The Final Experiment is the first of many concept albums by Arjen Anthony Lucassen , the mastermind behind the mixed bag of artists which form Ayreon. Originally released in 1995 so at the time of writing that makes the album 15 years old. I've only discovered Ayreon is recent years and despite its age, I love it and I'll try and tell you why.
As a concept album, The Final Experiment is intended to tell a story. This is done by using different vocalists to play different characters on each track. I'd agree that this sounds cringe-worthy and nerdy but somehow it isn't. The story is actually quite a good one.
Basically, in the future everything has gone wrong and computers have taken over the world. To try and prevent this from happening, scientists send a message back in time to warn those of the past not to make the same mistakes. The message happens upon a blind minstrel named 'Ayreon' (yay band name!) who existed in the time of King Arthur. Ayreon spends his time singing about his visions and scares everyone in his village, so they throw him out. He travels to King Arthurs court where he sings to warn those there. Merlin (you know the famous wizard) hears Ayreon's songs and grows jealous of his ability to predict the future. In his jealousy, Merlin lays a curse on Ayreon which prevents him from communicating ever again. He then realises that this was the wrong thing to do and predicts that the message will reach another minstrel in the future. So there you have the story, I think it's pretty cool and I'd say the songs themselves tell it much better than any narrative I could give in this review.
Musically, Ayreon is a unique sounding project and one that deserves more attention. Essentially what Ayreon does is blend traditional instruments (think violins, pianos, flutes etc) with progressive rock (and sometimes metal). What's created is an epic sound that fits the grand scope of the concept. If you were to listen to one track before deciding whether to give it a full listen I'd recommend 'Sail Away to Avalon'.
It isn't just the music which stands out and makes Ayreon stand out from the crowd, the vocals are important too. As already mentioned, the album features many different vocalists to play characters. Strangely enough there are only 4 different characters which sing on this album but there are around 13 vocalists. Most of the songs feature Ayreon singing which is befitting of the story but we also have Merlin and a Nobleman amongst some less notable characters (simply called women and villagers!). This is remedied in later releases where there is a more varied cast of characters ('Into the Electric Castle' is worth checking out for a more refined sound).
I suppose the greatest value from this album is that it is the first of many and starts the whole story off. The Ayreon universe is a grand one so you may as well start at the beginning. This is a fantastic album by itself though. Many of the songs from this album are still played by Ayreon and Arjen's other projects live and are fan favourites. I know some of my favourite Ayreon tracks come from this album such as 'Charm of the Seer' and 'The Awareness' to mention just a couple.
Thanks for reading!
Ayreon's debut project, The Final Experiment gave birth to a futuristic concept in which telepathy could be used to warn the past of an apocalyptic future in order for it to be avoided.
This message is picked up in the dark ages by the blind minstrel Ayreon whose destiny it becomes to warn mankind of this threat. However when he ventures to Camelot and gains Arthur's attention Merlin becomes jealous, accuses Ayreon of lying and curses him.
The shear grandeur and sophistication of the record knows no end and the plethora of talent on show combines perfectly to create a high quality concept rock opera. The music reflects the period in which the story is told with plenty of medieval flavour including period trumpets and symphony. All of this is complimented with numerous layers of guitar and synth effects and when combined with strong vocal contributions the shear length and fascination of the album shines through.
This re-master has had a bonus disk of STUNNING acoustic tracks recorded especially for it because Arjen Lucassen wanted to make it into a two disk set, to match the rest of projects releases. This upgrade is a more than fitting tribute to what was an auspicious and spectacular debut in the annals of classic rock.
Originally a solo album credited to Arjen Anthony Lucassen, 'The Final Experiment' is the first album of his prestigious Ayreon line (how ironic is that?), and is quite different from all of his later, more accomplished releases. A rock opera with multiple singers and the same sort of bizarre, trippy sci-fi/fantasy concept as his later works 'Into the Electric Castle' and 'Universal Migrator,' it's also the only point in the Ayreon discography that greater importance seems to be placed on the concept and lyrics than the music itself. That's not to say it isn't enjoyable or skilled, but much of the music ends up as overly repetitive or atmospheric backing for the singers to work over, and the use of repeated motifs, most prominently the damn synthesised fanfare that blares out at various points in the album when you least expect it, are handled less well than in later works.
...a) The Time Telepathy Experiment
...c) Ayreon's Quest
The opening minutes of the album introduce the situation, through the self-proclaimed "voice of Merlin," in a narrative gimmick reminiscent of Jeff Wayne's 'The War of the Worlds,' one of many classic rock operas that Lucassen seems to take inspiration from here. In-between the monotonous narrative, the overture introduces the fun but slightly daft synthesised fanfare that will pop up just a little too frequently throughout this long album, as well as nicely foreshadowing further musical themes.
It is the year 2084 (honestly), and humanity has all but destroyed itself through war. Scientists have come up with the wacky notion of the Time Telepathy Experiment, through which they can transmit news of Earth's impending destruction back in time to susceptible recipients through the ages, in the hope that their intervention will prevent the catastrophe; clearly a last straw, as research would have doubtless shown that humanity is unwilling to put in the effort to safeguard its own continued existence even when the evidence to the contrary is overwhelming. For some reason, their message reaches a blind minstrel in sixth-century Britain. His name is Ayreon.
