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A glorious thrill ride that never lets up - 89%

Midnight Rambler, May 15th, 2015
Written based on this version: 2012, 2CD, Nuclear Blast (Limited edition, Digibook)

European power metal is always very hit-or-miss for me. Any given song either sounds like the most awesome thing ever, or utterly generic and boring. It's part of the reason why I usually listen to this particular brand of metal song-by-song rather than album-by-album: too much of the stuff in one sitting, and all the choruses, synth flourishes, and drawn-out high notes blend into each other and fall flat. However, I decided to give Carolus Rex a chance – and I'm oh so glad I did.

Why? First of all, there's the excellent songwriting. Sabaton's knack for this is well-known: their choruses can be stuck in your head for weeks at a time, and the different sections within each song – granted, there usually aren't very many – always fit together seamlessly. With Carolus Rex, though, they've really outdone themselves. There is not a single song on the album that isn't exciting in its own right. From the pumped-up adrenaline trip "The Lion from the North" to the sweeping power ballad "A Lifetime of War" to the stage-villain boast that is the title track, each song can stand on its own, and most of them go well beyond that.

A loose collection of great songs doesn't necessarily make a great album, though, so let's look at what ties them together.

It isn't the historical theme. The events referred to in the songs are too far apart in time (spanning a period of more than 100 years) and too tenuously connected to give any real sense of coherency on this point. "Lion from the North" Gustav II Adolf fought very different battles than Karl XII, the titular "Carolus Rex". No, what really welds this album into a coherent whole is the strong, immersive atmosphere.

More so than other Sabaton releases, Carolus Rex is steeped in a feeling of fatalism and tragic irony. Joakim Brodén's powerful, distinctive singing style goes a long way towards establishing this atmosphere, and the production does the rest. Backing choirs are used to great effect: in "The Carolean's Prayer", which focuses on the grim Protestant worldview of the Swedish soldiers, they make the Lord's Prayer segment one of the album's greatest moments; and in the slow, heavy title track, they lend extra weight to the rolling war-drums' accents. The synthesizer is treated as an instrument in its own right, not as decoration in the background – see, for example, the brief solo in "The Lion from the North", or the vaguely Rammstein-ish intro of "Poltava". Sometimes it even feels like the roles are reversed, with guitars, bass and drums serving as background accompaniment to the real stars of the show: vocals and synths. Production values like these will turn off more purist metalheads, but they do a great job when it comes to immersion.

I'm not a fan of Sabaton's lyrics; I'm not sure there are any fans of Sabaton's lyrics above the age of 15. They're usually very dry accounts of whatever historical event the song is about, dressed up in generic "lofty" phrases, without any attempt at poetry. Fortunately, Carolus Rex provides an escape clause: you can simply listen to everything in Swedish. The Swedish lyrics are probably no less cheesy than the English ones, but as long as you don't speak Swedish (like me) you can remain blissfully ignorant of this. That's not the only reason I prefer to listen to the Swedish version, though: Joakim's Swedish vocals just sound cooler, and it's fun to try and pick up some words' meanings from the context. (Swedish words you will learn from this album include Gud, konung and armé.)

Still, on the English version of the album, there is one song where all the generic hamminess actually works: the title track. There's something about the way Joakim delivers lines like 'I was chosen by heaven! Say my name when you pray!' or 'All over Europe my rule shall be questioned by none!' that makes his portrayal of Carolus convincingly fearsome. Really, I love the title track in general; it's basically a slower, more ominous "Be Prepared". Awesome!

And it's not just the title track – the whole album is a continuous rush of intensity and spectacle, without any quiet moments. Usually, this kind of unrelenting "epicness" falls terribly flat after a song or two, but Carolus Rex manages to stay exciting throughout. This is an impressive feat, and it's only possible because the album is so full of energy and vitality: from the delicious gallop on "Killing Ground" to the driving rhythm guitar on "Poltava", Carolus Rex is best enjoyed with a double espresso and a looming deadline.

No matter where or how you first listen to it, though, Carolus Rex will have you hooked from start to finish. And you'll keep coming back, not to gain a new perspective or discover hidden layers of meaning – there aren't any – but to get another fix of the addictive glory.