When you think of a rock/metal opera, or a concept album, you know that no one does it better than Arjen Lucassen‘s AYREON (unless you want to argue a case for Tobias Sammet‘s AVANTASIA). The 2004 album, The Human Equation is a deep look into emotions and humanity, as the main character finds himself in a coma, trapped with his emotions, trying to figure out what happened by delving into who he has become. Today we’re taking a track-by-track look into what makes this one of the best albums ever written.
So what is The Human Equation all about? While connected to the overall concept of the Forever that has covered around four or five of AYREON‘s albums to date, TTE at first comes off as unrelated to the story as a whole. It follows the main character, Me (James Labrie), following a mysterious car accident, who is in a coma accompanied by embodiments of his emotions, while his Best Friend (Arjen Lucassen) and Wife (Marcela Bovio) try to wake him up from the outside. Every song features a day of Me’s coma, totaling 20 days, as everyone tries to solve the mystery of the car accident, and what events in the past led up to that moment. In case you’ve been living in an anti-prog chamber for the past 10 years, spoilers abound.
The album starts off with “Day One: Vigil,” which is more of an introduction to the concept than a song in and of itself. It introduces us to Best Friend and Wife, who explain to the listener that Me is in a coma. You can hear the beeping of life support and the music is undeniably AYREON. There is skepticism and what could be denial or perhaps a hint of defensiveness from those on the outside. The sound of a car starting is heard, followed by an increase in the heart rate monitor, the squeal of tires, and an implied crash.
“Day Two: Isolation” is where the album truly starts, as Me “awakens” to find himself trapped in his own mind. I’ve always imagined him to be in a sort of dream-like state, trapped in different parts of his memories or in a sort of limbo with the personified emotions, depending on the song. He first encounters Fear (Mikael Åkerfeldt) and then the music kicks off with a wicked combination of organ/guitar that is one of the most iconic riffs from this album that still gets me hyped every time I hear it, knowing what is to come. Reason (Eric Clayton) appears and offers his services as a guide. Passion (Irene Jansen) and Pride (Magnus Ekwall) are also present in this track, amping up the epic levels. The point of this song is to set a bit of the scene for Me and explain that he is trapped inside a strange place with his embodied emotions. Me is also described as cold and in control by his emotions at this point. However, Love (Heather Findlay) also appears, offering her assistance as well, claiming to be the strongest of them all, and promising that Me is not alone. A choir joins in on the chorus later with Jansen and Ekwall, creating an absolutely phenomenal dynamic.
“Day Three: Pain” is where we get a good feel for what Me is feeling. The song is eerie and vaguely ominous, as Agony (Devon Graves) explains what he is and tells Me that he was never as strong as he pretended to be. Graves was one of many names I had never heard before this album and he is absolutely haunting in this song, with the music doing nothing but increasing this feeling. Me talks with Agony and, in the chorus, a wild mingling of voices takes over, including Devin Townsend screaming as Rage in the background. The song lightens up near the end, with some flute and violin riffing (is that what you’d call that?) as Love reappears to encourage Me through his confrontation with his own inner pain. This song works perfectly as an introduction to the other half of Me – “Day Two” suggests that he is cold and cruel, while “Day Three” suggests that this was all an act and that inside there is something suffering, but does not yet explain why.
“Day Four: Mystery” returns to the outside world, where Best Friend and Wife continue to discuss what “happened” before the accident. There was no reason for a car crash. It becomes evident that something had happened between the two and they wonder if Me had seen it, speculating over whether or not he will survive. Both of them sing the same lines to one another, but neither of them sounds particularly convinced. They have done something, and they are not admitting to one another (and likely themselves) that they are at least a part of the reason why Me is in a coma. They are also being unconvincingly optimistic, saying that they don’t think he’ll die, despite there being nothing to suggest that he will survive. In particular, the echoing and trading of vocals that comes and goes in the end is very vivid and creates some incredible imagery. The song ends with Passion, Pride, Love, and Agony singing Wife and Best Friend’s lines opposite Me. Again, Me does not seem very convinced of what he’s saying.
“Day Five: Voices” is an unusual song and is a personal highlight from the album, both musically and vocally. It starts with a long introduction, with flutes and violin, and is just generally beautiful. Pride then comes in, asking about these voices Me is hearing. Nearly all of the emotions have an opinion about the external voices of Wife and Best Friend, with Love encouraging Me to open up, while Fear tells him he was afraid to live and now fears death as well. Reason is sure that the voices will help him out of his mind, while Fear continues to suggest that Me is just hiding from the truth. Pride then suggests that Me fight for survival, confront his fears, and go forward, and while Me is hesitant, he agrees.
