One of the most popular bands on the inaugural 70,000 Tons of Metal cruise this past January, much to my surprise, was Sabaton. On the four day, three night sea voyage from Miami to Cozumel, Mexico, 42 bands were playing pretty much around the clock, and as far as yours truly was concerned, I wasn’t above trying to see as many as I could, including bands I’m not exactly a fan of. I was far less concerned with interviewing bands than actually seeing them perform. “Be sure to tell me how Sabaton was!” a magazine editor of mine enthused before the trip. Sure, why not?
But when my metal writer friends and I ventured into the ship’s lavish theatre to see just what these guys are like live, it took literally seconds before my palm was hitting my forehead. I pride myself in being one of the more, erm, permissive writers when it comes to sheer, unadulterated goofiness in heavy metal, in fact I celebrate it, but Sabaton’s strange combination of metal style (power), subject matter (depictions of real war events), image (everyone clad in snow camouflage), and stage presence (goofily jumping around like they’re Kiss without make-up), was just too much to bear.
The fans in the pit absolutely lapped it up, which was all well and good, but for us, Sabaton became a sort of running gag for the rest of the trip (when the band challenged fans to a table hockey tournament, one of my cohorts considered entering, challenging them that if they won he’d quit journalism, if he won they’d quit making music). A couple nights later, walking across the outdoor pool deck where Sabaton was playing another set, they captured my attention by absolutely tearing the place up with a surprisingly evocative, rousing war epic. Hmm, maybe there’s hope for these guys after all, I thought. Then singer Joakim Bróden bellowed, “This next song is about my penis! The METAL! MACHINE!!!” Oh, good lord. I resumed walking to one of the other venues.
A confession, dear metal-lovin’ readers: I have only been familiar with Sabaton for about a year. And during that time I’ve found myself wavering back and forth: one second I get a bit of a guilty pleasure kick out of the war-and-power-metal-obsessed Swedes, and the next I’m thinking they’re the worst band I’ve ever heard. It doesn’t help that my only frame of reference for the past 12 months has been 2010’s Coat of Arms, a record so scattershot and so ham-fistedly written that this band’s massive European popularity and steadily growing North American fanbase is mind-boggling. Why are people getting so excited about songs that are nothing but second-rate Stratovarius imitations with very little to say in spite of some very serious subject matter? What is this band’s appeal?
Indeed, the crux of my frustration with Sabaton laid in the lyrics of Coat of Arms, which are all based on various stories from the Second World War, but fail to either say anything perceptive about the matter or simply fail to tell the tale in a compelling manner at all. Instead we get watered-down songs about the Polish Uprising (“Rise up and hear the call, history calling to you”), the Battle of Midway (“Midway / We’ll meet at Midway / Naval war”), and the Norwegian heavy water sabotage (“They sign the book of history, they played a leading role / To win the Second War”). These guys make Max Cavalera sound subtle. Some tracks are in fact effective, such as “White Death” and “The Final Solution”, but compared to the war-themed epics of esteemed bands such as Iron Maiden and Bolt Thrower, Sabaton’s inarticulate lyrics are like stacking up Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory alongside Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor. One’s pure class, the other trite. And besides, when you’re singing about such dead serious themes, should you really be shown in the CD booklet wearing a shirt that says, “COVER ME IN CHOCOLATE AND THROW ME TO THE LESBIANS”?
In the end, that perfectly encapsulates Sabaton for me: earnest tributes to heroes of war undermined and ultimately cheapened by a cartoonishness that refuses to go away. However, having seen these five guys on the cruise performing with such energy and happily interacting with their fans, they seem like really nice fellows, and with Nuclear Blast having just reissued their first four albums this month, I figured I’d give their back catalog a fair chance to win me over where Coat of Arms failed to do.
One would think that starting at the beginning would be the logical thing to do, but with Sabaton, you have to figure out which beginning you’re talking about. In fact, it’s as hilarious as it is complicated. The Fist For Fight demo compilation was the first thing Sabaton put out back in 2001, but it’s not regarded as an “album” per se. 2005’s Primo Victoria was the first official Sabaton album to be released, but technically it’s not the debut. Metalizer, recorded in 2002, was supposed to be the proper debut but was shelved for five years and now is widely regarded as the band’s fourth album. Or the third, if you’re not counting the demo. Got that? It’s enough to give anyone a migraine. But at any rate, since it’s the earliest recording, Metalizer it is.