By Carl Begai
Vocalist Anneke van Giersbergen made a name for herself in the ’90s with Dutch metallers The Gathering, and since the leaving the band in 2007 her career has blossomed as a solo artist. It has also grown to include repeated collaborations with Devin Townsend and Arjen Lucassen (Ayreon, The Gentle Storm), session work with some of metal’s finest, and the launch of her progressive metal band VUUR in 2017. When the world isn’t being plagued by a global pandemic, Anneke is also known for doing live solo acoustic shows regularly – most often in her native Netherlands – but up until now she had never committed to recording an acoustic album. The Darkest Skies Are The Brightest is her first and likely not het last shot at doing so, and for fans of the lady’s work it will come as no surprise to discover this isn’t your average paint-by-numbers slow burn acoustic record. It is next level organic music powered by Anneke’s unmistakable voice and unwavering drive to create something that stands out from the crowd.
So yeah, when it comes to Anneke’s mindset going in, this is the most metal acoustic record you’ve heard.
“There you go, my work is done,” Anneke laughs. “Like you said, I do a lot of acoustic shows but I’ve never ever made an acoustic album. It surprised me because my last effort was a progressive metal album (VUUR’s In This Moment We Are Free – Cities from 2017), so I would think that everybody would be totally weirded out by this album. Not only is it a much softer album, it’s a different kind of album, much more folk influenced… or a song like ‘I Saw A Car’ (laughs). But for some reason all the metalheads are into it and the music comes across, so they stop thinking in terms of genre. That’s a very nice thing for me.”
Continue reading BraveWords Interview: ANNEKE VAN GIERSBERGEN – “I Am 100% Imperfect”
By Carl Begai
In 2004, Dutch multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and über-nerd Arjen Lucassen released his ongoing Ayreon project’s critically acclaimed sixth album, The Human Equation. It was yet another concept album featuring a line-up of guest vocalists and musicians, but unlike its predecessors The Human Equation was not a sci-fi based metal opera. The record became a fan favourite, so much so that it was brought to the stage as a full production in 2015 under the name The Theater Equation. Lucassen returned to his science fiction stomping grounds for the three albums that followed – 01011001 (2008), The Theory Of Everything (2013) and The Source (2017) – but 2020 sees him exploring new territory once again on new album, Transitus. Boasting a cast that features performers including Tommy Karevik (Kamelot), Cammie Gilbert (Oceans Of Slumber), Simone Simons (Epica), Dee Snider (Twisted Sister), Amanda Somerville, Marty Friedman, Joe Satriani and The Hellscore Choir, the record is far more down to earth – close to it, at any rate – and was originally imagined by Lucassen as a movie soundtrack. Three years in the making, Transitus is the Ayreon album that almost wasn’t.
BraveWords spoke with Lucassen, Keravik and The Hellscore Choir’s founder / conductor Noa Gruman (Scardust vocalist) about the making of what is being regarded by many fans as Ayreon’s strongest album since The Human Equation.
BraveWords: You’re going to hear a lot of comparisons between Transitus and The Human Equation, largely due to the fact Transitus is the warmest album you’ve done since then. It’s a lot more open than some of your previous albums, far less dense on the musical side of things.
