Henlo and welcome to Throwback Thursday! This is the place where we get to indulge in nostalgia and wax poetic about excellent metal of years past.
This series embarks on a journey in search of albums that have primed the canvas of today's metal music scene. For this, the 18th edition of this series, we explore a stellar saga of turmoil, fear and love in…
AYREON'S THE HUMAN EQUATION
This is one of those albums I picked up randomly at a second-hand store. The cover looked cool, and a cursory glance at the detailed liner notes and curious track titles intrigued me enough to drop 7 dollars and some change on it. I had no expectations whatsoever when I popped it on for the first time. I was surprised and pleased by the immediate proggyness of the album. Some of the best obscure prog I have ever discovered has been on accident by picking up records with cool covers. Prog bands love weird-ass album covers.
In the first track, "Day One: Vigil", soft vocals float in over a warm, wah-like bubble synth playing effortlessly over the beeping of a cardiac monitor… and then the sounds of screeching tires and a car crashing.
The second track, or "Day Two: Isolation" starts off with a singing narration, "I can't move/I can't feel my body/I don't remember anything/What place is this/How did I get here? I don't understand what's happening/Am I alone?" We can assume that these are the thoughts of someone waking up from the trauma of the car crash. The next lyrics begin, "You've been deserted, everyone has left you…" But wait a minute. I'd know that voice anywhere. Is that… is that Mikael Åkerfeldt? At first, The Human Equation had my interest. Now it had my attention.
Ayreon is a project from the Dutch mastermind Arjen Anthony Lucassen. The Human Equation is the sixth release from the project, and not only features Mikael Åkerfeldt of Opeth fame, but also stars Dream Theater's soaring songbird James LaBrie and the brilliant sonic boom that is Devin Townsend.
I just sat in my car listening to this entire album unfold over two discs (before streaming was all the rage) and all 20 tracks (31 tracks if you include the short silent intro tracks). I was a little dumbfounded and a lot delighted by what I was hearing. The Human Equation is nothing short of a metal opera, complete with an intricate story and 100% sung narration. The fact that it has some of my favorite musicians in it made it feel I discovered a buried treasure – a proggy, weird, ear treasure.
The album is strange. There are brilliant moments of progression and gorgeous musicianship woven in between sprays of nu-metal vocals, conservative drum tracks and meandering synth – and all of that happens in just the first few tracks. Honestly, it's hard to pull out just a few songs to show the meaning of the album. You just have to listen to this one, guys. Listen to it from beginning to end, and captively – maybe even with the liner notes and lyrics. At least that way, you can follow the story.
The concept of The Human Equation surrounds a man in a coma after a terrible car accident. He is accompanied at his bedside by his wife and his best friend. They are, of course, hoping for signs of life. They are also trying to figure out what happened. The crash happened in broad daylight with no other cars in sight. Unbeknownst to his lamenting family, the man is conscious inside of his head but unable to communicate with the outside world. He is trapped with his emotions and thoughts – a situation most of us would deem as hell on Earth. The tormenting voices of his mind bring him through a movie of his life. His past and present moments mix with feelings of repression and discovery. The man finds out that they only way to wake up from his prison is to confront the feelings he's long buried.
Each voice on the album represents a feeling or a person. For example, James LeBrie stars as 'Me', Åkerfeldt as 'Fear', Eric Clayton (of Saviour Machine) as 'Reason', Heather Findlay as 'Love', and Devin Townsend as 'Rage' (how appropriate, yes?) If you can snag a copy of the liner notes with lyrics, each stanza/verse/change is labeled with the character or feeling.
If I had to make some individual song call-outs, I'd have to chose "Day Sixteen: Loser" as one of them. It's a standout on the album for a variety of reasons. First of all, the album switches feeling, timbre, style and texture from the first disc to the next disc entirely. Even still, "Day Sixteen: Loser" is another step removed, starting out with a catchy didgeridoo/Celtic flute-inspired solo. Capped off with a fantastic vocal track that includes Mike Baker of Shadow Gallery fame and Townsend, you'll have a tough time getting the main hook out of your head:
"Day Eleven: Love" has a catchy chorus and a sweetness amped up with a dramatic flourish. Lovers of Queenryche's Operation Mindcrime will be delighted with the staging, costuming and presence of this show. Here's the official video for it:
I'll be honest. At first, I thought this album was too strange to *work*. The familiarity of the vocals, combined with the stretches of imagination that try to show the fuzzy purgatory of being awake yet coma-fied initially seemed too disjointed. Frankly, it was a little uncomfortable to listen to such flat-out narration. But if you can forget who is singing and enjoy the songs as you would a brilliant, intricate painting, the album takes on a interesting and enthralling feel. The tracks on The Human Equation are pretty catchy and not as obtuse or ostentatious as you might guess in light of the subject matter. After all, prog is a genre unafraid to experiment with the strange, unpleasant and unsatisfying to make a point or create dissonance and tension. I appreciate that the album is kept listen-to-able, considering that the paralysis of the body combined with the electricity of an active mind is a truly frightening thought. The Human Equation takes a purposeful turn from the fringe of hollow sound clips and distortion and instead focuses on fleshing out memories in a playful way.
The Human Equation is pretty and flowing – and also a lot metal. There are tons of brilliant vocal performances, heavy guitars, time-signature changes and a plethora of interesting instrumentations. Listening to this album over and over again reveals new bright spots I hadn't noticed before; slight turns of phrase or thoughtful musical moments. If you haven't checked it out, you really should – even if it is just to hear beloved musicians in something new and different.
Have you checked out this, or any of Ayreon's other albums? Do you find them brilliant, or awkward and contrived? If you check it out, stop back in and tell me what you think. I'm always happy to hear from fellow fans. As always, thanks for reading and I'll see you all next week.