In 2017, the absolute madman Arjen Anthony Lucassen did the incredible and brought Ayreon to a live stage on three consecutive days. This display of musician- and craftsmanship featured 16 singers of Ayreon‘s past and eight instrumental virtuosos plus Mr. Lucassen himself, who only participated in two of the 28 tracks played. Fortunately for the remainder of the world population who were not part of the chosen few (9000) attendees, the concerts were filmed and recorded professionally in order for us to enjoy it via Blu-ray, DVD and/or audio. However, not all three shows are part of Ayreon Universe, instead the production team decided to create a Frankenstein’s monster by cutting together the best pieces to one concert for the release (this is my impression from listening to the audio and viewing the experience, I have no confirmed information on this). This has the obvious benefit of choosing the best-performed version of each track while cutting errors or singers who forget the lyrics (not calling out anyone in particular).
That’s right, 28 (twenty-eight) tracks. Plenty of room for each Ayreon enthusiast to get something out of this with their personal favorite tracks. While some may enjoy certain tracks less and go absolutely crazy about other choices, Ayreon Universe is subtitled Best Of Ayreon, a name it deserves. It is only misleading in the sense of not featuring every Ayreon track ever.
Arjen is an amazing composer, but compositions are nothing without the right executing crew. In an epic feat, he and fellow organizer Joost Van Den Broek (also on keyboards here) managed to gather most of Ayreon‘s most notable singers to perform their respective tracks. I’d feel lazy just filling this critique with all their names, but it certainly is admirable to have together on stage greats as Floor Jansen, Damian Wilson, Hansi Kürsch, Tommy Karevik, Anneke Van Giesbergen, Marco Hietala and all the other ones. Each of them is performing at their best in this document of Ayreon’s history. Be it heavier songs like “Dawn Of A Million Souls”, “Star Of Sirrah” or “Intergalactic Space Crusaders” to amazingly instrumented atmospheric tracks like “And The Druids Turned To Stone”, “Comatose” or the Floor-Anneke-Marcela triumvirate performed “Valley Of The Queens”, every song is an experience in itself. Damian Wilson never sounded better than on “And The Druids Turned To Stone”, Mike Mills of Toehider adds his staggering, unique voice like he did on The Source, Magali Luyten (the Belgian power voice who recently joined Nightmare) screams her voice dry – every piece of the puzzle fits together and results in an amazing live performance of everyone participating.
My only complaint is the mixing could have been done better. The fading in and out of the audience in between songs is a bit aggressive and sounds too artificial. The transition could have been smoother. The same is true for the blending of the songs. Instead of actually blending them together, be it from the same day performance or not, Ayreon Universe is suffering from the obnoxious flaw of fading out its tracks to absolute silence in between tracks a few times. There are long streaks of subsequent performance, but about four or five times where everything goes dead suddenly. That slightly ruins the immersion. But all of this is highly specific criticism. The sound production is amazing otherwise and some of the best I ever heard on a live record.
Great choice of tracks, great performances, great sound. There is no reason to not get this album if you are a fan of Arjen’s work, and even if you have not listened to Ayreon before I’d highly recommend this live record, if only for the virtuoso musicianship displayed.