Night Flight Orchestra’s sizable following in the metal community has evidently attracted the attention of Swedish AOR (always on radio) scene fixture Mikael Erlandsson. Erlandsson has been prolific in the Swedish AOR scene over the past two decades, releasing fourteen studio albums with Last Autumn’s Dream and now three albums with successor Autumn’s Child. For Erlandsson’s most recent project to reach its Zenith, he must walk the knife’s edge of writing songs that fit within a commercialized framework without simultaneously sounding tired and rote. To pull off this magic trick again and again in front of AOR audiences that have seen it all would be impressive indeed.
Unfortunately, as you might expect from such a prolific AOR veteran, Erlandsson—and his band—bring significant chops but little creativity. Zenith fizzles on the launchpad because it’s fueled far too much by straight replication and far too little by Erlandsson’s own style. The garish airbrushed guitar spaceship that graces Zenith’s cover tells you exactly what flavor of AOR Autumn’s Child plays. Journey and post-debut Boston permeate Zenith with analog synths, multitracked vocals, and thick reverb-laden drums to create a soundscape that screams of lesser 80s coming-of-age movies. Power pop-rockers (“Evangeline,” “High On Love”) and ballads (“Heaven Can Wait”) directly evoke Journey with their Neal Schon-esque guitar solos. Hair metal isn’t left out either with heavy Bon Jovi inspirations on Erlandsson’s vocal delivery and songwriting (“Angel of Danger”). As befits such productive AOR stalwarts, Zenith generally sounds like massive arena rock should, with heavy reverb on vocals, drums, and keys.
While Erlandsson and company are masters at replicating the sounds of early-80s AOR, far too often Zenith comes off like an empty rip-off, from the cover art to songwriting to song titles. Before settling into the Journey groove that is Zenith’s narrative thread, “Love Is A Fighter” starts with a synthesized beat and vocal melody that directly evokes Michael Sembello’s “Maniac.” You know. The Flashdance song. Ballad “Nightingale” starts with the slightest variation on the melody from “Greensleeves,” which given the lyrics makes you wonder why they didn’t just replicate the actual melody. “Never Say Die,” meanwhile, gives us the double whammy of a Van Halen meets Broca’s Helm tapped intro followed by the exact synth tones from “The Final Countdown.” This last inclusion makes at least a degree of sense, given that the original lineup of Last Autumn’s Dream featured three members of Europe. But the lack of originality isn’t just limited to the music: sequencing “Never Say Die” and “Heaven Can Wait” back to back seems a blatant way of signaling that Erlandsson is drawing song titles by flipping through his records. You have to admire what I’m hoping is the band’s sense of humor in titling the straight AC/DC pastiche “Crowd pleaser.”
Despite Zenith’s flaws, Erlandsson hasn’t managed to release seventeen albums over the past couple of decades without knowing how to write killer melodies and vocal hooks. As much as Autumn Child’s influences can distract, its choruses prove to be undesirably tenacious earworms (“Emergency,” “Never Say Die”). You know the Ceti eels from Wrath of Khan? The brain worm things? That’s these choruses. I haven’t been able to stop going “Emerrrrrgencyyyyyy” at my poor dog all week. Perhaps what’s most infuriating about them —besides being so damn catchy—is that they seem specifically designed to drive you insane in reminding you of other, even better choruses from other bands. I know that “High on Love” reminds me of a Journey chorus, but I can’t for the life of me figure out which one.
Zenith proves a frustrating experience throughout and feels like it should be the soundtrack to a coked-up Vision Quest sequel. It sounds like big AOR should, and the band members have the requisite chops and arguably the songwriting capabilities. But the shameless ripoffs mean that it’s hard to judge exactly what Autumn’s Child is going for. If the band is being earnest, then their songwriting is flat lazy; if it’s intended to be tongue in cheek, it doesn’t go far enough.