An idea that came to me as I explored old favourites uncovered in the course of my voyage of musical discovery it forced me to reflect on those projects that showed musicians of talent that truly excelled themselves when given hold of the reigns; projects that they aren’t known for, that wasn’t expected of them, and somehow ended up stronger as a result of that. You can learn a surprising amount about an artist and their influences by listening to the members hammer it out in other work. For example…
The Band: Ayreon
The final entry in what I had planned for this little column; the legendary work of Arjen van Lucassen, the man who has dedicated his career to creating Rock Opera’s of gargantuan proportions, bringing in talent such as Robert Westerholt and Sharon Den Adel (Within Temptation), Ed Warby (Hail of Bullets), Devin Townsend, Mikael Akerfeldt (Opeth), James LaBrie (Dream Theater), Daniel Gildenlöw (Pain of Salvation), Hansi Kurch (Blind Guardian), Ty Tabor (Kings X), Simone Simons (Epica)—god damnit if I don’t stop now I’ll fill up this whole article with famous people he’s been involved with over the course of his career.
The Surprise: Ambeon*
The collaboration I’m still the most enthralled by is none of the above. It was when he contacted little known Astrid van der Veen that we get what I still consider his finest work. Originally it was planned as an instrumental ambient side-project with just a single track to be written with her at the helm, but that soon developed into a full-fledged side project—Arjen handling the composition and Astrid on lyrics and vocals; a relationship that was borne from the strengths of her debut solo album and, in particular, the harrowing title track “Beautiful Red” in which only accompanied by a piano, she contemplates ending her own life by slicing open her own wrists. Oh, but don’t think the surprise ends there: when Arjen first made contact with Astrid based on the strength of this performance, it was without realising she was thirteen years old. What makes the album all the more haunting is that this is the last the world would see of her for more than a decade.
For years I tried to find out what had become of this fragile and tortured young soul, finding only reference to “health issues” from those who were trying to deliver enough information to let her live quietly. Even Arjen found himself asked these questions of his one-time collaborator, each time forced to respectfully decline to avail us of what information he might have stating it was not his place to make her affairs public. There was the band “The Endorphins”**, with a single EP from 2005 that seemed impossible to track down, only find references to; a sophomore solo effort called “Seamless Borderline” that only seemed to appear as a passing reference in the hidden corners of the internet many years later—all served to give rise to the enigma of this tortured soul lost to the world.
I haven’t formally written about this artist since January of 2009, eight years ago (the original article is still alive on an old review blog I used to run, in case anyone wants a laugh at my early work) and over the years I found myself returning to this album wondering what had become of Astrid, and it wasn’t until 2012 that we finally had an answer. Astrid had returned with a brand new album—now writing under the name “Astrid”** and singing entirely in Dutch—and with a new website that explained what had became of her. If you’re willing to read her tale it is available on her website here, but needless to say she spend more than a decade dealing with mental trauma but had finally emerged stronger for the ordeal; the tortured child now blossomed into a beautiful woman, and the Astrid we once knew had been banished into the darkness. The story of Ambeon has it’s happy ending, and we are left only with this: the snapshot of the tortured artist yet to overcome her demons, made all the more harrowing knowing the full story, and all the more bittersweet knowing she would emerge triumphant. Ayreon may have spent his career trying to weave epic tales of sorrow and hope, but Ambeon lived it.
And so I leave you with the young woman who once penned lyrics like “I feel so left alone, so forgotten / Nobody knows where I am, no one misses me” knowing that this is one story that has finally found it’s happy ending.
* Following her return, this once rare and out of print album was re-released for your enjoyment.
** No, I never did find this EP.
*** Yes, I also recommend this album. I sometimes enjoy listening to it back to back with Ambeon or her debut album just to hear the contrast; like the difference between the darkest night and the brightest summer's day.