Album Review: AYREON Transitus

For roughly twenty-five years, Dutch maestro Arjen Anthony Lucassen has been the master of theatrical prog rock/metal concept albums. While all of his projects—Star One, Guilt Machine, The Gentle Storm—have been wonderful, it’s his most prolific and permanent one, Ayreon, that stands out above the rest. Time after time, Ayreon has provided fans with immersive and imaginative chronicles performed by Lucassen and some of the genre’s greatest singers and instrumentalists.

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To a large degree, Transitus (the follow-up to 2017’s The Source), aims to meet those expectations, as its intriguing storyline, catchy songwriting, grand arrangements, and recurring themes generally echo Lucassen’s established brilliance. That said, Transitus also feels less striving narratively and musically, with a narrower scope resulting in fewer memorable moments and less stylistic diversity. It’s still a very good record—and it still stands as a testament to how this kind of album should be made—but it can’t help but fall short of Ayreon’s usual benchmarks.

Because The Source wrapped up the Forever/Planet Y plot that every prior album (except for Actual Fantasy, at least to some degree) focused on, Transits is the start of a new direction. Specifically, and as Lucassen describes in the official press release, it centers on “a gothic ghost story [and tale of ill-fated love] set (partially) in the 19th century, with elements of horror and the supernatural.” Bringing it all to life are vocalists and musicians both acquainted and new, such as Tommy Karevik (Kamelot), Joe Satriani, Cammie Gilbert (Oceans of Slumber), Marty Friedman,  Dee Snider, Johanne James (Threshold), Juan van Emmerloot, Simone Simons (Epica), Marcela Bovio (MaYan), and Michael Mills (Toehinder). For the first time (unless you count the “Blackboard” bookends of The Theory of Everything), Lucassen also incorporates stagey narration via Doctor Who’s Tom Baker.

Ayreon (Photo by Lori Linstruth)

As for why Emmerloot replaces longtime drummer Ed Warby, Lucassen explains that Transitus didn’t start out as the next Ayreon album, so he was looking for a new approach and had settled on him by the time he officially turned it into the next Ayreon release. Undoubtedly, Emmerloot gives the LP some freshness, and the rest of the team work together exceptionally (with the familiar voices excelling as well as ever alongside the triumphant performances of the newcomers.) Even so—and at the risk of sounding contradictory or overly negative—the sequence doesn’t quite measure up to the majority of its predecessors due to a lack of individuality and development between tracks, as well as too few top-notch hooks. There’s a lot to like about it, and it definitely embodies Ayreon trademarks in pretty much every way, but it’s all a bit subpar when juxtaposed with Lucassen’s past opuses.

Speaking of comparisons, Transitus basically combines the theatrical nature of The Human Equation, the segmented structure of The Theory of Everything, and the heaviness of Universal Migrator Pt. 2: Flight of the Migrator. By and large, it works well, especially during the opening pieces. “Fatum Horrificum” sets the stage as you’d expect, with a multipart suite of themes and context. It’s less focused and compelling than, say, “The Day that the World Breaks Down” or “Age of Shadows,” but it’s satisfying. “Daniel’s Descent into Transitus” is symphonic and engaging, while “Listen to My Story” unquestionably houses the most infectious melody of the whole journey (“Their hollow life / They die / They pay for their life”). So far, it’s classic Ayreon.

Later, “Talk of the Town” is delightfully festive, with great use of harpsichord and strings, before “Dumb Piece of Rock” is a showcase for Mills’ incredible vocal histrionics. Halfway in, “Daniel’s Funeral” reprises a core motif in the midst of captivatingly juxtaposing light and dark vibes. Then, “Hopelessly Slipping Away” is a beautiful, if typical, ballad, and “This Human Equation” (likely the most overt reference to the Ayreon universe) is intense and dynamic. Near the end, “Your Story is Over!” soars simply due to its callbacks, and there are many other exhilarating sections throughout Transitus that make is highly enjoyable and praiseworthy. Clearly, there’s a lot to love here, so what’s the issue?

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Well, for one thing, it feels too saccharine by the end, with Baker’s omniscient presence appearing too often and—especially as it wraps up—laying the emotions on too thickly. In fact, it kind of feels like a soap opera, and not in a good way. Yes, The Human Equation also felt cheesy at times, but not as much, and it housed a certain charm and colorfulness that Transitus lacks. (Plus, The Human Equation’s songs felt much more developed and distinct, which is why many fans—me included—see it as the best Ayreon album.) Along those lines, many tracks feel surprisingly half-developed and inconsequential (particularly during the finale). None are outright bad, of course, but a fair amount (“Two Worlds Now One,” “Old Friend,” “Henry’s Plot,” “Abby in Transitus”) just seem to employ tried-and-true formulas without the songwriting and/or instrumental spark that made them work before. Whereas every piece on The Human Equation, 01011001, Universal Migrator Part I, and even The Source kind of exists in its own fleshed-out world, there are only a handful of entries here that warrant listening to on their own. (The Theory of Everything suffers from a similar issue, perhaps purposely, but it’s still a better effort.)

As both a diehard Ayreon fan and person who’s befriended Lucassen over the years, it pains me to say that Transitus is a letdown. If measured against the 2020 works of most other progressive rock/metal artists, yes, it’d be an incredible achievement that few, if any, other acts have matched. But, an artist’s work is also always measured against itself, and compared to almost every past Ayreon album, Transitus falls just a bit short, to say the least. Its songwriting isn’t as mesmerizing, its arrangements aren’t as multifaceted, and its story—while a refreshing change from the dominant sci-fi saga—isn’t as engaging or inventive. In that sense, Lucassen ironically set himself up to disappoint by preemptively outdoing himself time and time again beforehand.

Score: 7.5/10

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