Lucassen: “It’s cool that you say ‘warmest’ because that’s exactly what I wanted to do. The previous Ayreon album, The Source, is not a warm album. It’s a pretty cold subject, it’s a prog metal album, it’s very guitar oriented, and this time I only wanted to use real instruments. I’m so glad you said that…”
Continue reading BraveWords Interview: AYREON – Human Equations And Horror Stories
By Carl Begai
Twenty-two years ago, a struggling Dutch musician by the name of Arjen Anthony Lucassen released what would be his breakthrough album. Buoyed by the attention he received for his first two records – The Final Experiment (1995) and Actual Fantasy (1996) – Lucassen adopted a “go big or go home” strategy and concocted a progressive metal opera featuring the talents of musicians he admired dubbed Into The Electric Castle. It was the beginning of what has become an internationally successful and lucrative career, allowing Lucassen to pursue his musical fantasies and ideas as they formulate in his hyperactive brain. With each album that followed Into The Electric Castle – six more at press time, not including his numerous side projects – the calls for Ayreon to perform live grew louder, and in 2016 fans were treated to a stage performance of The Human Equation album from 2004, The Theater Equation. Lucassen’s participation in the production was minimal compared to Ayreon Universe in 2017, the first ever official live Ayreon shows featuring Floor Jansen (Nightwish), Jonas Renske (Katatonia), Anneke van Giersbergen, Hansi Kürsch (Blind Guardian), Damian Wilson (ex-Threshold) and Tommy Karevik (Kamelot) to name a few. Two years later, Lucassen decided to gather his cast of original characters and returned to where it all began with four shows celebrating the 20th Anniversary of Into The Electric Castle. The end result is another jewel in Lucassen’s crown, Electric Castle Live And Other Tales.
BraveWords: Over the years you’ve maintained that Ayreon is not something you could see being performed live because of the scope of the production required and all the moving parts. Between Ayreon Universe and Electric Castle Live – and Star One for that matter – I call bullshit (laughs).
Arjen: “I know (laughs). And the reactions to Electric Castle Live have been unanimously positive. It sounds arrogant, but this time I was pretty sure of it. When we were editing the video and I saw all the material, and I was mixing it, I thought ‘Oh my God, we did it.’ We had plenty of camera angles to choose from, every shot was cool, the sound was good…. I think this was the first Ayreon release ever where I believed in it 100%. You’ve known me for years, and I’m always insecure when it comes to releasing a new album: ‘Are they going to like it? I wish I had done this…’ This time there we no ‘if only’s’. For the previous live stuff there were so many of those, but this time everything aligned perfectly. If there has been any negative response it has been towards the encores, which might be a bit too much for some people. And some people don’t like the narration, but that’s just a personal thing so I don’t give a shit about that because John de Lancie was great.”
Continue reading BraveWords Interview: AYREON – Everything’s Electric
By Carl Begai
Ayreon mastermind Arjen Lucassen has returned to form with his progressive metal opera project’s ninth album, The Source. In 1995 he introduced his “more is more” mindset with The Final Experiment, setting the tone for each future production stamped with the Ayreon name, garnering a loyal cult following and high expectations from those fans. It was the third album, Into The Electric Castle released in 1998, that laid a solid foundation for Lucassen’s multi-vocalist epics, and The Human Equation in 2004 that put him on the metaldom map as a creative force to be reckoned with, or respected at the very least. There have been a few missteps along the way depending on who you talk to – 01011001 from 2008 and The Theory Of Everything from 2013 are not the easiest albums to get into – but the fans are responding well to The Source. In fact, the constant comparisons to The Human Equation and Into The Electric Castle suggest that Lucassen may have struck musical gold once again.
“I know what you mean,” Lucassen agrees. “I had that feeling a twice before because everything came together so easily. The cast came together, the music came together, the story was easy, which are things I had with The Human Equation and Into The Electric Castle. Sometimes that happens and I just try to steer things in the direction they need to go.”
The ease with which the material The Source came together could have and probably should have been a bit frightening for Lucassen. How many musicians have boasted about new music coming together effortlessly only to be carved by the press once it goes out to the public?
