Sunday, October 23, 2016

Head to Head: Seventh Wonder - Welcome to Atlanta vs. Ayreon - The Theater Equation

 A wife reveals an uncomfortable secret to her husband, and in his rage the car loses control. In the wake of the crash, he finds himself in a coma, struggling to confront his demons in a race against the clock as his life is slipping away. Sound familiar? Maybe a little too familiar? If you were a prog metal fan in the last decade, you might have noticed an uncanny resemblance between Ayreon's The Human Equation and Seventh Wonder's Mercy Falls. The former, in true Ayreon fashion, features a heavyweight cast as aspects of the main character's psyche, while the latter explores his condition through the metaphor of a mysterious town. Both are favorites of mine and Mercy Falls cracked my top ten metal albums. So when both bands released live versions of their iconic albums back to back, what choice did I have but to pit them against each other?

The first thing to know about The Theater Equation is that most of the original cast is back, including James LaBrie in the starring role. Considering how the new Dream Theater album turned out, it's good to hear him in top form again. To avoid repeating an endless list of names, I'll say the same goes for the rest of the returning cast. There's a great interplay between them that makes it sound like they've been working together for years.

 The only glaring absence was from Mikael Akerfelt, but in a move completely out of left field, Anneke van Giersbergen takes over the role of Fear and makes it her own. But if there's one substitution that really brings The Theater Equation to the next level, it's Toehider's Mike Mills taking over as both Rage and the Father. Just like on The Theory of Everything, he's the unexpected shining star of the show and I can only hope he becomes a regular in future Arjen Lucassen projects.

If I seem to put too much focus on the vocals, it's only because The Theater Equation plays to its biggest strength, which is its cast. Instrumentally, it's more or less the same album, with a few tweaks that add to the overall atmosphere. This includes a full choir to complement an already huge ensemble of singers. Any elements that felt overblown on the original album feel natural now that it's abandoned any pretense of not being a musical. The state setting is pretty simplistic, but it allows  everyone to move and interact in a way that makes the whole production feel more alive. In short, The Theater Equation is an already great idea fully realized as the spectacle it was always meant to be.

In the other end of the ring, we have Welcome to Atlanta, a recording of Seventh Wonder's 2014 Prog/Power show where they played Mercy Falls in its entirety followed by a selection of songs spanning their 10+ year career. Needless to say, it's a relatively stripped down affair compared to Ayreon's off-Broadway production. Of course, the key word here is relatively. Seventh Wonder sound every bit as smooth as on the studio album, and their flawless rapport make the quintet sound bigger than the sum of its members.

Tommy Karevik packs energy and passion into his performance from start to finish. The mix gives Andreas Blomqvist an even better chance to display his prowess on bass than the studio album, and that's no small feat. I'd advise any prog bassists reading this to take note; this is what virtuosity without a shred of self-indulgence sounds like. For a live album, the production overall is immaculate and every member gets ample chances to shine. All this DVD had to do to be a classic was do justice to Mercy Falls, and they went above and beyond here. To avoid repeating myself, I won't get into the songwriting here. If you haven't heard Mercy Falls yet, consider this one more reminder.

The tail end of the show gives us a varied and balanced sampling of their career, ending with a touching acoustic medley. The highlights of this section are Edge of My Blade the band's first live rendition of King of the Whitewater, but really there's not a single weak track to be found. I can only hope that a flawless live show will help give this Swedish band the recognition they more than deserve.

Final Verdict: A Tie 

Given that Mercy Falls is a long-time favorite of mine, I know how I expected this contest to go. But in truth, both albums are well worth any prog fan's time and picking a winner would involve some truly petty levels of nitpicking. The only advice I can give you is that if you're looking for an album to listen to, go with Welcome to Atlanta, and if you're looking for a show to watch, go with The Theater Equation.

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