Cosmic escapism brought back to mortal soil for an all-encompassing journey through space and time and an ultimate triumph.
Stage representation of Arjen Anthony Lucassen’s concepts always seemed problematic: given their writer’s creative vision which is bound to plug in the listener’s imagination, offering a definitive display of any of his albums would mean messing with the very fabric of such a successful formula. Still, for all the Dutchman’s shyness, there’s no limit to the great length Arjen’s ready to go for fans, and September 2017 saw Lucassen stand behind three sold-out shows in Tilburg that proved the “best of” approach can be as singularly spectacular as a particular story from his catalogue. It would be easy, albeit wrong, to call these concerts an extravaganza, despite the presence of sixteen singers who, at various points, had been involved in the composer’s two-decade arc, because the performances run was carefully planned, and “Universe” documents only one, the second of those dates. With no expense spared on lasers, robots, fireworks and other effects, the project doesn’t lose an iota of what previously existed mostly in aural form; more so, stripped of studio sterility, familiar music is truly coming alive here.
Spanning every AYREON record and touching upon STAR ONE, the gala nature of the concert can’t result in fragmented flight of fantasy thanks to the universal feel of it all – hence the title. Provided there are different degrees of theatricality on vocalists’ part, whether the pieces’ sequence amounts to a narrative is open to debate, yet the entire evening is riveting. But if ginormous projections and keyboards and drums risers serving as auxiliary screens are impressive, it’s human factor, not technology, that rules the game here. As soloists’ names appear on backdrop, they engage in sometimes unexpected interactions – Jonas Renske’s gloomy frown and Anneke van Giersbergen’s luminous smile create a striking contrast on “Waking Dreams,” whereas Tommy Karevik and Marco Hietala play an arresting scene with the latter on “Magnetism” whose folk quotient is upped with a fiddle and flute spotlights – although, as demonstrated by the highlights of a tryout show staged two weeks earlier with Netherlands-only singers and shifted roles, personalities don’t matter much if performers match the music. Except for a certain personality, of course.
Lucassen will make his entrance in “The Castle Hall” to lead his guests towards the finale, to unwind the emotional roll set in motion, in a dignified, unhurried manner, with “Dreamtime” which found Edward Reekers weave a tale to an acoustic guitar lace and cosmic buzz coming from synthesizers. In between, a series of delights is on. Lit by flaming columns and blinded by billowing smoke, heavy metal frontline may erect a riff-laden wall around “Abbey Of Synn” and sharpen the desperate edge in “Star Of Sirrah” before introducing natural gravity to “Into The Black Hole,” but “Everybody Dies” unfolds an operatic dialogue. Anneke’s voice, alongside those of Floor Jansen and Marcela Bovio, is blended into the heavenly harmonies of “Valley Of The Queens,” while Mike Mills injects fun in a sci-fi context with the burlesque “Loser” where Joost van den Broek, a true star of the show, lets rip on ivories – as he also does on “Intergalactic Space Crusaders” that the feisty Maggy Luyten and the placid Damian Wilson fill with genuine drama. There’s a lot of details to enjoy, like the titular object brought on stage for “The Blackboard” – short as it is – and this is a sign of Arjen’s attention to his worlds and care for his followers: the universe glimpsed on a simple DVD to become real.