Interview with Arjen Lucassen — “The most versatile Star One album so far.”

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After releasing Transitus,” an album that was 3 years in the making, progressive metal composer Arjen Lucassen thought it was time to do something a little bit more straightforward. He started writing and ended up with a brand new STAR ONE album, Revel in Time,” released on February 18th, 2022, via InsideOut Music. We talked with the composer about the new album. Read the complete interview here…

Hi Arjen and thank you for taking the time to do this interview! The last time we talked was during the release of “Transitus,” so not that long ago.

A year ago, maybe a bit more than a year ago?

How have you been since then? I presume you’ve kept yourself busy.

I’m always busy and totally busy. “Transitus” took a long time to make… that was 3 years of work. And STAR ONE was much easier to make… just plug in the guitar and go. It took maybe – where “Transitus” took 3 years, STAR ONE maybe took like 3 weeks, 3 months, maybe. So yeah, but I always keep busy.

That was going to be one of my questions, actually, because I remember you talked a lot about how long it took for you to make “Transitus.” Was that one of the reasons for doing the STAR ONE album, because you were able to follow your intuition a little bit more than with AYREON?

Totally. I wanted a more spontaneous album. I didn’t want to… all these different layers and “Transitus” was almost a musical. And it was very vocally oriented. It was not based on guitar riffs. In fact, there weren’t many instrumental parts, there weren’t many solos and stuff. So I thought let’s make a guitar-based album with lots of solos and with lots of singers, and more straightforward, the basic setup of drums, bass, keyboards, vocals… so no violins, no cellos, no trumpets, no horns, no dulcimers. [laughs] More straightforward, like a simple hard rock/metal album basically.

That hard rock element is definitely in there. I heard a couple of the DEEP PURPLE influences on this record.

Oh yes, DEEP PURPLE is never far away. I’m just a huge Blackmore fan. So that’s the stuff I grew up on. “Made in Japan” was the first hard rock album I heard back in the early ’70s. And “Rainbow Rising” is probably my favorite rock album of all time. So yeah, it’s bound to surface in my music somewhere.

I think I heard it in “Lost Children of the Universe,” the keyboards sound inspired by “Child in Time.”

I know, yeah. “Child in Time,” a bit of URIAH HEEP maybe, like “July Morning.” I just love the sound of the Hammond, ever since I heard Jon Lord and later on Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman. I love that sound. Sometimes I try not to use it on an album, but I mostly fail. It’s like, “ah maybe a little part,” and before you know it, it’s all over the place. [laughter]

Yeah, I’m actually also a huge Rick Wakeman fan. One of my favorite keyboard players.

Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Such great sounds and [he is] such a great player. Of course, I’ve had the pleasure to work with him a couple of times. A great guy as well. Very funny guy.

I can see that. Anyway, was this album also a little bit of an excuse for you to re-watch some of your favorite sci-fi movies?

Of course. I mean it’s a bonus, you know. Make an album and watch a movie. But yeah, I have to say in some of the cases, it was movies that I saw when I was like, only 20 years old or whatever and I saw them [again] now. And it was like, “hmm, they didn’t age so well.” So some movies were hard to get through, it’s just times change. You know, things are so much faster now. You really have to get used to the slow speed of the old movies, but I wanted to include them anyway because they were such a big part of my life.

Yeah, were there any movies that you originally wanted to do tracks of but then you decided not to include?

Oh, yes. Well, time travel is one of my favorite subjects. You know, I love it. I always loved all the movies. So I bought them all, they’re in my DVD case here. I just stood in front of my cupboard and I just picked out all the movies that had to do with time. And I think there must have been thirty or forty movies. I only have eleven songs so it was really hard. Sometimes for a song, I had like three or four options. It’s like, which one should I take? Mostly I took the movie that I felt fit the song the most, like you have a really fast song, as the album’s opener. Obviously, that’s going to be Terminator. And you have this really dark, slow, cryptic song. Obviously, that should be Donnie Darko, or like you said, “Lost Children of the Universe,” it’s a big, big epic song. So it should be Interstellar. So basically, that’s the way I was thinking.

Was there any specific thinking behind picking the right vocalist for each song? For instance, if you take Brittney Slayes (UNLEASH THE ARCHERS), she has such a powerful, brutal voice that it only makes sense that she would sing on a song about Terminator.

