This isn't one of my favourite writeups—I've struggled to get it done, actually—but at least it's something.
Actual Fantasy (1996)Release date: October 23rd, 1996
Length: 54:29 (65:44 for 1998 reissue version)Tracklist:
1. Actual Fantasy
2. Abbey of Synn
3. The Stranger from Within
4. Computer Eyes
5. Beyond the Last Horizon
6. Farside of the World
7. Back on Planet Earth
9. The Dawn of Man (1998 reissue only)
10. The Stranger from Within (Single Version) (1998 reissue only)Personnel:Arjen Anthony Lucassen
– production and all instruments not mentioned in the section belowOscar Holleman
– mixing and engineeringVocalists:Okkie HuysdensEdward Reekers
(Cotton Soeterboek Band)David Bachwitz
as ‘little boy’ on "Actual Fantasy"Kiki Holleman
as ‘baby’ on "Forevermore"MusiciansCleem Determeijer
- synth solo on "The Stranger from Within" and "Computer Eyes"; orchestral and string arrangements on "Actual Fantasy", "The Stranger from Within", "Back on Planet Earth" and "Forevermore"Rene Merkelbach
– Hammond organ, synth solo on "Abbey of Synn"
Sit back and relax
Crawl into the maze
Within your mind
Leave it all behind
Now allow yourself to
Slide into a world
As real as you want it to be
Actual fantasyActual Fantasy
is one of those albums that most people who are familiar with Ayreon haven’t even listened to, or at most tried once or twice. It's certainly a unique Ayreon record, and, perhaps, not in a good way. It has the least amount of singers and instrumentalists involved. It is the only Ayreon album that doesn’t feature any conceptual story. It is the worst-selling Ayreon record to date, and it’s also the shortest. Let’s go back in 1996 and see how it happened.History / BackgroundThe Final Experiment
was a definite success, and Hans van Vuuren—the record label head who had agreed to tackle the release of the debut album—asked Arjen to do another record. Arjen, despite having been convinced to use the Ayreon moniker, still insisted that he wouldn’t do another rock opera; therefore, he opted to create something different. Arjen decided that this time there would be no story weaved throughout the album. He insisted on using the vocals as an instrument, just like any other, with fixed melodies and steady rhythms. He invited way fewer guests on the album than he had before; only three singers and two guest keyboardists—he played the rest of instruments himself. There was no real drummer, either—the drums were all programmed, which Arjen thought was a nice contrast with the fantasy theme running through this record. He basically decided to make the album almost entirely by himself, thinking it would sell just fine based on success of The Final Experiment
. In retrospect, he admits this decision was a bit arrogant.
The album didn’t take a lot of time to be recorded, mixed and mastered. It was released only a year after The Final Experiment
, and the sales turned out to be considerably lower. Later, Arjen mentioned that he hoped to inspire people to once again use their own imagination, fantasies and ideas with this album, but, apparently, his intentions didn’t quite live up to reality. Perhaps people went into it expecting another rock opera in the vein of the debut. Perhaps people expected a more organic sound—Actual Fantasy
ended up being a synth-heavy, vocoder-heavy album—a sound that can be seen as the opposite of inspiration for any fantasies and ideas. Perhaps the songs weren’t up to par with everyone’s expectations. Or maybe it was a combination of all these factors. All in all, the album wasn’t quite a failure—the sales were still enough to cover the expenses and be profitable—especially since the album ended up being a lot cheaper without a drummer and only a few musicians on board. Yet it wasn’t anywhere close to The Final Experiment
’s level of success.
However, it doesn’t mean there aren’t some hidden, overlooked gems on this album.Plot
As mentioned before, there isn’t a continuous story on this record. Instead, each song is based on a separate story, some taken from the movies, some invented by Arjen himself. In order not to bloat this section, I’ll provide a few interesting examples here, and you can find full descriptions of each song in the booklet. I’ll also talk about them at the next listening session.