~ Act I: The Dawning ~
2. The Awareness
...a) The Premonition
...b) Dreamtime (Words Become a Song)
...c) The Awakening
3. Eyes of Time
...a) Eyes of Time
4. The Banishment
...a) A New Dawn
...b) The Gathering
...c) The Accusation
...d) The Banishment
Lucassen's over-ambitious prog flamboyance is most present in this first section, with its ludicrously dissected song movements (all but vanishing after this point) and an eleven-minute beast of a song in the form of the rather dull 'The Banishment.' 'The Awareness' is a great song to start things off, going all-out with plodding metal rhythms and an overload of eighties-style synthesisers to establish the album's primary sound, balanced by a softer acoustic chorus of male and female singers. The two subsequent songs are much the same, featuring numerous solos for the guitar, keyboards and even bass, but never escaping from the medium pace into something more interesting, slowing to a crawl in 'The Banishment' and unfortunately ending up as the least interesting section of the album, permissible as it's still trying to find its feet.
~ Act II: King Arthur's Court ~
5. Ye Courtyard Minstrel Boy
6. Sail Away to Avalon
7. Nature's Dance
The second act introduces Ayreon and establishes the Medieval setting, and as such incorporates more authentically Medieval folk sounds... to some extent. 'Sail Away to Avalon' is the only rock song here, nicely led by Lucassen's keyboard in harpsichord mode and once again relying on the album's "main theme" established back in the prologue, which is starting to sound over-used even at this early stage. It's a decent enough song but doesn't really stand out as an early classic, and is hindered (or enhanced, depending on the reason you're listening to this album) by some really quite lame lyrics from the Knight of the Table Round.
Nothing, however, could match the subsequent embarrassment of 'Nature's Dance,' an accomplished acoustic ballad sung by Lucassen himself as the blind minstrel who tells how he spends his worthless, blind days lying under trees, "switching off like a television" and zoning out, something that makes him perfectly suited to receiving the visions from the future. The chorus is amusingly dodgy, as Ayreon wishes he could see like everybody can and wishes he could be like every other man, but I suppose the rest of the album goes on to prove his worth and restore the equal opportunities balance. For its strong pastoral atmosphere, funny lyrics and dedication to the Medieval theme, this is probably the strongest section of the album, if a little insubstantial.
~ Act III: Visual Echoes ~
8. Computer-Reign (Game Over)
10. Listen to the Waves
11. Magic Ride
The third act is the most divergent and, in the end, the least rewarding. These four songs detail Ayreon's visions of the future conflict and barren landscape, and are based more on electronic atmospheres and a darker tone reminiscent of later Ayreon album 'Flight of the Migrator.' 'Computer Reign' is the only one to continue using a typical rock chorus ("Game Over!"), and while the following three songs all feature extensive soloing and impressive atmosphere, they lack character and distinctiveness to keep them memorable afterwards. Probably the oddest and most questionable feature however is the shift in focus from a foreboding message of humanity's self-destructiveness in 'Computer Reign' and 'Waracle' to the revelation in 'Listen to the Waves' that we were in fact wiped out by a deadly race from outer space, something that provides material for Lucassen to work with in later Ayreon albums, but undermines the ecological and moral themes that had previously been one of this album's strong points. Oh well.
~ Act IV: Merlin's Will and Ayreon's Fate ~
12. Merlin's Will
13. The Charm of the Seer
14. Swan Song
15. Ayreon's Fate
...a) Ayreon's Fate
...b) Merlin's Prophecy
The final Act sees a return to the bombastic rock opera style of the first, the male choir and vocal duologue between Ayreon and Merlin sounding completely over-the-top in a way that will appeal to fans of rock operas, but will alienate those who find it all a bit silly, though presumably they wouldn't have stuck around for this long in the first place. By contrast to these slow rocking pieces, 'The Charm of the Seer' and 'Swan Song' are both short, folky ballads, the first led by orchestra and evolving to include harpsichord and finally rock influence, but the second led entirely by piano, the only instrumental of the album. The very end of the album is expectedly contrived and sentimental, with a return of the narrator from the opening in an impassioned plea that YOU help to avoid humanity's fate (wait, I thought it was a deadly race from outer space what done it?)
This debut release sets up most of what makes Ayreon great, but lacks the polish and natural beauty of Lucassen's more classic releases. A few songs make the grade, but the later 'Into the Electric Castle' is a far more successful and definitive rock opera that even beats this one in terms of zany theme, and provides a worthy rival for the blind minstrel in the form of Lucassen's embarrassingly stereotypical trippin' hippie. This is still bound to be a favourite among a select minority of Ayreon fans simply for being the first release, though I can't imagine a blind person approaching Lucassen after a show and thanking him for his inspiring treatment of the disability here.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
3 Eyes Of Time
5 Ye Courtyard Minstrel Boy
6 Sail Away To Avalon
7 Nature's Dance
8 Computer Reign (Game Over)
10 Listen To The Waves
11 Magic Ride
12 Merlin's Will
13 Charm Of The Seer
14 Swan Song
15 Ayreon's Fate
Disc #2 Tracklisting
2 Eyes Of Time
4 Ye Courtyard Minstrel Boy
5 Sail Away To Avalon
6 Nature's Dance
8 Merlin's Will
9 Charm Of The See