An endangered species?
The two brothers, keyboardist Jens and drummer Anders Johansson, has so far made three albums together (plus one together with guitarist Allan Holdsworth). The Last Viking was the last one they did and this one is quite different from the others. The Last Viking is clearly much less jazzy and also, at least on the surface, less progressive than the two other Johansson Brothers albums and even more so compared to the straightforward Jazz-Rock of Heavy Machinery (the one they did with Holdsworth). But The Last Viking is also more consistent and, on the whole, much better in my opinion.
For those of you who don't know the history of these guys, they both used to play in Yngwie Malmsteen's Rising Force in the 80's. For this album they enlisted Mike Romeo from Symphony X on guitars and Göran Edholm on vocals. The former is strongly influenced by Malmsteen's playing and the latter also used to sing for Malmsteen. But even if The Last Viking has some minor similarities with Yngwie Malmsteen's music, and also to that of Symphony X, these influences are not too apparent. The Last Viking has a much warmer and melodic sound that would be foreign to these metal bands, and the Johansson brothers have a much wider set of influences that stretches far beyond the narrow boundaries of metal music. This can be seen on their (especially Jens') extremely diverse output.
The Johansson brothers are obviously very skilled on their respective instruments and Romeo is a great guitar player, but this is not an album based on shredding and showing off chops. On the contrary, these songs are strongly based on melody and not on instrumental workout. They do burst out in many short, often extremely fast paced and impressive keyboard and guitar solos, but these are always appropriate within the context of the songs and never excessive. It is also clear that the three instrumentalists work together, and it is never a matter of just providing a backdrop for only one of them to show off. The instrumentalists share about equal space in the sound, which I like a lot.
We find here a very nice balance between up tempo songs, ballads and instrumentals. The material is very melodic. The ballads and the two instrumentals are great counterpoints to the more fast paced metal songs. On the surface this is rather conventional 80's metal, but at the same time it is not conventional at all. Below the surface we find a rich sonic palette and a strong sense of melody. The Jazz and Blues influences of earlier Johansson Brothers albums are almost gone, as are the more experimental edge, but there are still strong Classical influences here. Many would probably find this music a bit cheesy, but I find it cute and charming. I must say that I like this album more than most albums by Symphony X or Yngwie Malmsteen's Rising Force (though The Last Viking does not come close to the very best albums by these bands).
The vocals are very good and In The Mirror especially has excellent harmony vocals. The lyrics are perhaps not too interesting and are often about love and man's relation with nature (and Vikings?!). Again, some would find this cheesy, but I find it rather charming. You cannot take it too seriously, as I'm sure they don't do themselves! The keyboards sound like organs, pianos and harpsichords (even if I'm pretty sure that everything is produced with electronic keyboards). Everything has a sound that I do not recognize from somewhere else.
I enjoy this album, you might too