• Dystopian science-fiction metal opera for the ages - A review of Ayreon's The Universal Migrator

    The Universal Migrator I: The Dream Sequencer

    Ayreon - The Universal Migrator Part I: The Dream Sequencer (2000)

    Floating in Space

    When I bought Ayreon's double-album The Universal Migrator Part I: The Dream Sequencer and The Universal Migrator Part II: Flight of the Migrator as a teenager one and a half decades ago, I expected an epic heavy and power metal firework with guest singers from renowned bands such as After Forever, Helloween, Iron Maiden, Primal Fear, Rhapsody and the likes. Initially, I was slightly disappointed when I got an intellectual progressive rock opera instead but the two records started to grow on me as time went by.

    The first part of the duology can't be categorized as progressive metal at all. What we get here is atmospheric progressive rock inspired by the genre's most legendary outputs in the seventies. This album is recommended to fans of Camel, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Jethro Tull, Kansas and Pink Floyd. The album has a cohesive alien, dragging and smooth flow from start to finish. The warm production blends in perfectly. Highlights are the eerie, floating and numbing ''My House on Mars'' with gloomy vocals by Tiamat's Johan Edlund and haunting backing vocals by After Forever's Floor Jansen, the atmospheric, electronic and sluggish ''The Shooting Company of Captain Frans B. Cocq''  featuring rather unknown vocalists Maurice ''Mouse'' Bom and Lana Lane and the dreamy, fragile and mysterious ''And the Druids Turn to Stone'' featuring a versatile Damian Wilson.

    The record however also has numerous lengths. The conceptual overture alone cracks the five-minute mark and overstays its welcome. The fact that there isn't one single energetic, fast and surprising song makes the different tracks sound interchangeable, predictable and repetitive. With lengths close to seven minutes on average, the material presented here is hard to digest at first contact and takes some concentration, dedication and focus to open up after some spins.

    In the end, you will appreciate Ayreon's The Universal Migrator Part I: The Dream Sequencer if you are longing for smooth progressive rock inspired by genre classics of the seventies. If you expect contemporary, innovative and powerful music, you will probably prefer the much heavier successor The Universal Migrator Part II: Flight of the Migrator. After initial disappointment, this atmospheric, creative and intellectual record has grown on me and if imaginative space opera concepts sound intriguing to you, then you should give this release a few spins as well.

    Final rating: 75%

    The Universal Migrator II: Flight of the Migrator

    Ayreon - The Universal Migrator Part II: Flight of the Migrator (2000)

    Journey to the Dark Side

    Ayreon's The Universal Migrator Part II: Flight of the Migrator is quite different from its immediate predecessor The Universal Migrator Part I: The Dream Sequencer even though both records were released at the exact same time. This second part is much darker than the predecessor, the keyboards provide dystopian sounds, the guitar work is heavy, the rhythm section is both powerful and playful and the guest singers perform with much energy. While the predecessor qualified as progressive rock album rooted in the seventies' genre stylistics, this output here is a contemporary progressive metal output that pushes the boundaries as it can't be compared to anything released before. 

    Some people might argue that both records complement one another perfectly but the truth is that they represent two extremes and don't sound cohesive at all despite the lyrical concept that ties them. As a matter of fact, it's entirely possible that someone who loved the predecessor's airy, dreamy and smooth sound could despise this album's dramatic, oppressive and vivid tone or the other way around. In my case, I liked this second output right from the start while the first part needed some attention, patience and time to grow on me.

    The album includes multiple highlights and my favourite song is ''Dawn of a Million Souls'' featuring Symphony X's Russell Allen. The song comes around with cinematic, dramatic and epic keyboard fanfares, sinister backing vocals, heavy riffs, pumping rhythm section and passionate vocals culminating in a memorable chorus you won't get out of your head. Russell Allen has participated in numerous projects and released many great records with his main band but as far as I'm concerned, this song is the best performance of his career as we speak. 

    The playful, meandering and creative ''Journey on the Waves of Time'' is perhaps the most progressive song on this release. The dynamic keyboard sounds stand out yet again and Ralf Scheepers delivers one of the most versatile performances of his career. He continues to be one of the most underrated metal singers who is given the chance to underline all his talent in this tune.

    The heart piece of this album is the ten-minute epic ''Into the Black Hole'', sitting right in the middle of the album and being subdivided into three parts. It's a gloomy, haunting and mysterious tune with eerie sound effects and futuristic keyboard layers that give Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson the occasion to unfold his talent like few songs of his main band manage to do. 

    The remarkable thing about Ayreon's mastermind Arjen Anthony Lucassen is that he is able to craft songs that manage to fit his project yet sound perfectly tailored for the individual singers. This is something similar artists like Avantasia's Tobias Sammet aren't always able to achieve. You might find Ayreon's music too complex, intellectual and lengthy but nobody can deny the artist's dedication, precision and talent.

    In the end, Ayreon's The Universal Migrator Part II: Flight of the Migrator is quite different from its predecessor. While still being progressive and conceptually related, this album is gloomy, heavy and vivid from start to finish. Not every song works perfectly but the album's highlights are unforgettable. Anyone who likes heavy and power metal singers, progressive music and dystopian science-fiction concepts should try out this ambitious album that has aged very well.

    Final rating: 90%

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