It was a bonus that Brittney turned out to be a huge Terminator fan. She said, oh it’s my favorite movie ever. And I didn’t know, how could I know? But it feels that way. If you look at her videos and if you look at our interviews, you know that she’s a fan of that kind of stuff. So I think that really helps. It really helps if a singer likes to move to put something extra in.

Most sci-fi movies are also known for their soundtracks and for specific sounds they use with synths, like if you take Blade Runner or even Star Wars. Were there any specific sounds you used to honor those soundtracks?

No, because I work the other way around. I first had the songs and then I picked the movies, so of course, I could have maybe put a hint in here and there, but it’s dangerous. You don’t want to get into legal matters with Hollywood. If you do that kind of stuff where people recognize it, you get copyright infringement and it’s scary, so no, I didn’t do that.

Obviously one of the main differences with the prior STAR ONE albums is that the vocals went another way because of COVID. Did you find the process interesting this time around and is it something you might do more often?

I loved it because there are so many singers I want to work with. You know, there are singers that I grew up listening to like Joe Lynn Turner and Tony Martin and Jeff Scott Soto. To be able to work with these guys is the biggest compliment I can get, but also you mentioned Brittney and Brandon Yeagley and Ross Jennings and there were so many cool new singers that I wanted to work with too. Basically, I made the best out of it. It gave me an excuse to work with a lot of singers and I think if I would do another STAR ONE [album], I would… I don’t know now, but I think I would do this again. Also, I don’t know if you have been following it, but on Facebook, I did these guessing games, where I played like a little fragment of the vocals and then people had to guess who it was. That was fun. [laughter] And for that reason alone, it was cool that I had so many musicians, there are more than thirty musicians on this album, because I could do this game for, I think, for three or four months. So yeah, that was a good excuse to sell. Maybe I’ll keep AYREON for the dialogue singing, for several singers in one track. Like the track “The Day That The World Breaks Down” has eleven singers in it. I think that’s very AYREON. Maybe I’ll keep STAR ONE this way with with one singer. I don’t know.

One difference was also that you couldn’t go to the studio together, I guess. You had to make really packed guide vocals for that. Were you a bit anxious to work with new people then?

Oh yeah, it’s terrible. Every time a singer or guitar player or any instrumentalist sent me the tracks, it was always… the first time listening was always like, “oh is it going to be good.” I know it’s going to be good because they’re great, but is it gonna be what I had in mind or could it be better. So yeah, that’s extremely scary. But the guide vocals were so good. I had to make sure that the guide vocals were of a really high level so they would raise the bar for the eventual singer. So I knew that the singers would get the guide vocals and think like, holy shit, I gotta do better than this. And they’re all professionals. So if I would have comments – which I have, I am a terrible control freak – I would just say, “can you add this or can you change that? Can you sing that line longer?” and it was no problem. They just did it. I hope that in the end, they realized again, indeed this works better.

Now, you also mentioned the guide vocals, and of course, there is a second disc. I know that you really liked those versions, so it’s pretty clear why you wanted them there. But one thing I couldn’t help but think is that it creates a certain layer to the theme of this record where the second disc feels like it could be a parallel universe of some kind.

It’s a cool thought. And maybe I should say yes, yes, you’re right indeed. It’s a parallel universe. But no, it was simply that these guide vocals were so good that I wanted everyone to hear them. But yeah, it’s cool to hear two different interpretations of a song and sometimes they are pretty close, and sometimes they’re very different from each other. Then you can hear that the song suddenly gets like a very different feel with a different kind of singer.

Now, something that was also different from the previous STAR ONE albums is the cover art. You decided to go with Jeff Bertels. I think he did a few AYREON covers as well. I’m not sure about STAR ONE. It has a very different feel and I was wondering why you kind of wanted to move away from the first ones?

