Underappreciated Album of the Month: UAM #3 (Ayreon – The Human Equation, 2004)

Ayreon - The Human Equation

It’s difficult for me to discuss Ayreon’s The Human Equation; it means so much to me and carries such a weight in quality and importance, especially since it exists alongside so many over appreciated albums, that I feel no words can do it justice. But here goes my attempt.

The Human Equation, Ayreon’s sixth studio album, is a sprawling, lush, complex, magnificent, memorable and deeply affective rock opera that, in an industry which rewards lazy, copy cat mediocrity, proves just how gripping, ambitious and original music can be. It’s truly art; a masterpiece of the progressive metal/rock genre.

Ayreon is an ongoing project by Dutch composer Arjen Anthony Lucassen. It’s essentially the Alan Parsons Project of our generation: Arjen crafts dense plots and hires revered vocalists and musicians to record them (of course he appears on the albums vocally and musically as well as writing and producing them). And as if it weren’t enough to have each individual album revolve around its own storyline, all seven albums (and counting) connect in a grandiose concept.

The story of The Human Equation, according to Lucassen, is this: “A man has a car accident and ends up in hospital in a comatose state…His wife and his best friend are keeping a vigil at his bed, trying to understand what happened, hoping he will wake soon. Cut off from the outside world, the man finds himself trapped in a strange realm where his emotions…have come to life to confront him with all the choices he has made in his life. As he is taken from one memory to the next, he slowly becomes aware of all the events leading up to his accident, and realizes that if he ever wants to wake up from his coma, he must find a way out of his prison…

Ayreon explores many themes people deal with as adults, including self-actualization, betrayal, childhood abuse, and the various stages of love. It’s a captivating, emotionally draining experience, and it managess to feel theatrical without incorporating too many operatic, cheesy moments (there are a few, though). Finally, the twist ending, which connects The Human Equation to the rest of the Ayreon universe, is pretty cool.

The music, lyrics and vocals tell the story perfectly and naturally. The album is broken into twenty days, where each day encompasses an event, memory or emotion. And each track is full of memorable melodies, poignant feelings and flourishing, exciting music. You will be entranced as the characters recite their words while powerful, dynamic instrumental breaks create the world they exist in. It also helps that three of my favorite singers appear on The Human Equation: James Labrie (Dream Theater) plays “Me,” Mikael Åkerfeldt (Opeth) plays “Fear,” and Devin Townsend (SYL, solo) plays “Rage.” A wide range of genres are explored, including death metal, progressive rock, folk, psychedelic, opera, avant-garde and electronic. This album will take you on a stylistic adventure, running the gamut from powerhouse heavy to sensitively light, and there are oh so many sublime moments.

Besides my subjective admiration of the album, I believe Ayreon and The Human Equation are important in today’s music industry from an objective standpoint. Arjen Lucassen is showing what music should be about: melody, concept, and performance. He spends years crafting the music, lyrics and vocal arrangements and finding the right talent to bring it to life. There’s more innovation and thought in just one of these twenty songs (not to mention all the other albums he’s written) than you’d find in the discographies of today’s most popular artists, and even if it didn’t succeed (which it does brilliantly), the drive behind it is enough to warrant recognition. It’s wonderful that albums like this exist, but it’s terrible that barely anyone gets to hear them.

The Human Equation shows Ayreon at its peaks: the melodies (dozens of them) are very memorable and intertwine beautifully, the instrumental passages are his most fully realized, using vivid timbres, and the story itself is his most moving and realistic yet. All these elements weave together like a carefully crafted quilt of musical perfection, creating the best album (well, this and 01011001) Ayreon has made. This is an album that plays in my head literally every day, and finds its way into my stereo every week. It has inspired me as a musician as well as a journalist. It reaches the highest level of quality, complexity and ambition in music. Again, it is art, and deserves to be among the most appreciated musical works of the last fifty years.

Day Four: Mystery
Day Six: Childhood
Day Eighteen: Realization