Tue. Dec 1st, 2020

REVIEW: Ayreon – Transitus (Musicalypse Archive)

Arjen Anthony Lucassen‘s progressive metal opera, AYREON, is back with another album, within a mere year of the release of the DVD of the “Electric Castle Live (and Other Tales)” show in September 2019. The newest release, entitled “Transitus,” is set for release on September 25th, 2020, via Mascot Label Group. Not involving the overarching theme of the Forever, this story is more horror/comic book-influenced, following the story of lovers Daniel and Abby, in a romance gone wrong.

Not wanting to spoil the story for those who want to hear it first from the album, this review will be almost exclusively centered around the music, but will mention who is singing in which songs and a very loose idea of where the story goes, without plot details.

Having been initially planned as a movie, the album’s style is partially reminiscent of BLIND GUARDIAN‘s “Nightfall in Middle Earth” in the way that the songs are balanced with narrative interludes, sometimes as separate songs but sometimes included in the song itself, that help to set the scenes. The first half of “Transitus” contains more of the hard-hitting rock/metal tracks that give the background of the tale, while the second contains more story-driven atmospheric tracks that push the narrative along. The songs are often more reminiscent of musicals in the vocal style, as they are singing largely to share story dialogue. Needless to say, this is not your normal AYREON metal opera album.

The album begins with a 10:23-long epic intro, “Fatum Horrificum,” whose opening will be familiar to anyone who’s seen the album’s trailer (above), with narration by Tom Baker of Doctor Who fame, setting the story for the listener. The album opens on a dark and mysterious, somewhat industrial (and very “AYREON“) note, building atmosphere before Baker comes in to tell the listener what kind of story they are about to hear. Once the listener is properly enticed, it switches sharply to a more classical sound with high operatic vocals, accompanied by stylish violin and piano, before kicking off as the scene climaxes, then switching into a more dynamic traditional heavy metal part. The climax builds back up as Latin lyrics (including the song’s title) come in via alternating male and female choirs.

Tommy Karevik plays one of the two leads, Daniel, who belts out a few words. The song twists into a more anxious tune after a while, where we meet Cammbie Gilbert, aka Abby, the other lead. We also get one more new character, Abby’s father, Abraham, played by Johanne James (did you know that this guy could sing, because we sure didn’t). The story is then moved forward with “Daniel’s Descent into Transitus,” with its sublime use of what is almost a combination of classical music and heavy metal as Karevik shows us why Lucassen likes to work with him so much.

We then meet a new character, the Angel of Death, voiced by returning cast member Simone Simons. “Listen to My Story” sounds like Alice Cooper meets “Dracula: Swing of Death” (2017; Jorn Lande & Tronde Holter) thanks to its use of groovy bass and big band -style jazzy/funky backing melodies; this “Angel of Death melody” returns for a few songs when the character is present and is welcome every single time. On top of this, the song features the Furies, played by Caroline Westendorp and another returning AYREON cast member, Marcella Bovio, creating a fantastic blend of superb voices.

“Two Worlds Become One” is the preliminary love song from the album, telling the tale of how Daniel and Abby met and fell in love. There are a lot of smooth guitar leads, as well as a lovely contribution from Gilbert. Daniel’s brother Henry, played by Paul Manzi, debuts in “Talk of the Town” with a very sleazy feel to his vocals while a more neoclassical vibe with harpsichord and dancing keys support him. Karevik and Gilbert also contribute to this song with different instruments seeming to represent both sides of the discussion.

“Old Friend” is another short story interlude with some preliminary vocals, acting more as an intro to the next track, “Dumb Piece of Rock.” It and “Get Out! Now!” are perhaps the two most lively and fun songs on the album – “Dumb Piece of Rock” is the de facto Mike Mills track where a statue comes to life to give Daniel an honest pep talk, with all of the trademark Mills vocal creativity that you hope for in an AYREON (or TOEHIDER) song. This song isn’t particularly necessary to the story, but if you want more Mills original songs in AYREON, this is a really fun addition to his contributions, with a lot of the bouncy QUEEN-influenced vocal layering and a ton of striking instrumentation to back it up. Conversely, “Get Out! Now!” is the most heavy metal song on the album, featuring Dee Snider in his sole performance on the album. Playing the role of Daniel’s Father, he sings his song backed up by the Servants, also played by Bovio and Westendorp. Coupled with some pure gold that is Joost van de Broek‘s synths and sweet 90s heavy metal guitars by Joe Satriani, the song is the most fist-pumping, singalong-able, rocking, groovy thing I’ve heard in ages. It’s also deliciously ironic if you contrast it lyrically with TWISTED SISTER‘s classic, “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”

The first disc concludes with a final short piece, “Seven Days Seven Nights,” which is mainly narrated, with a short vocal part by Simons and the Furies with a gentle melody, setting the stage for the more story-driven second half of the album. “You got this,” is very cheeky coming from Simons and the Angel of Death comes across as very likeable despite her cold exterior.

