21 November 2008

REVIEW: Ayreon - Timeline

So, let’s talk about the new Ayreon boxed set (click the picture above to be linked to my post with the initial announcement and set contents).

It’s a 3 CD, 1 DVD set titled Timeline, covering Arjen Anthony Lucassen’s releases from 1995’s The Final Experiment through 2008’s 0101001. 33 songs were culled from his catalogue of thematically written opuses, and there’s a veritable who’s who of prog rock, metal, and European rock stars guesting throughout. I could pad out this review by listing them all…

Bruce Dickinson, James LaBrie, Devon Townsend, Russell Allen, Daniel Gildenlow, Lori Linstruth, Lenny Wolf, Fish, Sharon den Adel, Damian Wilson, Neal Morse, Devon Graves, Heather Findlay, Eric Clayton, Mikael Akerfeldt, Marcela Bovia, Mike Baker, Bob Catley, Tom Englund, Anneke van Giersbergen, Jorn Lande, Hansi Kursch, Floor Jansen

…and that’s just the guests that appear on the tracks selected for this retrospective.

Now, Ayreon’s albums are all thematically linked, and as each album is a self contained theme album, it may seem odd to extract individual pieces from the releases for fear of losing that connection. It’s a fear that Lucassen even had, which kept him from doing such a retrospective in the past. By using the expansiveness of a multi-disc boxed set, some of these concerns are alleviated somewhat.

I don’t know what tracks I might have selected differently, but I am sure that others have their own favourites from Ayreon’s releases that they’d like to see in exchange for any of these. Having said this, the song that introduced me to the world of Ayreon (“Isis and Osiris,” from 1998’s Into the Electric Castle) is on here, as well as enough highlights from his back catalogue to really impress to the listener how consistent Lucassen has been from a writing and performing standpoint.

When I reviewed 0101001 a few months back for another website, I said this:

Several things can be taken as givens when it’s time to review a new Ayreon album:

1) It will be a massive concept album
2) The number of guests will be immense

3) The word count for song titles and album personnel will probably outnumber the word count for the whole review.

I also said this in closing:

In the final analysis, I think I can say the following two things fairly:

1) If you love Ayreon, everything you love is here on 01011001, and then some.
2) If you find Ayreon’s material to be overwrought and twee...you’ll probably continue to feel that way with 01011001.

And when you are looking at almost 4 hours of music across 3 CDs, all the same can be said several times over.

This is not a complaint; Lucassen has a signature style, and he has honed that style to near gleaming perfection. But his material is a love it or leave it proposition…I don’t think I know anyone who inhabits a middle ground with him. I might come close…I genuinely like a lot of his releases, but I’m not a devout Ayreonaut. But even with me, I can’t say I’ve walked away from an Ayreon album genuinely disliking it. There’s always been something there to make me say “Yeah, I’m gonna come back to this one for another listen.”

I’m pleased by the selections he’s made across the board…he’s picked a good mixture of heavier pieces, lighter fare, material with a more electronic sound, and so on. I think he’s taken great care to ensure that the collection draws from as many releases as possible, showcasing the vast variety of styles that make up his C.V. Everything’s been tweaked and slightly and lightly remastered to ensure a smooth transition from album to album, and the end result almost qualifies as a 3 CD concept piece in and of itself.

Additionally, Lucassen has included a newly recorded track, “Epilogue: The Memory Remains,” tying up the whole audio package with a nice bow and ribbon on top.

I wish I could be as positive about the DVD.

Oh, there’s great stuff here…extended excerpts from his Star One and Stream of Passion side projects, concept videos, and so on. Sadly, unless I am the least observant person in the world, I can’t find a simple play all feature on the DVD. I want to sit back and be engrossed by 80 or 90 minutes of Ayreon on DVD…not 10 minutes, go back to the main menu, select the next feature, and so on. It’s frustrating and detracts from what is otherwise a very good video retrospective that fills out the package nicely.

The booklet has much to offer too…along side lyrics for each song in the set, Lucassen has added newly written notes explaining the set, his thoughts on each album, and his thoughts for the future of Ayreon. So many boxed sets miss this, I think…being the product of a record company wanting to push product, many sets come off as overly clinical and cold even as they push out familiar material with a smattering of the unreleased. Timeline really comes off well in that regard…it feels more personal, more like the creator’s vision than just another slab of plastic paper and cardboard.

Now, the big questions?

Who is this boxed set for?

Are hardcore fans really going to buy this?

Neither question is easy to answer. I think people unfamiliar with Ayreon will find much to offer here, but the fact that the tracks are still parts of concept albums means that new listeners will maybe be at a loss for some of what is going on. Long time listeners, on the other hand, likely know these albums inside and out, have them all, and are looking at buying this release for the new song and portions of the DVD. I don’t know if that is enough to warrant the purchase, and it’s something that I could honestly say for a majority of boxed set purchases

The final question…what do I think of this set?

I like it. A lot. It’s nice to have a broad cross section of his work in a single package. I think the boxed set format (a small square box just larger than the disc sleeves) selected is nice…it fits on the shelf along with my other Ayreon releases. I think the new cover art is excellent, and I am hugely glad that Lucassen took the time to pen some personal thoughts for the liner notes. My quibbles are minor (except maybe for the DVD…can someone out there who has this box verify that there is in fact no play all feature), and in the end I’d offer a recommendation to check it out. It works well as a retrospective of the past 13 years of musical travels in time and space, and closes this chapter of his career nicely.

One only wonders what the next step is…


Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for that. I'm a fan of Arjen's stuff, and love Ayreon. Sadly the only album I actually own (have listened to a few others, Like The Human Equation and 010011001 or whatever online) is the double Dream Squencer/Flight of the migrator. As much as I love that it is a little weak compared to everything else in my opinion.
Anyway yeah, I have been considering buying Timeline but have been looking for unbiased reviews of it, which this is. Thank you, I will probably buy this now.
Shame about the dvd though, but meh, I don't watch music dvds anyway, it's just something nice to have.

Matthew T

Unknown said...

Your review is spot on. Ironically, I discovered Ayreon through the same title as you being that Fish is on that release. And, you are correct in regard to the DVD. I have one added issue, I cannot get my DVD player or amp to read the 5.1 option.
But, I think this box set is really an excellent choice for first time listeners. The price is right too.

Unknown said...

If you like Ayreon, you should also check this:

"The Shadow Theory" Line-Up:
Devon Graves: Vocals, Guitars, Flute (x-Psychotic Waltz, Deadsoul Tribe)
Demi Scott: Keyboards
Arne Schuppner: Guitars
Kristoffer Gildenlöw: El. Bass (x-Pain Of Salvation, Dial)
Mike Terrana: Drums (x-Rage, Masterplan)

Check em out: http://www.myspace.com/theshadowtheoryofficial
Also check Devon's interview regarding TST: http://www.antenna.nu/?p=657

Anonymous said...

Calm down pal..

First, you found 'no music' cause you know.. their album is under production.!!!
Second, this doesn't seem like an advertisement; this was just a suggestion. C'mon