Nils Patrik Johansson is a busy guy. Over the last two decades, the man’s cashed checks with the on-again, off-again Lion’s Share, the on-hiatus Wuthering Heights, and Civil War, who he recently bailed on because he didn’t have the time (go figure). His work arguably peaked with the momentous output of Astral Doors. Banging out their first four albums in an incredible half-decade, the Swedes lifted Dio-worship to new heights. However, it’s been ten years since that initial span and recent returns have diminished. Can their eighth release, Black Eyed Children, recapture the organ-grinding, tiger-riding magic that Astral Doors once offered in spades?
Clean, chunky chords steeped in heavy metal history; drums, thick and full of punch; Johansson’s ever-aging Dioisms; “We Cry Out” certainly sounds like it has the makings of a great opener. But the song bounces from one loosely-stitched section to the next, sloppily falling ass-backward into what seems like the middle of the track. Johansson’s attempts at a cookie-cutter chorus never latch on, while the thread of the song leads nowhere worth a return trip. It’s a theme that follow-up “Walls” continues. Its slow start and Avantasian vocal melodies (of all influences) bleed into a tasty yet neglected guitar undercurrent that could have made the song so much more. Solid classic rocker “God Is the Devil” leads into “Die on Stage,” a Van Halen-meets-Accept heavy metal tribute that opens with an organ intro closer to Final Fantasy than “Rainbow in the Dark.” It’s a step in the right direction, but the absence of memorable riffs leaves Johansson to die on that stage alone. Throughout its first half, missed opportunities and flawed execution sadly underscore a record struggling to gain its footing.
Thankfully, “Good vs. Bad” rides in at the nick of time, a first-light charge with a thousand coursers at its back. A highlight stuffed with riffs, keys, and vocal pastiche worthy of Ronnie James himself, the track’s fantastic chorus rides a triumphant crescendo reminiscent of a Civil War epic. With its feet under it, BEC clears hurdles more easily than even ten minutes prior. The easy flow of “Suburban Song” gets your head moving before “Lost Boy” meshes guitars and organs into a beefy, surprisingly deep sound. Johansson’s unexpectedly catchy chorus defies its oblique nature of its rhymes, elevating a chorus-bridge combo that was already supremely enjoyable. The grandiose “Slaves to Ourselves” caps the run, building on the monumental scale introduced on “Good vs. Bad.” Though notably suffering from a case of bloat, even the eponymous closer features an energetic midsection and stellar solo, courtesy of Joachim Nordlund (Sky of Rage), and aptly sums up the fulfillment of the album’s second act.
In direct comparison to his Civil War finale, released only five months ago, NPJ sounds revitalized (read: not that old). Perhaps some time off, what little of it he could scrounge up, has done him good. The days of him being mistaken for a Dio hologram are likely gone for good, but in their place, the good Sir Patrik has hewn a deep well of vocal hues from which to pull. The myriad of vocal contortions that flesh out BEC shows he has more to offer than stellar yet fleeting moments of impersonation. Also of note is the lush sound of Erik Mårtensson’s mix. Balancing three guitars, a drum kit, a keyboard, and an Aviatored vocalist isn’t the easiest job in the world, but BEC sounds fantastic from open to close. The drum treatment in particular gives Johan Lindstedt an excellent canvas upon which to draw. Likewise, Jocke Roberg’s keyboards deserve their constant presence, filling out a well-layered album and doing their best to negate BEC’s A-side foibles.
In Black Eyed Children, Astral Doors have crafted a record where success is counterbalanced by “What if?” Their front-half failure seems all the more egregious when considering how effortlessly they can recall their glory years at times. That they still have the touch is not up for debate; whether they have the consistency to fully deploy it is. In spite of its poignant highs, it’s hard to recommend an experience that only partially works. Black Eyed Children is a platter that will surely please, but only after the Brussels sprouts have quietly been fed to the dog.