Review by Greg Noble
Sabaton “The Great War”
Sabaton is based in Sweden and have been together for 20 years, releasing 9 albums. Their work has a reputation for including pounding drums and demonic chords – power metal at its best that
tells a tale.
This album features 11 tracks for a duration of 38 minutes, so each one is short and sharp – much like war – urgent, seek and destroy-like.
There are also two alternate versions of this album. The Soundtrack Version removes the lead vocals and the History Version opens each track with a narrator giving you the context of the track. But, more about them later. I decided to go with the standard edition as my first listen.
“The Future of Warfare” introduces us to the template for this album – Joakim Broden’s baritone vocals are clear and easy to understand, which is imperative, given the nature of the content and the speed at which it is delivered. He also rolls his “r” consonants in places and this adds a sense of theatre. It’s not power metal as I expected it, but it’s strong in nature and includes frenetic and powerful guitar solos.
“Seven Pillars of Wisdom” is also fast paced and features Iron Maiden-like twin guitars. The vocals are again delivered at a fast rate and a lot of information is included. Wailing guitar solos again emerge and the track conveys a sense of pride and struggle. It finishes with a hollow echo.
“82nd All the Way” continues the template of the album, but the vocals have a slightly different quality. The theme of the track shifts from a broad view of war to a much more personal one. Sergeant York and his exploits are shared and this track feels like a journey.
“The Attack of the Dead Men” opens with a sinister, plinking that soon segues into a galloping guitar. It’s subject matter is the defence of the Osowiec Fortress and it is thick with emotion, capturing being in a life threatening, no-win situation. The tempo slows a little into a syncopated arrangement of instruments and vocals. Another driving guitar solo then serves as a frontal assault, which seamlessly morphs into duelling guitars. I really appreciated the vocals in this track, where when the Dead Men are mentioned, they slow, giving a sinister air. The track takes off again and gallops to the end, closing with some odd tinkling that again references the dead.
“Devil Dogs” gave me the impressions of pride and hope and the track gets straight to the subject at hand. It features a change in tempo to that of a swagger. A choir is used to add emotion and I smiled at the lyrics of, “Come on you sons of bitches! Do you want to live forever?”
“The Red Baron” opens with an organ that is akin to the sound of silent movies. This track returns to the more frantic tempo used earlier and tells of the human face of every alliance in conflicts – that we’re all people regardless of the side of the border on which we find ourselves. The use of organs adds another dimension and the track adds to our understanding of this legend of the skies. I particularly enjoyed a line that was, “He was born a soldier from the horseback to the skies.”
“Great War” is a heavy and emotional offering with a full and epic sound. Choirs are again used to add to the content of the track, enunciating the personal impact of war. It conveys the confronting nature and the scale of the conflict, as well as the physical and psychological impact on individuals.
“A Ghost in the Trenches” immediately opens with vocals and it tells a great tale about a person moving from trench to trench, moving undetected and alone, often being pinned by gas. It had me hooked and paying attention, unable to relate to the challenges that were presented. It closed with background effects that reminded me of ricochets.
“Fields of Verdun” gallops into a colossal hook, rolling like a tank though the story. Each track on this album is like a chapter in an epic tale, sounding similar to the last track, but with enough variation to retain authenticity. The musicianship is undeniable and the guitars have strong emotional purpose.
“The War to End All Wars” begins with piano and cello and it is a poignant pause. Epic arrangements then burst forth, including percussion and guitars, with a choir to enhance the sound. It is grand in scale and concludes with artillery sounds.
“In Flanders Fields” holds a special place in my heart, as we often have this verse read on ANZAC Day in the schools in which I work. So, I was invested in it, hoping that they did it justice. I need not have worried. A female choir begins a capella and the harmonies are sublime. Male harmonies soon join in, with the track becoming louder and more steadfast over time. It is a very human way to end the album, a tragic and forlorn reminder of the impact of war on human beings.
Some of the sound of this album is akin to an operatic Iron Maiden. There are catchy choruses, which is odd, given the subject matter. However, none of the lyrics are disrespectful. There are elements of symphonic power metal, amped up riffs and robust vocals. There’s choirs to add drama and organs to add atmosphere. Then, there’s cannons and ricochets. It is often fast paced and urgent, like I imagine being involved in a battle would be.
Lawrence of Arabia, Sergeant York and Manfred von Richthofen (The Red Baron) all feature in richly woven tales. That personalities from different alliances are included demonstrates the idea that war affects all sides of borders and beliefs.
I am a bit of a history and war buff, finding it interesting because it’s something outside of my personal experience, but I recognize the impact of conflicts, both past and present. I found many elements of this album fascinating.
As a creative venture, I admire the telling of this tale. The band stated that it was a number of years in the making and was supported by the provision of information from fans all over the world.
In this case, it is an album that brings people together.
It’s like nothing I’ve ever heard before.
My second listen - The Soundtrack Version
The absence of lead vocals allows you to appreciate the synergy inherent in the music. There are sprinkles of vocals all throughout the tracks that are harder to access in the standard version.
On this version, the instruments have their chance to shine. There are grandiose moments that are epic in scale and others that are pensive, encouraging reflection. It is a roller coaster of emotions – plaintive, poignant, hopeful, hopeless, urgent and sombre.
The Soundtrack Version serves as a great accompaniment to the regular version. I had worried that it would be indulgent, but it has its place. I can envisage occasions where you would just want to hear this version.
My third listen - The History Version
“1914. How peculiar that a single bullet can trigger a chain of events that will change the world forever…”
That is how this version kicks off. It reached through my headphones and grabbed my brain and don’t let go.
There were many other outstanding moments, such as:
“War that sweeps across Europe like a merciless plague…”
“The birth of some of the most devastating inventions that mankind has ever conceived.”
“All men are forged from a single mould, but not all soldiers are equal. Sort them not by medals or by rank. The difference lies in their actions under pressure. Some men crumble. Some men go far. Some men go all the way.”
The narration is delivered with masterful intonation. The segments begin each track and aren’t long, but set the scene for the following track perfectly, giving enough information to whet your appetite. They don’t preach, merely inform.
This version gives you a sense of the challenging conditions, the art of the sniper, the impact of tanks and the wretched and inhumane effects of gas.
I came across a word last week that fits perfectly here – simplexity – striking a balance between the simple and the complex, conveying something complex in the simplest way possible, without losing essential detail. A link to this album should be included in any online definition of this word.
I am in the education profession and in the early 1990s I played the album “The War of the Worlds” to my Grade 7 class. That album is a masterpiece of narration and musicianship. I had written a unit of work based on it that spanned all of the subjects. The class engaged with the music and we discussed it and related topics for 4 weeks. I enjoyed teaching the unit and the learning and social outcomes of the students were significant. One of the students of the time reached out to me in Facebook a few years ago and she still remembers the unit and the impact that the album had on her.
I can see “The Great War” being used in a similar manner with students and wouldn’t hesitate to use it in that manner. However, as I’m now a school principal, that’s a little tricky!
For the everyday listener, it is a significant work. The musicianship and engineering is competent, but it’s the tale that is the thing. It is also worth noting that there are YouTube videos to support the tracks, of you want to dive deeper.
My recommendation is that you get all 3 versions. This way, you have a version to match your mood. But, listen to the History Version first – it’s by far the most compelling way to engage with this remarkable work.
My rating after listening to the standard version: 7/10.
Mr rating after listening to the other versions: 9/10.