This album finally landed in our electronic inbox last week… at just the wrong time for me to be able to listen to it a lot due to a ton of stuff going on. Finally I get a chance to sit and wallow in The Great War as told by Sabaton, and even better I was provided with the History Version, which includes a little spoken word intro (by a lady with a posh English accent, which works really well for the subject matter) detailing each song. These are brief, and don’t disrupt the flow of the album at all. In fact, some very short indeed (such as the one before “Fields of Verdun”).
The first overall impression is… this is nothing new. Nothing groundbreaking. There are no major departures in terms of sound or delivery from Sabaton. And this is absolutely fine as they nailed their flags to their heavy metal mast a long time ago, and there’s a reason that they’re doing so damn well as a result. One thing to note is that the songs are, on the whole, pretty short — barely three minutes in many cases. This makes their punchy approach to metal more like a jab than a cross, and hopefully means they’ll cram more songs into the live set!
OK, we know that the the overarching theme is 1914-1918’s conflict — the “War to end all Wars”. Only it didn’t, but hey. Within the eleven songs presented we have one dedicated to the tank (“The Future of Warfare”), based on a book (“Seven Pillars of Wisdom”), focused on a flying ace (“Red Baron”), the horrifying use of chemical warfare and… a small group of soldiers who overcame it to defend their position (“The Attack of the Dead Men”).
One of Sabaton’s strengths is their ability to cram enough into a song to give you an idea of what it’s about, but not being too specific about the events detailed. This encourages further study, and I’ve lost count of the number of times where I’ve found myself Googling the lyrics and song details, then ploughing through Wikipedia or somewhere else. I’m very happy to see that this tradition has been carried on in The Great War. Even with the additional introductory words, I’ve been looking up many of the songs and their subject matter. As a result I’ve read some incredible stories.
Musically this is a typically varied collection. “The Attack of the Dead Men” is suitably heady, nigh on sludgy in places (and mostly crafted recent-ish band addition Chris). “The Red Baron” is breakneck, as it should be given the aerial subject matter. “Great War” is epic, again as befits the fact that it’s about the whole conflict, as is “The End of the War to End All Wars”.
A trivia point picked up in our interview with Pär – the choir doing the backing vocals include his old maths teacher and Joakim’s old swimming teacher! They also perform a chill-inducing version of “In Flanders Fields” as the closing number. No instruments, no frills, just amazing choral voices. A complete and perfect counterpoint to to the heavy metal which has preceded it.
Sabaton once again don’t celebrate war, but instead the achievements and bravery of those involved in it — as ever without bias for whichever sides are involved. The US Marines feature in “Devil Dogs”, Russian and Polish soldiers are the heroes in “Dead Men”, a German air ace in “The Red Baron”, a Canadian sniper (Francis Pegahmagabow) in “A Ghost in the Trenches” written by new boy Tommy… and so it goes.
It’s those people and stories which perhaps answer the question posted by the narrator at the start of the title track “Great War”: What is so great about war? It’s humankind’s ability to overcome, to demonstrate ingenuity and bravery, and our centuries-long tradition of committing these tales to verse. A tradition that Sabaton are continuing with their own metallic twist.
Header image by Jack Barker Photography