There she was, out of the blue
Thunderstruck, nailed to the floor
I couldn't move, couldn't talk...anymore"
One Word Review: Eclectic
If you're looking for an album that has everything, then Ayreon's The Human Equation may be as close as you get. I remember sitting there with my mouth gaping open in stunned silence for a few seconds after my first listen and then bursting out laughing. Somehow it all fit perfectly.
In 2004, The Human Equation was the most complex and varied album Ayreon had created yet and it remains my favorite. A mix of Progressive Rock and Metal with that special spice that is Ayreon, makes for a style that is instantly recognizable. It combines the best from past works like Into the Electric Castle and the Migrator albums, while evolving in new fascinating directions. Seemingly boundless with emotion and details, the album always remains focused and keeps the listeners full attention for the entire running time of 1 hour and 41 minutes. As hard as it is to make a justified review of this album I can only imagine the amount of work that went into creating it. It is indeed a full body of work.
The album travels an intricate path through 20 days in the mind of what appears to be a hospitalized car crash victim, who has had a pretty tough life. With his wife and best friend by his bed, he relives the events that have shaped him and eventually led to his downfall. With eleven different singers, many of whom are among my very favorites (Eric Clayton, Devon Graves, James LaBrie, Mikael Åkerfeldt & Mike Baker) my expectations were naturally extremely high and I would have never thought them possible to meet. Almost every voice symbolizes a specific emotion and I cannot imagine the choice of vocalists being any different. I'm really wooh'ed by the vocal talent that is on display here and each of them use their gift to make this album work, I mean really work. What is always cool about these multi singer albums is the fact that you discover new artists you would not have heard of otherwise and whose bands you suddenly just have to hear after this.
Like another concept masterpiece, The Human Equation opens with the sounds of a busy hospital ward.
Marcela Bovio (Elfonia, Stream Of Passion) sings the Wife part in a voice that goes straight to the heart. Her voice is beautiful, rich and full, like it is floating upon a cloud of feathers. She delivers one of my favorite performances on the album and was a very nice surprise back when I had never heard her voice before. Just listen to her fantastic passage in Day 13: Sign right after Heather Findlay or the one chilling line in Day 20: Confrontation, "Come to me my love". Amazing voice. Speaking of Heather Findlay (Mostly Autumn), her voice has a really special soothing quality and she fits the part of Love perfectly. She manages to be both teasing, sincere and alluring in her performance and embellishes the album greatly.
Day 3: Pain is one of my favorite songs. Devin Townsend as Rage rears his head for the first time here and his moments on this album are pure genius. He gives the songs he participates in a unique feel. Like in Day 8: School where his aggressive part blows the atmosphere wide open or Day 16: Loser (the second single), where his relentless vocals unleash just the right kind of emotion, improving impact with each listen. My first thought was "What just happened there?"
Through Psychotic Waltz, his Buddy Lackey solo album, Dead Soul Tribe and back again, Devon Graves has proved to be one of the most unique singers/artists I have heard. When he opens a song a special mood is set right from the start. As in Day 3: Pain where he gives the whole song a haunting atmosphere of suffering, which is a perfect fit for his symbolized emotion, Agony. His opening lines in Day 6: Childhood never cease to chill me and it is interesting how well Devon and James LaBrie's vocals fit together in this song.
James Labrie (Dream Theater) has the role of the main character and is in nearly every song. Well, I'm not complaining... As the main character evolves through the story, so does LaBrie's performance and he captures the feelings of the main character very well. His vocals must also have been the hardest to get right. Mostly singing in a warm and emotional voice, the effect is that much more powerful when he lets go in songs like Day 4: Mystery & the finale Day 20: Confrontation.
As the voice of Reason Eric Clayton (Saviour Machine) is the perfect choice. His voice stands out and gives the music a majestic touch whenever he sings a line. From his first words in Day 2: Isolation to his final utterance in Day 20: Confrontation he is essential to the overall feel and foundation of the album.
