They all laughed at Arjen Lucassen. It was the mid-’90s, and nobody was doing rock opera anymore — not with grunge and its Doc Martens kicking anything that smacked of self-indulgence off the charts and out of record company boardrooms.
But after slogging through tour after tour for 15 years with a number of rock and metal bands since he was a teenager and making “ … concessions to band members and concessions to record companies,” as Lucassen recalls, he was ready to do what he damn well pleased.
“I was like, ‘I’m going to do what I’m going to do. I’m going to do my own rock opera,’” says Lucassen, the multi-instrumentalist, producer, composer and vocalist behind the monolithic progressive-metal project Ayreon. “And of course, it was like crazy to do a rock opera in the ’90s. That was the days of Nirvana and Pearl Jam and whatever, so doing it in those days was like mad, it was crazy.”
With no money, Lucassen, inspired as a teen by Andrew Lloyd Webber and such productions as “Jesus Christ Superstar” and The Who’s “Tommy” and concept albums like Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick, got a little help from friends like Barry Hay of Golden Earring and Kingdom Come’s Lenny Wolf and another musician who gave him access to a studio in conjuring the heavy, complex music and a gripping yarn for The Final Experiment in 1995.
“All record companies turned me down,” says Lucassen. “About 30 or 40 record companies turned me down, and it was funny. They all said, ‘Oh, that’s great. Oh, it’s cool. I would buy it… but we don’t want it [laughs].”
Not everybody gave Lucassen the bum’s rush.
“There was this guy in Holland who had never released an album before,” says Lucassen. “He had only released old vinyl on CDs, and he said, ‘Hey, this is cool. I want to release this.’ And I was like, ‘well, go ahead man [laughs].’ And a company in Japan was interested as well, and it slowly started selling. At first it was a thousand, then a couple thousand, and I was like, ‘Ah, a couple of thousand bought my LP, or my CD… sorry. My age is showing. And then it was like 10,000, then it was 20,000, then 30,000, 40,000 and 50,000 … what? What’s happening? Then the record company said, ‘Hey man, it’s a success. You’ve got to do another one.’”
And he did — seven to be exact, including 2008’s magnum opus 01011001, an album that tied together, musically and lyrically, all of the previous Ayreon releases in one epic recording. Having sewed up all the loose story threads of Lucassen’s imaginative sci-fi/fantasy narratives, Lucassen was ready to embark on something he’d always resisted: a box set that sampled some of his best work from past efforts — to wit, Timeline, a new three-CD/DVD set that nicely encapsulates the Ayreon story.
“Basically, my first three or four albums had no connection with each other, and then, suddenly, the fifth album — I think it was Universal Migrator — I started connecting my previous albums, and with the last album, 01011001, I brought all my albums together,” says Lucassen. “It’s weird because when I started with the first album, The Final Experiment, I had no idea that all my future albums were going to be connected, and I didn’t even see the
connection. I only saw the connection when I did my last album.”
That moment of clarity was a revelation. Before, Lucassen felt that taking songs out of context from each album would result in a box collection that was a di