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Dead Finns on the fields, Swedes scoring - 91%

Napero, December 2nd, 2012

Some things, such as movies, are supposed to be judged as what they are. Some thing, such as demo releases, are sometimes supposed to be judged as what they tried or were intended to be. And then there are things that should be judged based on... different... things... Hummmm... Yeah. Like, totally.

To make this absolutely clear, Sabaton has never been very original, innovative, serious, technically worth massive praising, or even, well, very good. But they are enjoyable in a very specifically Swedish way, and that's what needs to be explained and understood before judgement can be passed on Carolus Rex. Also, a lesson on history might be useful. Unlike the earlier albums with the general military lyrical approach, this is a rather ambitious theme album, and deserves some credit for it.

Carolus Rex tells the story of the Swedish Empire. While it might sound goofy to tell tales of the superpower status of a country that has not seen war since 1814, the silly Nordic country was indeed a regional superpower for roughly a century, in the context of this album starting with the Battle of Breitenfeld in 1631, and ending with the death of Charles XII in 1718 in Norway. Sure, there were earlier times when Sweden could well have filled the definitions of a major power, and there certainly was a decline of almost 90 years with wars and campaigns, but for those demanding exact dates on things, those are nice definitions of the golden period of the northern power. And the nation has gotten mellower ever since, in a very positive sense; that is, unless you count minor opportunistic things a breach of neutrality... such as selling Hitler enough iron ore to build his panzers, or allowing a brigade's worth of volunteers to join the Finnish army and air force during the WWII, for example. But the country itself has skillfully avoided war, and that's what counts towards their economic success and temperately likable character.

The times of the Swedish Empire were, depending on the source, either a glorious century of might and wealth, or, alternatively, bloody, useless, and an enormous burden on the finances and flesh of the Swedish people - who, at the time, included Finns, Pomeranians and other assorted collections of dirty and less civilized folks. And, surprisingly for a band with lyrics focusing on heroism and valour, Sabaton manages to illuminate both sides of the equation on Carolus Rex. Sabaton's music has always aimed at serving a singular purpose, a galloping, epic, heroic and uplifting anthemic glory and goosebump-inducing triumphant pomp; they manage to do just that on their best moments, especially live. And that works on Carolus Rex, as well, but perhaps with a new approach to songwriting when the situation calls for it: "The Carolean's Prayer", for example, is a solemn prayer of the Carolean, a trooper in the king's army, who during his often brief lifetime had to subject to one of the strictest disciplines in any army at the time, reinforced by heavy emphasis on religion and blind obedience to the majesty. And those were the most important characteristics that enabled a northern country with limited natural resources, scarce population, and harsh winters to triumph on the battlefields of the 17th century Europe. A similar, somber approach can be found on "A Lifetime of War", a song describing the life of Charles XII from his ascension to the throne at the age of 15, and ending with his death just 22 years later.

There are glory rides, of course; this is Sabaton after all, a band that has wallowed in the muddy footsteps on the fields of Flanders in the WWI, flown in the Battle of Britain and fought the vicious blitzkrieg battles in France, all on the galloping path set by Iron Maiden's works with Bruce Dickinson writing the lyrics. And while the tempo might occasionally be slower than what the listener is used to or could perhaps expect, the slightly more serious character of the album, in comparison to the earlier works of Sabaton, gives the band more leeway, and the choice of the mildly darker atmosphere suits the thematic approach quite well. While the core of of power metal is still intact, Carolus Rex is a more ambitious project, and that calls for more spectrum in the songs. A century that holds both the rise and the fall of an empire depicted in less than an hour needs variance, and here the band succeeds better than the first spin might indicate. Getting to know the lyrics and the historical facts behind them might be necessary for a thorough understanding of the whole.

The pure power metal is limited to occasions where it fits the theme. On "The Lion from the North", the epic charge to glory in war, Sabaton's foundation, finds an outlet that resembles their main body their works. "1648", the story of the Battle of Prague, has an almost equally dramatic atmosphere. The rest have a more serious approach, and perhaps signal the fact that the historical story-telling has reached a new level of dedication, and a serious fraction of the album is epic heavy metal, rather than pure-strain power metal; that's probably connected to the fact that they received some, ummm, "professional help" during the creation of the album, namely from a local famous historian.

