Lost in childlike wonder, Arjen Lucassen wanders around London’s Science Museum fascinated by an exhibition called Robots, which details the 500-year progression from basic mechanised religious artefacts to today’s state of the art humanoids. Via the movie world, The Terminator, Robocop and Maschinenmensch, the female gynoid from Fritz Lang’s 1927 sci-fi masterpiece Metropolis, are all here. Some artefacts are astonishingly, freakishly lifelike, others altogether more dated-looking. One comical specimen resembles a microwave on legs.
Man-made life and artificial intelligence are close to the heart of this towering Dutchman, who not only uses the theme of trans-humans to drive the concept of The Source, the latest album from his group Ayreon, but believes that it can only be a matter of time before the boffins crack the secret of life.
“Growth has been exponential and it will happen within our lifetimes,” he foresees. “It’s been predicted that in 2050 we will reach technical singularity, the point at which machines become more intelligent than humans. We’ve come a long way from black and white television back in the 1960s, also the transition from analogue to digital. Things are moving so fast, it’s inevitable.”
Does that scare you? It sure as hell frightens Prog.
“No. I’m not afraid of machines and technology,” he replies. “Only what people choose to do with the power.”
Self-driving cars are already a reality, of course, prompting Lucassen to observe: “Most accidents happen due to human error, so that’s probably a good thing. I embrace technology and things are getting faster and easier, but are they getting better? Yesterday, for instance, I was out jogging and I swear that eight out of 10 people I passed were walking along gazing into their phones. Nowadays it seems like there’s always something more important happening somewhere else: what about the here and now?”
A prequel to the 2008 release 01011001, Ayreon’s ninth album The Source takes place on Alpha, a planet in the Andromeda system occupied by distant human ancestors. Set six billion years ago, its future is threatened when computer intelligence overshadows their own.
“I love science more than I do science fiction – all of my stuff is based upon science,” he continues. “The whole story of Ayreon [a thread that runs throughout the albums] comes from what happens when the DNA of another race reached the earth, possibly on a comet, and it could even be true. If so, that’s where all of us come from. I’m not about dragons and princes or good versus evil: I’m more Star Trek than Star Wars.”
Given the current spike in the popularity of progressive music, the time is right for Lucassen to make his Ayreon records. It wasn’t always that way, of course. The Final Experiment, the first to bear the name, came out in 1995 – an era when a demand for music with a greater than average level of experimentation was at its lowest ebb. Arjen admits to feeling like a pariah.
“However, I didn’t give a shit what anyone else thought,” he smiles. “My two bands, Bodine and Vengeance, had tried to be successful but both were guilty of following what was popular at the time and that doesn’t work. So I did a solo album [Pools Of Sorrow, Waves Of Joy, released in ’94 under the name of Anthony] but I was completely lost and it failed hopelessly. So I asked myself, ‘Okay, what do I like?’ And of course that was The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Rainbow, Jethro Tull and Led Zeppelin – so why not combine them all? And while I’m at it why not get my favourite singers on there. Apart from things like Jeff Wayne’s War Of The Worlds or maybe Jesus Christ Superstar, which featured Ian Gillan, it felt like it hadn’t been done. I needed to make that album if it was the last thing I did, and 20 years later I’m still doing it.”
Lucassen is a fascinating guy. Deep, literate and thoughtful but with a dry, self-deprecating wit, he’s not just Ayreon’s leader – he is the band. He writes and produces all of their albums and dreams up the concepts behind them, recruiting the lists of singers and players that bring the music to life. Despite the goodwill he has accumulated, this process can take a full calendar year.
“The difficulty is getting hold of the artists,” he reveals. “I begin with a list of 200 potential names and edit it down to 40. Of course, being on an Ayreon album isn’t a priority for anyone: they’ve all got their own bands or projects. Some of these guys I already know or they’re fans of my music which makes it simple, but otherwise it’s time-consuming and I hate pestering people.”
Nevertheless, The Source pulls together some huge stars, including regular collaborator James LaBrie of Dream Theater plus Epica’s Simone Simons, Tobias Sammet (Avantasia/Edguy), Hansi Kürsch from Blind Guardian, Russell Allen of Symphony X, Tommy Karevik from Kamelot and Lucassen’s countrywoman Floor Jansen of Nightwish.
Lucassen had previously deployed his musical partners just once or twice. However, after making a huge deal of ‘concluding’ the Ayreon tale with 01011001, there was no alternative other than to delve backwards.
“The story had got too complicated and I didn’t want to bore people with it,” he laughs. “I even asked the fans – ‘Where can we go next?’ And of course I regretted that. So this album explains how it [the saga] all started.”
In a unique scenario, a painting of a female human figure suspended in liquid and hooked up to what appears to be a life support system became the album’s cover art that provided the brainwave for the concept of The Source.
“Until now the music has always come first, because starting with the story can be limiting and the music must be the most important element,” he explains. “Some might find it strange for me to say that, but the music must be able to stand on its own.”
