Ayreon – Transitus (Album Review)

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Insofar as epic double-LP multi-vocalist story-driven progressive rock concept albums are a genre, Arjen Lucassen reigns as the heavyweight champion of the world, at least in the tall skinny hippie division. Although Arjen’s coincidentally similar “Ayreon” project took flight in 1995, it really did not reach cruising altitude until 1998’s “Electric Castle” masterpiece, a lovingly campy “Bill and Ted” soap opera of historical caricatures, and the first to really hint at the extra-worldly beings of Planet Y, in Ayreon lore. Arjen, the producer-writer multi-instrumentalist mastermind of these albums, went on to bring us the Universal Migrator albums, another versatile science fiction fantasy romp, before really rocking the music world with “Human Equation,” a very human opera of love and betrayal, all secretly another Migrator project, perhaps again relating to Planet Y lore.

This was followed in 2008 by “01011001,” the binary of the letter Y. It was a darker album, with less character-driven drama and more generalized angst about the human condition at large. After some hiatus from other projects, Arjen seemed to have also taken a break from the canon of the usual Ayreon universe with “The Theory of Everything,” which while having no specific correlation to Stephen Hawking, does tell a tale of jealousy, parental roles, competition revolving around life as a savant of the sciences, with perhaps a small dose of Algernon. As a whole, the flavor was more like “Human Equation,” and is better for it. This was followed by the most recent album “The Source,” which perhaps bears more thematic resemblance to “01011001,” in that it focuses on the societal follies of Planet Y.

After amassing 25 years’ worth of cult following, and delivering some of the most bombastic live productions of his work, Arjen has delivered a new Ayreon album in 2020, this time entitled “Transitus.” This album is a nineteenth century Shakespearean tragedy with a prominent supernatural component. As with “Human Equation,” the characters are named and defined as individual characters (or supernatural beings). To summarize without spoiling greatly, a stately manor in the 1800s is the estate of a father figure performed by Dee Snider, while the roles of his two sons protagonist Daniel and antagonist Henry are delivered by Tommy Karevik (Kamelot, Seventh Wonder) and Paul Manzi (Arena) respectively. The son Daniel is madly in forbidden love with Abby, one of the serving girls, performed by Cammie Gilbert (Oceans of Slumber). Young Abby’s parents are performed by Amanda Somerville and Johanne James. The less mortal roles are Toehider’s Mike Mills as a living statue, Epica’s Simone Simons as the Angel of Death, and Marcela Bovio and Caroline Westendorp as The Furies. Dianne van Giersbergen (no relation to Anneke) of Ex Libris handles soprano parts of the album’s score, and the whole story is narrated by Tom Baker of Doctor Who fame.

Now that you have been thoroughly geeked out by more information about Ayreon and “Transitus” than you can shake an eight-string guitar at, let us get down to the experience of the album itself. First, it should be said that Arjen was not positive about whether this should be an Ayreon album at all. From its conception, it was evident that this would be a bit more opera than rock. In the first track, “Fatum Horrificum,” the music and the foreword by Tom Baker provide adequate foreshadowing for the tale of tragedy to come. Instrumentally, there’s a sort of “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” vibe, complete with Arjen’s unmistakable guitar playing, before the Latin chorus joins to cast us to the deepest depths of “Iced Earth.” The Latin seems to be the usual cheerful “your fate is sealed, now go to Hell and think about what you’ve done” sort of content. The listener is led through more instrumental overture before hearing the rueful despair of Abby and her father Abraham, and without context, presumably to prompt the listener to wonder what it’s about.

As this is the sort of “Pulp Fiction” where the story is told out of sequence, our narrator informs us that Daniel’s tormented soul is already cast down into the quasi-Purgatory of Transitus, so we know before the story even gets underway that his courtship of Abby does not exactly proceed as planned. Tommy Karevik does a great job as he always does with any body of work. In the subsequent track, we find a groovy-heavy little jam as Daniel’s character attempts to plead his case to Simone Simons as the Angel of Death, along with her BFF’s “the Furies.” They seem rather nonplussed, since they evidently listen to mortal moans all day as it is. But given the chance to tell them his sad tale, the album proceeds back to his halcyon days of life in 1883, and his first encounter with Abby. Paired with some delightfully Migrator-era Arjen guitar leads, the romantic tragedy proceeds to unfold for the listener.

In the interest of spoiler avoidance, let’s leave the story there. What happens to Daniel? What is his goal in the afterlife? Can his soul be saved? Do Daniel and Abby listen to “Unchained Melody” and make pottery? Only the remaining 20 tracks of the album will tell. However, here are some takeaways. The vocalists handle themselves quite well. When Daniel’s brother makes appearances, it’s just like listening to the latest Arena record, most notably “The Legend of Elijah Shade.” Simone actually manages to sound incredulously snarky, until the plight of Daniel and Abby manages to win the sympathy of the Angel. “Dumb Piece of Rock,” musically bears a great deal of resemblance to some of the folk-metal staples of “Human Equation,” with Mike Mills doing his usual exceptional work with incredible range and technique, although the talking statue seems to have no bearing on the rest of the story. It’s the sort of scene that most directors end up leaving on the cutting room floor. The one and only Dee Snider is a perfect fit for the disapproving father figure; he’s not gonna take it. Anymore. What will always be taken (gladly) is a Satch solo, which works surprisingly well as part of a parental eviction track.

