AYREON – Transitus

AYREON – Transitus

Over the past 26 years and 10 epic albums, Arjen Lucassen has made a firm name for himself in progressive rock/metal circles with his Ayreon project. Each release has been an epic tale filled with rich characters, impressive chops, and vocal guests from all areas of the metal spectrum. 2004’s "The Human Equation" and the three successive records have upped the ante on all fronts and have been hailed critically as some of the finest prog creations of modern times, and for good reason. Not only has Lucassen honed his song writing craft to a fine art, but the pomp and grandiosity of these four records have been ludicrously high. That brings us to "Transitus", his first release in three years and with a slightly different direction, one that both brings new ideas to the table and will most probably split his fan base.

If I had to give a genre pigeon hole to "Transitus", it would be ‘classical sci-fi horror symphonic prog for Broadway’, and that’s really just a broad look at the one hour and 20 minutes before us. The Broadway addition is the big leap of faith here – the sympho-prog skeleton is Lucassen’s sonic bread and butter and is still the grounding, but there is definitely a drop in the metal stakes and the swerve into pseudo show tunes is immediately evident from the get-go. Whether this is something that the listener is into will make all the difference between the album being either a complete win or disappointing ‘what the hell’ situation. Either way, it’s a brave move on his part and one that takes a lot to pull off.

The story, in a proverbial nutshell, is about two lovers, Daniel and Abby – Daniel is murdered and lands himself in purgatory (or Transitus, as it is known here) where he aims to prove that Abby had nothing to do with his death, with the help of that old harbinger of doom, the angel of death. Along the way, our esteemed author weaves weighty issues of social standing and treachery into a classic romantic story, made all the more convoluted with its supernatural bent. It’s not terribly original nor is it incredibly entertaining, but it serves as a basic foundation for us to integrate with the characters and music.

Tom Baker of Dr. Who fame is the narrator throughout and, as fine an orator as he is, he comes off as somewhat cheesy (although this would probably have been a similar stumbling block with anyone else in the role) and overblown, but it does add a power metal-esque vibe that will speak to the metal fraternity. Tommy Karevik of Kamelot fame takes the role of Daniel and Abby is voiced by Tammie Gilbert from Oceans Of Slumber, both of whom give strong and emotional vocal performances, and Epica’s Simone Simon is on-point as the angel of death. A guest spot by Dee Snider on the beefy "Get Out! Now!" makes it the most metal song of the lot, bolstered by chunky riffs and a superlative solo by none other than shred maestro Joe Satriani (Marty Friedman also adds his signature leads on the album), but it is a fleeting moment of headbangery. Not only do we have the strings, choruses, and synths strewn all over the recording, but there are violins, hurdy gurdies, cellos, and Hammond organs all getting in on the action. Whilst this could, under more controlled circumstances, make for a portrait of epic proportions, here it all feels a little forced and unnecessary.

The recurring motifs are standard rock opera elements and it does help tie the musical journey together, but it’s not enough to save the unfurling bombast. The album is just too damn long to be supported by such a thin storyline, one that runs out of steam all too quick – granted, a prog rock opera needs space to stretch its wings to full potential, but there needs to be substantial lyrical content to back it up and "Transitus" just falls short in this department, making it a chore to sit through. This is not to say that there aren’t highlights and tasty parts (songs like "Dumb Piece Of Rock", "This Human Equation", and "Lavinia’s Confession", amongst others, have some heady sections that deserve replay), and some of the more emotional, quieter moments have genuine intent, but the sum total is too bloated to make it a classic Ayreon album. Also, and this is very much a personal opinion, I struggled with the pompous Broadway overtones – perhaps in a different setting, it could have worked, but here it adds a second chunky layer of cheddar that I find indigestible.

Don’t get me wrong, Mr. Lucassen is a very talented fellow with a history that shows his high level of talent as a prog legend, and some of his previous records will always have a place in my playlist, but "Transitus" falls way short of my expectations as a fan. The evidence of hard work and passion are all over the music, but the frankly unnecessary bloating and padding (not to mention volumes of cheese) adds fuel to the fire for detractors that perceive all concept albums as overlong and underwhelming. For all its issues, "Transitus" is well-conceived, finely played, and written with a range of emotional vitriol, but it could have taken more chances in vital areas and been edited to make for a tighter story and impact. It’s worth a spin on headphones when in the mood for overblown, carnival marathons, but not a record that bears daily or even monthly repeated listens, unfortunately