Those of you who listen to metal operas may have heard about Arjen Anthony Lucassen’s stage production of Ayreon’s 2004 album, The Human Equation. As much as the world would have loved to have The Theater Equation on tour, it was only performed a handful of times over the span of 3 days at the Nieuwe Luxor Theater in Rotterdam, NL. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so Musicalypse hopped on a plane to catch the early performance on September 19th, 2015.
The Human Equation has always been an emotionally overwhelming album for me. I listen to it very seldomly because it’s so intense (and so good) that I can’t really handle listening to it casually. In a way, it’s an activity for me. I have to listen to the whole album and I have to pay attention – I can’t just put it on in the background because it distracts me and sucks me in every time. So to see it live, to bring the emotions and characters into reality where I could see them and experience them with full attention was something I absolutely had to do. I can honestly say that I don’t even know where to start writing this review because the whole event was mind-blowing. But… I’ll try!
For those who haven’t listened to the album, it’s about a man whose car hits a tree and he goes into a coma for 20 days. His wife and best friend wonder why he won’t wake up because there is nothing physically wrong after the accident; they have been keeping a secret and wonder if it has something to do with the accident. Meanwhile, the man is trapped inside his own mind, coming to terms with his past and the person he has become through interaction with personified aspects of himself.
To start with, the theater in Rotterdam is beautiful, but not so extravagant that we poor travelers felt ashamed in our street clothes. Our seats were right up near the front, but unfortunately we were off to the side so we couldn’t see the very left side of the stage. I don’t think we missed too much and we were able to get a good look at everything, but there was a memory space up on the top left that we couldn’t see at any point.
The curtain opened right on time to reveal the stage, which showed three levels: the upper level had the hospital bed front and center, facing the back so that Me (James Labrie) can’t actually be seen in the bed (he was never in it at any point). Below the bed on the lower level was the wrecked car, with the bumper smashed and the front windshield missing. Scattered around the sides on all levels were memory areas, like the office, the childhood playroom, the school lockers, and so on.
The story opened with the main cast on stage – Me was in the car, while his emotions surrounded him. Me “wakes up” into his own mind and during the first songs has an encounter with all of his emotions, as Best Friend (Jermain “Wudstik” van der Bogt) and Wife (Marcella Bovio) are at his bedside, interacting with the Doctor (Peter Moltmaker) and Nurses (Nienke Verboom & Katinka van der Harst) who encourage them to interact with Me. A quick note here – Best Friend was originally sung by Arjen Lucassen himself, but we were not surprised after hearing him talk a bit during his show with Anneke van Giersbergen in Helsinki back in February that he opted out. Wudstik was absolutely phenomenal in his place; it was one of a handful of very well-cast replacements in the show.
As I said, when “Day 2: Isolation” began, Me got out of the car and meets the voices in his head, starting with Fear (Anneke van Giersbergen), who was sitting on the roof, lurking over him. Anneke had taken the place of Mikael Åkerfeldt, and was easily the most drastic vocalist change. I wondered if she was selected because she and Arjen have worked so often together, to even out the male-to-female ratio of the emotions, or simply because he loves her voice. Maybe it was a bit of all of them, but throughout the show, I was very impressed with how her part had been reworked to suit her voice – I would almost go so far as to say that she and Åkerfeldt sang Fear’s parts in a similar manner even though they sound nothing alike. Even now I can hear her when I listen to the album. It was a bit of a shame, however, that there was a lot less growling in this adaptation, as she and Rage weren’t doing their own growls – they were left to the Epic Rock Choir for the most part.
On the subject of Rage, I was pleased to see immediately that his part was vastly increased for the production. In the album, likely due to Devin Townsend’s hesitation in joining the cast, Rage is only present in three songs, and even then he has minor parts. While no one can really fill Townsend’s shoes, Mike Mills did an excellent job of the part – particularly visually. He nailed the screams and all the rest of it, even though he didn’t perform his own growls, but he also acted Rage’s part in a very interesting manner – he wasn’t angry, necessarily, but almost insane instead. It was an interesting choice, thought rather odd.
While we’re on the topic of visual performance too, let’s talk a bit about the other three men on stage: Reason (Eric Clayton), Pride (Magnus Ekwall), and Agony (Devon Graves). These guys really went full-force into their characters. I can’t even explain it, but in “Day 3: Pain,” Graves managed to somehow look like the embodiment of Agony. His movements were jerky, like he was somehow being tormented as he sang. Pride and Reason played the occasional allies/frequent opponents beautifully – they both had very confident posture, but Reason was more laid-back, like you would imagine an old gentleman with a monocle and top hat with a cane and glass of brandy. Pride, on the other hand was bolder and more forceful, gesturing wildly passionately at times.
