It’s a bit of a thankless task reviewing a new Ayreon album. Don’t get me wrong, it’s always a joy to hear but…what do you say? Arjen Lucassen puts so much info out there pre-release that all the Ayreon fans already know plenty about it. Everyone else with any interest in the band already know what Ayreon are about and it’s guaranteed that the album will be of the highest quality and standard, or Arjen wouldn’t release it. So really my review should just read “New Ayreon out, lots of great singers and musicians, and it’s as good as ever!”. Because it is. Personally I’m happy enough with that short summary, it says it all and so you can stop reading now if you like. Basically, below are just the inane ramblings of an appreciative reviewer, enjoying listening to the album, making a few comments to keep my editor happy and with genuinely nothing better to do with my time right now.

Someone still here? Ah it’s you, hello there – well I guess it’s just me and you then, which is absolutely fine – it’s nice of you to join me, you’re very welcome – so what would you like to know? Don’t worry I won’t spoil the concept for you (I’m sure I can say that it’s a continuation of the story first explored on “01011001” so you know what to expect) and obviously Arjen Lucassen has invited some top class people to perform it with him. One thing to note is that he’s invited back a few singers who have performed with Ayreon before, as well as plenty of newbies to the fold. As it’s just me and you, I’ll let you know who they are but I’m sure I don’t need to say who is on what track and playing which part – you’ll want to discover that for yourself (it’s part of the fun isn’t it?). Besides, I’m quite certain the following list of contributors is enough to get you just as enthusiastic about hearing the album as I was. This time we’ve got vocalists James LaBrie (Dream Theater), Tommy Giles Rogers (Between the Buried and Me), Simone Simons (Epica), Mike Mills (Toehider), Floor Jansen (Nightwish, Revamp, ex-After Forever), Hansi Kürsch (Blind Guardian), Michael Eriksen (Circus Maximus), Tobias Sammet (Edguy, Avantasia), Nils K. Rue (Pagan’s Mind), Zaher Zorgati (Myrath), Tommy Karevik (Kamelot) and Russell Allen (Symphony X). Plus musical contributions from Paul Gilbert (Mr. Big), Guthrie Govan (The Aristocrats, Asia, Steven Wilson), Mark Kelly (Marillion) and Marcel Coenen. Ed Warby returns on drums and is of course as fantastic as ever. Arjen himself admirably handles everything else as you know.

Appetite whetted? Thought so, I know you so well. Tell you what, as it’s you, I’ll point out a few things you might also pick out when you hear the album for yourself – without spoiling the surprises of course! It’s a given that “The Source” is every note the top-class Ayreon release it is expected to be, filled with the myriad of styles that Arjen loves to squeeze in there and we love him for. His confidence is high – it’s a statement of intent to have your opening track weigh in at 12:30 long isn’t it? And with that confidence firmly in place the album continues on that level to include Arjen’s excellent guitar/bass/keyboard dynamics, some Celtic influences, touches of folk, much Classic Rock, many forms of Metal, enormous dollops of Progressive Rock/Metal and so much more. The blueprint for Ayreon’s overall sound has developed with each release but I think it first really gelled on “Human Equation” don’t you? The album where James LaBrie made his first Ayreon appearance no less, and his contributions on “The Source” give it the same cohesion throughout. The inclusion of traditional instruments is as innovative as ever and the tendency to mix them with a down-tuned heavy riff is always something I enjoy and works fabulously once more on “The Source”.

It’s no secret that Arjen is a Queen fan, but whether it’s that this time he has the vocalists in place to really nail those famous harmonies I’m not sure, but there’s no denying the heady inclusion of that style throughout the album, right down to the Roger Taylor style squeaky high notes! The Queen influence makes perfect sense of course – if ‘Seven Seas Of Rhye’ was written and recorded by a Metal band nowadays it would no doubt sound just like Ayreon…hell it would probably BE Ayreon! But if I continue down this analytical road there is always that chance I will spoil the experience for you when you hear the album for yourself, so with that in mind was there anything else I wanted to mention while you’re here? Well every vocalist that Arjen has once more hand-picked surpass themselves as always, not one is out of their depth or out of place as each performance is tailored perfectly to that singer’s style…but there is the odd surprise from one or two vocalists, which has happened before on an Ayreon release. Arjen hears something in their voice and suggests that they try something different and we’re all left thinking “I didn’t know they could sound like that!”. Usually you then hear that style on their next album! And as a further affirmation of the respect Arjen has among his musical brethren, the inclusion of Tobias Sammet, whose Avantasia project could be seen by some as the only real competition to Ayreon, is just happy here to just be part of the Ayreon family and underwrite that feeling of comradery that goes with any Ayreon release.

Anyway, I’m sure I’ve taken up far too much of your time already – but thanks for dropping by, your company is more than appreciated as usual. You’ll be wanting to go off and get your own Limited Edition version I should think – maybe the one with the DVD? Let me know what you think. Feel free to drop by anytime, but metaphorically close the door quietly on your way out, I’m just going to open another bottle of Red, pop the album on again and read along with the lyrics this time – well it’s another part of the experience isn’t it? So take care – see you soon, and I hope you enjoy the album as much as I am.

(9/10 Andy Barker)