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Astral Doors has always had something of a unique place in the Swedish metal scene, opting for a traditional sound that is more closely in line with the late 70s and 80s eras of Dio, Rainbow, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and a few other bands that were known for transitioning metal from its bluesy rock roots into something more epic and astounding. They're not quite a keyboard infused refuge of war storytelling like Sabaton, but at times they've managed to sound like they've been taking notes on said band's exploits. Likewise, they don't fully embrace the outright celebratory, metal is king character of Dream Evil or Hammerfall, but it is, yet again, not hard to see where this comparison might hold some water. Truth be told, if there was a band that could fully describe their unique brand of 80s metal classicism, it would be Axel Rudi Pell, but with a few obvious caveats such as they aren't nearly as guitar hero oriented and don't quite use literal Ronnie James Dio quotes to build their song titles and lyrical content. But regardless of what band they tend to sound like, they've been a consistent and obligatory treat for all fans of old school metal, though they haven't gained quite the same level of notoriety as these outfits.
While my own knowledge of this band's back catalog is a bit limited, it is a frequent assertion of other reviewers that they were better back in the early to mid 2000s when the power metal scene was a bit more collectively focused. Nevertheless, their latest offering "Jerusalem" is no slouch if one wishes to measure it against much of their competition of late. In much the same way as with his other project Wuthering Heights, vocalist Nils Patrik Johansson literally steals the show with his heavily Ronnie Dio inspired blend of soaring brilliance with a gravely, hard rocking edge, while the rest of the band tends to keep up their end of things in maintaining the stylistic homage to 80s era Dio and Black Sabbath with several nods to other contemporary bands with a similar set of influences. The riff work is a bit on the busier side of the heavy metal coin, tending to emulate the flashy work of Vivian Campbell's tenure with Dio while also bringing up nods of Craig Goldie's slightly mellower brand of rocking and even going into full out Blackmore and Iommi styled minimalism on a few select songs. The whole album screams overt throwback, while still managing to come off as current with a nice, polished production job that comes off as thunderous without trying to compete with the noise-wars crowd.
Though this band often gets lumped in with the power metal scene as if they were in the same league as Gamma Ray and Stratovarius, it should be kept crystal clear that this does next to no dabbling in speed metal territory (in contrast to Manowar or Helloween), though they are a bit busier than your average old school NWOBHM worshipers. For instance, the up beat crunch and riff blitz of "With A Stranger's Eye" and the equally fast yet more mixed up "Operation Freedom" (which almost sounds like it's paraphrasing "Kill The King" during the first part of the guitar solo) both flirt with speed metal, but don't really go too far beyond the same formula that Judas Priest was using on "Screaming For Vengeance". And these songs tend to be the exception more so than the rule as mid-paced anthems with pounding guitar lines and glorious shouts such as "Seventh Crusade" and "Babylon Rise" trade blows with longer, semi-doom influence nods to "Shame On The Night" and "Sign Of The Southern Cross" such as the dragging fatalism of "Lost Crucifix" and the free flowing yet stomping march "The Battle Of Jacob's Ford". If nothing else, this band shares a unique fetish for war history lyrically that parallels their compatriots in Sabaton (probably a reason why when said band split they chose Nils to front their new outfit Civil War) that mixes well with their orthodox Dio worship, and boy does that worship get pretty blatant on "Child Of Rock N' Roll", which is a full out musical paraphrase of "Rock N' Roll Children".
Emulation may indeed be the most blatant form of flattery, but this band carries it well here, despite not quite capturing the lead guitar brilliance of Vivian Campbell or Ritchie Blackmore completely or the drumming of Vinnie Appice for that matter, but definitely hit close to the original territory. It's a little bit bittersweet that Ronnie didn't live to hear this album, though it's likely that he was aware of this band, among the countless others in Europe that were picking up his mantle at the onset of the new millennium. Anyone who likes it old school but also likes the idea of fully utilizing all the capabilities afforded to us by modern, digital recording technology will find a welcome album here. Speaking as someone who still needs to familiarize himself with the earlier material of this band, I can't make a full comparison to what they've done before, but based on the influences that the band touts, I'd say they've done more than a sufficient job of getting their intended point across.
Astral Doors was a band that burst onto the power metal scene with a vengeance. 2003's “Of the Sun and Father” and 2005's “Evil is Forever” were powerful slabs of anthem-ridden power metal, utilizing the force of Dio styled vocals and the blazing, yet groove-laden riffing style of Ritchie Blackmore to create memorably catchy songs that carried the flag of traditional power metal. The following years were not kind to Astral Doors as the quality of the following albums progressively dropped to the musical equivalent of a newborn baby: no power; no strength; and only slightly cute at times. Having nearly written off Astral Doors for good, I decided to give them one last chance to recapture the magic and charm that they once possessed.
“Jerusalem” attempts to bridge the gap between the first two releases and the consistent mediocrity of the subsequent albums by starting off with a few fast and punchy songs. “Seventh Crusade” and “With a Stranger's Eye” are fast paced, with chunky and speedy riffing, rollicking drums and the powerful vocals of Nils Patrik Johansson. Could it be? Are Astral Doors really back in form? That very question is answered with the next few tracks. During “Child of Rock 'N' Roll”, one section of lyrics goes, “It's better to burn out than fade away.” To me, that should be the new motto for Astral Doors, because a lot of the songs here feel burnt out and hollow and the band certainly hasn't faded away yet. It's not really that the songs are utterly terrible, but an air of vapid mediocrity hangs over a lot of the tracks here. Even the standout tracks have forced sections that come across limp and flat.
It's difficult to describe the instrumentation here because there are two distinct styles present: the catchy and driving sections and the flaccid, strained sections. Take the guitars for instance. On “Pearl Harbor” a catchy, chugging riff that sounds straight out of “The Last in Line” carries the beginning and chorus of the song before bouncing into a very weak and boring melodic picking section. “Lost Crucifix” plods along with simple power chords ringing away carrying about as much enthusiasm as month old underwear in the summer. There are a few scorching power metal riff fests a la “Spotlight Kid” era Rainbow, but even these amazing riffs fall flat when you place it next to weak melodic noodling that serves no purpose aside from existing. Every other instrument suffers the same problem: spurts of pure brilliance coupled with utter blandness and mediocrity. The drums go from rollicking, double kick beats to uninspired simplicity. The keyboards range from sounding like a Hammond organ blasting away to a standard airy power metal backing. The bass, well, let's just say it plods along quite uneventfully.
If you've heard of Astral Doors then you've no doubt heard it mentioned that the singer sounds like Dio. This is a point of contention with me, because while his delivery and inflections are similar, Johansson has never been able to fully grasp the power and magic of Dio's style. Nils Patrik Johansson's voice is slightly raspier than Dio's and a lot sloppier. It almost sounds like a mumbly Dio, honestly. Now, when he is on his game, which is usually during the anthemic choruses when he shouts more than sings, it sounds full of energy. Most verse lines sound flat and forced and mediocre to the point of wondering where those awesome choruses went.
While “Jerusalem” is more listenable than “Requiem of Time”, it comes nowhere near the fiery power of “Of the Son and Father”. After two awesome tracks, the foot lets off of the gas pedal and the band slows back into bland and uninspired mediocrity. There are sparks of genius floating around and catchy choruses interlaced throughout, but the subpar performance just doesn't cut it. The filler tracks are far too boring and the lack of energy from the band is all too apparent. Astral Doors may not have faded away, but they sure do sound burnt out.