Let’s get back to the show itself though. Perhaps the best part about seeing this album live was how much clearer the story became once it was right there in front of you. I’ve never been 100% certain who is singing what part, or which voice belonged to whom, but the story was a lot more powerful when you know exactly what’s happening at all times. It was great to see the interactions between everyone – Best Friend and Wife, who were very close but without chemistry; Pride’s overbearing presence that counteracts Reason’s wisdom quite frequently; Passion (Irene Jansen) appearing to enhance the other emotions for both good and ill; Love (Heather Findlay) helping him up when he falls; Fear and Agony lurking to constantly remind Me of everything that holds him back; Fear and Rage being conquered at the end and fading away; and Me coming to accept all of them for what they are, coming to terms with them, accepting their help or rejecting their negative qualities, and growing as a person in front of your eyes.
If there were any oddities in the show, I would say the first was that there was no Father character at all. The part was played by Mike Baker on the album and I was quite surprised to find that Father wasn’t listed on the program at all – perhaps as a tribute to the lost artist. It was an interesting decision, particularly when Mom (Anita van der Hoeven) was added to the line-up. Mom’s lines were taken from Fear, who recollects her death in “Day 12: Trauma,” and it transitioned very organically. However, it was hard to imagine what would happen during Father’s visit if he wasn’t his own character.
“Day 16: Loser” is one of my favorite songs on the album, what with the didgeridoo music and complete change-up in tone. At this point you realize that though the Father always called Me a loser, he was the true loser all along, and Rage comes in screaming as the realization sets in. It turned out, as we had suspected, that Father was played by Mike Mills. It was a very strange decision. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoyed the way Mills played Father – searching through the memories to find a bottle of wine to drink, and his actions were really exaggerated to emphasize how much of an asshole Father was. When it came time for Rage to sing though, he simply took the coat off and began singing his lines. Ideally, I think I would’ve liked to see Rage come flying in from the side of the stage to eject Father, as a separate character. At very least, if we’re going for a bit more of a metaphorical angle, I’d have liked Mills to have ripped off the “Father” jacket a bit more violently to symbolize how Rage tears up the tainted memories. It’s not a big complaint, but if something was going to be changed to make it better, that would’ve been it.
The other somewhat odd moment was during Me’s confession to Best Friend in “Day 19:Disclosure.” Best Friend begins pushing him around a bit, demanding to know what he did, and it was… weird. Either it was still happening in Me’s mind and he was projecting his fears onto Best Friend’s actions, or it was actually happening and Best Friend was… roughing up a man in critical condition in a hospital bed? It was also an odd choice due to the fact that in the songs, Best Friend never actually really gets mad at Me – he knew in his heart what had happened and considers them equal in guilt towards one another.
However, the expansion of scenes for the performance was really quite incredible otherwise. During childhood, Agony rifles through a toy box to find a broken ukulele, which implies that Father had smashed Me’s dreams. Some of the songs were extended to allow for more showcasing of the Epic Rock Choir as well, such as the ending of “Day 10: Memories” when they came out to the front of the stage in cloaks to sing – this was a clever way of transitioning everything into “Day 11: Love,” as they took their disguises off and played party guests at the even when Me and Wife meet for the first time. The album is just over an hour and forty minutes, but the live performance was an impressive three hours (including a brief intermission where the disc change is after “Day 11: Love”). Again, Rage’s part was much bigger, and some of the songs were expanded to showcase the musicians as well. A few of them got to come up and do solos at the front. It was truly quite beautifully done.
Don’t get me wrong, the performance wasn’t flawless. We noticed one point where Pride’s voice cracked and he had to quickly drop an octave or two to compensate, but he did it so smoothly that it was hardly noticeable. And really, wrapped up in such incredible performances across the board, it was impossible not to be blown away, even with the little hiccups. The Epic Rock Choir was phenomenal and the musicians were incredible as well. The violinist played absolutely beautifully, and the flutist is my hero right now – he had a plethora of instruments with him (flutes, panpipes, a bassoon, etc) that he switched between so effortlessly you’d think he had eight arms.
And the final crescendo in “Day 20: Confrontation”… we knew it was going to be epic, we knew it was going to be powerful, and it still hit you in the face like a brick wall. The power of the incredibly moving, dynamic music, the buildup of the emotions saying their final pieces, every time someone sang, “Welcome to reality,” and Me choosing to give life, love, and friendship another chance… it was heartbreaking and amazing. We won’t deny that we may have shed a tear at the end.
The curtain closed to raucous applause and a standing ovation, but opened again to reveal two cloaked figures standing next to an alien-looking pod. The dream sequencer ended, and the voice declared, “The Human Equation… I remember,” and opened to reveal Arjen Lucassen himself in his shiny silver space shirt! He greeted the crowd and then left so the cast could come out and receive the screams and cheers the crowd couldn’t contain.
To say that this was the best show of the year is an understatement. This could be a nominee for the best show I’ve ever seen in my years of concert-going. Of course, I’ve never seen a gig that was also a performance before, so they do have an advantage over the others. Nevertheless, the whole thing was brilliantly put together, brilliantly sung, brilliantly performed, and was undoubtedly worth the journey. Even now, as I read this over, my words can’t really express how much I loved it and if nothing else, I hope they managed to get a good recording of it to make into a DVD, because anyone who missed out on it… well let’s just say their lives are a bit sadder for it.
Photos: Christel Brouwer