Even though many people still find it hard to correctly pronounce Ayreon's name, the recognition of Arjen Lucassen as one of the most important personalities of progressive music in our times, and mostly the fact that this is the most popular and best project concerning rock/metal operas, turns every new release to a very anticipated and important one.
The sound of Ayreon -despite some diversities- is recognizable at once and the guests on each album excite the fans, as they are either musicians with great history, singers on the top of their form, or just because this Dutchman knows how bring the best out of all of them. In this new album one can find all of the above...
In "The Theory Of Everything", Arjen chose to follow a new path, collaborating only with people he hadn't done before on any of his projects, while he seems to have approached its music as a whole, rather than individual songs, ending up with 4 songs, clocking from 20 to 25 minutes each. In a last minute decision he decided to divide these four songs into smaller ones and the 39 pieces he came up with were easily turned to 42, so as to pay a tribute to "The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy". Either way you see it, this seems to be quite challenging, while the album is full of changes, with only a few repeated parts in it and even less conventional structures.
In this story, the main character, Prodigy (Tommy Karevik) is a young man with a natural talent in physical science, a talent that is discovered by his Teacher (JB), making his father (Michael Mills) want to exploit in evil ways, in order to accomplish his research, being a scientist himself. Him mother (Cristina Scabbia) and his girlfriend (Sara Squadrani) are there to support him, worry and whine (as all women do), while his Rival (Marco Hietala) wants to prove he's better than Prodigy. Furthermore, there is a small role for the psychotherapist (John Wetton) who tries to help Prodigy deal with some of the problems he faces. It’s basically a simple story, easy to comprehend, but with a quite mysterious ending...
Music wise, there are many little things going on and until you get to fully comprehend them, it seems that the music has already proceeded to the next part, which may seem like 'too much information' during the first spins of the album, but the quality undoubtedly obvious and the only thing you need is to invest some time and to listen closely. Anyway, the music of Ayreon was never suited to be played in the background, but here you’ll need to focus a little more, because you’ll be rewarded by the added value of the guests’ performances. When you have Rick Wakeman (Yes), Keith Emerson (ELP), Steve Hackett (Genesis) and Jordan Rudess (Dream Theater) contributing, you expect something special. And that’s what you get. Additionally, Troy Donockley of Nightwish with his characteristic pipes and whistles provides some extra color to the overall sound.
Now, let's take a look at the singers' performances. Those who already knew Karevik never doubted if he would make an excellent job, although I still think that one can find his best performances on Seventh Wonder, while JB definitely stands out with his deep and strong voice. I was taken by surprise by how great Cristina Scabbia sounds as I had my doubts and she passes the test with flying colors, but the true surprise comes in the form of Michael Mills who gives a fantastic performance and everyone should check Toe Hider immediately (thanks Arjen!). The evil role fits Hietala like a velvet glove, while the rest of the guests are also quite good at their parts, with nothing trully standing out for me though.
If I have to point some parts that stand out, I would say the piano melody of Wakeman on "The Theory Of Everything pt.1", the impressive instrumental "Progressive Waves" with Rudess coming after Emerson, the very strong chorus of "Diagnosis" (possibly the only conventional chorus on the album) and "Mirror Of Lies", which is a new "Valley Of The Queens" (from "Into The Electric Castle" for those who wouldn't know).
On the other hand, it is obvious that this albums is not made to suit everybody and to be listened at any time, under any circumstances, as in my opinion it's going to challenge even some of Ayreon fans, or some progsters and this could cost to some extent. Also, as Arjen was aware of how challenging this project already was, he decided to use the simplest words as possible on the lyrics, so as to make the story immediately understood by anyone and not make it even more difficult. In my opinion, some parts seem to be more simplified than I'd like them to be, and though secondary, I felt like mentioning it.
Overall, "The Theory Of Everything" is a grandiose project -even for Arjen's standards- and keeping in mind how many risks it contains, it certainly proves that it’s maker did it once again. His unique ability to create worlds and stories through the albums of Ayreon and filling them with his inspired music cannot be doubted and with his new work he achieves to stand up to his high standards. I cannot claim that this will be considered his best work with Ayreon, but it has to be loved by his fans and the fans of progressive music in general. In a future buyer’s guide to Arjen's discography this could easily be a potential "Nerd Alert". Those who understand shouldn't worry, as they will surely enjoy this album.