Traditionally, Astral Doors has never been my favorite of Nils Patrik Johansson’s projects, but with his abrupt departure from Civil War earlier this year, I guess it is now. Formed fifteen years ago as a celebration of the classic metal of Dio, Rainbow, et al, Astral Doors has mined that same approach for better or worse through eight albums now, mostly occupying a qualitative middle-to-high ground, generally above average and never quite completely brilliant.
Black Eyed Children is the eighth of those albums, and it’s among the better Astral Doors records, even as it’s exactly what anyone who’s been keeping up would have expected. It’s enjoyable and energetic trad-metal, standing, as always, squarely in the (literally) larger-than-life shadow of Ronnie James Dio.
Throughout Children, Johansson is typically great – his leathery throaty wail is among the most distinctive and powerful in this type of metal. He has the throaty grit of Dio, and as he’s singing now in a slightly higher register, he’s added a certain gravelly Biff Byford-ness to his bite – that’s two legends in one, and yet, he’s still very much his own beast. Black Eyed Children’s production is shiny and full without being overly slick or wimpy, and the performances are spirited, particularly in the riffs of Mats Gesar and Joachim Nordlund, who shift effortlessly from Blackmore epic to Campbell drive as necessary.
The front half of Black Eyed Children is impeccable power-trad. The opening track “We Cry Out” is a grand rock ‘n’ roll statement, a sort of distant kin to Dio’s “We Rock,” though admittedly lesser than that self-aggrandizing hard rock brilliance. The superb “Walls” has a great chorus, perfect for Johansson’s grit, and the stomping old-guys-doing-teen-rebellion of “Die On Stage” is another of Black Eyed Children’s best, even with the silly lines about “find[ing] another ass to lick.” That combination of Accept-ish riff and chorus, Dio pre-chorus, and tasteful shred soloing is Astral Doors at their finest, the veritable distillation of their musical aesthetic. Still, even as great as that first half is, Black Eyed Children saves its best for almost last: The nine-minute keyboard-laden lumber of the title track is a late-entry high point, a blend of “Rock ‘N’ Roll Children” and “Sacred Heart,” with its killer chorus riff and a stellar dynamic bridge / lead-break combination.
The middle of the record dips down a little – it’s never bad, but “Suburban Song,” or the clean-guitar / electric piano / quarter-note bounce of the verses of “Lost Boy,” or the entirety of “Slaves To Ourselves” just don’t measure up to what surrounds them. Closing number “Jesus Christ Moviestar” is silly, but enjoyable enough. Still, even the worst tracks here are strong enough to not set Black Eyed Children back, and the end result is a one of Astral Doors playing to its strengths – strong melodic traditional metal delivered with skill and a palpable passion for the source material.
Like all the Astral Doors before it, Black Eyed Children is nothing you haven’t heard before, but it’s fun while it lasts, and sometimes something borrowed can still feel new enough…