“I’m insecure as hell about that,” he admits. “I start with 50 ideas and I hate most of them, really (laughs), because I figure they’re not good enough. The ones that I do like, I’ll play them to Lori (Linstruth / girlfriend, ex-Stream Of Passion guitarist) and she’ll be like “Well, yeah, okay…” So, I’m completely insecure until the very last moment, which is what makes me a perfectionist. That’s what makes me work so much harder, especially when I hear other stuff like the new Opeth or the new Devin Townsend. That’s when I’m thinking ‘Oh my God, my stuff doesn’t even get close to that…’ (laughs). The reactions to The Source have been so good that the insecurity is gone, and usually it’s always there.” Continue reading BraveWords Interview: AYREON – A Kind Of Prog Metal Magic
By Carl Begai
Dutch singer Floor Jansen is best known these days as the voice of Nightwish, a post she’s held since 2012 following the controversial firing of Anette Olzon, but her music career began long before Tuomas Holopainen had the presence of mind to ask Jansen to help pilot his ship of dreams. Jansen made name for herself fronting After Forever from the band’s inception in 1997 until 2009. In that time she also worked with Ayreon, Star One, Devin Townsend Project and MaYan on an assortment of albums and launched her own band, ReVamp, which has since been put to rest due to her Nightwish commitments. Although Nightwish spent most of 2016 on the road in support of their latest album, Endless Forms Most Beautiful, Jansen found time to record vocals for two tracks on the new Evergrey album, The Storm Within, collaborate once again with Ayreon mastermind Arjen Lucassen… and make a baby with fiancé and Sabaton drummer Hannes Van Dahl.
Jansen is featured on two tracks for The Storm Within, ‘In Orbit’ and ‘Disconnect’, the former having been released as a single and video. I spoke with Evergrey frontman Tom Englund for the official bio released for The Storm Within earlier this year and he offered his thoughts on bringing Jansen in for the album.
“That was actually my wife (Carina Englund) thinking for me. Floor is a personal friend and major Evergrey fan, so it was over a glass of wine between her and my wife, who asked her if she wanted to do the song. ‘In Orbit’ is a powerhouse of a song and it would be easy to make it the first single, but it’s not the first impression we want to make. That said, it would be stupid not to release it as a single, and if we could get Floor to do the video, that would be a home run.” Continue reading FLOOR JANSEN – In Orbit With EVERGREY
By Carl Begai
I’m going to start this story with an apology to Tobias Sammet and all those involved with the Avantasia machine.
In my initial overview of the new album The Mystery Of Time (found here), I did a fair job of smack-talking Sammet’s previous Avantasia effort, The Wicked Symphony / Angel Of Babylon double album. In my world it was just too damn long, with only three songs of a possible 22 having left a mark on my brain since the 2010 release (‘Scales Of Justice’, ‘Stargazers’ and ‘Death Is Just A Feeling’ in case anyone cares). In stark contrast The Mystery Of Time boasts only 10 songs, and after only one time through during the listening session at the Nuclear Blast offices in Donzdorf, Germany there were melodies and riffs still resonating in my head days later. I blame my harsh view of The Wicked Symphony / Angel Of Babylon on being smacked with too much information at one time, while The Mystery Of Time is an exciting “buckle up” ride if you’re a fan of the genre. It seems my enthusiasm may have gotten the better of me. I still say Avantasia’s previous outing pales in comparison to the new album, but by no means had I intended to dumb down Sammet’s vision or the work that went into making it a reality.
That said, during the listening session for The Mystery Of Time, I did mention to Sammet that I thought The Wicked Symphony / Angel Of Babylon was too big for its own good.
“Definitely, I agree,” says Sammet. “Not that I would throw away any of the material because I like all the songs, but some of the songs suffered from being just one out of 22 songs that came out at the same time. The songs that would have been really appreciated on an album of 10 tracks were called ‘weak’ or ‘fillers’ because there was so much competition. That was something that I wasn’t able to predict. I thought, ‘I wrote the material, I like each song because I had months to become acquainted with them.’ I knew every detail of every song, so they were very important to me.”
The Mystery Of Time offers so much more to sink one’s teeth into because of its compact nature. Short-ish, sweet, wonderfully diverse, and straight to the point.
“I’m really with you on that,” Sammet agrees. “This album is an entity all its own, and compact is the best way to describe it.” Continue reading BW&BK Exclusive: AVANTASIA – “Got The Time?”
