Sabaton’s 2019 album The Great War is their most polished and well written record. It also just-so-happens to be their worst. Objectively, that’s not saying a lot. Since their debut album, Primo Victoria, their music has been a ride through all the great battles of history, from ancient Greece to the modern day. And as they’ve progressed, their albums have gotten more and more defined. Where 2008’s The Art of War was based on the book of the same name by Sun Tzu, All the way up to The Last Stand, they’ve consistently created concept albums representing all eras of warfare and the consequences, heroes, and horrors of each era of war and battle. They’ve covered everything from the Battle of Rorke’s Drift in the song “Rorke’s Drift” (duh), where 150 British soldiers shot down and defended themselves from thousands of Zulu warriors. They’ve covered the Battle of Thermopylae in the song “Sparta”, where 7,000 Spartans held off a Persian force of 70,000 to 300,000 men. Essentially, any battle or war, they’ve likely put out a heavy metal anthem about it.
With The Great War, while they’ve definitely written some stellar music and portrayed World War I with a mixture of hell and the heroes that come from it, the music and concept feels too forced to be released at this point in time. In previous albums, they definitely had a grip on the concepts and battles, but the music reflected each battle or war in a different light. “Night Witches” sounded vastly different from “Inmate 4859” or “To Hell and Back” on the album Heroes. Even on the album The Art of War, Sabaton varied the themes of each song both lyrically and instrumentally. “Ghost Division”, about Panzer tanks in World War II, sounded different than “Panzerkampf” which, although focusing on Germany’s invasion of Russia, painted a bleak portrait of the coming invasion, where Russia would lose nearly 11% of its population and Germany would make the sames mistakes Napoleon did in his invasion of Russia (you don’t attack Russia nearing winter!).
In The Great War, Sabaton focuses on World War I battles and biographies only such as Lawrence of Arabia in “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”, Alvin York in “82nd All the Way”, the first significant tank battles on “The Future of Warfare”, and then end of the war and the coming future of warfare in the song “The End of the War to End all Wars”. I began to realize that my issue with the album is that not only are the song titles egregiously long, the music itself is very formulaic. It’s as if they took their filler songs (which are usually good alongside their new types of songs) and made a whole album out of that.
The drums, like most modern metal mixes nowadays, are too quiet in the mix to be impactful. The guitars and synthesizers battle each other, although they’ve consistently improved this aspect of their production through continuous and minuet changes. The bass still provides a good sound, although it’s not perfect, which is fine.
Four songs stood out to me, and even then, one of them stood out the most because it isn’t even a metal song. “In Flander’s Field” sings of the facade of beauty as poppies and birds fly overhead, below them the dead soldiers. The song actually copies the poem directly from John McCrae. Now, they did borrow a poem for the song “To Hell and Back”, but they didn’t use the poem word for word. They rearranged the lines somewhat and even gave an autobiographical account of the man they were singing about, Audie Murphy. The other three songs I thought stood out were “Fields of Verdun”, “End of the War to End All Wars”, and “A Ghost in the Trenches”. These four songs had not just the ferocity of a band on warfare fire, but also of a band looking to create an album in memory of those who gave all in that first World War.
I really dislike writing about Sabaton like this, as they’ve been a band that I’ve enjoyed listening to since 2012 when I first heard “Ghost Division” in one of those random warfare music videos from all those years ago. But here we are. And here I am. While I appreciate the attention to detail towards the instrumental components of each song and the willingness to write music about war-like topics in great length without mentioning the blood and gore of mutilated carcasses (because I imagine we all know that war is a bloody activity already), the music for The Great War feels incredibly forced. I’m hoping that, should they ever choose to write another concept album about a single war, they shorten their song titles and pay more attention to mixing each song up with both smooth and jolting transitions, like they did on the song “Bismarck”, released earlier this year.
Still, the album wasn’t a complete waste, and I did enjoy listening to it as a whole. Simply that, as far as individual songs go, no one metal song has its own identity.