So, Abbey of Synn
is based on a 1986 movie called Name of the Rose
, which is in turn based on a novel by Umberto Eco. The events take place in a monastery where laughter is forbidden. The monks die in strange circumstances day by day, and soon they find a comedy book written by Aristotle, which all the victims apparently were reading. It is revealed that the book’s pages are poisoned, and licking a finger to turn the page proves fatal.Beyond the Last Horizon
is based on a story Arjen came up with during the last few days of his father’s life. The story is set in Middle Ages, during the crusades. One of the crusaders is ambushed and killed, and he sees a light at the end of a long road on the horizon. He proudly rides towards the light to find out what awaits him beyond it, but beyond this last horizon is nothing but death. He realizes this in time to gather his last strength and fight his way back to life.Back on Planet Earth
is based on another one of Arjen’s stories. This story details a young boy’s life on a space station in the future. Emotion is a thing of the past, but the boy overhears some older residents of the station speaking of that past, a time when humans lived on planet Earth. Using a computer on board the station, he seeks out information on Earth. What he finds is a chronicle of all the beautiful features found there, but also the turbulent and war-torn history that led to Earth's destruction, and forced humans to move to space to survive. Viewing how people once lived, with laughter and other emotional responses, the boy concludes he would have rather stayed and died on Earth, than live out life on the cold, unfeeling space station. You should remember that there were no plans about the overarching Ayreon story at this time, so this song doesn’t necessarily refer to anything related to it. However, Arjen himself admitted this song must have influenced him to write one particular song—I won’t say which one in case you’re unfamiliar with it yet—from one of the later Ayreon albums, The Dream Sequencer
As I mentioned in a few paragraphs above, the music on this album is consistently synthesizer-heavy. Now, all Ayreon albums are synthesizer-heavy, but Actual Fantasy
is also very dark and computer-sounding. The programmed drums also do their share to make the sound even colder. The use of the distorted vocals here and there adds to that, too, and since the melodies for all singers were fixed and allowed no improvisation, they sound quite lifeless in some songs. Distorted vocals are an interesting subject here. Later, after Into the Electric Castle
was released. Arjen would say he avoided distorting anyone’s voice without their agreement. During the Actual Fantasy
mixing and mastering, however, Arjen applied some distortion to Edward Reekers’ voice, and while the singer didn’t say anything, Arjen later stated that he felt Edward didn’t particularly like it.
To ensure a diversity of atmosphere Arjen invited three singers to perform on this album. Edward Reekers was invited for the melodic parts, as you can hear on the quiet beginning of Abbey of Synn
, and the choruses on Computer Eyes
and Beyond the Last Horizon
. Robert Soeterbroek was hired for powerful and low vocal parts—the rhythmic verses of Beyond the Last Horizon
, which sound almost like guitar riffs, are the best example. Okkie Huysdens was picked for the choral passages and some ad libs. His most noticeable parts are the verses on Abbey of Synn
and The Stranger from Within
The resulting sound was certainly way different from The Final Experiment
.Actual Fantasy Revisited
When Arjen switched to InsideOut label—more on that later—the reissues of all previous Ayreon albums were released. This provided a perfect chance to revisit and promote Actual Fantasy
, which was still the worst-selling album in the Ayreon discography. Arjen wanted to mix the album in 5.1—which was rather difficult, since eight years later some of the original recorded parts were missing—and he wanted to use real drums now. Ed Warby, who will appear in our write-ups soon enough, agreed to do the job. Funnily enough, he recalls mentioning that Actual Fantasy
needed real drums from the beginning, even before he became friends with Arjen.
The songs from this revisited version also underwent some tweaks here and there. The real flute by Ewa Albering was added to the intro track instead of a sample one, and there were some ad libs inserted into several songs.My Thoughts
If you’ve read it this far, you can probably guess my thoughts about this album. This is my least favourite Ayreon album by a mile, and, therefore, this write-up was way more difficult and demanding to write than The Final Experiment
one. It’s not easy to write about the music you don’t like and still come up with something constructive and engaging.
I think the absence of continuous story hurts this album, but it’s not the biggest issue it has, not by far. My main complaint is about the music, which is too electronic and too cold for my taste. There are only a few memorable vocal melodies. Most of the songs just trudge along with vocal melodies that sound not unlike those synths supporting them. There are some great parts, like the choruses in Abbey of Synn
and Beyond the Last Horizon
, and there are some enjoyable keyboard and guitar solos. Back on Planet Earth
is solid all the way through in most aspects, but it loses me with those vocoder-edited vocals. I also felt the lyrics on Actual Fantasy
were especially unimpressive by Arjen’s standards. I think the fact he made this album less than in a year might influenced all this too.
I’ve recently bought the revisited edition of this record, mostly because I wanted to complete my collection. The real drums indeed sound better than the drum machine, but overall, my opinion on the album didn’t significantly rise as a result of the revisited version. Arjen says he still thinks it’s a great album after all these years, but, honestly, I would’ve been surprised if he said otherwise. As for me, I like this album for what it is. Arjen tried to do something that wasn’t obvious at that time, and he succeeded in doing that. And yet, in my opinion, he failed to write a good album. The intentions matter, but the music matters more, and with Actual Fantasy
, the music is a big miss for me.
Don’t let this opinion discourage you, though. Listen for yourself and let us know your own thoughts about this record.