Sun. Oct 25th, 2020

REVIEW: Ayreon – Transitus

Arjen Anthony Lucassen has been very busy in the last couple of years: the “Ayreon Universe” shows and a festival appearance, the anniversary shows for “Electric Castle,” and the subsequent DVD releases. Yet somewhere amidst these plans, he found the time to write a new progressive rock opera for AYREON, “Transitus,” which will see the light of day on 25 September 2020, via Mascot Label Group

Initially planned as a movie, on the first spin “Transitus” reminded me of two important pieces in the history of rock: Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” and Jeff Wayne’s “The War of the Worlds.” The album foremost feels like a musical, focusing more on dialogue and the relationships between the different characters than anything AYREON has ever released so far. The story is tied up together with Tom Baker’s (known from “Doctor Who”) incredible narration, adding a suspense that makes “Transitus” quite unique in AYREON’s repertoire. The album has a very different feel to it but still sounds familiar.

The story centers around two star-crossed lovers, Daniel (played by Tommy Karevik) and Abby (played by Cammie Gilbert) who are desperately in love. Set in Victorian times, the tale addresses issues of differences in race and social class, ideas that are sadly still relevant in this age. With a supernatural twist, AYREON makes a somewhat more traditional love story their own and prove once again that true love transcends everything. 

“Fatum Horrificum” has the honor of kicking off the album and serves as an Ouverture, introducing the most important motives of the album to the listener, as well as simply beginning the story. From the first minute, AYREON sets the tone of the album: dark, grim, and serious. The first notes are almost robotic, but create the atmosphere of the story before the main motive kicks in along with Tom Baker setting the story. After that, the piece turns into a progressive inferno, becoming more and more dramatic as it goes on, revealing the mysterious fate of our main character, Daniel. We’re also introduced to his lover Abby, who has a dialogue with her father Abraham (played by Johanne James). While Johanne James is mostly known as the drummer of THRESHOLD, apparently he also has a magnificent voice that blends in very well with Cammie Gilbert’s powerful belting. 

The track ends with the opening of a door and flows beautifully into “Daniel’s Descent into Transitus.” Tommy Karevik has his first solo performance in this track and it’s, to say the least, impressive. In previous works with AYREON, Karevik has shown off his vocal skills already, but with “Transitus” he takes it to another level. His voice is soulful, dramatic, and on point. The next track, “Listen to my Story,” is reminiscent of the intro track “Heaven on Their Minds” from the aforementioned “Jesus Christ Superstar,” where Judas is confronting Jesus with his latest deeds. The song shares the same kind of funk, especially in the bass melodies. In the track, Daniel is in dialogue with Simone Simons, who plays the role of the Angel of Death in the story and is introduced in this track; some of the lines she sings are motives and return later on during other tracks as well, which altogether ties the story together in the same way a musical does. 

The tale of how Daniel and Abby fell in love becomes clear in the mellow, laid-back love song, “Two Worlds Now One.” The track starts with beautiful jazzy guitar lead melodies and then transforms into a mainly piano-driven piece with incredible drumming work and of course incredible vocal performances by Karevik and Gilbert. Paul Manzi is introduced in “Talk of the Town” as Daniel’s brother, Henry (which, if you’re a fan of AYREON’s material, is a reference to Lucassen’s brother, Gjalt. This should already give you a little bit of a hint in terms of character development and his fate). “Talk of the Town” is a really fun track that has plenty of trademark AYREON melodies – progressive, but a little bit folky at the same time, an epic composition filled with impressive musical contributions. In a track like this, it becomes obvious that Lucassen had intended this as a movie (here’s to hoping the movie project someday will happen, I’m sure this scene would be killer).

“Old Friend” is an interlude to introduce what is probably the most fun track on the album, “Dumb Piece of Rock,” which turned out to be the perfect way to sneak Mike Mills into “Transitus.” Mills, who is comfortable with any kind of role, plays a statue coming to life to motivate Daniel in his quest. While the main aim for Lucassen to have this track on the album was to bring in Mike Mills, the track is not excessive and while the story could have probably lived without this scene, it’s not a filler track on the album. Those who are smitten with Mills’ voice will definitely adore this humorous, cheeky composition. 

“Get Out! Now!” features the legendary Dee Snider, playing the role of Daniel’s father. This was one of the tracks released as a single, probably because it’s the heaviest and catchiest track on the album, totally fitting the needs of Snider as a vocalist; this track was truly written for him. “Seven Days Seven Nights” concludes the first disc and, while a short track, it feels like this was meant as the piece that would precede an intermission. It wraps up the first part of the story, where the Angel of Death gives Daniel a task to save his beloved Abby and during the musical, would definitely be that cliffhanger where you would be like, “Oh come on, I need the second part NOW!” 

