Arjen Lucassen and the Theory Of Everything

Arjen Lucassen and Cristina Scabbia
(Image credit: Press)

If there was a competition to find the most guest appearances on one project then Ayreon would probably win. Conceptualised, composed, played and produced by Dutch polymath Arjen Lucassen, Ayreon has seen artists such as James LaBrie pass through its revolving doors with such apparent ease that you wonder if this mild-mannered man from the lowlands is secretly flogging ‘special stuff’ to the rich and famous. His last Ayreon album, which appeared in 2008, boasted a whopping 16 guests, including the likes of Symphony X’s Michael Romeo and Anneke van Giersbergen, and told such an intricate and mind-expanding story that even its creator had trouble following it up. 

It was an exhaustive feat of ambition that showed no signs of a return. Even when he was putting the finishing touches to his solo album Lost In The New Real last year, Lucassen made no suggestion that another Ayreon album would be on the cards. And then, as if from some mysterious vortex that throws out albums without warning, The Theory Of Everything lands in our laps, featuring a heart-stopping cast of suitably progressive magnitude: Rick Wakeman, Steve Hackett, Keith Emerson and John Wetton – the pillars of all things that are indulgently and formidably esoteric – and not forgetting Dream Theater’s Jordan Rudess, Lacuna Coil’s Cristina Scabbia and Nightwish’s Marco Hietala, among others.

“Lori calls it Jedi mind tricks,” says Lucassen, talking about his manager-partner’s take on his high-profile acquisitions. “A lot of them I’ve been trying to get for years, like Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman. I started with them 15 years ago. Once I even went to the US to record Keith and I got there and he couldn’t do it because he was doing a gig with other people! It was heartbreaking because those are my keyboard heroes of the 70s and I’ve always wanted to work with them. But now I’ve done Genesis, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Yes and King Crimson, and it’s very cool to be able to say that.”


(Image credit: InsideOut Music)

The Theory Of Everything was never intended to have a super-prog cast. It just happened that after years of probing away at the prospect of having Rick Wakeman tinkle on the ivories, the stars aligned – in both senses – to give the latest Ayreon an overtly prog flavour, carried away on a wave of multi-layered musicianship and brilliantly audacious, cinematic soundscapes that are part of the patchwork quilt of Lucassen’s discography. None of Ayreon’s typical epic stance is lost – each vocal part is belted out like a West End stage show, while the instruments, ranging from Uilleann pipes to Irish bouzouki, weave in and out of an opulent sonic tale. 

There are many highlights – the keyboard triple whammy of Wakeman, Emerson and Rudess; the clever fusion of Celtic and sci-fi sounds; and the tale of a child genius working his way through quantum physics. But part of the fun of any Ayreon album is ‘spot the singer’, a game that fans have been eagerly playing on Facebook in response to audio clips. They don’t always get it right.

“I worked with singers that I’ve never worked with before. People always go, ‘I wanna hear Floor Jansen again, I wanna hear Damian Wilson again.’ No, not this time,” he says, with conviction. “The voice just has to do something for me. Michael Mills – no one knows 0f [his band] Toehider yet – he’s an unknown guy from Australia. But I heard him do some acoustic thing on YouTube and I thought, ‘He’s going to be so good and I want to show the world.’ That guy has so much talent. And then there’s Sara Squadrani who’s from a band called Ancient Bards. I just heard her and she’s so much better than all the others, so I just want to give her that chance.

“The fans expect big names,” continues Lucassen. “On the one side I want to fulfil people’s expectations, but on the other hand I don’t want to repeat myself, because it’s boring for me and I’m guessing it’s boring for the fans too.”

That’s why on this album you’ll hear some fresh voices that still fulfil the ‘big name’ brief. 

“Marco [Hietala, Nightwish] gets to sing these ballads, very low and very dramatic. It’s good for him to show people how good he actually is. He’s so emotional and he acts out the words. The same goes for Cristina Scabbia. Lacuna Coil have a certain style and she’s known for that, but she can do so much more.”

Arjen Lucassen & Rick Wakeman

(Image credit: Press)

There’s a rule that Lucassen sticks by when it comes to the singers on his album: if they don’t come to him, they don’t get the gig. In other words, it’s imperative that he can record his vocalists in the comfort of his Netherlands home. This doesn’t always initially go down well with some of the artists.

“JB [Janne Christoffersson, Grand Magus] said he wouldn’t do it because it’s out of his comfort zone, and I was like, ‘Idiot! That’s the reason why you should do it!’ I said: ‘Come here and I swear you’ll be happy you did it.’ And so he came over. He was actually pretty nervous.” 