In “Day Six: Childhood,” we learn about Me’s youth from Agony and Fear, who inform the listener that Father had abandoned the family when Me was a child. Not only that, but he abused Me horribly and lied to his mother about it, though it doesn’t seem as though it was very subtle or believable. This song starts to paint a conflicting view of the mother, but I’ll get to that later. Ultimately, it sounds as though Me had/has no self-esteem largely as a result of the abuse and mockery he suffered as a child at the hands of Father. There is some suggestion that Me thinks or has thought that he should have been sad when Father left, but isn’t. The line “How could you learn to care, when nobody cares for you” is particularly harsh.
“Day Seven: Hope” is one of the bounciest songs, with Best Friend and Me reminiscing about their youth, suggesting that they have been best friends for the better part of their lives. This upbeat track does a great job of showing how much Best Friend genuinely cares and wants his friend back regardless, but there is still a degree of superficiality to it. Me wants to go with him and come back, but there is something heavy and painful holding him back. Eventually, Me breaks down and cries that, “There’s no way out, my whole world is black” while the music gets heavy. Something is preventing him from calling out to them.
This flows seamlessly into “Day Eight: School” which turns sad, as Fear comes to open up some more of Me’s past and the listener learns that Me was constantly bullied and laughed at, with no father to defend him and no friends to take his side. Rage is again present in this one, screaming in the background. There’s an incredible instrumental breakdown in this song, with fantastic drums/percussion by Ed Warby before a bit of a showdown between Reason and Pride. We learn where Me’s arrogance and ruthlessness came from and it sounds like he started fighting back, as Pride reminds him that he promised to get back at those who wronged him. Me admits that he got back at them, but couldn’t quit once he had started. The song fades out and then comes back into the choir of voices/growls before it ends.
“Day Nine: Playground” is perhaps the oddest track on the album, as it is an adaptation of Edvard Grieg‘s “Morning Mood” from “Peer Gynt” and is the only instrumental track on the album. It’s an interesting song choice and the sounds of children playing in the background create a certain feel to it, but the electric guitars make it truly soar. It’s beautiful, even if I’m not necessarily 100% sure about where the song fits into the scheme of the whole story.
“Day Ten: Memories” is the technical halfway point of the story, though not the album itself. Again, Best Friend and Wife worry that he isn’t waking up, as there is no medical reason for him to still be in a coma. They decide to recite some of their favorite memories of Me, such as when Me and Best friend bought flashy new bikes and crashed, or when Me proposed to Wife, but was so nervous that she thought he had lost his keys when he dropped to his knees. Towards the end, Love and Reason encourage Me to let Wife’s warmth in and open up to the memories of her.
This leads beautifully into another personal favorite, “Day Eleven: Love” which tells the story of how Me and Wife met at a party. I get chills every single time I hear this song, which has a gorgeous intro before Me begins to talk about when he first laid eyes on Wife at the party. Meanwhile, she sees him across the room, waiting for him to ask her to dance, constantly disappointed every time he passes her by. The chorus is absolutely chilling and massively powerful, as Me is both encouraged and warned – “remember your father / well you’re just like him … remember your mother / so lonely and sad / this will be her fate if you treat her as bad.” It’s love at first sight, but his issues with self-esteem hold him back, as expressed by emotions like Pride and Fear. Even though he thinks that no one else could ever love him, his attraction to her overpowers his fear, and they dance all night long. This ends disc 1 on an absolutely incredible note.
“Day Twelve: Trauma” starts off disc 2, following a short ambient intro song that reflects on the first disc’s themes, and then some dark and heavy bass suggests that this will not be a happy song. Reason tries to get Me to find his way out of his head, while Fear refuses to let him go. Åkerfeldt‘s growling in this song is gut-wrenchingly perfect, as the song tells the story of Me’s mother, who declined steadily after Father left them. It is suggested that she didn’t lead a very good life, ended up needing Me for support, and eventually died. Me feels a great deal of guilt about how things went with her.
This is the point where I get a confused image of the mother, as mentioned previously. The first track that mentions her, “Day Six: Childhood,” suggests that she accepted the Father’s lies about Me falling down the stairs; the two songs combined suggest that she truly loved the Father (“your mother died the day your Father left”). However, Me clearly feels guilty about her death, as Fear suggests that Me didn’t treat her well in the end either: “You hear her voice from beyond the grave / Where were you son when I needed you? / Is this the thanks for all the warmth I gave / Did you forget what I’d been through?” Perhaps this truly shows how guilty Me feels about his family, as I suspect that if the mother loved Father, she couldn’t have been that good of a mother, but because Father mistreated her as well, he feels that he should have shown her a better life while he had the chance. Did she truly show her child that much warmth if she loved the man who abused him? Regardless, this is the song that explains why Me began to bury his emotions and how he cut himself off from forming proper connections to others.
