Arjen Lucassen is many things. But boring will never be one of them.
I first became familiar with Mr. Lucassen when the release of the Ayreon album The Human Equation was soon to be released. At the time, progressive music, both rock and metal, were my staples. I was a fan of Dream Theater (amongst others) and with the announcement that James Labrie would be singing the main character in the album, I started to pay attention.
It opened a fascinating universe for me. The music of Ayreon, really just one of the musical outlets for Arjen Lucassen, was expansive, progressive, imaginative, and really hit the prog spot I was looking for. I fell deep down the rabbit hole, became an instant fan, and started to assiduously follow the man’s work.
2009 saw the release of a side project of Arjen’s, titled simply Guilt Machine. Stripping many of the excesses of his Ayreon project, On This Perfect Day presents a more direct approach to his unique style of progressive music. For vocals, Arjen enlisted Jasper Steverlinck, a pop singer from Belgium, rather than the expansive cast of vocal characters seen on Ayreon releases.
What we have, then, is really lovely, clean pop vocals paired with facets of the Ayreon heaviness. Yet one of the aspects that makes Guilt Machine just so darn good is the way the heaviness is deftly balanced with the atmosphere. Nearly all the songs have a slow build, until the guitars finally kick in. And the dynamics continue throughout each song. None of the songs is in your face the entire time. That balance opens the music up, making it quite accessible, while still being deeply layered. And, let’s be honest, you have to find the version with the bonus tracks, simply to hear “The Stranger Song”. Jasper’s vocals are so powerful on that track, I get chills every time.
Lyrically, this is a dark album. Surprisingly so, honestly. The songs all seem to deal with loss, with things breaking down, with regret. This isn’t light, poppy fare. Nor is it the dense sci-fi stuff of the Ayreon albums. The atmosphere is further built by the addition of recorded voicemail messages. Arjen posted a number for fans to call and leave any message they wanted in their own language, and those messages are peppered throughout the album. It sounds like a gimmick, yet the way it is handled creates a powerful sense of reality. The addition of those messages helps the album feel grounded in a way few albums are.
There hasn’t been anything new out of the Guilt Machine camp in 10 years. And I’ll be honest, this album is so near perfect, that it might just be best to let it stand alone. While I’d love to hear more from this particular collaboration, On This Perfect Day is just that: perfect.