Sabaton - The Great War

Sabaton The Great War cover
The Great War
Nuclear Blast Records
In the grand scheme of heavy metal music, power metal is a very difficult style to do wrong by. Even if some bands are more progressive, speedy, or symphonic than others, the genre tends to stick to its guns a lot of the time, and with no band is this dedication to a distinct sound more apparent than in Sabaton. This we can only expect, considering they are easily the most commercially successful bands of the genre, having just announced their first Arena show in London a few weeks ago. If he were alive today, the only power metal artist I can envision surpassing this feat would be none other than Dio himself.
Sonically speaking, Sabaton’s latest tribute to the fallen, “The Great War”, holds all the bearings you might expect coming from the band at this point; loud and pounding drums, vocals ranging from epic and passionate to low and nasally, all wrapped together in the typically pristine production that Nuclear Blast tends to offer its repertoire of artists. And for a band with a legacy built on their fascination with tanks, bombers, and warfare, the album is explosive in presentation, featuring many catchy vocal hooks and some fun guitar solos to boot. However, there is no avoiding that the album lacks variety. Despite being a concept album in name and theme, it still oddly feels like a collection of Sabaton songs, rather than a prog-power epic ala Symphony X’s “The Odyssey”.
For better or worse, the album's leading wave of tracks will feel very deja vu for anyone familiar with this band. “The Future of Warfare”, being the first, is a generic opener, with a symphonic tinged chorus and lyrics concerning none other than tanks (of course), and is a solidly diverting listen, but nothing amazing, despite some nice soling after the bridge.
The best songs on the first half are without a doubt “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” and “The Attack of the Dead Men”. The former of which kicks off with some ferocious drumming and has genuine fire in its step, perfectly fitting of its subject T.E Lawrence. The “darkness falls and Arabia calls” hook is also killer.
Not unlike many of Sabaton’s best tracks, “Dead Men” is another song that feels completely organic of what it’s depicting, as the ominous opening of drawn-out vocal chanting perfectly sets the tone for Russian men anxiously holding a fortress, waiting for another wave of German infantry. It is suitably epic in scope and features the best dual guitar solo on the album yet.
The righteous and patriotic “Devil Dogs” follows suit and is one of the album’s better deep cuts. With its constantly thrashing pace that never lets up, it perfectly depicts the courage and resilience of its soldier subjects (which in this song’s case is that of the U.S.A marines). Vocalist Joakim Brodén’s earnest spitting of “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?”, before a transition into more galloping guitar solos is surely all you could want from a great Sabaton song, and I suspect crowds in the live environment will adore it.
This can also be said about much of the back end of the album. Released as the second single of this release, “The Red Baron” is cheesy power metal at its simplest and most effective, opening with keyboards so playful that they can only be credibly compared to video game boss music. The song makes you feel like you’re soaring high in the sky, which makes total sense considering its subject is arguably the German Air Forces’ greatest pilot. It has a wickedly simple hook “higher!”, and despite some simplistic lyrics and rhyming (high, die, eye), it’s impossible to resist it.
Conversely, “Great War” has a groove to it similar to “Panzerkampf”, one of my favorite Sabaton songs, and is thus my favorite off this album. Featuring cultish choir vocals, sparse yet epic drum beats, and tragic lyrics, it is a saddening yet simultaneously epic track, arguably the most anti-war Sabaton have composed since “The Price of a Mile.”
Not much can be said about “A Ghost in the Trenches”, a song where Sabaton falls back on their typical formula and doesn’t do much else. The gliding guitars and twiddly soloing particularly feel tired and mechanical, and the “ahhh’ing” of the keyboards backing Joakim Brodén’s typically low verse vocals feel cumbersome and better utilized elsewhere in their discography.
However, the band gets back on track quickly with “Fields of Verdun” and the refreshingly unique closer “The End of the War to End all Wars”. The former, which depicts one of the most expensive and important battles in world history, is suitably epic, dramatic and is a solid slab of speedy power metal. “The End”, however, is easily the song with the lightest touch of the album, opening with mournful keyboards, a choir and even the sound of violins. Overall, it is a sorrowful tribute to the dead that would make even Opeth cry for their mothers, despite having a real Epica vibe about it. Memorable verse riffs and a few interesting changeups in pace and tempo make this the longest and most complex song on the album, hitting an emotional crescendo with an epic repeated chorus before fading out to the disturbing sounds of gunfire.
The succeeding outro “In Flanders Fields” feels very unnecessary because of this, as the song before it serves as a perfect conclusion to the disc overall. I can only imagine it was included so that it can be used as a walkout song for Sabaton’s current “Great Tour”, but that alone is where it ought to be heard.
A missed opportunity in a lot of ways but a bullet on target for their diehards, Sabaton’s latest opus is a solid, noble effort which at times fails to meet the “banger” quality of “The Art of War” and definitely lacks the lyrical variety of “The Last Stand”, but is, nevertheless, an album that I enjoyed listening to the for the most part. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel as far as its genre is concerned, nor does it ever really feel like a “concept” album. But Sabaton clock in at a tight 38 minutes and spend most of that time delivering power metal anthems, only occasionally falling into any musical trenches.

by Michael Miller