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The mystique of Sabaton has always eluded me, regardless of how it is explained. From a purely stylistic standpoint, there isn’t much to separate them from a good number of power metal acts in the vain of Hammerfall and Firewind. Probably the biggest point of contrast is the modern war history oriented lyrics and Joakim Broden’s gravely baritone shouts, the former of which is not entirely unheard of in this genre but usual isn’t the exclusive focus of a band, the latter vocal style being something more in line with earlier speed/USPM bands and early German speed metal acts in the vain of Grave Digger than current melodic metal practices. But beyond these 2 nuances, the band comes off as being predictable and moderately entertaining, rather than the colossal war machine some make them out to be.
Like most bands that sit somewhat well with my ears, I was prone to inquire about the roots of this band, and was somewhat surprised at the origin of the band being traced to the height of power metal revivalism in the late 90s, before many of the current contenders in the scene came about. While supported by Underground Symphony, a label that has spawned a few solid bands and a few certified duds, a couple of demos were put together that became the band’s de facto debut “Fist For Fight”, and album underscored by a cliché “Conan The Barbarian” album cover and a homage to Engrish Manga style as a title. Normally such circumstances would suggest a sound palpable to plainer sounding acts like Sacred Steel and Paragon, but given Broden’s background with the more Malmsteen oriented Stormwind, the emerging blend of melodic, keyboard heavy blend of Neo-classical and 80s influences is not entirely a shock.
It’s fairly obvious that this release was not put together with a fully cohesive theme in mind, apart from maybe a celebratory tendency in line with the triumphant sound of the standard late 90s revival album. In addition to a wide variety of lyrical themes, none of which really conform to the band’s current obsession with military history, there’s a healthy supply of obligatory speed work, culminating in a few solid tributes to Malmsteen’s 80s albums in “Burn Your Crosses” and Judas Priest inspired mayhem in “Hellrider”. These predictable but quality songs trade blows with a fair number of atmospheric songs that highlight Broden’s keyboard prowess (which very much outweighs his vocal abilities on here), sometimes within the context of an aggressive riff monster like “Metalizer” and somber ballads like “The Hammer Has Fallen”, which reminds somewhat of Hammerfall’s take on the concept.
Meanwhile, alongside the Stratovarius meets Hammerfall mixture, slow and catchy songs like “Masters Of The Word” and “Thunderstorm” can’t help but remind of those glorious 80s anthems of triumph and rebellion out of Quiet Riot, Manowar and Twisted Sister, albeit with a vocal delivery that is likened to a sloppy rendition of Blaze Bayley’s attempts at singing Dickinson era Maiden songs. Indeed, Broden’s vocal delivery is the primary thing holding back what is actually a very enjoyable blend of catchy melodies and simple songwriting that rivals much of Stormwind’s and Magic Kingdom’s efforts at this juncture, and actually outdoes the latter in production quality. He definitely gets a little better on future efforts, but here he essentially comes off as a newcomer to the role of front man, which makes sense given he didn’t really consider himself a permanent vocalist at this juncture.
Although very different from what this camouflage toting is ordinarily known for, and fairly flawed in a few areas, this is among the band’s better efforts. It is steeped in the musical tendencies of the time it was put together, which may not sit as well with those who go for the grandiose character of their recent releases. But given that it isn’t available apart from as a bonus disc with “Metalizer”, which is essentially a better produced version of this, any inquiring ears should look to that album for a complete picture of this band’s early era, an era that is slightly more interesting than the polished pomp that would follow. Sabaton may yet write the unofficial soundtrack to “Patton”, but as of yet they’ve largely been content to put out material befitting of “Enemy At The Gates”.
Originally submitted to (www.metal-observer.com) on October 28, 2010.
You know SABATON right? The dudes obsessed with all things warlike? Well this is where they started. And considering that what we’re talking about is really just a bunch of demos thrown together with a clumsy as-all-hell mistranslated title – then the phrase I should be looking for is humble beginnings right? Fuck no. They may have not been a war machine yet, but if you listen closely you can just hear the battle in the distance.
Take the album opener for instance: “Hellrider” could very easily be mistaken for a slice of Judas Worship, but it’s not really. Yeah it’s got a bikie theme, but it’s also got a speed metal gallop and power hooks that leaves traditional old school metal sounding like traditional old school metal. Think aggression that pounds and sticks in your head long after the fact.
Just in case you thought this was one of the only times SABATON ditched the war lyrics, then look again. “Endless Nights” sounds like the title of a huge 80’s power ballad. But there’s not much love going on here. Unless you count Lucifer and his marauding armies as a love interest. Yep, you get nutty kvlt-worthy lyrics set to some masterly anthem-worthy riffing. It actually works.
So still no war lyrics, but do you get a sudden glimpse of the shape of things to come with “Metalizer”. One day SABATON would go on to end every album with a ridiculously catchy and outrageously fun anthem to metal. This one isn’t that bad, but they can do better. Any one day they will. More than once.
“Burn Your Crosses” is kind of what you expect from a song with a title like that. It’s fast and menacing and musically daring in mirroring lyrics that aren’t too happy about religious hypocrisy and the murder or mother earth. Or something like that. “The Hammer Has Fallen” is something different again. It’s the album ballad and get ready for everything to just stop. The lyrics are a sad little letter of resignation in the face of life – and the melody is an overwhelmingly powerful and sad cry of desolation. It’s easily as good as absolutely anything this band has ever recorded. Ever. So yes, band main man Broden does more than look good with a Mohawk.
Still no lyrics to do with war. “Shadows” for instance is a double kick burst into Tolkien territory. The result is yet another chorus here to stay. And you won’t believe what happens on “Masters Of The World”. Despite the title, the one thing you’re not getting is codpiece metal (i.e. MANOWAR worship). Instead, it’s synth central in the opening bars before launching into edgy AOR guitar work that quickly builds up to an arena chorus if ever there was one. We’re talking fists punching the air and so on and so on.
But then comes the scary part. Which also happens to coincide with the first reference to war on the album. After 11 solid tracks comes a song called “Birds of War”. This song’s actually a bit of a mystery. It wasn’t on the original release and turns up as a bonus track on the re-released version of this album. But from the haunting pipe-organ opening, to the fiery verses and bitter bridge – and on to the damn-them-all chorus – you’re in the presence of a metal masterpiece. And like I said, it’s a bonus track. So let’s just say – that’s it’s safe to say – that this band’s afterthoughts hit harder that most bands in full voice. Simple as that.