Best known for his "rock opera" work with his Ayreon project, Arjen Lucassen has actually been releasing albums for nearly seventeen years under various guises. After a gap of eight years, Arjen has resurrected his heaviest most guitar oriented band, Star One, for their second studio album. Reunited with the four excellent vocalists – Russell Allen (Symphony X), Damian Wilson (Threshold), Dan Swano (Nightingale) and Floor Jansen (After Forever/ReVamp) - who featured on the 2002 Space Metal album, the resultant release Victims Of The Modern Age is nothing short of spectacular. Sea of Tranquilty staff writer Steven Reid recently spoke with Arjen to find out more.
SoT: Hi Arjen. Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions.
Arjen: No problem!
SoT: It's been eight years since the last Star One album Space Metal. Can you start by highlighting the differences between this band and the other projects you are involved with?
Arjen: Ayreon is the name of my 'mother ship', as I call it and it contains all the styles of music I like: prog, metal, folk, electronic, psychedelic and so on. All my side projects highlight one of these styles and Star One highlights the metal aspect of Ayreon.
SoT: That first Star One album was extremely well received, did this make doing a follow up so many years down the line a little daunting?
Arjen: Yes, I think so. For a while I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to capture the magic of the first album, but I love the challenge, in fact I need it and although I love the songs on the first Star One album, I knew I could make a better sounding album. I definitely didn't want to repeat myself, so I made this album a little heavier and darker, more down-to-Earth.
SoT: Eight years is a long time between albums. Has your approach this time to Star One and the Victims Of The Modern Age album differed in any way?
Arjen: Yes, originally the first Star One album was planned to be a Bruce Dickinson solo album. This time when writing the album I knew I had the four "secret weapons" on vocals who were all also on the first album: Dan, Russell, Damian and Floor and of course the excellent musicians that joined the Star One tour in 2003.
SoT: You mentioned your four "secret weapons" that the first album had, Russell Allen, Damian Wilson, Floor Jansen and Dan Swano who performed vocals. Were there any difficulties to overcome in managing to get all four involved again this time?
Arjen: Not really, they agreed to do it before I even finished my question! They have all become friends and luckily they all enjoy my music, which helps of course.
SoT: I think the four of them have put in phenomenal performances on the album and they all seem to be integral to the band's sound. Would any third album need them all to be involved to make it Star One?
Arjen: Yes, I think so. It would be VERY hard, if not impossible, to replace any of them.
SoT: The guitar sound this time round is, I think, the best you have achieved on any of your projects. What is the key to the album's fantastic sound?
Arjen: Thanks! I spent weeks on finding the right guitar sound and I'd been experimenting with different guitar amps, mics and speakers. It had to be perfect, because, unlike Ayreon, all the songs are written around a guitar riff and it would be those riffs that would be the basis of the album.
SoT: You did have other singers record some songs this time, Tony Martin, Mike Andersson and Rodney Blaze, but they ended up on disc two of the limited version of the album. How did that come about?
Arjen: I had 12 songs in total and only 8 songs fit on the CD. So I chose the 8 most impressive and heavy songs. However I love the other 4 songs just as much, so I put them on a second CD which enabled me to work with a few other singers whom I've always wanted to work with.
SoT: Was there a temptation to have all seven singers on the main album?
Arjen: No, I just wanted the four original singers, the same as on the first album. The idea of inviting the other singers came later as the other songs were a bit more experimental, but I liked them too much not to use them.
SoT: Every time I listen to one of your albums that has multiple singers on it, I wonder how on earth you sort out who will sing what and how difficult it is bringing it all together.
Arjen: For Ayreon it's HELL arranging all the singers, especially when we don't know each other! Especially on the last album where I had 17 singers! 'Who sings what' is a lot easier than the arrangements - I seem to have a feel for that, it almost sort of works itself out automatically.
SoT: Can you tell us about the other musicians who play on the album?
