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Album Review: Sabaton Perfect the Art of War (Metal) on The Great War

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Sabaton’s massive popularity mystifies me (see also: Volbeat). They’re no less cheesy than many of their power metal brethren. Sure, their chosen subject matter of war, warfare, and other war-related apocrypha gives them a unique perspective. At least it’s not more goddamn songs about elves. Maybe it’s the masculine approach to the vocals or the beefy production. They still rock lots of keyboards and choral back-up singers. Iced Earth mined similar territory to lesser success in the ’90s, but they don’t play venues nearly as large. The Swedish battalion possesses one major strength: catchy goddamn tunes. The Great War loads earworm after earworm into the breech and then rattles them off in rapid succession. They’re undeniable, even to a skeptic like me. As Sun Tzu said, “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

Per the title, this is a conceptual piece about World War I. Frankly, it seems a little lazy after concept albums focused on famous last stands, individual warriors, Sun Tzu’s teachings, and the rise and fall of the Swedish Empire. Plenty of material to draw from, at least, including cinematic sources. If you wondered if you’d ever hear a metal song based on Lawrence of Arabia or Sergeant York, Sabaton have you covered.

Both of those songs (“Seven Pillars of Wisdom” and “82nd All The Way,” respectively) effortlessly unleash hooks that lesser bands would kill for. The band throws in some variety (it’s not all just burly power metal). “Fields of Verdun,” for example, brings in some very neoclassical solos reminiscent of Symphony X (Okay, it’s mostly burly power metal). The biggest exception is “The Red Baron,” about Snoopy’s greatest nemesis, which breaks out the Hammond B3 for some serious sped-up Uriah Heep worship. It’s a nice break from the fist-pumping war anthems. Sun Tzu: “Engage people with what they expect; it is what they are able to discern and confirms their projections. It settles them into predictable patterns of response, occupying their minds while you wait for the extraordinary moment — that which they cannot anticipate.”

Despite focusing entirely on war, the lyrics don’t exactly celebrate war. They’re mostly history lessons, which is one of the big weaknesses of the band’s work in general. When the words focus in on first-person character stories a la Iron Maiden on songs like the title track, it draws the listener in emotionally. Too many of the songs feel a bit too academic. Joakim Brodén’s passionate singing lends them gravitas. It’s just not always enough to keep them from feeling detached.

Again, though, these songs will get caught in your head for days. Plus, the album’s succinct. At 39 minutes, The Great War never wears out its welcome. Sabaton know exactly how to please a crowd, with short songs that provide plenty of sing-along moments, and know how to write lyrics that never feel too silly (even if they don’t always connect on a deeper level). Maybe that’s the secret to their success — too many power metal bands don’t know how to wield the bombast effectively. Which is another of Sun Tzu’s lessons: “Move swift as the Wind and closely-formed as the Wood. Attack like the Fire and be still as the Mountain.”

Sabaton unleash The Great War on July 19 courtesy of Nuclear Blast. Listen to “The Great War” here and pre-order the album here.

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