Nils Patrik Johansson is a diligent bastard. In the past decade and more he’s put out at least one full length each year (except 2012) with his various bands and outfits. And while one would expect this newest offering to be just the next album in line, The Great Conspiracy turns out to be very different beast from most things NPJ has put out in recent years; while an affair akin to the standard heavy metal antics of Astral Doors or Lion’s Share or even this album’s predecessor Evil Deluxe would be the expectation before the release, it gives the narrative a twist to the balls. Based on the (still unsolved) assassination of Prime Minister Olof Palme it’s clearly a passion project from start to finish. Backed by Lion’s Share band mates Lars Christmansson, Kay Backlund and Andreas Loos - guitars, keyboards and bass respectively - as well as his son Nils Fredrik Johansson laying the drum work, Johansson leads the ensemble with a singular goal.
Opening up on heavy, gritty and speedy The Agitator, the album goes on through different motions of darkness led always by Johansson’s vocals which are of course the main focal point. And to that end, Johansson’s voice and performance is as strong as ever, perhaps even better than on his recent offerings, fitting the darker tone well. While mostly subservient to the guitars and vocals, the keyboards take a few hints from the Civil War style of grandiosity, while the overall sound grasps from around Johansson’s bands and inspirations; the heavy atmosphere of Lion’s Share is present but mixed with the catchy power metal melodies of Civil War and Wuthering Heights. Shorter, catchy tracks Freakshow Superstar and Killer Without a Gun are blended with lengthier, more musically driven tracks like Prime Evil and opener The Agitator which bring the darker tone and - while never really the focal point - lets Christmansson pull some sweet guitar antics in shorter instrumental parts.
The album definitely highlights Johansson’s strongest sides and the songwriting is on par with some of the best material he’s ever been on. It might not reach the heights of Wuthering Heights’ classic albums The Shadow Cabinet (2006) and Salt (2010), but it plucks the best parts of Civil War and Lion’s Share while letting Johansson make it his own with quirky decisions - like a calypso break smack dab in the middle of Sabbath/Dio inspired Prime Evil - that work surprisingly well while adding tons of character and breaking the otherwise omnipresent dark feeling that encapsulates the entire production. It may - once again - be another NPJ album that is not a Wuthering Heights comeback, but The Great Conspiracy subverts expectations while playing to the main man’s - and the band’s - strengths while delivering something comfortable yet fresh and invigorating for all involved and this unexpected turn of events is definitely welcome.
Standout tracks: The Agitator, March of the Tin Foil Hats, The Great Conspiracy