Like the oblivious American that I am, I must concede that I was wholly unfamiliar with the killing of Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme back in 1986. Catching up now (read: I researched it on Wikipedia), I’ve learned that it’s one of Sweden’s most famous murders, the subject of many investigations, both formal and informal, of continued discussion, and of many conspiracy theories. Was Palme murdered by a lone attacker? Was his killing part of some greater plan? Two men were arrested individually for the slaying… but one was quickly released, and the second convicted, then later acquitted. Thirty-four years later, the case remains unsolved.
For the second album released under his own name, Johansson delves into Palme’s murder as inspiration, weaving an album-wide tale of that (ahem) great conspiracy (or was it a conspiracy?) atop music that serves as the mean distillation of all those earlier outfits — the epic conceptualism of Civil War, the throwback power / trad of Astral Doors, and a slight hint of the folk-indebted progressive tendencies of Wuthering Heights in its more pompous moments. So in many ways, as with Evil Deluxe before it, it’s apropos that The Great Conspiracy is a Nils Patrik Johansson album in name, because it fits firmly in some middle ground between those records that bear his voice in the grooves, but not his name on the cover.
Since I’m completely unfamiliar with the source material, I’m grateful that, like Evil Deluxe before it, The Great Conspiracy at least features no shortage of exceptionally catchy material. The jaunty opening of “One Night At The Cinema” belies its ferocious power, blasted to the heavens by an instantly engaging chorus hook, and breaking down in its midsection in a brief-yet-effective flirtation with symphonic pomp before racing headlong through a breathless solo courtesy of Nils’ Lion’s Share bandmate Lars Chriss. Equally catchy, “Freakshow Superstar” features a duet with Håkan Hemlin, vocalist of one of Sweden’s most popular bands, Nordman, which is yet another piece of Swedish lore that I’m unfamiliar with. Further pomp crops up in the uber-theatrical “March Of The Tin Foil Hats,” while “Killer Without A Gun” dances around call-and-response-styled background vocals that are both goofy and undeniably fun.
Power / trad metal with bombast and irrepressible energy, The Great Conspiracy is both that distillation of Nils’ aesthetic and an improvement above Evil Deluxe, which was no slouch in its own right. Johansson is one of metal’s most distinctive vocalists, and with music strong enough to match his leather lungs, he’s as good here as he’s ever been.
Plus, I learned a few things about Swedish history. Who says heavy metal isn’t educational?