about their past, when they were unbounded and carefree. It's a parable of growing up and losing the hope you had as a child. The Forever, in their need to change and grow, have developed into creatures they can no longer recognize, and there is no going back. Instead of trying to change themselves to be better, they mold new beings to live vicariously through. Humanity is their offspring, and the Forever don't take proper responsibility for creating them, just using them for a taste of what the old days were like. In using their children to relive the time they've lost, the Forever cause humanity to commit the same missteps. Their negligent parenting brings about the death of everyone whose mind they've lived inside. Its primarily about personal responsibility, addressing the problems in your life instead of focusing on fantasy while your issues fester and grow.

The disbelief of warnings is common throughout the Ayreon saga, no less in 01011001. Mr. L (an obvious stand-in for Lucassen, considering he sings the part) is correct about every aspect of the world he resides in, but is locked in a psychiatric facility. The psychic visions of the future received by Ayreon in the Arthurian age have him branded a heretic and silenced by Merlin. The one Forever who has misgivings about their plan, 🦅, is ignored until it is far too late. People are afraid of something beyond their boundaries, even when it's both true and incredibly pertinent to their lives. It's easier to ignore something that's uncomfortable to hear than change your worldview.

And yet, a glimpse of salvation remains. Despite the tremendous errors by the Forever, the end result is the reincarnation of the Universal Migrator, ostensibly giving life a second chance in the universe. Of course, it's hard to know exactly what that means, since I'm sure only Lucassen knows what the hell the Universal Migrator is. But it signals that not all is lost, and there can still be another chance.

The Music

I hardly know where to begin, there's just so much packed into these fifteen songs, and I love all of it. Arjen Lucassen shows his seriously impressive range in this album, not only writing all of them, but playing no less than eight instruments in total! Including the mandolin! A goddamned mandolin!! The range displayed in just this album is nothing short of exceptional, from heavy industrial synth-metal to whimsical acoustic folk, sometimes in the same song! This is exemplified no better than in "Newborn Race" featuring violin by Ben Mathot and flute by Jeroen Goossens. It begins light and folksy, but the synth and metal guitar slowly creep in midway through the song. "E=MC²" has a similar intertwining of styles, a bassy synth leading to acoustic guitar, to an electric guitar riff, followed by cello. "The Sixth Extinction" is one twelve minute beast of a song, starting with apocalypic terror, slowing to dark and low, and finishing transcendent and triumphant. None of these songs are likely to get boring, and that's without even considering the vocals!

This is the cream of the crop in terms of metal vocalists collected for one project. The only project that rivals this is Avantasia by Tobias Sammett, but that's for another time. It includes such singers as Jørn Lande (as 🦅), of Allen-Lande and Masterplan, Floor Jansen (playing Ω) of Nightwish, Hansi Kürsch (as ╬) of Blind Guardian, and Bob Catley (depicting ֍) of Magnum.

The entirety of the first track, "Age of Shadows" is a treat for the ears. Featuring primarily Tom Englund (⚡️) of Evergray, Steve Lee (☯) of Gotthard and Daniel Gildenlöw (®) of Pain of Salvation, it's a ten minute, two part intro, beginning with metallic clangs to set the scene, and the second part is almost entirely a solo by Anneke van Giersbergen (🖤), a frequent vocalist for Ayreon, which is best described as a binary solo. Or rather, three. It's initially a sung portion of zeroes and ones, but is overlaid with "yes" and "no" and caps off with "on" and "off." Each of these is actually ASCII code, if converted into binary! I could listen to just this part over and over, there are so many layers to it you can always find something new.

I have a soft spot for cheesy lines sung entirely seriously, and just like any Dragonforce album, 01 has them in spades! My favorite in this category has to be "E=MC²" which has this absolute masterpiece of a refrain.

Cut through the barrier
And do what no one has dared
Let's break the equation

If Lucassen was hedging his bets with the execution, this album couldn't possibly have as much impact. Having done these for so long, he was entirely confident in his mind-bending story about aliens that kill the dinosaurs and create humanity. Ayreon as a project is already ambitious, and 01 pays off in every respect. Each song is a unique delight, packed with masterful instrumentals and some of the metal scene's best vocalists. It's not often that something like 01 rolls around, and discovering Ayreon for yourself is a ride I would not miss out on. Since this album, Lucassen released The Theory of Everything in 2013, seperate from the Ayreon mythos, and 01 was thought to be the end, until 2017 when The Source was released, a prequel to all the previous albums. Needless to say, these are just as worth checking out, especially since Tobias Sammet (of Avantasia and Edguy) makes his first appearance in Ayreon! As is probably apparent, I love Ayreon, the perfect mix of fantasy, sci-fi and progressive metal. I can't wait to see what Arjen Lucassen comes out with next.

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