Album: The Great War
Record Label: Nuclear Blast Records
Release Date: July 19, 2019
Review by: Todd Naevestad
Sabaton is the band you show to people who think metal has no substance. “Oh, do you know about the Stand of the Swiss Guard? No? Well listen to ‘The Last Stand.’ How about the Gallipoli Campaign in World War 1? No? Try ‘Cliffs of Gallipoli.’ How about the all-female bomber unit for the Soviets, the 588th NIght Bombers? Not that either huh? ‘Night Witches.’” Not only are you rocking out, but it’s educational. So Sabaton has always had my respect; and when they came out with a new album, you had to know that I was all in to dig deep and see what it was about. How does The Great War stand when compared to the other great works of history lessons through metal?
Let’s first establish what the album actually is. Like other albums before it, this is a concept album. It focuses on World War 1 and the iconic figures and events that rose out of that conflict. People like Thomas Edward Laurence, famously known as Laurence of Arabia (“Seven Pillars of Wisdom), the Red Baron, Manfred von Rchthofen, the renown ace pilot (“The Red Baron”), and Francis Pegahmagabow, the decorated Canadian scout and marksmen (“A Ghost in the Trenches”) get songs dedicated to them and their individual actions. It’s a real who’s who of WW1 heroics. And not just of the “good guys,” if a song dedicated to the Red Baron, a German pilot, wasn’t a give away. Thematically, that’s something I really like from the album. This is not a clear cut, black and white, kind of topic. There’s a lot of nuance. And it feels as though Sabaton gives it the respect that is due to it. Nothing about the songs feel as if they are celebrating war itself. Rather it is a portrait of the acts of men and the courage and heroism that can arise in these kinds of trials. Added to that is that it’s not all glory and roses. A few of the songs truly struggle with the fact that it was war and, as the old saying goes, war is hell. Songs like “Great War” and “Fields of Verdun” aren’t afraid to talk about the suffering that is inescapable in this kind of conflict. And the inclusion of the choral version of “In Flanders Field” is a beautiful ending to the album; the song itself gets me a little emotional as we reflect on the journey that the album takes you on.
But enough philosophizing. It’s Sabaton; it’s metal. Can you rock out to it? Of course you can. Sabaton always brings a level of polish that sets them above a lot of other productions. Everything is clear, crisp, and well-crafted. The lyrics across the board are clever and memorable; not to mention that the wordsmithing is so smart. The rhyme schemes and wordplay is consistently intelligent and unexpected. All that works together to get them rammed into your brain, to the point that you’ll be singing along after only hearing the first half and remembering these songs randomly during the day. And of course it’s got the musicality to back it up. This one is a little hit or miss for me. On the one hand, and probably the most important, everything is masterful. The playing is on point; guitars, drums, bass, everything is phenomenally done. I can’t help but air guitar along to the solos. Each track also feels unique to each other and fitting for their unique theme. The song about tanks feels appropriately industrial; the track about a Russian counter charge of dying men feels both morbid and inspiring at the same time, and Alvin York’s spotlight track feels as heroic as his story. Ear worms a plenty, it’s just fun to listen to.
But it also feels like Sabaton, almost to a detriment. If you shuffled this album up with Heroes, Coat of Arms, and Primo Victoria, I think you might be hard pressed to distinguish where each individual track came from. It might seem a bit petty to complain about more of something that I already like, but I don’t want to just have the one thing over and over again. I’d like to see them stretch themselves a little more. One other part is that it almost feels incomplete from a thematic point. Again, the Flanders Field arrangement is a phenomenal ending to the album as a whole, and “The War to End All Wars” is a solid track to wrap things up, but I just wish that either it had more impact in the delivery and lyrics, or that there was one other track to really sum up the ethos of the album’s message. I had to look up what “The War to End All Wars” because I forgot if there was a real capstone song; for an album full of memorable melodies, that one didn’t have a lot of staying power for me. Because it covers an event with a clear beginning and end, the story of the album could have used a stronger concluding event to bring about the finale.
My criticisms probably seem a bit weak. Which is a good thing, because I really do love this album. I can turn it on at any point and let it take me away to its brand of history. I rock out to this in the car to work and it gets me pumped to face the day. It’s good, very good. Whatever unknowable part of my heart that is contrarian says that it’s still missing something, however. Some little thing to make it truly special and truly timeless. That annoyingly indescribable thing is probably a personal hitch, and regardless, I absolutely recommend that you listen to this album until you’re completely sick of it. And that will probably take a very long time.
Also, petition to make “Devil Dogs” the new fight song for the actual United States Marines? That song brings out my patriotism like nothing else, and I wasn’t even in the military.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Recommendations: Civil War, Wind Rose, Unleash the Archers