When a band that has been around for more than 20 years finally plays its first official live shows, expectations are going to be high. That’s especially true for Ayreon, the project helmed by Arjen Lucassen, whose albums feature numerous guest musicians and epic concepts.
In September of 2017, Ayreon played three shows at the 013 Poppodium in Tilburg, the Netherlands, resulting in Ayreon Universe: The Best Of Ayreon Live. It’s available in numerous configurations, including Blu-ray, DVD, CD and vinyl, plus a 5 disc Earbook.
With 16 guest singers and 11 musicians, the shows took extensive planning. “We worked on Ayreon Universe for two years,” Lucassen says of the event. “There were literally hundreds of things that had to fall into place to make the shows a success.” And they were definitely a success. Each show was sold out, and the audience was enthralled with the performances, singing along to every note.
The setlist includes tracks from throughout Ayreon’s career, plus songs from Lucassen’s Star One project. Over the years dozens of singers have lent their talents to Ayreon songs, and though of course all of them couldn’t be there, a star-studded cast was on hand including Floor Jansen (Nightwish), Anneke van Giersbergen (The Gathering, The Gentle Storm), Marco Hietala (Nightwish), Jonas Renske (Katatonia), Tommy Karevik (Kamelot), Hansi Kursch (Blind Guardian), Damian Wilson (Headspace) and more.
The show lasted nearly 2 and a half hours and included 28 tracks. Lucassen, who has crippling stage fright, made an appearance on “The Castle Hall” and then spoke for several minutes before going into “Amazing Flight In Space.” The musicians all did a great job, but special mention must be given to keyboardist Joost van den Broek. Not only did he arrange the songs for the shows, keyboards are prominent in pretty much every track, and he didn’t miss a beat.
The show was extremely visually compelling. There was a massive screen behind the stage with a lot of interesting video elements, plus it flashed the names of those singing when they walked on stage, which was very helpful since it was a revolving door of vocalists on each track.
They also did a great job figuring out who was going to sing on which track. There were songs that were originally done by that particular singer, such as Hietala and Karevik on “Collision” from The Theory Of Everything. But Hietala also sang on “River Of Time” that Bob Catley did originally. It was a good mix of hearing familiar takes on the material but also new angles. The show wrapped up with the Star One song “The Eye Of Ra,” where all of the vocalists participated.
In addition to the concert, the DVD includes a behind the scenes documentary. It’s nearly an hour and a half long and includes interviews with Lucassen and van den Broek along with many of the singers and musicians who participated. It’s a really nice addition that provides background and context to the concert.
Ayreon Universe: Best Of Ayreon Live is a must-own for Ayreon fans. It captured an extraordinary show that took years of preparation and definitely paid off. The performances from the singers and musicians were excellent, showcasing the best from Ayreon’s impressive catalog.
(released March 30, 2018 on Music Theories Recordings)
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