On the second half of the album, wherein Daniel has seven days and seven nights to make things right, Cammie acquits herself admirably as Abby. The depth of her timbre is perfectly complimentary to Tommy’s range. The main highlight of the second disc may actually be Marty Friedman transporting us back to some of his best phrasing since “Dragon’s Kiss” and “Rust in Peace.” The leads and harmonized parts are just, well, it’s Marty. So very possibly the best guitarist alive. The song “Abby in Transitus” opens up with some of the most nostalgic Ayreon writing and playing, invoking a bit of “Castle” and “Migrator.” The final track, “The Great Beyond” builds to a crescendo, with one last belting finisher by Tommy, a bit like LaBrie’s finish upon waking up in “Human Equation.”

In all, “Transitus” is possibly the weakest of all Ayreon album releases. “Actual Fantasy” was a bit rough and yet had the energy and potential energy of something new. “The Source” did not particularly knock our socks off, but it was more cohesive and more recognizably a proper Ayreon album. While “Transitus” has exceptional musicianship, great singers, great guitar players and some solid execution, it falls flat as a body of work. Where “Migrator” had a proggy synth side, and a power-packed prog metal side, “Castle” and “Equation” had a fusion of both, mixed seamlessly like chocolate and peanut butter. “Transitus,” well, it sort of has neither. The writing is more like Jim Steinman and Paul O’Neill, with more Broadway Producer dreams than Leo Bloom. Sacrificing the usual Ayreon bombast for narrative storytelling might have been granted latitude if not for the fact that the story is just not compelling. The “us and them” class strife paradigm wears thin in the same way the “modernity is killing us all” narrative does in “01011001,” where we have Ty Tabor forced to sing to us about how Manbearpig is coming. Super Cereal. Even removing that, the whole story makes little sense, nor do the motivations of the characters, really. Perhaps the full comic book will make some more sense of things after the album hits the streets with all its included goodies, but for right now, it seems like it fails terribly to do in two discs what “Scenes from a Memory” accomplished  masterfully in just one. We’re not going to get bogged down in plot-related questions, in the interest of spoilers, but unfortunately this story just does not resonate on an emotional level the way Human Equation did. The whole cast just becomes a bit annoying, and the final song is more relief than bittersweet farewell.

That being said, being the weakest Ayreon album is still not necessarily a place of shame. Unfortunately, Arjen has done himself the ultimate disservice; setting the bar so high with previous work that it sets a new standard impossible to meet. The real tragedy here is not the fate of Daniel and Abby; rather, it is that this was a story and concept with so much squandered potential. Had the story been better crafted, and the album better fleshed out with more traditional Ayreon musical elements, this really could have been one to remember. Instead, it’s a bit of an amateur theatrical production with little in the way of memorable songs. Better than most albums by others, but a distinct disappointment as far as the Ayreon universe is concerned.

Released By: Music Theories Recordings
Release Date: September 25th, 2020
Genre: Progressive Rock

Musicians:

  • Arjen Anthony Lucassen / Vocals, Guitars, Bass, Keyboards
  • Tommy Karevik / Vocals
  • Cammie Gilbert / Vocals
  • Amanda Somerville / Vocals
  • Dee Snider / Vocals
  • Marcela Bovio / Vocals
  • Simone Simons / Vocals
  • Johanne James / Vocals
  • Michael Mills / Vocals
  • Joost van den Broek / Hammond organ, Piano
  • Ben Mathot / Violin
  • Jeroen Goossens / Wind instruments
  • Jurriaan Westerveld / Cello
  • Alex Thyssen / Horn
  • Joe Satriani / Guitars
  • Marty Friedman / Guitars
  • Jan Willem Ketelaers / Vocals
  • Wilmer Waarbroek / Vocals
  • Will Shaw / Vocals
  • Marjan Welman / Vocals
  • Lisette van den Berg / Vocals
  • Patty Gurdy / Hurdy gurdy
  • Juan van Emmerloot / Drums

“Transitus” Track-Listing:

Disc One

  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 Two

  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. Abby In Transitus
  13. The Great Beyond

7.5 Very Good

If you are a die-hard Ayreonaut, go ahead and preorder this one. Just be aware it may not end up being your favorite Ayreon album. If you are new to the Ayreon universe, you can safely skip this one. Start with something like Human Equation or 01011001.

  • Songwriting 7
  • Musicianship 8
  • Originality 7
  • Production 8
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