When I was 11, I went to a friend’s birthday party, and his mom had made the most absurdly sweet cake I’d ever eaten. Chocolate cake, chocolate icing (both a traditional style on top and a heavier kind sandwiched between the layers, more like a fudge sauce for ice cream) with chocolate chips baked in and little chocolates on top. I managed to eat one piece. Some people couldn’t get through theirs without feeling ill. A few poor souls ate two, and regretted it for the rest of the party. It was a well-intentioned dessert for a bunch of sugar-hungry kids, but my friend’s mom had overshot the line between decadent and sickening.
There’s a similar line in music, and where it’s drawn will vary from person to person. Ayreon’s newest release, The Source, walks right up to that line without crossing it — an excessive, ridiculous achievement, to be sure, and one that my friend’s mother unfortunately could not reach. It’s decadent, but it’s so delicious.
Ayreon is less a band, and more of a side-project of prolific Dutch artist Arjen Anthony Lucassen. Each Ayreon album is a collaboration of musicians both famous and lesser-known, coming together to perform a long (usually around 90 minute) concept album, with each singer portraying a different character in a complex plot. If nothing else, it’s a fantastic way to find new artists, with most of the guests drawn from prog rock/metal groups. For The Source, Lucassen brought in vocalists from bands across Europe, the U.S., and even Tunisia, including Nightwish, Dream Theater, and Epica, most of whom he’d worked with on past albums. The decadence of the music is in these dozen vocalists, a team of guest musicians, and a wide array of instruments played by Lucassen himself, all combined into a crazy, prolonged experience that has to be binged.
Because The Source is so firmly written as a concept album, there’s no point in praising the best songs — although the two CDs are divided into 17 tracks, I cannot strongly enough recommend that you listen to them without skipping through, as every song flows naturally into the next. If you pay attention to the lyrics and try to piece together the story, you’ll get so much more out of this album (or any of Ayreon’s work) than you will from an individual song in isolation.
The plot itself is science fiction. A prequel to Ayreon’s 2008 release 01011001, which told a story that spanned all of humanity’s history from its creation by genetic manipulation to its ultimate destruction, The Source depicts the origins of the humanoid alien race that created humans. (Five of Ayreon’s seven other albums also take place within this overarching framework. Did I mention Lucassen is a pretty ambitious guy?) More specifically, The Source is about an AI who determines the only way to solve the problems caused by this alien “humanity” is to destroy them, so a small selection escape to another planet to start anew.
One of the things about The Source’s writing that may be a little off-putting at first is that, much like 01011001, it seems to present an anti-technology stance. Lucassen seems to love the idea of pessimistic technological determinism. Science inevitably leads to the downfall of society, regardless of what anyone does to stop it, and when a new society rises, they make the same mistakes in an endless cycle. Both the story and the theme are reminiscent of the 2004 remake of Battlestar Galactica, although decidedly more lighthearted (despite dealing with the mass extinction of sentient beings). Maybe it’s just the light tone throwing me off, but I don’t think Lucassen is truly in favour of abandoning all technology and returning to nature — he seems to just be interested in writing a fun sci-fi story, and it’s a straightforward but interesting theme that’s worked well for him in the past.
Overall, the album may not be Ayreon’s best (that distinction goes to either 01011001 or 2004’s The Human Equation, a more personal story about a man in a coma), but it’s a solid third place, and I’ll be listening to it end-to-end on long car trips for years to come. So while Ayreon might cross your personal threshold for decadence and sound like nothing more than show-offish noise and overwrought lyrics trying to tell a cheesy story, to me, Lucassen has baked the perfect musical cake.