Arjen Lucassen is as unassuming and laid-back as you would hope for a man that can persuade Bruce Dickinson to come to his homely nest in the semi-rural Netherlands and belt out some killer lines in between cups of tea. He shares his home with his long-term partner (and manager) Lori Linstruth and his diminutive canine Hoshi. 

He doesn’t drink, hates socialising and never goes on tour (anyway, try getting all those stars on one bus…). Where most musicians spend substantial time on the road, Lucassen dedicates his to making albums and interacting with fans. His studio is a converted garage with all the technology he needs to deftly produce his albums to crystal clear quality, while Lori pops her head in to offer her constructive criticism. For a self-confessed hermit, this lifestyle suits him perfectly, meaning when it comes to such illustrious shindigs as the annual Progressive Music Awards, he’s a little bit out of his own comfort zone.

“I was invited to be there,” he says, as he relaxes outside his Bayswater hotel on the eve of the awards. “And maybe meet some of the people who play on my album. I’m somewhat of a recluse, so it’s not really my thing.”

The luxury of time pays dividends when it comes to the ‘add-ons’ of an album – the concept, the lyrics, the artwork. While the last seven Ayreon albums have all been part of the same epic tale about Planet Y and its alien race, The Theory Of Everything is a new story, exploring themes a little closer to home.

“It’s about this scientist who is looking for this theory and he discovers that his autistic son, who is really introverted, is actually really a prodigy and could help him solve the theory of everything. But the only way to get him to solve this theory is to make him take a dangerous drug that has side effects.”

It sounds like quite a weighty subject to tackle. “I’ve always been interested in physics,” Lucassen explains, with the glee of a child handed his first microscope. “Like, where did the universe come from? Is it endless? And are there multiple universes? Every time there’s something on TV like this, like Stephen Hawking or Carl Sagan, I always watch it. It’s the true mysteries of life.”

On the other hand, he is inclined to argue that “it’s definitely not about physics. It would be too complicated and I’m not mathematical at all. You would think that all my stories are these cheesy sci-fis with all these aliens, dragons, kings, diamonds and rings, but at the end it’s always about human emotion in a sci-fi setting. Now this time it’s not even a sci‑fi setting – there’s no time travel like the last album I did. It could be now and it could be real.”

Lucassen is no stranger to working with his partner – they played together on Guilt Machine – but this is the first time they’ve collaborated on the lyrics. Not an easy task, one would imagine, when the man in charge is fastidious and prone to penning labyrinthine tales about time travel and extraterrestrial beings – and who also happens to be the chap you share your bed with. Fortunately, it was a project Lori could really get her teeth into.

“Since it was something we were both interested in, I felt like it was something I could come in and be a part of,” explains Lori, only with a hanging ‘but’. “It’s hard because we’re a couple and we both work from home, so we’re around each other 24/7. That makes it hard if you have to get distance or be critical.”

Speaking of criticism, are they worried about getting any hate mail from the next Brian Cox? “I would love to get emails from real physicists saying: ‘Oh, you should have never even mentioned sparticles because that’s so 2010,” Lori jokes. “But I hope people don’t take it too seriously.”

Arjen Lucassen

(Image credit: Kevin Nixon)

Ever the perfectionist, and no stranger to raising the bar, Lucassen has always been a man ready to try new things – whether musical experimentation (his goth-trance project Ambeon still gathers fans) or taking up carpets to find undiscovered talent. For The Theory Of Everything, he tried a completely new approach to songwriting.

“I don’t want short catchy songs, I don’t want choruses to repeat over and over. If there are repeats on this album, they are 20 minutes apart. There are no choruses really, so it’s not a catchy album, and I’m sure when people hear it for the first time, they’ll be like, ‘Woah!’” 

Of course, there will be plenty of Facebooking with fans in the lead up to the big release, something Lucassen is very passionate about and takes seriously. But in the end, he knows it’s all worth it.

“People tell me that I saved their lives,” he explains with raised eyebrows. “You can’t imagine that I do the same for people that Pink Floyd, The Beatles and Led Zeppelin did for me. It’s incredible.” 

This article originally appeared in issue 40 of Prog Magazine.

Holly Wright

With over 10 years’ experience writing for Metal Hammer and Prog, Holly has reviewed and interviewed a wealth of progressively-inclined noise mongers from around the world. A fearless voyager to the far sides of metal Holly loves nothing more than to check out London’s gig scene, from power to folk and a lot in between. When she’s not rocking out Holly enjoys being a mum to her daughter Violet and working as a high-flying marketer in the Big Smoke.