Moving on to the second, slightly longer half of the album, the story returns to the present day with “Condemned Without a Trial,” a feisty and climactic-sounding track with an anxious feeling, well-suited to the story it is portraying. Manzi has most of the vocals, as well as a backing choir, helping push the tense feeling along. “Daniel’s Funeral” is a dark, ominous song that really doesn’t have much to do with Daniel’s funeral, but more to do with Abby’s stepmother (and Abraham’s wife) Lavinia (Amanda Somerville) and Henry.

“The Human Equation” is one of the songs that includes the Angel of Death theme, as she and the Furies discuss their thoughts on the situation from afar, much at the Forever did in “The Human Equation” (2004), thus the basis for the reference. Delving into contrasting opinions on whether mankind are stupid and crazy or amazing and charming, the song is led by chugging guitars and Simons at her absolute most charming.

A large part of the second disc is made up of shorter tracks that are more story-driven. “Henry’s Plot” is a partially narrative track; as the music opens, Manzi shares vocal duties with Somerville, who is a delightful balance between devious and motherly. “Message from Beyond” is also partly narrated as an ominous guitar line leads the way for the other instruments to join in as lurking and mystical Somerville and innocent and heartbroken Gilbert sing, combining into a powerful chorus. “Daniel’s Vision” is a mainly narrative track with a brief vocal part by Karevik that sets the scene for “She is Innocent,” a tense piece that spends its entire dynamic length building up until it bursts. The music kicks up a notch and gets heavier as Baker forwards the narrative to a scene with Abraham and Lavinia. The music takes a turn for the dramatic in “Inferno,” as Abraham goes to look for Abby. The use of organs, heavy guitars, and James‘ really cool voice make for a very strong piece leading towards the end of the story.

After Baker shares a turn of events following “Inferno,” the listener is taken back to Transitus to meet the Angel of Death for the last time, revisiting that delightful theme yet again. This last burst of energy from the Angel and her Furies is wonderfully conclusive, bringing quite a few threads to their conclusions.

The album then wraps up with “Abbey in Transitus” and “The Great Beyond.” Initially, there was some confusion over this as our promo had these two songs in the wrong order, leading to us wondering what on earth was wrong with the way everything ended. Fortunately everything was cleared up! The first of these, “Abby in Transitus,” starts out with a combination of wailing electric guitar and stylish keyboards leading to Baker‘s final narration, which is backed by nothing more than the sound of wind. A final melody appears as Gilbert sings the final notes, heading towards a peaceful conclusion as the music swells one last time. In the final track, the lead roles meet one more time and we hear Karevik and Gilbert together one last time, accompanied by flutes and a strong dynamic build-up led by the drums and an incredible wail from Gilbert before Karevik gets a huge boost from the backing music to create an utterly fantastic wrap-up piece that throws back to prior moments and melodies from throughout the album. It’s a fabulous conclusion to the album with pretty much everything you could ask for.

This album was certainly a change from the norm with AYREON. It has the potential to be different enough to shake things up for fans who may have gotten bored with the industrial/electronic vibes and may bring in all-new fans due to its unique sound and horror-oriented story. That said, it’s also “Ayreon” enough to please most existing fans, as a lot of the trademark elements of AYREON are still present, subtly or overtly. The stage musical style of storytelling makes many of the songs less accessible as single entities, but the album as a whole piece is easy to listen to (it’s not as emotionally heavy and existential as “The Human Equation” or “The Source” (2017), for example) – good to put on in the background or for active listening, though many of the songs don’t work as well outside of the full context of the album as on other AYREON albums. It also has an exceptionally accessible sound without resorting to dull or generic “mainstream” melodies – everything is just as complex and unique as ever. “Transitus” should be on everyone’s list of albums to check out for this year.

Written by Bear Wiseman
Musicalypse, 2020
OV: 2106

Tracklist

Disc 1

  1. Fatum Horrificum
  2. Daniels’ Descent into Transitus
  3. Listen to My Story
  4. Two Worlds Now One
  5. Talk of the Town
  6. Old Friend
  7. Dumb Piece of Rock
  8. Get Out! Now!
  9. Seven Days Seven Nights

Disc 2

  1. Condemned Without a Tril
  2. Daniel’s Funeral
  3. Hopelessly Slipping Away
  4. This Human Equation
  5. Henry’s Plot
  6. Message from Beyond
  7. Daniel’s Vision
  8. She is Innocent
  9. Lavinia’s Confession
  10. Inferno
  11. Your Story is Over!
  12. Abby in Transitus
  13. The Great Beyond

Lineup

Arjen Anthony Lucassen – story, songwriting, guitars, bass, keyboards, glockenspiel, dulcimer, toy piano

Tom Baker (narration) – vocals

Tommy Karevik (Daniel) – vocals

Cammie Gilbert (Abby) – vocals

Simone Simons (Angel of Death) – vocals

Marcella Bovio (Fury, Servant) – vocals

Caroline Westendorp (Fury, Servant) – vocals

Amanda Sommerville (Lavinia) – vocals

Johanne James (Abraham) – vocals

Paul Manzi (Henry) – vocals

Dee Snider (Father) – vocals

Mike Mills (statue) – vocals

Label

Mascot Label Group

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