The most enjoyable way to enjoy Sabaton is definitely in a live setting. The "Swedish" thing on this album, apart from the historical context, is the way the Swedes manage turn everything into sort of innocent fun; seeing good Swedish bands like Sabaton or Therion live is always an enjoyable occasion with a difficult to define Swedish twist, and while certain other bands spring to mind, Turisas for example, the honest frolicking and joy of performing is a rarity that's almost exclusively limited to Swedish acts. And what would better suit the live atmosphere than songs that have immense, unquestionable, epic, military shout-along quality. Yes, that is the point of Sabaton's trademark songwriting style, and that also gets them classified as a poppish band. And while a pure, lowest-common-denominator, brainless pop is an abomination and, in the metal context, often leads to nu metal-tinged pseudo-gothic crap, the sing-along character of Sabaton is a different experience. They bow to the Holy Grand Tradition, and the influence of the great masters from Iron Maiden to the best the power metal scene has ever had to offer is readily audible. And it's even better with plenty of beer.

To digress a bit... During one of the International Ice Hockey Championship tournaments, a game between Sweden and Norway turned into a temporary brawl. That was unnecessary, as it's unlikely that Norway will ever beat Sweden in ice hockey, and turning an early game into a sniffer-punching contest was utterly retarded for both sides. But while the brawl itself was entertaining, a historical fun fact slipped into the Finnish commentary by the legendary Antero Mertaranta, a sports commentator in his own class: "The atmosphere in the rink is like from the Norwegian campaign of Charles XII, except that the field is not littered with dead Finns!" And that says a lot about the status the subject matter of Carolus Rex holds on the Finnish side of the Gulf of Bothnia. Finns were recruited into the ranks of the Caroleans with an ingenious tax break system. Providing and supporting a fully equipped cavalry soldier with a horse removed all other tax burdens from a group of six farms. An infantry soldier's worth was lower, but it's easy to deduce that whenever a group of farmers got together to draft a tax evasion plan, the most useless and probably also slow-witted fellow was chosen to join the Carolinian ranks, because it was unlikely that he'd ever return, and that way the loss was as minimal as possible. The result? The Hakkapeliitta brand of cavalry, a ragtag group of utterly fearless and savage Finnish cavalry, the ones who scattered the troops of the famous cavalry commander Pappenheim in the Battle of Breitenfeld, and charged whenever they were told to charge, against whatever they were told to charge... No brain, no pain.

As a second purely separate point without any connection to the album itself, there's a peculiar personality cult on Charles XII, Carolus Rex himself, among the Swedish far right and neo-nazis. They even celebrated some obscure festival of their own during the 1930s Nazi era on the anniversaries of his death, and rejuvenated the celebration in the 90s. As could perhaps be expected, the highly effective mellow non-violent resistance by the general populace led to the few local hairless imbeciles to take their drunken parties elsewhere from his memorials, and the tradition died. Except, of course, the silly idea that Charles XII is something to worship by the current holders of the Fascist sceptre in Sweden. The idea itself is idiotic, as the fellow was interested in incorporating new areas in the Swedish Empire, and thus bringing in new ethnicities to the realm, instead of preserving some alleged Nordic purity. What's more, he was not particularly successful in that, either, and it could be said that his decisive defeat at Poltava marked the beginning of the terminal decline of the empire. And what's even more, what did he do after his loss? Any ideas? No? OK. Our Nordic hero decided to pack his stuff, take along his 1000 favourite Caroleans and other followers, and head to Turkey, for some voluntary exile in the Ottoman Empire. He was welcomed there, and even got his expenses covered by some homies around. He was finally forced out by a mob fed up with his extreme cost, but not before enjoying some quality time with plenty of cash, smoking trees and screwing bitches. The jolly good fellow returned to Sweden, only to be killed by someone in Norway a while later, but it's not completely unfeasible that the unmarried king might have had some fun with local hoes in Turkey, and that whatever out-of-marriage offspring he might have had there might count as his legal heir, were one to surface with enough documentation of his roots... and that would mean that the legit current king of Sweden might not actually be the cocaine-fueled Carl XVI Gustav with his tendency to visit titty bars and disregard speed limits, but a fellow selling kebab in a kiosk in Alanya... How's that for a role model, dear Nazis?

TL;DR: This is a very good album, if you forget any ideas of musical ambition, and look at it as it was meant to be, a semi-serious display of Swedish merry fiddling with an added tangent of a pretty convincing theme album of a specific historical perspective. It's not anything ground-breaking, but sticks to your brain like meningitis in the walking wounded marching home from Poltava. Recommended, if you like your history lessons biased and your metal FUN!