One of the most engaging feelings I like to get from books (sci-fi or otherwise) is the sensation of being faced with a wasteland, a decayed husk of humanity, a post-apocalyptic mirror image of the present. What, I didn’t say it had to be fun. In any case, Stephen King made me believe it throughout The Dark Tower saga, Philip K. Dick made me love it in “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” and Douglas Adams made me laugh out loud at it in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy series, but none of them conveyed the emotion with such heart-rending accuracy as I’ve encountered in Ayreon’s “Universal Migrator” album.
All I have to do in this article is describe, in broad strokes, the concept behind the album, and that should be enough to sell it or scare you away. What you see is what you get with this record, no question about that. The last human in existence, a colonist on the planet Mars, steps into a machine called The Dream Sequencer, in order to regress through his collective unconscious memories, as he awaits death and the extinction of his species. Each song on the album takes us back, from his childhood on the cold and desperate Mars, to the “war to end all wars” on Earth, to the first step taken on the Moon, and so on, through the ages, until the first human opens his eyes to the world and brings our specific brand of consciousness into existence.
The album is just as dramatic as that sounds, just as over-the-top – it’s basically a space-opera masterpiece coming from one of the most interesting progressive metal bands I’ve ever heard. The music is amazingly well-crafted, huge, unafraid, profoundly theatrical, making use of effects normally (and rightly so) associated with early sixties sci-fi movies in a way which completely refreshes them and turns them into completely plausible and convincing sonic means to describe a dark, barren, lifeless future, and an ever-complicated and sprawling, living past. As the story evolves, the music changes, adjusting to the moods and eras approached, which can sometimes lead to a bit of unwelcome cheesiness, but has the overall effect of offering a dynamic, engaging album, quite reminiscent of the epic prog-rock concept albums of the seventies. As you’ve no doubt realize by now, faithful readers, I’m a sucker for that sort of thing, so it should be no surprise that Universal Migrator Part 1 spoke to me the way it did.
Oddly enough, we’re dealing in fact with a double album. Arjen Lucassen, the compositional brains behind Ayreon and the stellar guitarist of the outfit made Universal Migrator as a way to cater to two different fan bases, as he perceived them: the prog-rock crowd, and the metal crowd. The prog-rock slice of Ayreon’s audience were gifted with The Dream Sequencer, given this profoundly human, theatrical spin and sensibility. But the story in this first part of the saga is continued in Flight of the Migrator, the twin record to this one, which employs the more metal-oriented aesthetic of the band to regress even further, from human consciousness, to a sort-of spirit of life, called the Universal Migrator, shooting forth from the very Big Bang and traveling the Universe to eventually reach Earth. Now this second part isn’t so much my cup of tea, so I can’t say the music moved me in the same way as the first record did, but I believe the story backing the whole project is really quite interesting, and both albums definitely deserve some patient, open-minded listening time.
Getting back to The Dream Sequencer, I have to praise the way the guitar seems to speak in a language of its own, staggeringly powerful and eloquent, especially on the first half of the album. The formidable solos work especially well in the context of the paradoxically down-to-earth composition – the album is surprisingly non-self-indulgent, carefully avoiding slipping up into disheveled, rambling stretches of demonstrative virtuosity. In case you’re feeling dreamy, a bit besides yourself, or, like me, longing for a good Sci-Fi movie or book but finding no respite from the thirst, I definitely recommend this album of progressive metal at its best! Enjoy, and see you soon!