The musical output of Dutch multi-instrumentalist Arjen Anthony Lucassen is diverse and relentless, but it’s his Ayreon ‘universe’ – with its rock opera format – that he’s best known for, and he returns to it in suitably dramatic style here. Across two discs The Theory of Everything draws on prog and 80s-tinged power metal, as well as space rock, ambient, folk, and classical.
This is all successfully synthesised into a sound readily identifiable to aficionados. Amid Lucassen’s chunky guitar riffing and use of classic synth sounds provide an aural glue and points of reference, as does the intelligent drumming of his long-serving collaborator Ed Warby.
Dispensing with standard song formats for the most part, Theory approaches its narrative in the manner of a sung-through musical, with the 42 tracks presenting short vignettes that move things along. The unfolding tale revolves around a maths prodigy whose innate abilities and ambitious father lead him to attempt to develop the titular theory – reconciling chaos and string theory with Newtonian, Einsteinian and quantum physics.
There aren’t the hard science-fiction themes of past Ayreon releases here though. This is a story more in the vein of 2004’s The Human Equation, concerning itself with relationships, pride, ambition, emotional dissociation, rejection, competing needs, and the burdens of abnormal intelligence.
Going with established norms for an Ayreon album, the characters are represented by different singers. Lucassen’s projects often feature well-known names, and here vocalists include Kamelot’s Tommy Karevik (The Prodigy) and Lacuna Coil’s Cristina Scabbia (The Mother). There’s a star turn by John Wetton as The Psychiatrist and prog legends Wakeman, Emerson and Hackett also make brief contributions. Another Lucassen trait is to showcase less well-known talents, and this time around the pleasant surprises include Michael Mills (from Aussie band Toehider) as the voice of The Father. With his Dickinson-like lung power, he makes a real impression.
With the musical backdrop effectively ranging from the poignant to the theatrical, it’s really the singers’ contributions that mark out this entry as special. Although perhaps slightly portentous in parts, they have all clearly bought into the Ayreon ethos with gusto, and bravura performances abound. This is not an album for the po-faced, but rather for those who can appreciate slightly overblown, sincerely crafted prog/rock music.
Lucassen has delivered an ambitious, intensely satisfying and brilliantly packaged piece of work here, which stands comparison with his past successes.