Since leaving metal band Vengeance 20 years ago, Dutch polymath Arjen Lucassen has forged a singular and highly entertaining progressive path. His concept albums play like rock operas that pander to a geeky adolescent’s every fantasy – dystopian worlds, technology running amok, mankind’s dark side, journeys through time and space. All this with big arrangements with guest artists from James LaBrie to Bruce Dickinson.
His main band, Ayreon, has always been a de facto solo project, but his new double album is only Lucassen’s second under his own name. Lost In The New Real is a smorgasbord of prog, rock, metal and pop, which sees the multi-instrumentalist take the mic.
Disc one is tied together by a delightfully hokey B-movie sci-fi plot. The New Real sees our protagonist resurrected from the ravaged old world and plunged into a new, Matrix-style virtual reality. His guide and our narrator is an ethereal shrink no less, voiced by fellow Netherlander, celebrated Blade Runner star Rutger Hauer. (Sample line: ‘Just a few ancient questions left. Who am I, and why not? Why don’t we smell the roses any more, when do we get another shot?’) Cue dystopian visions, technology running amok… you get the idea.
It’s a fascist idyll, this New Real. Reproduction is licensed (Parental Procreation Permit); Big Brother’s alive, well and checking your email (E-Police). But medical science is such that you can live for donkey’s: When I’m A Hundred Sixty Four is a lively Irish folk tune about the perils of longevity. (‘Be careful what you wish for,’ Hauer intones). Pink Beatles In A Purple Zeppelin is a joyous celebration of the artist’s musical heroes.
Lucassen has clearly drunk deep of the Pink Floyd wellspring, and he’s also got a firm grip of pop – often his work harks back to the Fab Four and ELO. Dr Slumber’s Eternity Home is an infectious wall of sound with a great fiddle hook and banjo breakdown (euthanasia has rarely been this ebullient). The jaunty Where Pigs Fly imagines a parallel universe where ‘Keith only drank juice and Jimi played the flute’.
Without Hauer on board, disc two feels slightly bittier. Retooled covers of Welcome To The Machine, Battle Of Evermore and I’m The Slime distract from Lucassen’s universe, whereas his own So Is There No God?, Our Imperfect Race and The Space Hotel see him soar.
Sure, his story is complete hokum of Trans-Siberian proportions and the cod philosophy’s as on-the-nose as a Replicant’s right-hook, yet Lost In The New Real is richly bejewelled with musical detail, beautifully produced and performed. More importantly, it’s just fantastic fun.