By Carl Begai
Ayreon founder Arjen Lucassen’s new project, Guilt Machine, is as Pink Floydian dark as one can get. It amounts to a soundtrack for the inevitable soul search, deep and introspective to the point that calling the debut On This Perfect Day almost seems like tongue-in-cheek irony. Musically it’s something of a return to form for Lucassen following the plodding Ayreon record 01011001 from 2008, but it enters unfamiliar and unexpectedly dark lyrical territory at the hands of former Stream Of Passion guitarist Lori Linstruth. What makes this particularly noteworthy is that Linstruth doesn’t suffer from a This Sucks outlook on life. On the contrary, she tackles subjects like having the best hair in metal – “I don’t do anything special; it’s all genetic” – her career thus far, and being roped into writing for a high profile release all with a good natured “Pretty cool, huh?” approach.
With regards to her career as a guitarist, Linstruth has been active for several years but didn’t really garner serious public attention until the release of Stream Of Passion’s debut, Embrace The Storm, in 2005
“Stream Of Passion was the first thing I did in music that was signed to a label. The stuff I did before that were mainly demos for my band, Warbride, when I was living in Los Angeles, but we never released anything. There was a compilation thing released ages ago on a tiny, tiny label in the States but nobody would have ever heard of that. There are probably more people who know about Warbride now than back then thanks to my connection to Arjen and my stupid guitar videos that I’ve posted online (laughs).”
Those “stupid guitar videos” are gold if you’re a fan of sweep picking and fretboard flash. They also offer a look at Linstruth’s shred-abilities as a player, something that may not have come across with Stream Of Passion.
“I started playing guitar again a few years ago, because I quit for a long time,” Linstruth reveals. “Just gave it up. But, I started playing again and I was on this website for guitar players, and one of the requirements for posting a song was that you had to tab eight bars of what you did. I don’t know how to tab; I had to learn the rudiments of tabbing in order to post my little songs there, so I’d pick the easiest parts (laughs). When I started playing guitar as a teenager I didn’t even know tabbing existed. So yeah, I’m a self taught player. I never had lessons or a teacher or anything like that. I just learned from listening and watching people play when I had the chance.”
The Stream Of Passion experience was a good one overall for Linstruth in spite of doing only one album and some touring. It also set the wheels in motion for what would became a professional and personal relationship with Lucassen that yielded Guilt Machine, one of the stronger works in his catalogue.
“I started out as a fan of Arjen’s work, and the way he found me was serendipitous. He happened to see me play and thought I’d be great for this band of his, so when he asked me to join Stream Of Passion I didn’t care what the music was. I was just so thrilled that he would ask me to play guitar for him. I would have played for him even if it was acid jazz (which, for the record, Linstruth despises). Arjen and I are from the same generation, we have a lot of the same influences so we connected very easily. I loved being in the band and I liked everyone in it, the tour was fun, but I have to say that I liked playing the Ayreon songs better than the Stream Of Passion stuff.”
“We knew from the beginning that once Stream Of Passion got rolling that Arjen would leave the band and that we’d have to find someone else,” Linstruth continues, addressing her departure from the band in 2007. “In the beginning I thought that was fine. After he left, though, I realized that as much as I liked the other band members I didn’t have the musical and personal connection with them to give them the all the time and effort that Stream Of Passion needs. They also happen to be a lot younger than me, which makes a difference. It was all very amicable, though, and there were no bad vibes when I left.”
Guilt Machine is new territory for both Linstruth and Lucassen. As the mastermind behind Ayreon, Lucassen controls all aspects of any given production from the musicians involved down to the artwork. Surprisingly, he didn’t lose any sleep in giving over the lyrical writing to Linstruth. She, on the other hand, was a bundle of nerves during the initial phase of writing.
“It was… I’d have to say the biggest hurdle I had to overcome having the weight of expectation hanging over me,” says Linstruth. “Arjen’s expectations, the fans’ expectations, that was definitely the hardest thing about it. Getting over that mental barrier of ‘Oh my God, I can’t just to do this as something fun for me…” Other people were going to hear the songs and they were going to compare my lyrics to Arjen’s which was really, really hard. Once I got over that, though, it was just a matter of having the time to write”
“It was fun because when I started writing I knew that Jasper (Steverlinck) would be singing them, so I also had his voice in mind when I was writing. If it had been someone like Jorn Lande singing I think the album would have sounded completely different.”
As Linstruth tells it there was no hand-holding on Lucassen’s part, no standing over her shoulder offering ideas and hints and veiled suggestions of how she might want to consider writing certain parts to suit his vision. Or else.
“He didn’t give me any thematic ideas. My memory of how it worked out is I wrote the first scratch lyrics for Arjen just so he had something to sing. I was thinking about something personal that happened, used words and phrases that I liked; it was all very honest, coming from my heart. He liked it so much that he asked me to do the album, but I had no idea what to write about. Arjen said ‘Just write and we’ll see what happens.’ So I did the first couple songs – I know the first one was ‘Twisted Coil’ – and it was obvious what kind of direction I was going in naturally. We talked about it and I told Arjen the most natural thing was to use our experiences that we had over the last couple years – the depression Arjen went through, the personal crises we’ve both gone through – and I presented the lyrics to him. He liked the idea, and that’s basically how it happened for me.”
Meaning that Linstruth is in fact to blame for the production taking the name Guilt Machine…
“Well, yeah (laughs). It actually comes up in a line in one of the songs and that popped out as a possibility for a name. We went through hundreds of different ideas, and Guilt Machine was one of the things we were left with at the end that hadn’t been taken by another band. We felt it fit well to the project, so we used it.”
With regard to the music for On This Perfect Day, Linstruth didn’t play as much as fans might expect. Guilt Machine’s similarities to Ayreon have everything to do with the fact that Lucassen played almost everything on the record himself except the drums.
“As far as playing on the album goes, all I did were the solos. Anyone who is familiar with my style will hear where I am. I don’t do any of the little melodies or harmonies, that’s all Arjen. I don’t want anyone to make any mistakes about that. It’s all his rhythms, slide guitar, and all this different stuff that he does to create those soundscapes, and it’s amazing. The composition, it’s all Arjen’s ideas and my input was limited to helping him make up his mind when he had several ideas for one part of a song.”
Life for Linstruth beyond Guilt Machine will involve music – a no-brainer given the company she keeps – but fans shouldn’t expect her to go spotlight solo any time soon.
“I learned a lot about myself doing Guilt Machine,” she explains, “and as much as I loved doing it I really feel that having to meet up to other people’s expectations is really hard for me. I’m so concerned about the other people involved. If I were to make some stupid instrumental guitar CD where it’s all my stuff and it gets crappy reviews, that’s my problem and I have to suck it up. When you’re doing something with someone else, to think that they’d be criticized for something that I contributed… I really can’t handle that (laughs).”
Go to this location for my Guilt Machine interview with Arjen Lucassen. It’s a good one