By Carl Begai
I recently attended a listening session for Avantasia’s new album, The Mystery Of Time, at Nuclear Blast headquarters in Donzdorf, Germany for BW&BK. An excerpt from my report is available below. I have to admit, I was pleasantly surprised by the strength of the record, which made a much bigger impression on me than Avantasia founder Tobias Sammet’s previous double-album venture, The Wicked Symphony / Angel Of Babylon.
Folks have said vocalist Tobias Sammet (Edguy) and guitarist/producer Sascha Paeth lost the plot last time out in 2010 by releasing a 22 song double album that pounded the listener into submission with too much information. The Mystery Of Time sees the dynamic duo taking a step back and focusing on crafting a ‘simple’ no-nonsense rock opera; 10 songs, two of ’em ballads, two of them hitting the 10+ minute mark, and influences/inspiration worn shamelessly on the Avantasia sleeve. Of all their releases thus far, the new record is by far the most theatrical, a point driven home by opening track ‘Spectres’, the epic ‘Savior In The Clockwork’, and the closing Meat Loaf-esque ‘The Great Mystery’. The use of a flesh and blood orchestra really DOES make a difference against dial-up digital magic, made all the more special because the boys didn’t use it on every single track (which is usually the downfall of productions like this).
Plenty of heavy over-the-top metal moments from Paeth’s treasure trove of riffs, to guitar leads from Bruce Kulick (ex-KISS) on three tracks, and Arjen Lucassen (Ayreon) trading licks with keyboardist Ferdy Doernberg (Rough Silk) on ‘The Watchmaker’s Dream’. Michael Kiske (Unisonic, ex-Helloween) blows the doors off with his circa ’87 performance on ‘Where Clock Hands Freeze’ (speedy and heavy), but the big prize goes to ‘Invoke The Machine’ for it’s blatant tip of the hat to cult fave Danish bashers Pretty Maids featuring PM vocalist Ronnie Atkins in a duet with Tobi. Several journalists at the session agreed the song is the high point of the record. Continue reading AVANTASIA “Versus” AYREON – Round 2: ‘The Watchmaker’s Dream’
By Carl Begai
Whether or not change is good there’s no escaping the fact it’s inevitable, and multi-instrumentalist Arjen Lucassen is no exception to the rule.
As the master(mind) of the Ayreon empire, Star One and Guilt Machine, the towering Dutchman is known for assembling ensemble casts featuring some of the metal world’s finest voices and players – as well as discovering the occasional unknown talent – to create his now trademark epic metal operas. Lucassen composes all the music for all his projects, plays the vast majority of it (with a little help from his friends), arranges the often monstrous vocal parts and does some singing himself, yet in the end he has always been – no matter how important to the proceedings – a cog in the wheel. His latest sci-fi based conceptual outing, on the other hand, puts Lucassen front and center and behind the microphone on his own. A strange place for him to be unaccompanied but as he tells it, a hell of a lot of fun.
“I think everyone is a surprised by that,” Lucassen says of taking on all the vocal duties. “It was a big challenge for me. I’ve always liked singing. The problem was I’ve worked with some of the most amazing singers in the world. When you’ve worked with people like Bruce Dickinson and Jorn Lande, that humbles you. I could never do what those guys do. They’re amazing, having such power and technique, and I don’t have that at all. When I’m in the studio with these guys singing a melody to them you hear my little squeaky voice, and then Russell Allen sings it back like a monster (laughs). I do like the sound of my voice, but technically speaking I’m not a fantastic singer. By this point I know my limitations, though, and these songs were written for my voice so I enjoy singing them.”
As for doing away with the trademark legion of voices in favour of putting himself in the spotlight, Lucassen makes it clear that his ego had nothing to do with the decision.
“I wanted to get back the feeling I had when I started Ayreon. I wanted to make something without anyone’s expectations hanging over me. Continue reading ARJEN LUCASSEN – Reality And The Replicant
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.
Continue reading LORI LINSTRUTH – Tuning Up The Guilt Machine
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.
Continue reading AYREON – Everything In Time