If someone as musically innovative and fan-friendly as Arjen Lucassen is approached to release a ‘Best Of’, it’s pretty fair bet he will find a way to do it differently, in a way that treats his fans to something new. Two years in the planning, the idea was to play 3 live dates last year with 16 singers and lots of guest musicians – it happened…and here it is! New interpretations of classic Ayreon tracks by a full band in a unique live setting – if you couldn’t be there for this momentous occasion, this Double CD & DVD (other Vinyl, CD and DVD combinations are also available) is the next best thing and a great way to reflect on a fabulous and on-going musical legacy.

So, informative factual bit first – who exactly is on it? Well, vocally we have Floor Jansen (Nightwish/Revamp), Damian Wilson (Threshold), Hansi Kürsch (Blind Guardian), Tommy Karevik (Kamelot), Anneke van Giersbergen (The Gentle Storm/Vuur), Marco Hietala (Nightwish/Tarot), Jonas Renkse (Katatonia), Mike Mills (Toehider) Marcela Bovio (Stream of Passion/MaYan), Maggy Luyten (Nightmare), John Jaycee Cuijpers [or is it Peter Kay’s Marc Park?!] (Praying Mantis), Edward Reekers (Kayak), Lisette van den Berg (Scarlet Stories), plus Jay van Feggelen, Irene Jansen and Robert Soeterboek who have appeared on previous Ayreon/Star One projects in the past (Marcela, Lisette and Irene play the part of backing vocal trio for most of the concert, stepping forward for their solo spots when the songs require them to). All these fabulous voices are mouth-watering enough, but add to this musical talents of Ed Warby (serene, yet stupendous) – Drums, Johan van Stratum – Bass, Marcel Coenen – Lead Guitar, Ferry Duijsens – Guitar, Joost van den Broek (Arjens 2nd in command) – Keyboards, Ben Mathot – Violin, Jeroen Goossens – Flutes, Woodwinds and Maaike Peterse – Cello.

The temptation next is to list the tracks, state who sings what and completely ruin all the surprises for you. So I won’t…but this IS a review, so I’ll have to flag up a few personal highlights! Where do I start? Well…at the start I guess, there’s an informative, entertaining Sci-fi narrative/musical prologue intro from Mike Mills (reprised half way through the concert) that leads into a bang-up-to-date version of ‘Dreamtime’ from debut album “The Final Experiment” (classily delivered by Edward Reekers) that segues into ‘Abbey Of Synn’ from 2nd album “Actual Fantasy” (expertly sung by Robert Soeterboek) and it’s looking like proceedings are going to follow chronological release order. Not so, as the first of my “worth-the-purchase-price-alone” moments occurs when Hansi Kürsch and Marco Hietala front ‘River Of Time’ from “01011001”. These two singers even manage to surpass this performance later in the evening with a fantastic rendition of ‘Age Of Shadows’ (including super-soprano cameo from Floor Jansen).

Many of the highlights I’m mentioning are vocal related (even though every musician on here is fabulous), but it’s not only the individuals performance, it’s also how various singers work with others that stands out. For instance, Floor Jansen shines once more on ‘Merlin’s Will’, but is just a third of the excellence in ‘Valley Of The Queens’ with Marcela and Anneke. Continuing the link between vocalists Anneke does an excellent job on her original role on ‘Comatose’, but this time her co-singer is Jonas Renske, who does an absolutely splendid job. Sometimes singers are doing their thing, bringing the song to life – like Tommy, Marco and Anneka on ‘Magnetism’, but how they then interact with Ben, Jeroen and Maaike (violin, whistle and cello respectively) takes the performance up another notch. Whilst we’re mentioning Tommy and Marco, their stagecraft and the way they play to the crowd on ‘Collision’ is also big highlight. Another noteworthy moment is the vocally choreographed free-for-all that is ‘Everybody Dies’, which has to get a mention, and when Arjen finally makes his appearance playing the punchy riff to ‘Castle Hall’, the excitement in the venue is contagious. The encores feature some stunning vocal harmonies on ‘Love (Ed Warby’s vocal cameo is a really nice surprise!) and everyone gets a mic for an equally stunning rendition of ‘The Eye Of Ra’, bringing all contributors together. I was left totally and utterly impressed by the whole thing – and don’t worry, I have only really brushed the surface, there is SO much more for you to discover yourselves when you too immerse yourselves in this enthralling experience.

I’m sure all the tracks I wanted to see were admirably represented and in the best way I could possibly hope for, especially in a live environment. Don’t forget, Ayreon is primarily and solely a studio project, so recreating it in a concert hall to this high standard is a huge achievement. All the emotions are there from the joy of hearing/seeing the genres top vocalists at their ease and loving every minute of it, to the poignancy of hearing a vocalist shout in tribute “We miss you Mike Baker” at the end of Mike’s original contribution to the Ayreon story, the excellent track ‘Loser’, soon after which he sadly passed away.

Live albums in general are all very well, a chance to hear a different side to an artist, usually entertaining, but I do rather feel you really needed to be there at the time to really appreciate it. However here, with this release, and the all-encompassing way it is put together, it absolutely draws you in – it was just 3 nights, it sold out within one day, it was a special event. We all couldn’t be there, but this whole package is about as close as those that weren’t can get. This of course includes the excellent personal DVD extras that is always Arjen’s way of giving his fans just that little bit extra, going that step further. Thank you Arjen for this and everything this release stands for – your fans are genuinely forever grateful.

(9/10 Andy Barker)