Arjen: Of course, Ed Warby on drums, who also played drums in Ayreon. My old friend Peter Vink played the bass, Joost van den Broek (ex-After Forever) who also played on the 2003 tour played the synth solos and Gary Wehrkamp (Shadow Gallery) played the guitar solos.
SoT: Victims Of The Modern Age is remarkably consistent all the way from start to finish. Every time I listen to it I find a new favourite track. What would you consider to be the album's highlights?
Arjen: Thanks for the compliment! Hmm...that's like asking a father which of his newly born babies he likes best [laughs] I'd say "24 Hours" because of its variety, "Digital Rain" because of its hugeness -is that a word?- [laughs] and "It All Ends Here" because of its doomy heaviness. But I'd probably tell you something different tomorrow...
SoT: The first album had lyrics and inspiration drawn from fantasy and especially science fiction films. This is a theme you have returned to again this time. What is it about this genre you find so inspirational?
Arjen: For me it's pure escapism. I don't like this world much and I don't really feel a part of it. Luckily I don't have to be, making my dreams come true has become my profession. Also I've always been very interested in science, and I love turning science fact into science fiction.
SoT: That theme seems to also come through into the CD cover design. I believe that Christophe Dessiagne, who also did the artwork for your last album from Guilt Machine was the artist this time as well?
Arjen: That's right. Post-apocalyptic images happen to be his favourites! He's an amazing artist and very important, as well as being extremely nice to work with.
SoT: There are very distinct differences between your separate projects/bands. Do you find that you have to change your mental approach to each different album?
Arjen: Yes, definitely. For Star One I just plug in the guitar, crank it up and go for it! For Ayreon I sit down in front of the TV and come up with little melodies and chords on an acoustic guitar, the processes can be very different indeed.
SoT: Do you get the same sense of satisfaction and achievement from all of your different projects?
Arjen: Absolutely! Every project I work on is always the most important of my entire career! And as soon as it's released I leave it behind and the next project becomes the most important. I'm always looking for new challenges.
SoT: When you decided after Guilt Machine, which was a more restrained progressive album, that the next project was Star One, do you at that stage start writing heavier, more guitar based music, or do you have songs from previous projects (Guilt Machine/Ayreon) that didn't fit with the ethos of those bands that were put on the shelf ready for you to revisit?
Arjen: No, I can only concentrate on one project at the time. All the good ideas that I have go into that project, all the bad ones I throw away or never I work them out. So I never get any ideas for other projects when I'm completely focused on what I'm currently working on.
SoT: You've often mentioned that whatever your previous album's style was, directly affects the direction of the next one. On that rational can we expect can a more restrained set of songs next?
Arjen: Right again! I would finally love to do that solo album I've been planning for years now, which would not be a pure metal album, because I can't sing heavy stuff.
SoT: Yes you've been talking about doing a proper solo album, where you handle all the instruments and vocals for quite some time now. Are you any nearer to making this your number one priority?
Arjen: You're well informed! As I said earlier, yes... I think the time is right now. Before I'm too old and decrepit [laughs].
SoT: If Victims Of The Modern Age was to be hugely successful, would there be a temptation to stick with Star One and release a follow up album next, or do you always need to "move on" after every album?
Arjen: I always move on, success or no success. I hate repeating myself, or competing with myself. And if I wouldn't put my heart in it, it wouldn't turn out very well I guess and I think people would really notice that.
SoT: After Space Metal was released, you released a Star One live CD/DVD. Is there any chance of something similar happening this time?
Arjen: It is definitely an option, but it will be very hard, expensive and time-consuming to get these 10 musicians together at the same time in the same place for rehearsals and a tour. So I'm not making any promises!
SoT: It's been great to get the chance to ask you some questions Arjen. Is there anything else you'd like to add?
Arjen: I don't think so, your questions were excellent!
Photos used by permission
(Click here to read our reviews of Victims of the Modern Age