The story then moves on to “Day Thirteen: Sign,” which is one of the gentlest songs on the album, with soft guitar and flute opening with a sweet but tragic-sounding song. Love sings first, pointing out that Me had not shown the love he was capable of and encourages him to rediscover his feelings. Fantastically expressive guitars then come in, followed by a lovely violin, as Wife reaches out to Me, desperately trying to call him back to her. Seriously, how great is Marcela Bovio? Me, backed by flute and harpsichord, wonders how he could have treated Wife so badly and how she could have put up with him, wondering if it’s too late to fix things. Meanwhile, Wife and Best Friend see a tear fall from Me’s eye and then that he clenches his hand into a fist, and wonder if it is their fault and if they should be grateful he is still feeling something. Wife at this point seems a tad more hopeful, while Best Friend expresses more guilt.
We’re back into some straight-up metal with this “Day Fourteen: Pride” and I have to declare this to be easily one of the coolest songs on the album, though at this point they are all so great that it’s pretty silly to say that. Labrie and Ekwall show off their true colors in this song, as Me declares what’s in his heart, while Pride contradicts him and tells him how he’s actually behaved, debating love, compassion, and dreams. There’s a heavy guitar breakdown, with the flutes joining in, and this song is the tipping point where things start to build musically towards the climax. The guitar wails as news reels talking about the stock market, among other things, play in the background. In the end, Pride and Reason join forces, encouraging Me not to give in and to keep fighting.
One of the last transitions into darkness comes in “Day Fifteen: Betrayal,” as we at last learn the backstory of Me and Best Friend’s tension. The music is eerie, as Fear and Agony express that the two friends worked for the same firm and were both candidates for a promotion. It is revealed that Best Friend once tampered with the books when he messed up a deal and Me left evidence and got him fired, getting the promotion himself; his reasoning for this being his fear that Best Friend was a better man and more deserving. Reason and Passion encourage him to come clean. A violin and synth solo breaks the song in two, with Reason re-entering in an even more boisterous and thunderous manner, with Passion joining yet again. The song ends with Me admitting to himself that he needs to tell the truth.
“Day Sixteen: Loser” is perhaps the most unusual song on the album musically, as it heavily features an Australian didgeridoo. This is another personal highlight, as well as one of the few songs I can listen to out of the context of the full story. Tonally, this song obviously needs to be different because this is the song about the Father, performed by the late Mike Baker. This cocky, bouncy song expresses exactly how much of a piece of shit the Father is, as he visits his son in the hospital and calls him a loser for simply being in a coma and mocks his mother for being dead. He goes on to express that he’s got children all over the place, half of them in jail, and couldn’t care less. Can I just take a moment to express how friggin’ cool it is that they got Ken Hensley of URIAH HEEP to do the Hammond solo in this track? Because I am a huge fan of Ken Hensley‘s work via the Hammond. This is also perhaps Devin Townsend‘s shining moment on the album as well, as the only other vocalist in this song, who blasts any residual negative Father-related taint out of Me’s mind, screaming, “NEVER! NEVER! NEVER! NEVER! / You’re killing it from afar / Go tell it in a bar / You’re killing it from afar, my father!” as the song concludes. Townsend doesn’t contribute to collaborations often without writing his own lyrics and I think he nailed it on this occasion.
The beginning of “Day Seventeen: Accident?” somehow reminds me of a person, trapped by troubled thoughts, alone in a car, driving, and I imagine that was the exact intent of this music. The drums and bass come in as Reason explains that Me saw something, as Wife echoes in the background that she smiled at another man, that Best Friend and her had shared a tender moment together. I get seriously worked up every time I hear this song, when Agony comes in for the short chorus as the music picks up. Reason comes back to haunt him with truth, that he drove himself into the tree as he despaired after seeing the two of them together. Wife again expresses that they needed warmth and meant no harm. But goddamn, every time the organ and Devon Graves come in, I get chills all over my body and tears in my eyes. Passion knows Me has gone too far and without Wife (and likely, to a degree, Best Friend), truly, he has nothing. He lost everyone who meant something to him. “Love left you / Without me you’re all alone,” Agony sings and if that isn’t heartbreaking, I don’t know what is. And yet, doubt still keeps Me from waking up. But why?
Soft flutes open up “Day Eighteen: Realization” as we draw nearer and nearer to the end. Me now knows why he is where he is. The organ kicks the energy into overdrive, with the flutes coming in to keep the tone light and the guitars tagging them out, creating a perfect symbiosis of instruments. Goddamn this song is brilliant. The long intro is so varied that you can just feel the mental struggle that’s going on, with every instrument getting a turn. Extra props to Robert Baba‘s violins! Me’s emotions come into full conflict, as some of them tell him he should make them pay, while others encourage forgiveness. Me ignores the negative as he fights, accepting his problems and his blame for how he treated them both, and asks for their help as he shouts, “LET! ME! OUT!” as the song fades out.