I have no rules. I knew if I would use Jeff Bertels, who did all of my AYREON covers, I knew if I would use him for STAR ONE, there would be a lot of fans saying but yeah he is the STAR ONE artist. I’ve got no rules. And for this album, I was thinking of the cover and I thought, “well something with time”… and I thought I want this huge time vault, you know, this huge hole with all these little clocks and one big central block. Well, it’s behind me as you see, like a little landscape there, and I was just describing Jeff Bertels. I just had Jeff Bertels in my head. I haven’t used him for a while, the last couple of AYREON albums, I didn’t use him. Basically, I had no more room in my house for his paintings. There was no more space. But now I moved to a bigger place and we have this big empty wall. So I was like, Jeff, can you make like a huge 150 by 120 painting for me. I explained the whole concept to him. And he loves time travel movies. He sent me a few sketches. We’ve been working on it together. I think this album deserves a Jeff Bertels, let’s put it that way.

I really like it when bands commission oil paintings and such. It reminds me of YES and Roger Dean.

I know, I know. They have their Roger Dean. But then again, there’s no rule because Roger Dean also did URIAH HEEP or whatever. He did so many other covers. He’s my Roger Dean. I don’t think there’s anyone else who has used him so far. Maybe they’re like, “that’s really AYREON, we shouldn’t do that.” Or maybe it’s just too expensive. If you get a computer artist and he makes something on his computer digitally, it’s a big difference to make a huge oil painting like this, this is months of work. So, obviously, it’s not cheap, but it’s worth it. Again, it’s worth it. And it gets a beautiful place in my house.

Yeah, maybe other artists don’t really have space in their homes for huge oil paintings.

Could be.

I found a quote from you from a very long time ago, where you mention that you are against sequels because you were afraid that you couldn’t capture the same atmosphere as you did in “Space Metal.” So you weren’t sure if you were ever going to do a STAR ONE album again. This was after the first one. Do you feel like you succeeded with its two successors?

The good thing is that I did not try to make it better. Or I did not try to make an album in the same style. I tried to make a different album and definitely with the second album, “Victims of the Modern Age,” I succeeded in that because “Space Metal” is kind of like a catchy album [sings “Songs of the Ocean” and “Intergalactic Space Crusaders”]. It’s like a sing-along, some catchy tracks, and “Victims Of The Modern Age” is dark, you know, it’s a very dark, very heavy album. It doesn’t have any catchy tracks, which I noticed when I was putting together the live shows of AYREON, I don’t want to play STAR ONE songs. People often ask me, “why didn’t you take a ‘Victims of the Modern Age’ track?” But I felt there were no standout songs. Which is not a bad thing, you know? It’s just that album is really a unity. It’s yeah, it’s not a versatile album. You know it’s an album with a certain sound. So what I wanted to do is make an album with a great heavy sound like “Victims Of the Modern Age” and catchy melodies like “Space Metal.” The most versatile STAR ONE album so far.

Is that why you chose to also include lighter tracks like “Prescient?”

Exactly! The good thing about the concept of time travel is that I could pick dark movies like Donnie Darko but also lighter movies like Groundhog Day. “Prescient” is really the odd song on this album. It’s the only song with acoustic guitars. To be honest, it’s not really a STAR ONE song, it’s too proggy for that. But I like it so much that I decided to include it. And I’m the boss! [laughter] 

Speaking of that song, its lyrics are sort of complex and abstract. Was that to reflect on the complex nature of Primer?

Absolutely! It was way too complex for me, so I asked my big hero Micheal Mills to write the lyrics for this one. I have this circle of trust around me to who I play all the material too, even the early demos. “Prescient” was their favorite track by far, so I decided to include it on the album, even though it’s more of an AYREON song. Micheal and Ross‘ voices work perfectly with each other. I think those complicated layered vocals are something Ross has been doing perfectly with his own band, HAKEN.

Your live productions are huge productions where people all over the world come to see your shows. I am guessing that with the current climate you’re not sure yet whether you can organize a show or not. What are some of the other things you have planned? 

We planned an AYREON show in 2021, but obviously, that couldn’t go ahead. So we now moved it to 2023; hopefully, it will be possible again then. Apart from that, I’m going to re-mix the AYREON “Universal Migrator” albums for a re-release in September this year, also a 5.1 mix and vinyl of course.

Thank you so much for the interview! Do you have any last thoughts you want to share with your fans? 

You’re very welcome, my pleasure! I really hope everyone will love the album, please let me know! Also if you totally hate it. I try to answer everyone if I can! Thanks in advance for reading this interview and listening to my music, I’m honored [laughs].

Written by Laureline Tilkin