Ayreon is a hard project to describe succinctly, but then, Ayreon isn’t succinct. It is a musical project where only the complexity of the sound outweighs the complexity to bring the project to the stage. Led by Dutch singer, songwriter, musician and record producer Arjen Anthony Lucassen, Ayreon is a mix of progressive rock, metal and elements of folk and classical music. Arjen will happily tell you on stage that he hates to travel, so rather than tour, he has fans come to him to experience his projects at a venue called the Poppodium 013 in Tilburg, Netherlands.
This year’s Ayreon show was the third such series of live shows in Tilburg; the other two being in 2017 and 2019. This year’s iteration was titled Beneath the Waves and it was performed in 6 shows over four days, from Sept 15-17, 2023. This year there were 12,000 fans from over 60 countries collectively attending. This show featured a performance of one of the most ambitious albums that Arjen has made, the album 01011001, with 12 of the original 17 vocalists in attendance, 4 special guests filling in for the 5 who couldn’t attend, 3 backing singers, and a rock band consisting of a keyboardist (Arjen’s musical partner and producer of the show Joost van den Broek, with no less than 5 keyboards including a vintage Hammond), drums, bassist, two guitars, a flutist, violinist, and cellist. There were pyrotechnics, lasers, surround sound speakers echoing certain sounds around the venue and five massive floor to ceiling video screens. As Arjen would tell you, ‘more is more’. It’s a proper 70’s prog show.
This was our third Ayreon trip, having seen single shows in each of the prior iterations. Like those years, this show did not disappoint. We attended both the Friday night and Saturday night shows this year.. The show started with a bang with the first tracks to 01011001, the 11 minute long ‘Age of Shadows’ and the more sedate ‘Comatose’. ‘Age of Shadows’ has most of the talent on stage, with Tom Englund (Evergrey) opening the album, followed by most of the rest of performers; Michael Mills (Toehider), Daniel GIldenlow (Pain of Salvation), Hansi Kursch (Blind Guardian), Jonas Renkse (Katatonia), Anneke van Giersbergen (ex- TheGathering), Brittany Slayes (Unleash the Archers), Damien Wilson (Headspace, ex-Threshold), and John Jaycee Cuijpers (Supersonic Revolution) all made their appearance as various aspects of the Forever, along with the heavy instrumentation that Ayreon is known for, long rock instrumental pieces and solos interspersed with flute, violin and cello. ‘Comatose’ is more sedate as a duet between Damien Wilson and Anneke van Giersbergen. The show carried on from there with a succession of epic tunes, complete with huge solos and choruses like ‘Newborn Race’ and ‘The Fifth Extinction’, split with more approachable tracks, like ‘Connect the Dots’, with Arjen himself singing in the place of Ty Tabor (Kings X), ‘Web of Lies’, a duet with Simone Simons (Epica) and Phideaux Xavier (best known as a director on General Hospital, interestingly), ‘The Truth is in Here’, and ‘E=MC^2’ The more approachable tracks served the performance very well, else the epic tunes might blend together and be less distinctive.
The show effectively told the story of the ‘01011001’ album, being a double album and a concept album (I did say that it was a massive 70’s era prog rock experience, right?), the performance of the album took about 1 hour and 50 minutes of the 2 hour 20 minute show. Not content without giving folks a little extra, Arjen brought the performers out on stage for a few extra songs, starting with Simone Simons singing ‘This Human Equation’ from the Transitus album, followed up by Brittany Slayes (Unleash the Archers) soloing up the Star One song ‘Fate of Man’, and then finished off by everyone contributing to the opening track from the Source album, ‘The Day the World Breaks Down”.
The live atmosphere was really suitable for the entire 01011001 album, with all of the heavy instrumental parts (like ‘The Fifth Extinction’, and all of ‘Fate of Man’) amped up to 10 by the chunking twin guitars and huge sound fed by Joost van den Broek’s keyboards layered with the violin and cello. Even though this is the third iteration of the Ayreon experience, everything still felt fresh and new like we were attending for the first time. Our only complaint was that we felt like the Friday night show was still kind of a dress rehearsal, with some performers missing cues and coming in at the wrong time. Saturday’s show was pure perfection. Don’t just take our word for it, though, there will be a Live Blu-ray/CD release at some point in the next 6-8 months. Check it out for yourself when it comes out!
We have been long time Ayreon fans and after our third Ayreon vacation to the Netherlands, we’ll be coming back if he decides to do another show. Tilburg is a great town to visit, as is the rest of the Netherlands!