The closure of Roadrunner UK wasn’t something that we were expecting. In the wider context, what’s going on in the World Wide Web is very significant. Illegal downloading and file-sharing is at an all-time peak and dilemmas on policing the internet are at the centre of hot debate. Is there a better time for Ayreon mastermind Arjen Anthony Lucassen to release his first solo record in over 18 years? On the surface you’d say yes, there is a better time. Based on the nature of Ayreon’s previous releases, the illustrious escapism invoked by his project would be more likely to put your head in the clouds and into a fantastical dream world rather than provide answers to such a pressing situation. We wouldn’t blame you for desiring it. But this time, he’s got something else in mind. For the first time in his career, has Lucassen recorded an album that is thematically contemporary? Calum Robson finds out.
“The first one was kind of a mess! It was even more eclectic than this one and a big flop. I was kind of lost in those days, I came out of the whole Vengeance (thrash band) period and we lost our deal.”
Considering that this is how Arjen Anthony Lucassen describes his last solo album, you’d think that the Dutchman would be approaching his next with extra added caution. Recorded over 18 years ago, ‘Pools Of Sorrow, Waves Of Joy’ was written and recorded in two-weeks after Lucassen unexpectedly gained a record deal from his single hit ‘Midnight Train’. The multi-instrumentalist was “trying to be modern and trying to be grungy” but other than laying the roots for his future Ayreon project, his solo career did nothing but fizzle out.
But how can he make a solo attempt work? How about by tackling one of the big questions – ‘what is reality?’ It’s the very concept explored by Arjen Anthony Lucassen in his new album ‘Lost In The New Real’. Rarely has the 52-year-old tread into such a thematic minefield. “That’s the basic question of this album – what’s real and what’s not real?” Lucassen says. “Already, when you see stuff on Youtube you think ‘is it real or is it not real?’ If people email me, they sometimes say ‘is it really you?! Because we had a couple of guys who said they were you!’ It’s that question and it will only get worse.”
His work with Ayreon goes back nearly 20 years and he has seven critically acclaimed records to show for it – all immersed in strong fantasy concepts and/or science-fiction with a theatrical delivery. But even in his work with other projects that he founded such as Stream Of Passion, Ambeon, Star One and Guilt Machine, Lucassen hasn’t considered this question in the way he has now with his new solo album. Although it’s unashamedly a concept album set in the future, Lucassen has tied the concepts to very real modern issues and delivered it in a playful, coy style – a contrast to his last few outings. “My last three releases were pretty dark,” he says. “The last Ayreon one (‘01011001’) was about the end of humanity, the last Star One release was about dystopian movies and the last Guilt Machine was about depression. So I thought, let’s do something uplifting and let’s make an album where there are no expectations from the fans. By putting them in the future and injecting some humour, I think you can get away with it without being preachy or trying to force my opinion upon people. I wanted to get back to that feeling I had when I started the Ayreon project 20-years ago.”
With a little imagination, you can’t help but think what the future world holds. From the rise of the internet and the digital age, there’s a sense that things have changed and are still changing rapidly. Lucassen grew up in the 60s and 70s and he can’t quite grasp how fast technological age is moving – something explored on the album with the futuristic ‘E-Police’ and ‘The New Real’. “I’ve seen the change in the last 20-years which is so extreme,” says Lucassen. “What will it be like in another 20 years and what will it be like in a couple of hundred or a thousand?! I think it will be very extreme. My thought was, seriously – ‘what will the world look like in a hundred years?’ I think the whole digital thing is going a bit too fast now. We still don’t know how to handle it. What are we going to do about this?”
But the album wasn’t only a refreshing challenge for its lyrical content. Lucassen wears his musical influences confidently on his sleeve with a tongue-in-cheek charm that hears him pay homage to some of his favourite musicians. Heralding John Lennon as his “favourite singer of all time”, the album blatantly but endearingly shows his 60s and 70s rock influences – in particularly on one track titled ‘Pink Beatles In A Purple Zeppelin’. “I knew when I was going to do this album that I was going to sing songs like that – in that style,” Lucassen says. “This was definitely a chance to go back to my roots and not hide them. I thought well, let’s exaggerate that and call the song ‘Pink Beatles In A Purple Zeppelin’ and not hide my influences and say ‘there you go!’ Of course, not try to copy them – but those are still my inspirations. I still listen to them – it’s timeless stuff.”
Lucassen’s influences have often found themselves on his albums by a much more direct means. His rock operas and concept albums have featured a-list vocalists to fill in for separate character parts. Having a rich clientele of guests including Fish, Devin Townsend, Mikael Åkerfeldt, James LaBrie, Russell Allen, Anneke van Giersbergen and many more, Ayreon was always a project that Lucassen composed and wrote like theatre – every character would need a suitable casting. But this time round on ‘Lost In The New Real’, the multi-instrumentalist takes over all vocal duties. “It was a big challenge,” he says. “[The question was] ‘can I do it without all of these guest singers?’ I hadn’t got all of these big voices to hide behind – this time it’s just my voice. Can I keep it interesting with my voice? But the good thing was I could do what I want this time. There were no limits, no expectations and I knew I was going to sing the songs so I could do whatever I wanted. That was very refreshing.”
For many fans, it will come as a surprise that Lucassen isn’t including any guests at all – solo means solo. But what might shock fans equally is his belief, or lack of, concerning extraterrestrial life. Despite aliens cropping up now and again in Ayreon’s lyrical content, he doesn’t believe we’re being visited by another form of intelligent life. He has an open mind, but says that, throughout his music making career, ‘alien’ references were made to annotate certain points rather than provide a bold statement. He makes a similar punt on the album with ‘Our Imperfect Race’, which takes the ‘alien’ perspective, reflecting on humanity’s destructive behaviour. “I don’t watch the news anymore, I’m a total recluse,” Lucassen says. “But when I do watch the news, I am like that alien. I see all these people banging each other’s heads in because they believe in a different god or whatever stupid reason. We have this perfect planet which is maybe the only perfect planet in the infinite universe and we have all this war. It sounds like a cliché but what are we doing? If an alien would come here, he would see the situation and he would see this planet and they’d realise ‘that’s paradise, what are these people doing there?’ I always think about that – how would an alien look at it?”
Back on planet Earth, Lucassen doesn’t have any concrete plans but says he doesn’t enjoy playing live like he used to. A tour is off the cards. However, it doesn’t halt him from being ambitious in other musical ventures. “I’m always looking for challenges,” he says. “I think I will always be able to find those challenges. I don’t know if they will be successful. As long as I’m 100% behind it and I’ve had fun doing it – it’s a success for me. I guess that counts.”
‘Lost In The New Real’ is out now on InsideOut.