The man himself, Arjen Lucassen sings the voice of Best Friend and does a good job, but compared to the other singers he is the only slightly anonymous voice on the album. It doesn't bring the album down, but another singer might have made it even better. As explained on the DVD this was just not possible as the other choices fell through one by one. In songs like Day 7: Hope and Day 10: Memories he works great and the songs give room for his personality to show, but in a song like Day 4: Mystery I would have liked some more vocal equilibrium while harmonizing with Marcela Bovio. She kind of trounces Arjen here. But in all fairness he does make a great return in Day 13: Sign where the harmonies really work great.
Magnus Ekwall (The Quill) has power in his voice and sings with eh... Pride. At one point I thought he was the other slightly anonymous voice, but after more listens I feel he does a great job and reflects Pride with an air of unhesitating firmness. One example is in Day 12: Trauma, where his small part adds a lot to the song.
Mikael Åkerfeldt (Opeth) mostly sings in his clean voice, which has a soft warm tone and lots of emotion. I love his opening part in Day 15: Betrayal which sets the mood perfectly. On a few occasions he goes deep and when this happens it adds a layer of danger to the music, giving the album another dimension.
I have always thought that Irene Jansen (Karma) was a fantastic singer. Here she proves it again, singing the voice of passion with confidence and power. Just listen to the chorus of Day 12: Trauma or Day 11: Love.
Mike Baker (R.I.P.) sings only one song, Day 16: Loser but does a most excellent job. The catchy folkish melody and Mike's arrogant vocals are the perfect build up for the raging explosion the ends the song.
Ok, enough words on the singers for now. Musically the album is a feast too. Rhythm and groove are keywords and with Ed Warby on the drums and Arjen Lucassen handling all guitars, bass and keyboards a very tight but and kind of relaxed mood is always present. The music takes the time it needs to get the message across and while there aren't many show-off passages, there is a huge amount of detail in the instruments that will show themselves on repeated listens. Arjen has managed to mix every style from his past works into this album and the result is something that is greater than the sum of its parts.
The album is perfectly produced with every instrument being clearly audible and giving off a very warm comfortable sound. Adding something essential to the atmosphere are various guest musicians who play violins, cellos, flutes and even my old Aussie favorite, the didgeridoo. The soundstage is wide with incredible attention to detail and placement. Each voice has a different place in the sound as has each instrument. This attention to detail makes it a comfortable and joyful experience to listen to the album. The superb production simply makes the album work and hold up to repeated listens.
The cover artwork by Jef Bertels is mysterious and beautiful as is the inside of the booklet, done by Mattias Norén. Top marks on the packaging.
The lyrics are written with great empathy, bringing out each emotion in a convincing way.
I can go on forever about all the great things on the album. Like the fun melody of Day 7: Hope, the breathtaking atmosphere of Day 15: Betrayal, the inspired keyboard solo by Joost Van den Broek in Day 2: Isolation, Ken Hensley's wild hammond solo in Day 16: Loser, the mysterious and unique feeling that pervades Day 17: Accident or the beautiful opening to Day 13: Sign which brings back memories of Into the Electric Castle...and now for something completely different…
I really love the use of the flute in Day 18: Realization. A great part of this song is a well executed and very atmospheric instrumental piece reflecting inner turmoil, before the ending part where Reason, Pride, Passion, Love, Agony & Fear clash and the main character comes to a conclusion.
In Day 20: Confrontation everything culminates in a song that gets heavier and heavier until it explodes in double bass drums, crunching guitar and every voice adding another layer to the mayhem. Pure ecstasy. So, how does it all end? It's a Mystery...
The DVD that came with my limited edition is an excellent addition to an already high quality package. The 45 minute documentary on the making of the album covers a lot of ground and while I had heard some of the comments before it was great to see shots in the studio with each singer. Don't be too hasty with the remote in the Concept section or you'll miss the funny outtakes. The story behind Ayreon, a feature on Ed Warby and the video for "Day 11: Love" are also among the cool extras.
Nearing the end I will leave you with the words that The Human Equation is an album that will stay with you for a long long time. It doesn't open up completely right away but with time it delivers an experience that is bound to make you feel something, in one way or the other. I have lived with this album for 10 years now and one thing is clear to me: The Human Equation is a timeless classic. It captures so many emotions and carries such an important message that it should be mandatory listening for everyone. If you haven't discovered this album yet, a unique experience awaits.
Written By Steen
Online: Saturday, November 8, 2014
Day Eleven: Love