Take your last breath here, if you can. in “Day Nineteen: Disclosure,” Best Friend comes back to confess what exactly happened between him and Wife. He was out of a job and alone, with no one to turn to, while Wife assures Me that she always loved him, but she was lonely as he had neglected her. They shared their distress, as friends. It’s unclear whether anything sexual or physical happened, or rather, did he just witness a moment of human tenderness and get overwhelmed by the harsh realization of what was happening. Best Friend admits now that he thinks Me saw them together and they both assure him that they were and are not in love, and beg for his forgiveness. The violins in this song again are heart-wrenching, and both Lucassen and Bovio bring tears to my eyes every time, with all the power and emotion they pack into their parts. And then the build-up in the end, as Love and Passion join forces to reassure him that Wife loves him and he shouldn’t keep her waiting, with Me declaring that he’ll come back to life and be the husband she deserves.
Oh man, the final song. “Day Twenty: Confrontation” is perfection. The slow build to the climax as it starts tip-toeing as Me draws Best Friend in close to confess his sins… “I have to tell you of my betrayal” is just… I have no words, as the music kicks off following that dark line. Best Friend declares that they are even and that Me needs to come back to them. Love and Wife roar in, telling him to cross the bridge, followed by the true AYREON musical power coming in. Agony welcomes him to reality, reminding him that there will always be pain, but he will be able to face it. Passion encourages him to prove he can be a better man. Drums and organs stomp forward as Reason tells him to wake up and rejoice, congratulating him on making the right choice. Pride encourages him to show that the old Me is gone and to start a new life. The music turns dark once more as Fear returns, asking if Me thinks he can handle it, but Me assures Fear that he deserves this chance. “Look at me… I’m alive.” Goddamnit, my skin lights on fire every time the song bursts into this epic climax. The cast comes together as a glorious choir to back Me up (full points to Bovio‘s gorgeous wail). The emotions roar to Me’s victory as he awakens and the song climaxes in such a way that I see fireworks in my head every time.
And suddenly, it’s over… “The human equation program aborted. Have a nice day.” And so we are introduced once more to the Forever. “Emotions. I remember…” But to understand more of that, we’ll need to listen to 0101101 and The Universal Migrator albums. But what a way to end the album and neatly tie things in to the rest of the AYREON universe!
It’s hard to summarize this album with mere words. The music is incredible, it has perhaps the best use of organs ever done by man, the harmonizing is unbelievable, it’s complex without being overwhelming, it’s emotionally powerful and dynamic, and the story is told perfectly in 20 songs without being too much or too little. There isn’t a single bad or out-of-place song on the album. Perhaps the best thing about this album, however, is not that it’s a great story well told, but rather, it teaches the listener about self-awareness, empathy, and understanding, as well as personal growth. While it may be a big heavy to listen to regularly, every re-listen allows for further emotional growth from the listener, as well as new nuances and details to discover. It is truly the gift that keeps on giving. On a very personal note, I would go so far as to say that this is the best album ever written due to the combined quality of the story and music.
Written by Bear Wiseman
- Day 1: Vigil
- Day 2: Pain
- Day 3: Pain
- Day 4: Mystery
- Day 5: Voices
- Day 6: Childhood
- Day 7: Hope
- Day 8: School
- Day 9: Playground
- Day 10: Memories
- Day 11: Love
- Day 12: Trauma
- Day 13: Sign
- Day 14: Pride
- Day 15: Betrayal
- Day 16: Loser
- Day 17: Accident?
- Day 18: Realization
- Day 19: Disclosure
- Day 20: Confrontation
Arjen Lucassen (Best Friend) – story, vocals, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, bass, mandolin, lap steel guitar, keyboards, synthesizers, Hammond
James Labrie (Me) – vocals
Marcella Bovio (Wife) – vocals
Eric Clayton (Reason) – vocals
Magnus Ekwall (Pride) – vocals
Devon Graves (Agony) – vocals
Mikael Åkerfeldt (Fear) – vocals
Irene Jansen (Passion) – vocals
Heather Findlay (Love) – vocals
Devin Townsend (Rage) – vocals
Mike Baker (Father) – vocals
Ed Warby – drums, percussion
Robert Baba – violin
Marieke van de Broek – cello
John McManus – low flute, whistle
Jeroen Goossens – flute, alto flute, bass flute, panpipes, descant, treble recorders, digeridoo, bassoon
Joost van de Broek – synthesizers, spinet
Martin Orford – synthesizers
Ken Hensley – Hammond
Oliver Wakeman – synthesizer
Interview Phantom Elite – “It’s always good to share that feeling that none of us is alone in hard times”