By Carl Begai
I caught up with Ayreon mastermind Arjen Lucassen a while back to discuss a variety of subjects including the last Ayreon record, 01011001, the Timeline compilation released at the end of 2008, and his new project, Guilt Machine. It was an informal fact-finding mission done outside the confines of the usual press junket routine. Many thanks to Arjen for taking the time; much appreciated.
Discussion begins with the success of 01011001, which had the daunting task of following up The Human Equation, considered by many fans to be the cornerstone of the Ayreon catalogue. By all accounts 01011001 did extremely well, but it was agreed almost across the board that it was harder to get into than its predecessor due to its considerably darker atmosphere. Once inside, however, most fans were hooked.
“The sales were great – as good as The Human Equation – which basically means that it did better when you consider that album sales have gone down thanks to illegal downloading,” says Lucassen. “It was the first time that I charted in 13 countries, but I don’t think that has to do with selling more albums. I think that’s due to other bands selling fewer albums (laughs). But, I got the feeling the people liked The Human Equation better. When I was putting the Timeline compilation together and hearing all the albums back to back I realized that The Human Equation is simply a stronger album that 01. It was made during a happier period in my life, I was more inspired, and those singers on The Human Equation were very personal choices. They were singers from bands that I actually bought the CDs, while on 01 I was listening more to the fans saying ‘You’ve gotta take that guy!’ or singers offering their talents.”
While Lucassen is satisfied with 01011001’s performance and place in the Ayreon universe, he admits to having made compromises when he would have been better off leaving well enough alone.
“I think I did compromise a bit. It wasn’t good. I ended up with way too many singers. I approached too many singers and they all said yes, so I ended up with 17, and even with a double album you can’t give that many singers they space they need and deserve. I think that’s one of the biggest problems with 01. A singer like Daniel Gildenlöw (Pain Of Salvation), I couldn’t use him to his full potential because there was no space for it.”
The Timeline compilation – a massive 3 CD box set featuring a DVD – was issued at the end of 2008 to effectively cap off the Ayreon saga. It takes the fans through the project’s history, from its humble beginnings in 1995 with Actual Fantasy to 01011001, concluding with a track written specifically for the package, ‘Epilogue: The Memory Remains’. Lucassen admits to having resisted doing a retrospective of any kind up until last year because as far as he was concerned it made no sense to do so.
“I’ve been asked many times before to do a compilation album. My first label, Transmission, wanted to do one and they got that leftovers album, Ayreonauts Only. Then InsideOut wanted to do one celebrating 10 years of Ayreon but my reaction was ‘What does 10 years mean? I’m still in full flight.’ It wouldn’t have worked because the story wasn’t finished. With 01… actually, it’s funny, when I started writing 01 it didn’t feel like the end of an era but when I finished the album I realized I’d finished the Ayreon story.”
“It was easier to put together than I thought,” he adds. “I listened to all the albums, one a day, and wrote down comments on each one. Some choices were difficult but it wasn’t as hard as I feared it would be.”
The words “finished the Ayreon story” cause a ruckus amongst the fans every time they’re uttered. So for the record, is Ayreon really over or will there be a new album at some point?
“I get mails every day about that,” says Lucassen. “As for whether there will be another Ayreon album, I’m never sure. Ten years could go by before I decide to do another one. I have to say that a lot of the reviews for 01 said it had some cool moments but it had that typical Ayreon sound, that there was nothing new being offered, and I think I can agree with that. I decided I’m going to stop with this Ayreon story, with this sound, and concentrate on other projects first. Then, if I decide to go back to Ayreon I’ll do something different with it. I have no idea how (laughs), but if there’s going to be another one it should be different.”
For the time being Lucassen’s attention is on his new project, Guilt Machine. Like everything Lucassen does it’s a production of epic proportions, but he went into it bent on creating music well outside the Ayreon framework.
“The funny thing is that’s how I started out. It was like, ‘Ah! People aren’t gonna believe I’m gonna do this!’ I started the project and everything was different – a different drummer, a different singer, Lori (Linstruth/guitarist) wrote the lyrics, there’s no science fiction, there’s no continuing story – and once I was deep into it I realized secretly that it sounded like Ayreon again (laughs). I can’t help it. All the ingredients are different but that sound is in there somewhere.”
The biggest difference between Guilt Machine and Ayreon is the use of only one singer (Arid frontman Jasper Steverlinck) as opposed to a pool of vocalists. Not exactly uncharted territory for Lucassen – he shaped the 2001 Ambeon album around the voice of Dutch singer Astrid van der Veen and was a big part of Stream Of Passion – but it forced him to change the way he’s used to thinking and working.
“That was the challenge. A lot of people say ‘You’re a genius! You work with so many singers!’ and I tell them that it’s easy to work with so many singers. Got a melodic part? Use that person. There’s a heavy part, use those vocals, and so on. There are all kinds of options and you can create different moods with different voices. That never gets boring. The challenge is doing the same thing using one voice. I’ve enjoyed taking it on.”