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Soundtracking Cataclysm: Sabaton’s The Great War

July 28, 2019

You can almost feel the inevitability of Sabaton’s star turn happening this very moment, particularly here a week out from the release of their ninth and newest album, The Great War. There’s the increasing profile of the past few years with bigger tours overseas and even here in the States where they were absolutely packing out venues across the country. There’s the mainstream chart positions achieved with 2016’s The Last Stand, the big festival slots, and more recent in the mind of the metal world, their coming to the rescue at Hellfest with a last second, vocalist-impaired filling in for the tantrum throwing headliners Manowar. I mentioned this on Twitter the evening that event took place, but it almost felt like we were witnessing a changing of the guard in a very particular way. Those events just don’t happen in a vacuum in the metal world, they leave imprints and change perceptions, forge goodwill, and even create new fans. For example, I’ve never really been into Trivium’s music, but I can’t help but root for Matt Heafy with this upcoming black metal project he’s cooking up, because I’ve enjoyed him in podcast interviews and he just seems like a passionate fan of black metal music. That’s how things work within metal it seems, we’re rarely black and white on issues —- great bands can have terrible albums, you might still enjoy a song or two from a generally mediocre band, and you loved a band’s live show but their album did nothing for you or vice versa. You might, like many have, scoff at Sabaton’s schtick and over-the-top earnestness with which they go about it, but enough people love them despite or perhaps because of those things. To wit, as of this writing, The Great War has debuted at #1 in Germany, #11 in the U.K., and if early projections are to be believed, #5 in the US, which would make it the highest charting power metal album in history.

Its worth mentioning that although its only been three years since The Last Stand, this gap marks the longest time between releases for the band since their debut. Not only is that remarkable for a band that tours as much as they do, but points to a more concerted focus here, the need for extra time to dig deep into the research process for one of the biggest conflicts in history. They’d touched on World War I before, with the Passchendaele tribute “The Price Of A Mile” from The Art of War and “Angels Calling” from Attero Dominatus, but The Great War deep dives on subject matter from the conflict that was admittedly new to me. I’d of course seen Lawrence of Arabia and knew about T.E. Lawrence, but I’ll admit that my knowledge of Francis Pegahmagabow, Osowiec Fortress, and Alvin York were nonexistent. I also only had a cursory knowledge of Manfred von Richthofen, aka The Red Baron, due to a once burning interest in aviation when I was a kid. Maybe what’s added the extra time in Sabaton’s album cycle this go round was the development of their YouTube channel Sabaton History, where many of these songs and others from their catalog are deep dived into with the help of YouTube historian Indy Neidells. Its an entirely separate endeavor from their music of course, but this level of depth and attention to detail (not to mention commitment to their subject matter) lends credibility to the band’s continuing historical focus. At this point its dishonest to criticize it as merely schtick, because I don’t think you can fake that kind of thing to this extent. Clearly this is a burning passion for Joakim Broden and Pär Sundström, and while the channel is not necessary to enjoy their records, it adds something to the experience of listening to those songs after you’ve watched their respective mini-documentary vids.

Case in point, there are three versions of The Great War, a normal songs only edition, a soundtrack version that’s mostly just an extra dressed up instrumental edition (Floor Jansen makes a special appearance here), and the “History Edition” —- the latter of which includes a little 20-30 second framing intro by a well spoken narrator to help set the scene. Now normally I dislike narration within albums, there are a few exceptions of course, but even the audiobook ripped narration the band threw into The Art of War got a little tiring after the millionth listen. I assume the band must’ve heard that before so they shrewdly provided options for the listening experience this time around, and surprisingly enough, it makes a hell of a difference. The history version brings a thematic cohesion to the full album listening experience that is well paced, sets the mood, and pulls you in to pay attention to the songs for more than just the hooks, and frankly the normal songs only edition feels a little empty without it. Why is this different from The Art of War? I’m not sure exactly and who knows, ten months from now I might only be listening to the songs only version, but I do know that I never felt as positively towards the narration on Art’ as I do on the new album. It is to The Great War’s credit however, that we can compare it to that seminal album for more reasons than just the narration.

