[4 May 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
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.
What’s so striking about hearing Metalizer for the first time is just how much more Sabaton well and truly sucked, for lack of a better word. In essence, this is clearly a work by a band completely devoid of an identity, an 11 song exercise in power metal clichés. That said, in a subgenre that embraces cliché as much as power metal does, even the most by-the-numbers compositions can work if the charisma is there, and at the very least Metalizer has a couple such moments. “Hellrider” is a tacky but fun knock-off of every other car-inspired metal song ever written, while the synth-driven “Masters of the World” is pure cornball fun in the vein of Dirk Diggler’s “You Got the Touch” (“Get up let’s break those chains and party all night long”, Bróden sings in his burly baritone).
The rest, though, tries desperately to emulate German power metal, from Helloween, to Gamma Ray, to Edguy, to Primal Fear without an original thought of its own. The Fist For Fight demo collection comes as a bonus second CD, and aside from a pair of songs, it has the same songs as Metalizer, only the recordings are sloppier. Of the special bonus tracks on the “Re-Armed” edition, the spirited, loyal cover of Judas Priest’s “Jawbreaker” is the one keeper.“Through the gates of Hell / As we make our way to heaven / Through the Nazi lines / Primo Victoria!” What a difference a couple years makes.
Primo Victoria (2005) sees Sabaton finding themselves both musically and thematically. The power metal influence is as strong as ever, but now they have a gimmick, and a good one at that: singing about war. The band and its music has a sense of purpose, and Bróden, the chief songwriter, embraces the role on the first three songs: the invigorating, galloping title track is a terrific tribute to the Allied D-Day invasion, the ferocious, Desert Storm-inspired “Reign of Terror” goes in a more extreme direction than anything the band has done before, and the gigantic chorus of the Operation Iraqi Freedom follow-up “Panzer Batallion” embodies pure, high-gloss power metal. It’s a stupendous way to start a record.
Before long, though, repetition quickly sets in as songs start to bleed into one another, and it’s not until the fittingly grim tones of “Stalingrad” and the shamelessly sentimental, Manowar-esque “Purple Heart” bring Primo Victoria back to the level of the opening trifecta. The frivolous Edguy knock-off “Metal Machine” reverts back to the shallowness of the first recordings, but at the very least it’s a catchy little tribute to Sabaton’s favorite metal bands. Six bonus tracks are appended to the re-release, the best being the traditional concert intro “The March to War”, and another faithful cover, this time Twisted Sister’s underrated “The Beast”. It’s not a perfect album by any stretch, and clearly Sabaton is still a work in progress, but it’s a massive improvement over Metalizer.
Sabaton at leisure on the metal cruise. Photo by Albert Mansour
Not surprisingly, 2006’s Attero Dominatus follows exactly the same formula as Primo Victoria, but the bulk of the album is considerably darker, both in tone and songwriting. The chest-thumping anthems are downplayed in favor of something more controlled, and when everything’s falling into place, the tactic works greatly to the band’s advantage. “Nuclear Attack” and “Angels Calling” are good examples; “In the Name of God” nicks the riff from Mercyful Fate’s “Gypsy”, giving the track an air of menace, while “Light in the Black” is bolstered by a mournful, elegiac hook during the choruses. Nothing compares to “Rise of Evil”, though. Of all the Sabaton songs I immersed myself in during this project, none captivated me as much as this track did. It’s the perfect blend of disciplined songwriting and singing; Broden’s Third Reich-themed lyrics are tasteful and powerful (“An invasion is coming but when will it start?”), and a sadness underscores the entire eight minute epic thanks in part to Pär Sundström’s minimalist, “Heaven and Hell”-inspired bassline.
Like Primo Victoria, however, inconsistency dogs Attero Dominatus. The title track tries to open the record in the same way that “Primo Victoria” did on the last one, but it falls flat, the chorus sounding lazily ripped out of the Epica playbook, overbearing choral vocals and all. The upbeat “Back in Control” clashes with the downcast mood of the rest of the record, as does “Metal Crüe”, which tries far too hard to mimic “Metal Machine”. The five bonus tracks are similarly dicey (the cover of Warlock’s “Fur Immer” doesn’t work at all), but it is cool to hear early song “Nightchild”, which eventually became “Purple Heart”. If anything, “Nightchild” shows how big a difference the war shtick can make, as the original fantasy lyrics have no effect whatsoever. In the end, this is another album that flirts with inspiration, but can’t quite make it work from start to finish.
So to recap so far, of three reissued albums we have one mediocre effort and two whose mild recommendations are damning with faint praise. Thinking that my efforts to find merit in Sabaton’s music was quickly becoming futile, I popped 2008’s The Art of War into the CD player, and was subsequently blown away. Finally, an album that works from start to finish! The band sounds so much more impassioned to the comparatively tired-sounding Attero Dominatus from the get-go, as “Ghost Division” practically leaps out of thee speakers. Sure, Daniel Myhr’s keyboards are more prominent than ever before, but it lends the music a brightness the last record lacked, accentuating the songs’ hooks, which are admittedly stronger. And for the first time, this album, ironically longer than the past three, is riveting throughout, from the energetic “40:1”, to the powerful, Queen-like “Cliffs of Galliploi”, to the gigantic Russian melodies of “Panzerkampf”.
Best of all, Bróden and the band has a clever idea for the lyrics: not only is each track inspired by a chapter from Sun Tzu’s 6th Century B.C. treatise The Art of War, but each song applies those teachings to an actual real-life war scenario. For once, the sense of humor is put on the back burner, and it results in a stirring album. The only slight glitch is how all but two songs focus on a World War II event; had “Cliffs of Gallipoli” and “The Price of a Mile” had instead centered WWII events, we would have had a resounding concept album on our hands. As it is, though, it’s a tremendous effort by Sabaton, far and away their finest album.
Hearing an album as strong as The Art of War brings me back to just how underwhelming Coat of Arms is. That Sabaton actually asked its fans for suggestions on what war themes they should write about on the record is a good indication that the creative well had run dry. But The Art of War is only three years old, and Sabaton has a new studio album in the planning stages already, so who knows? Maybe the Caribbean air did them some good in January (goodness knows it did for me!). As for the reissues, fans of the band will thoroughly enjoy them; all but The Art of War come with commentary from band members as well as unreleased photos. Personally, I remain on the fence regarding all things Sabaton. Every time I think they’re going to make me a fan, they turn around with some facepalm-inducing song or stunt. But the potential is always there, and you can bet I’ll listen to the next album, hoping they’ve gotten their act together one more time.