“That was a very feminine album, a love story set in Holland during the 16th Century,” he explains. “Each of my albums is a reaction to its predecessor, so I spent two or three weeks Googling sci-fi art and found a French artist called Yann Souetre who specialises in industrial-looking images, and there it was – absolutely perfect to build my story around.”
The Source being a precursor to an existing record, some names from previous guest lists needed re-approaching. In a potential hurdle, wherever possible Lucassen has always insisted upon recording a collaborator in his own studio. “That’s where the magic happens,” he says throwing his arms in the air. “I want them in a room with me because it creates chemistry. I pride myself on getting the best out of the singers I work with.”
Scheduling issues meant that only three of the album’s dozen vocalists could make it.
“Some of these vocal lines are so high and challenging,” Arjen observes, “maybe that’s why a few wanted to record at home. But they really raised the bar.”
In fact, Lucassen admits to weeping upon hearing Tommy Karevik’s portrayal of The Opposition Leader. A guitar solo from Guthrie Govan drew the same emotional effect.
“Guthrie sent two different solos, and both were brilliant – choosing between them was torture,” chuckles Arjen. “Playing them back, it started with goosebumps and then I just let the tears flow. I really believe Guthrie is the best guitarist in the world right now.”
The casting of Floor Jansen as The Biologist was serendipitous given that the Amazonian soprano had actually sought such a profession in younger days, while Marillion’s Mark Kelly came to the table in a fortuitous way.
“A fan told me that Mark was a huge fan of Guilt Machine, a project of mine [from 2009] that really didn’t sell that well and my response was, ‘Really?’” smiles Arjen. “So I approached him on Facebook and he had no idea who I was. He asked: ‘What did you do on Guilt Machine?’ and I replied, ‘Everything. It was my album.’ And when I wrote a Floyd-y part that might suit him he was keen to come on board: ‘Of course I’ll do it, I don’t want any payment.’”
Perhaps astonishingly given its own stellar guest list – try the likes of Rick Wakeman, Steve Hackett, and the late Keith Emerson and John Wetton for size – Lucassen admits that the previous Ayreon album, 2013’s The Theory Of Everything, “sold a bit less than 01011001”. So this time, he states, “I wanted the best singers available.”
Lucassen acknowledges that for some Ayreon fans, …Everything was “too much of a prog album”. In that sense he shares a commonality with his associate LaBrie and Dream Theater, whose own followers are divided between the metal and prog camps – sometimes acrimoniously so.
“I don’t like the term prog metal,” he protests. “Back in 2000 I did two albums simultaneously. [Universal Migrator] Part 1: The Dream Sequencer was very Floyd-y and atmospheric, while Part 2 [Flight Of The Migrator] was much heavier and had Bruce Dickinson on it. When it sold way better, that was a kind of a sign to me.”
Although Lucassen is at pains to point out that underperformance of TTOE is unrelated to his joining of a fresh home, Mascot Records, a new start was necessary on several different levels.
“Of course I wanted to impress my new label, and that’s why I got rid of my rule about using singers more than once. I also wanted the best musicians in the world. Why limit myself? Doesn’t that sound fucking arrogant?” he splutters with amusement. “They always call me humble but I’m an arrogant bastard.”
Lucassen is proud to be friends with James LaBrie (“He’s such a warm guy, such a gentleman – I wish that people really knew that”), who even took a star role when in September 2015 Ayreon performed four live shows in Rotterdam, using a 19-person choir to bring to life the album The Human Equation. Surprisingly, and indeed regrettably, Lucassen had delegated the planning of those gigs to a manager who has “since disappeared off the face of the earth”.
“The pressure sent her to a mental hospital,” he relates sadly. “The shows were sold out but lots of people didn’t get paid. I’m not saying the money was stolen but all of it got spent. I became involved too late. Some of the singers weren’t even told they had to act. Luckily, the confusion didn’t show on the DVD [The Theater Equation] which was great.”
He promises “to do it right” with Ayreon’s three more sold-out shows in Tilburg in mid-September. Besides the names already mentioned, Lucassen has worked with Fish, Neal Morse, Mikael Åkerfeldt, Ken Hensley, Daniel Gildenlöw and Jordan Rudess. Who remains on Arjen’s wishlist?
Sadly, “the door is closed” on Jon Anderson, who once returned a “spontaneous” vocal part that simply didn’t fit the story. “I was too much of perfectionist to use it anyway,” Lucassen sighs, “but Jon remains one of my heroes.”
And if anyone remains cynical of Arjen Lucassen’s reliance upon his galaxy of guests, well… don’t be.
“Nobody’s forced to be involved,” he states, slightly dumbfounded by the implication. “I’m not the greatest singer or musician. The music is mine. The production is mine. The stories are mine – those are the things I do well. Steven Wilson once said, ‘I’m the worst musician on the stage, but I am the boss.’ Like him, I aim to surround myself with the best talent there is.”