With 2020s Transitus Arjen Lucassen stepped away from the traditional Ayreon universe. Prog sat down with him to hear a story that was a ghostly tale of tar-crossed lovers, his plans for a Transitus movie and who he really thinks is the best Doctor Who.
Arjen Lucassen has never been a man to do anything by halves. Since the arrival of Ayreon a quarter-century ago, this towering yet quietly spoken Dutchman has pieced together a bamboozling catalogue of releases. Lucassen is a storyteller, and stories require casts. To that end he’s seduced the great and the good of rock, metal and prog – from our genre this includes Fish, James LaBrie, the late John Wetton, Steve Hackett, Rick Wakeman, Anneke van Giersbergen, Within Temptation’s Sharon den Adel, Damian Wilson, Thijs van Leer, Neal Morse, Keith Emerson and Mikael Åkerfeldt – to step into his ever more elaborate, often otherworldly tales of electric castles, time travel, distant planets, post-apocalyptic civilisations and its most frequent characters, an alien race called The Forever.
In 2017, Lucassen tangled with the concept of man-made life and artificial intelligence on the ninth Ayreon album, The Source. As ever, he pledged to do something completely different next time around. Little did he realise that the results would demand three years of his life.
Transitus is a love story with a difference. A ghostly tale with a dash of gothic horror. The multi-instrumentalist summoned the spirit of supernatural flicks such as The Others, The Changeling and Ghost while drawing upon a lifetime love of soundtrack composers including John Carpenter, Jerry Goldsmith and the recently departed Ennio Morricone.
“In fact,” Lucassen confides, “Transitus started out as a movie. I wanted to do something cinematic; a project in the vein of Jesus Christ Superstar or Tommy.”
To that end, Lucassen is talking to his favourite director from Holland, Dick Maas who’s known for the 1988 film Amsterdamned. “Dick is helping me to find the funding,” he says. “It won’t be easy, we would need $2 million [£1.5 million] at the very least, but I’m going to give it a try. If necessary we can do the movie later.”
Transitus was created with the help of many different vocalists and players, although this time Lucassen sought something extra. “Because we were making a movie I needed singers that acted,” he says, not unreasonably. “They had to look good and exude charisma.”
We’ll get onto the cast members shortly. However, the biggest headline here is the presence of its narrator. When Lucassen came to realise that Transitus was destined to be an album before it could hit celluloid, friends persuaded him that it required somebody, a familiar voice, to talk the listener through its plot. The unmistakable presence of Tom Baker, who played Doctor Who from 1974 to 1981, really adds resonance.
“Absolutely,” Lucassen laughs, still clearly unable to believe his luck. “What I needed was someone whose contribution would elevate the story, just as Richard Burton had done with War Of The Worlds or David Hemmings in Journey To The Centre Of The Earth.”
Bringing a star of Baker’s magnitude on board required all of Lucassen’s bargaining skills. “With the big names you can be talking up to six figures for one day,” he reveals. And then, even after negotiating a price with a representative, the subject can veto the offer.
“Tom is 86 years old and he’s got a great life, but luckily he loved the story,” Lucassen imparts. “He totally understood the story and had good ideas of his own; he was such a gentleman. You can see it in the footage we filmed in England for the DVD.”
Although Lucassen begrudgingly agrees that, as a series, Doctor Who “hasn’t aged well” in recent years, the experience of working with Baker, his own personal favourite Time Lord, was a life highlight.
“Tom is the Doctor, that’s him. I had to resist bringing him Jelly Babies, or he might have killed me,” he guffaws.
At more than 80 minutes long and spread over two discs, Transitus will probably leave listeners in need of a lie-down. “Ha ha! That’s very true,” Lucassen agrees with a chortle. “All of my albums are pretty exhausting.”
Maybe it’s the most OTT thing that Lucassen has done so far. He believes so, anyway. That’s saying a lot for a man who wouldn’t recognise moderation if it took a bite out of his backside.
“Compared to The Source or The Theory Of Everything , this one isn’t as over-the-top arrangements-wise,” he clarifies. “Because they were written for a movie the songs had to be catchy, but the album tilts from one mood to another – the first 10 minutes are a rollercoaster, from huge choirs to segments that sound like Pink Floyd.”
Set in 1884 – ‘dark, troubled times, fraught with greed, envy and prejudice’ as Baker reminds us – Transitus is the story of a doomed romance between Daniel (Kamelot’s Tommy Karevik) and Abby (Cammie Gilbert from the Texan band Oceans Of Slumber). The plot also touches upon race and the class system.
“Yeah, it’s about a rich guy who falls in love with a poor servant,” Arjen says with a nod. In fact, prior to casting her Lucassen was unaware of Gilbert’s skin colour and upon realisation sought her permission to tweak the plot. “She loved the idea,” he enthuses.
When it comes to the voicing disapproval, frankly, Dee Snider wrote the book. The former Twisted Sister frontman excels as Daniel’s father. “I needed an authority figure strong enough to banish his son for having this relationship,” Lucassen explains. “Boy, did I get him.”
The rest of the cast, including Epica’s Simone Simons, vocal powerhouse Amanda Somerville (Avantasia, Trilium) and Threshold drummer Johanne James, who Lucassen deployed as a singer having witnessed his other band, Kyrbgrinder, all knock it out of the park. Lucassen had met former Arena frontman Paul Manzi at the Prog Awards, where they vowed to someday work together. “Paul is studying to be an actor, so he was perfect as the evil brother.”
Elsewhere, Joe Satriani adds a guitar solo to the song Get Out! Now! (“Joe emailed me his track – no need to negotiate a price; he said it was a gift,” relates Arjen) while former Megadeth man Marty Friedman contributes a melodic solo to accentuate Henry’s Plot.
In an ideal world Ayreon would be plotting to rally the troops and perform Transitus in its entirety onstage, and such a possibility is something that thrills Lucassen. “At some point I hope that will be possible, but not until it has become part of the family,” he explains. “People will need to live with it for a couple of years.”
Prog’s conversation takes place a couple of weeks after Ayreon should have played the headline spot at Germany’s Night Of The Prog Festival, which was obviously cancelled due to Covid-19. They were to revisit the 1998 album Into the Electric Castle in its glorious entirety. The reclusive Lucassen doesn’t mind being stuck indoors, “I’ve been in lockdown for the past 30 years,” he smiles, but he admits that missing out on such a great opportunity was a big disappointment.
“We had worked very hard to set it up and it would have put us in front of some people who might think of Ayreon as some cheesy metal project,” he says with a sigh. “And we can’t do it next year, either, though hopefully in 2022.”
Lucassen is still weighing up the possibility of a gig on British shores. “It’s something that we have looked at – a show at the Royal Albert Hall, maybe,” he admits. “That would be prestigious and rather cool, though the expense would be prohibitive.”
Until then, Lucassen is channelling his energies into getting Transitus onto the silver screen. Don’t be surprised if he manages it.