Ayreon Universe at Poppodium 013, Tilberg - live review

Explosive live performance from Arjen Lucassen's Ayreon project in the Netherlands

TODO alt text
(Image: © Cristel Brouwer)

For a self-proclaimed recluse with a pathological fear of performing live, Arjen Lucassen is making a pretty good fist of looking for all the world like a dedicated rock star. As his band turn their hand to The Castle Hall from 1998’s Into The Electric Castle, the tall, lithe, black-clad figure takes to the stage to tumultuous cheers from the packed throng, and throws the prerequisite rock star shapes. Later he’ll sing the same album’s Amazing Flight In Space and address the crowd like a veteran stage performer.

Eight hours earlier he’d been adamant at how terrifying the prospect was for him. Yet half an hour after the gig, a buoyant, beaming Lucassen is asking Prog what we thought of the show, clearly buzzing from the experience. Of course, if you sell out three nights at Tilburg’s biggest venue, and could have probably sold it out ten times more, you’d be buzzing too.

It’s an interesting scenario to someone from another country, where Lucassen’s reluctance to perform live means we’re limited to just his music – largely Ayreon, but other side projects too. Admittedly, the scope of that music is far from limited, but devoid of the personal touch of live performance, sometimes things get lost in translation.

The prog-friendly contingent acquit themselves with aplomb, delivering the right blend of bombast and restraint.

There’s no problem translating what lies before us in Tilburg, though. The place is awash with prog musicians and fans, all focused on the 013, many of whom have, we’re told, travelled from 51 different countries. There’s no doubting that when Arjen Lucassen does perform a show, a lot of people want to see it.

I suppose it takes an obsessively singular creative vision to manage 16 singers from the worlds of prog and power metal, plus eight additional musicians, and work them into a show featuring music from all nine Ayreon albums (plus two tracks from Star One’s 2002 Space Metal debut). But then Lucassen is to his unique sci-fi universe what Chris Carter was to The X-Files or Joss Whedon to Buffy.

Once you know Lucassen was hugely inspired by Jesus Christ Superstar, this evening’s spectacle become easier to unravel. With so many singers wandering on and off the stage (sometimes announced on the giant HD screen that spans the stage), the night often has more of the feeling of musical theatre, which is a little distracting at times. And it has to be said that one or two of the more metal-orientated singers overdo the vocal histrionics in a way that tends to explain why a lot of people on this side of the channel can’t take power metal that seriously.

There’s no such OTT melodrama with the prog-friendly contingent, though. Damian Wilson (a veteran of four Ayreon albums, as well as Star One and Stream Of Passion), Nightwish’s Floor Jansen (Ayreon and Star One), Katatonia’s Jonas Renkse (just 01011001 for now), Kayak’s Edward Reekers (Ayreon) and Anneke van Giersbergen (Ayreon, The Gentle Storm) all acquit themselves with aplomb, delivering the right blend of bombast and restraint. It’s particularly enjoyable to see the normally reticent Renkse come out of his shell somewhat. However, that said, he’s not a patch on the naturally ebullient Wilson.

Perhaps the best moment is a pyro-laden Everybody Dies, helmed by the Nightwish duo of Jansen and Marco Hietala, Nightmare’s Maggy Luyten and Kamelot’s Tommy Karevik. This hits such exquisite highs that Lucassen’s own appearance, for just three numbers at the end, does seem like selling things a bit short.

Not that the crowd care one jot. They go predictably crazy, not even noticing that their hero has actually departed for closer The Eye Of Ra. He’s back to take a final bow, though. Fitting every one of the night’s performers on the stage for it is as impressive as pulling off this whole feat in the first place.