This is one of the strongest Sabaton albums to date, a rebound from the one dimensional mood of The Last Stand, with a thematic and narrative cohesion that places it next to Carolus Rex, The Art of War, and Heroes. In songwriting terms, they’ve benefited greatly by the simple fact that the subject matter this time has the breadth to be both darkly agonizing and shimmeringly heroic. The latter are as epic, soaring, and thrilling as we’ve come to expect from Broden’s experienced songwriting chops, as evidenced on album highlight “Seven Pillars Of Wisdom”. Its recounting of T.E. Lawrence’s grand desert adventures in Arabia leading the guerilla war against the Ottoman Empire is set to a suitably swashbuckling vocal melody and horse sprint tempo. The other highlight in this vein is the hammond organ accelerating waltz rhythm of “The Red Baron”, a track that sounds not only slightly anachronistic in a strange way, but sees the band stretching their sound in fresh musical territory. Broden’s vocals in the chorus zip around the gang vocal melody chanting “Higher!”, all while the bouncy, light-on-its-feet uptempo keyboard blitz creates the feeling of a song that’s as aerial as its subject matter. The band dips back into a little orchestral bombast for “Devil Dogs”, loading its chorus with ample symphonic weight and choral backing vocals, a striking musical counterpoint to the subject matter of the US Marines storied battle at the Battle of Belleau Wood. Running counter to all this upbeat major key celebratory tone is the darkened, slower vein of the album, providing a much needed balance that The Last Stand lacked and suffered as a result from. Broden and company deliver a career standout in “Great War”, boasting one of his most effectively written refrains, anthemic and powerful in the vocal cadence and sympathetic and tragic on a lyrical level.

Speaking of which, this is where Broden really shines as a writer, when he places the listener at a shoulder to shoulder perspective with a narrator. The personal, first-person narration happening in “Great War”, about a brother lamenting the loss of his two siblings in the war and his mother’s grief is the kind of detail oriented lyrical bent that I wish Broden would engage in more often. I understand that not every song can work with that kind of lyric writing, either due to syllabic or rhythmic constraints, but when it can work he should make an effort to accomplish that. Its what makes a song like The Pogues “And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” or Iron Maiden’s “The Trooper” so powerful and effective, that humanizing individual experience set against the backdrop of a grander, dehumanizing experience. Continuing down the darker, more somber vein of the album, there’s “The End of the War To End All Wars”, as purposefully lumbering and deadened a vocal approach as Broden’s ever mustered. Its contrasted with powerful blasts of horns and choral vocal lines during the refrain and the culminating mid-song bridge. Similarly brooding is “The Attack of the Dead Men”, where the vocal lines are built in rhythmic, percussive patterns that serve as their own form of microhook and would likely not work without Broden’s thick brogue. I’m particularly fond of the more mid-tempoed “A Ghost In The Trenches”, a song with sharply written lyrics, cleverly phrased: “Just another man and rifle, a marksman and a scout revealed / Makes his way from trench to trench alone, moving undetected”. Criticize him for all too often writing lyrics that read like plain historical recounting, but Broden’s unique gift is in his occasionally thoughtful diction and memorable phrasing in particular. And I love the choral vocal reading of “In Flanders Fields” as an album closer, a band-less affair that is poignant and entirely unexpected and a little gutsy.

There are a couple moments here that don’t live up to the rest, like the album opener “The Future of Warfare”, which is an excellent intro but a relatively middling song. Not the kind of tune begging for inclusion in the setlist perhaps, but it works in the context of the album. I will say that “82nd All The Way” strikes a little too close to “No Bullets Fly”, and critics of the band will likely pounce on it as an example of the band repeating themselves. Its a valid criticism and to be honest it did prevent me from being fully engrossed in an otherwise decent song, but then again, Sab’s gonna Sab; they’ll sound like themselves no matter how much innovation they dare to interject in an album. Bands that sound distinctly like themselves (AC/DC, Iron Maiden) seem to be more open to criticism for repeating themselves than bands whose influences are easily discernible. And I started out a little lukewarm on “Fields of Verdun”, which seemed a little too straightforward structurally and weirdly joyful in tone considering the subject matter, but lately I’ve come around to it largely due to the strength of that earworm of a hook. The band sounds terrific all throughout as you’d expect, but particular mention should be made for new guitarist Tommy Johansson (ReinXeed / Majestica), who is a perfect neo-classical foil for Chris Rörland’s more meat n’ potatoes approach. Johansson’s playing is lighter, sleeker, and a little more unexpected in terms of solos, he seems to zag where you expect the zig. The band as currently constructed seems to be at its best with the most talented lineup to date (no disrespect intended to previous guitarist Thobbe Englund who actually helped Broden with songwriting on “Fields of Verdun”). This is a welcome return to form for Sabaton, one of their strongest, most thematically cohesive albums to date, and its arrived when at the exact moment when they needed to hit one out of the park. Its the kind of album that justifies their recent ascent to the top of the metal world, in chart positions, headlining festival slots, and a legion of fans. Manowar, you can clear the hall now.

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