The story returns with another groovy, dramatic track, “Condemned Without a Trial.” The dialogue between Manzi and the villagers is outstanding, where every line is sung by a different person, making it extra dramatic. The backing choirs bring in different climaxes throughout the song and are pushed forward by great keyboard melodies, along with the flute. “Daniel’s Funeral” is as dramatic as its title, it’s probably the darkest song on the album, and the tense atmosphere is mostly created by incredible soprano lines delivered by Dianne Van Giersbergen. She’s only singing these for a fraction of a second, but it’s truly one of the highlights of this album, creating an ominous, chill-inducing soundscape, which introduces Abraham’s wife and Abby’s stepmother, Lavinia (played by Amanda Sommerville) for the first time. 

“Hopelessly Slipping Away” is probably the most emotional song on the album. The ballad centers around Cammie Gilbert and truly showcases why she was chosen for the role of Abby. With an incredible performance, she really delved into putting the right kind of emotions that this track requires. Lucassen had commented during our interview how, in EPICA’s music, we only really get to see Simone Simons’ serious side. With “The Human Equation” he breaks any expectations we had of the vocalist and lets her sing a tongue-in-cheek, fun part that, while a little bit peculiar at first, totally works well for her voice and showcases how much of a diverse singer Simons is. In the track, she questions humanity together with the Furies (Marcela Bovio and Caroline Westendorp, who have also been present in a few other songs, such as their role as The Servants in “Get Out! Now!”). For the die-hard fans, yes, this is a reference to “The Human Equation” (2004). 

“Henry’s Plot” is a bit of a slower track, mostly aimed at building the story and driving it further. It’s a short dialogue containing Manzi and Somerville‘s scheming. “Message from the Beyond” starts with Tom Baker’s dramatic narration and a bass line guiding his voice to a track that is mostly based on building tension through the instruments. On top of that, Somerville’s vocal performance is on point and blends in beautifully with Gilbert’s melancholic vocals. The narrative continues with “Daniel’s Vision” and a short but dramatic reprise of “Seven Days Seven Nights” by Karevik

The second part of the album definitely has a different pace and atmosphere than the first part. For instance, “She is Innocent” is a lot darker and most of the songs on the second disc have a faster pace but a shorter run-time and are more dynamic due to building tension for the listener, which ultimately gives that cinematic feel to it. “Lavinia’s Confession” follows the same style and, while a little bit heavier, gives a beautiful insight into the dynamics of Abraham and Lavinia. Here again, Johanne James shows his incredible vocal talent (if anyone can tell me where else I can listen to this man’s voice, please let me know). The dramatic arch continues into “Inferno” as the story climaxes with choirs and with a build-up by the drums, the story takes a final leap of fate before it unwinds again, with the lighter and cheeky “Your Story is Over,” again introducing the Angel of Death and her Furies

The story, however, comes together with a heartwarming ending, where Abby and Daniel are reunited once more in Transitus. While their fates were tragic, at least they can be together. This is also clear in the music, “Abby in Transitus” and “The Great Beyond,” which are relatively more hopeful than the rest of the album and, at the same time, reprise some of the earlier introduced motives, with the difference that they are more powerful, as now our main characters have found one another once again. When I received the promo, I admit I was a little bit confused by the ending of the album, as the story ended with “Abby in Transitus” and I couldn’t believe how Lucassen would leave an album without an epic climax and frankly a bit uninspired. Luckily, I noticed later on that somehow the label had sent me the last tracks in the wrong order, giving “Transitus” the ending that it deserves with “The Great Beyond.” The last track is perfect because it reprises a lot of the themes, as is usual in musicals, and ends the story on a positive note and is proof of how thought-out the order of the tracks really is, as changing these tracks completely shifted the dynamics for me.

Being a huge fan of musicals and rock operas like “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Tommy,” I’m happy to tell you that this one can be added to the list of great rock opera classics. “Transitus” contains a lot of fresh songs with catchy choruses, dramatic dialogues, and overall creates a tense soundscape exploring themes of horror, afterlife, and love. “Jesus Christ Superstar” started out as an album but then later turned into a fully-fletched musical and I so hope that this is going to happen for “Transitus” as well. While the story is pretty clear when you listen to the album, if you want a more detailed overview of the events, the graphic novel is required to get the complete picture. While “Transitus” is vibrant and refreshing, something new and original for the AYREON fans, it has still the same amount of familiar sounds and hooks that listeners fell in love with over the years. The overall flow of the album is incredible and provides a very cinematic experience, with beautiful dramatic arcs from front to back. This is the kind of album to put on to listen to from beginning to end for an immersive and relaxing musical experience and don’t we all agree that in these trying times, that might just be what we need in order to forget the world around us? “Transitus” is definitely the ultimate piece of escapism in music. 

Tracklist

Disc 1

1. Fatum Horrificum

2. Daniel’s 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 Trial

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. The Great Beyond

13. Abby in Transitus

Label

Mascot Label Group

Links

www.facebook.com/ArjenLucassenOfficial
www.instagram.com/ayreon_official
www.arjenlucassen.com

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