Although he suffers from a bit of self-confessed shyness and stage fright, Dutch composer Arjen Anthony Lucassen always puts on one hell of a live show. In particular, his most recent Ayreon concert films (2016’s The Theater Equation and 2018’s Ayreon Universe – the Best of Ayreon Live) were astoundingly faithful, ambitious, and compelling performances of his progressive metal rock opera opuses. With appearances from many of the original musicians and vocalists, as well as lavish support from thematically relevant mise-en-scène, they’re just as magnificent and mesmeric as the albums they recreate.
Unsurprisingly, his latest stage production, Electric Castle Live and Other Tales, is no exception. Recorded between September 13th and 15th 2019 at Tilburg’s 013 venue (where Ayreon Universe was also done), it’s a nearly three-hour show comprised of the third Ayreon LP, 1998’s Into the Electric Castle, in its entirety, as well as some bonus tracks and in-depth special features. Naturally, many of the people who were on the record are here, too, such as vocalists Fish, Anneke van Giersbergen, Damian Wilson, Edward Reekers, Edwin Balogh, and of course, Lucassen himself (as the Hippie). Also, singers Marcela Bavio and Simone Simons add to the glorious theatricality, as do instrumentalists such as drummer Ed Warby, guitarist Marcel Singor, flutist Thijs van Leer, and keyboardist Joost van den Broek. Lastly, actor John de Lancie (Star Trek: The Next Generation) narrates it all with great personality and histrionics.
Expectedly, they do a virtually impeccable job capturing every nuance of Into the Electric Castle. With an epic sci-fi story (that obviously connects to the larger Ayreon narrative) involving “eight individuals who are guided by a mysterious voice [Forever] and tasked with finding the mysterious Electric Castle,” it’s essential that the vocalists convey the necessary comradery, hostility, and visual aesthetic to bring their characters and conflicts to life. Luckily, they all do, with Wilson standing out most due to his knight costume and clear enthusiasm for the material. More often than not, it feels almost as much like a play as it does a traditional concert, with the musicians and backing singers doing an equally astounding job of emulating each timbre, note, and inflection of the studio originals. Pianist Robby Valentine even gets the spotlight via a futuristic and emotional solo segment that foreshadows the next proper song, “The Mirror Maze.”
As for the “Other Tales” part of the title, it comes in the form of lengthy encores consisting of one track each from every other Lucassen project. Highlights include the mystically romantic and catchy “Shores of India” from The Gentle Storm’s The Diary; the cosmic fragility of “Twisted Coil” from Guilt Machine’s On This Perfect Day; and “Pink Beatles in a Purple Zeppelin” from his last solo sequence, Lost in the New Real. Each is as faithful as you’d imagine, and the same is mostly true for Fish’s rendition of Marillion’s classic ode, “Kayleigh,” from 1985’s Misplaced Childhood.
True to the intentioned stagecraft, it’s all played in front of a mock castle, with plenty of colorful and feisty lighting shifts adding moodiness and excitement. There’s also a large screen in the center of the structure that alternates between cover art, spacey imagery, and other pertinent pictures. Above it all, de Lancie stands slightly out of sight, embodying the scornful omniscience his character requires. Honestly, he lacks a bit of the playful flair that Lucassen’s Forever provides on Into the Electric Castle, but that’s a very small and entirely understandable gripe considering how meticulous everything else is.
As for the bonus features, there are two, and both are surprisingly in-depth and long-lasting. First, the behind the scenes documentary goes for almost two hours and sees Lucassen and van den Broek reflecting on Into the Electric Castle. They also dig into how the concert was put together, of course, and we get to see and hear many other participants rehearsing the material and discussing their history with Into the Electric Castle and the Ayreon catalog in general. Then, Lucassen and van den Broek offer an equally extensive Q&A session that, despite predictably including certain moments that also appear in the other feature, goes into far more detail about the same topics. Anyone who befriends Lucassen knows that he’s immeasurably modest, honest, funny, and all-around personable, and that definitely comes through here.
Electric Castle Live and Other Tales is as essential and remarkable as its predecessors. After all, Into the Electric Castle is undoubtedly one of the best Ayreon albums in every way (music, songwriting, vocals, story, etc.), and every ounce of that magic is maintained here. Plus, the visuals are ceaselessly captivating, the direction and editing is faultless (using many dynamic shots to make you feel like you’re there), and the extra material offers literally hours of additional tunes and invaluable insights. As a whole, then, it further cements Lucassen as truly unrivaled, inimitable, and utterly brilliant virtuoso while also setting a new standard for progressive metal concert films in general.