In the drafty scriptorum of this Sleeping Village, power metal--and, by extension, said genre's upper echelon--serves a remarkably utilitarian purpose: pumping us the fuck up. In the turbulent seas of heavy music, very little rivals the charybdian draw of power metal's trademark infectious chest-pounding braggadocio.
As such, regardless of your contradictory opinions, and despite the (generally) bloody subject matter, an untouchable positivity reigns eternal in this particular arena. There's nothing like a little dose of Powerwolf or Judicator or Blind Guardian or Turisas or Falconer or Sabaton to banish a bad mood. Soaring vocals, lusty choral battlecries, meathook melodies, stomping riffage, and the promise of (obnoxiously) omniscient keyboard provide, for better or for worse, a highly energetic and uplifting experience. And, for that alone, power metal has earned a perpetual timeshare in our township.
Sabaton are perhaps the most successful perpetrators of said positivity. Defined by a take-no-prisoners bombast and seemingly unquenchable thirst for overt displays of battleground machismo, their now-trademark brand of chunky-yet-symphonic power metal is instantly recognizable. A perpetually glowing beacon in the grit and grime of the trenches. On their latest opus, they take on the oft-forgotten World War I, and, before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s address the subject matter at hand.
Unlike 1914's The Blind Leading The Blind (my AoTY for 2018), The Great War primary objective isn’t to discuss or display the, well, Great War in nuanced terms. Rather than recounting horrors, Sabaton have written yet another love letter to indiscriminate bloodshed. Even the title track, which has its protagonist questioning his position in the fray (“Where is this greatness I've been told/This is the lies that we've been sold/Is this a worthy sacrifice?”) ends with the assertion that his “deeds are not in vain.” As such, they spend the majority of the time skirting the notion that WWI was, for all intents and purposes, an absolutely meaningless period of wanton death and destruction. The implications of blind glorification are clear--but yet, Sabaton's unapologetic conviction sells the entire package. While the grey is scrubbed from the blatantly black-and-white portrayal of figures such as Sgt. York, Francis Pegahmagabow, and the infamous Red Baron, The Great War brings a healthy dose of passion to a topic and period that severely needs a little love.
But anyways. Thematic underpinning aside, how does The Great War compare to Sabaton’s fairly illustrious back catalog? Spoiler: quite well. It’s the most comprehensive piece of work they’ve put out in some time, with a newfound interest in interrupting the status quo and injecting a little innovation into the dog-tired formula of 2016’s The Last Stand or 2014’s Heroes. Both of which were manly hunks of halfway-decent power metal, but nonetheless felt...less than inspired. Here, however, Sabaton has a bit of an adventurous spirit, both instrumentally and vocally, which affords a certain irreplaceable replay value.
In terms of the instrumentation, look to the harpsichord-induced polka vibe of “Red Baron,” the hard-rockin’ Hammond organ of “Attack of the Dead Men,” or the purely acapella closer “In Flander’s Field.” While the standard issue Sabaton stock remains on full display--see “The Future of Warfare” and “Devil Dogs” for the worst offenders of uniformity--these forays into new territory are welcome indeed. Beyond that, the immortal Joakim Brodén brings, dare I say, his greatest performance yet. His stalwart baritone is a finely tuned machine, free of grit and rubble. At this point we know what to expect, and so his forays into new territory is tantalizing. Take the aforementioned “Attack of the Dead Men,” which brings to the front a somber psuedo-staccoto. Very, very few can pull off such dramatic lyricism with true earnestness, but Brodén rises to the challenge with confident braggadocio. Here, he lends this standout track--and hence the album as a whole--a genuinely emotional air. Half-chanted exclamations and battle cries litter The Great War like shrapnel, effectively reinforcing the dynamic and exciting edge. As a not-so-secret weapon, Brodén’s vox is applied here with deadly aptitude, and I’m excited to see what can happen if he continues down this exploratory path. He is easily one of the best voices in modern power metal.
If you enlisted solely for chest-thumping riffs punctuated by uplifting choruses, fear not: The Great War has you covered. The one-two punch of “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” and “82nd all the way” provide some of the best hooks Sabaton--and any of their peers, for that matter--have ever written. That said, the album itself suffers from excessive frontloading, with the back half significantly paling in comparison. Side A is a masterclass in symphonic power metal. Side B brings little new energy, and unfortunately prevents this album from claiming a place on my personal best-o-the-year list. Frankly, if the last few tracks were somehow lost in the shuffle, I wouldn’t miss them for long. But, remarkably, four mediocre tracks doesn’t necessarily make for a massive thorn in The Great War’s side, especially when considering that Sabaton’s dullest moments would constitute a triumph for many lesser bands.
When Sabaton is on the warpath, not all is quiet on the western front. Despite its ghastly subject matter, The Great War is a triumph--everything I crave in power metal, and perhaps a little bit more besides. Catchy, dramatic, and relentlessly jubilant. While it may not raise the bar established by Carolus Rex, this album is one of Sabaton’s most valiant efforts to date. All told? Highly recommended.
Sabaton - The Great War was released June 2019 from Nuclear Blast.
Providing thoughtful reviews of music that is heavy, gloomy, and loud enough to wake us from slumber. Written by a groggy-eyed, highfalutin peasantry.