'The Theater Equation' DVD
Release Date: 17th June 2016
Giant Dutchman Arjen Lucassen made his name in the late nineties and early 2000s with a string of prog metal science fiction concept albums under the Ayreon moniker. The formula of an epic story line matched to high quality prog metal played by multi instrumentalist Lucassen himself and a select band of carefully chosen musicians, with vocals from a variety of singers chosen for each role produced successful albums like 'The Universal Migrator' and the classic 'Inside The Electric Castle'.
Working against the trends elsewhere in the music industry Lucassen built a fan base with little or no touring and even took the science fiction theme a step further with the Star One side project playing original songs based on sci-fi films and TV shows.
Things took a surprising turn in 2004 though with the release of 'The Human Equation', another concept album with an all star cast but this time the story was firmly based in a modern reality. As much about psychological rebirth as anything else the concept is that a successful businessman is in a coma for twenty days after a car accident and his mind tries to resolve the emotional issues of his life.
Each day is represented by a song and characters such as Rage played by Devin Townsend and Opeth's Mikael Akerfeldt as Fear. The comatose main protagonist is simply named Me and played by Dream Theater's James LaBrie and among the other people in the story arc is Marcela Bovio as Wife(this collaboration with the superb Mexican singer would result in the formation of Stream Of Passion).
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The more real world concept plus some terrific songs superbly performed broadened the Ayreon appeal and gave him one of his most successful albums to date. Mr Lucassen has continued since with more Ayreon albums and other side projects such as Guilt Machine and The Gentle Storm but it seems that the lure of this particular project drew him back as more than ten years after its' initial release it was performed in four sold out shows as a full blown musical rock opera in Rotterdam's Nieuwe Luxor theatre.
Now we have the release of the DVD of that show, a souvenir for the lucky fans who made it to the shows and maybe by way of compensation for those like me who couldn't make the trip.
So many years on it's a tribute to the respect the artists who work with Lucassen have for him that he managed to get almost all of the original vocalists together for this very different version of the project. The notable absentees included Opeth's Mikael Akerfeldt who was unavailable to reprise his role as Fear but when you have a contacts lists which allows his replacement to be the fabulous Anneke van Giersbergen you know you must be doing something right!
Using a pretty basic stage set on two levels with a bed for the coma victim, a writing desk and the car he crashed in as the only major props this is a production which relies a lot on the performances of its' cast to make it all work. Work it does too, amazingly well. The vocal talent on display is really astonishing and every one of them brings their A game. LaBrie is allowed more leeway to show off the range and diversity he is capable of than he gets in his day job and gives a performance which may have the casting directors of musicals taking an interest.
Such an ensemble piece means that time is limited for individuals to shine but any fans of the aforementioned Ms van Giersbergen or Stream Of Passion's Marcela Bovio won't be surprised to know that they take to the format as if they've been doing musical theatre all their lives. In fact it's almost hard to keep track of which vocal you like best as the action switches between great performances from Devon Graves, Irene Jansen, Heather Findlay and many more.
As if there weren't enough great singers on display up front this stage version of the album has a rock choir too. Including many proven talents like Lisette van den Berg from Scarlet Stories for example, their energy and power make a real difference to the songs and having them on the stage and obviously so into what they are doing is a real bonus too.
This being a rock opera the superb bunch of musicians put together for the show are all on stage throughout the performance and visually their energy makes the whole event crackle with atmosphere. The Gentle Storm rhythm section of Ed Warby and the underrated bass playing of Johan van Stratum is a tremendous bedrock for a huge and diverse sound. All the guitars and keyboards handle the complexities of the music brilliantly and when something different is required there is the likes of the violin of Ben Mathot and cello of Kingfisher Sky's Maaike Peterse to enjoy (shame they didn't let Maaike have her usual seat to play from though!). I think my thoughts on the band can be summed up by the thought that for me they are actually the most outstanding thing about these versions of the songs, the sound is truly astonishing.
There is so much going on here vocally and instrumentally it's difficult to mention everyone who deserves it. I admit I did miss Devin Townsend on 'Loser' which is a favourite song of mine but Mike Mills did the song his own way and did a very good job. Other than that there is the very occasional bit of shaky camerawork to my eyes but that doesn't really matter, for anyone who loves the original album this is simply a triumph. I'm not sure what any 'proper' theatre critic might make of it(although I'd love to see them try!) and following the story might take some work if you're not familiar with it but this release is really aimed at the converted. The fan base will buy this in droves and love it and deservedly so. Of course now everyone wants a stage musical of 'Inside The Electric Castle' so good luck on getting a budget for that Mr Lucassen.
Ian actually awarded the DVD four-and-three-quarter pints but the MetalTalk bar only serves full pints and halves. Something to do with weights and measures laws we think...