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Nice stuff... but VERY close to its best before - 82%

Napero, July 6th, 2017

Most of us born in the early days of the funny decade known as the 1970's have read comics. Especially, and in Finland in particular, every young man of those dreamlike simple days of yore was familiar with Korkeajännitys, the local translated version of the British Commando brand war comics. Yeah, that was great fun: crates upon crates of old and worn A5-sized black-and-white tales in a friend's room, with their extreme stereotypes, template stories, and predictable outcomes. The picture of war that painted vast murals or glory, courage, righteous violence, and pure evil of the opposing force. Sure, there was the occasional good German, who curiously never wore the Waffen-SS uniform of the ever-fanatic Nazis, and the incompetent and tyrannical officer on the heroes' own side. But the basic setting never changed, and the meticulously drawn frames with their detailed and historically accurate tanks and fighter planes conveyed a rather simplified good-versus-evil picture of the Second World War.

Those were the days! If the world only was that simple nowadays!

Sabaton is widely known in Finland as the "Korkeajännitys of Heavy Metal". While they do not historically limit themselves strictly to the World Wars, and they actually occasionally give credit to selected Germans and Japanese in the WWII, their lyrical approach to the subject matter is the very same childish, wide-eyed, unquestioning, and revering vision of war as something glorious; the warriors in their stories never need to question their allegiances or the justifications of their violence. It is always for a purpose they know to be right, or at least for the good of their nation, the one they've sworn an oath to serve. Even the good Germans are bound to their nation, and when the Allied heroes talk to their highly honourable counterparts in the end of their story, they respect the warrior's ethos and honour of the German, acknowledging the difficulty of combining the morals of a pure warrior and the rules of war with the evil of Nazi Germany and Hitler's madness. They also know that they might meet again on the field of battle, and that the brief co-operation they might have experienced will in that case be history. As it was in WWII, the last honourable war., wait a minute...

The world is changing. Things that were easy are no longer simple. War is no longer glorious, and instead of a beautifully flying banners in front of the troop of handsome dragoons in their shiny suits of armor, its public image has been that of a bloody and dismal business for decades. Ever since the world saw a girl called Phan Thi Kim Phuc running away from a napalm blaze with her burnt skin in a black-and-white photo almost half a century ago, the attitude of the world has been changing. There is no honour in war any more, and most people seem to think war equals wading knee deep in innards, lost limbs and genitals, paralysis, blindness, severe burns, PTSD, quite horrible deaths, and all the other horrors, instead of a glorious business conducted by gentlemen.

Sabaton's take on the themes is probably familiar to most metalheads with any interest in Nordic power metal. Yup, they play their power metal, with a sizable dash of older epic heavy metal thrown in the blender, with soaring themes and Broden's dramatically coarse, intentionally über-masculine vocals. Technically, the band has managed to execute a pretty perfect performance throughout their career. Their tempo varies mostly between a typical power metal gallop and a more slowish and occasionally rather successfully crushing heavy metal pummeling. They do throw in an occasional slow number, usually reinforced with lyrics on some tragic subject, and do that quite skillfully, as well. The overall theme, practically always, is that of historical storytelling, but not from the point of someone cowering in his foxhole, crapping his pants in fear, and then being blown to pieces by a chance hit of a mortar bomb. No, Sabaton only sees glory or, occasionally, epic tragedy, dedicated and intentional sacrifice for a greater cause, and exciting stories. Many of those stories did take place, sure, but they have certainly evolved after thousands of iterations, and maybe, just maybe, the truth always wasn't as glorious as the idealistic Swedes seem to think.

On The Art of War, they have a theme that loosely bundles the songs together. Sun Tsu's Art of War, the oldest surviving philosophical and practical book on warfare, is quoted by a female reader between the songs, but the list of songs is otherwise the usual Sabaton fare: tales of individual battles or wars, told with the attached grandeur, but with a light-hearted view from above the battlefield.

Perhaps Sabaton's greatest achievement isn't the relatively well executed power metal retelling of the old tales? Maybe the music isn't the point here? How about if we looked at the band in another way, and saw it for what it really is: a perfectly packaged product, just like the ancient Commando series of comics? While the black-and-white pages have been replaced with equally detailed and fundamentally accurate depictions of war with music and lyrics, the attitude is the same: there's nothing fundamentally wrong with war. Or, rather, at least the wars of the past were fine and dandy, and there is only glory left of the history of relentless blood-shedding and unlimited violence. Yes, Broden & Pals have managed to take the very same stories, and turn them into epic tales of heroism, simple settings of good-guys-versus-the-bad-guys... And damn it, the formula does indeed work.

Or it worked for a while, that is. The end of the shelf-life is approaching fast. Seek shelter! Into the foxholes, you maggots!

Out of everything Sabaton has released, Carolus Rex is a refreshing exception. It is much more interesting, lyrics-wise, and offers an insight into a character and times of which most metalheads have never heard. It is a semi-credible theme album, with its own slant towards clothing Charles XII in an undeserved cape of a hero, but at least it skips the cartoonish worship of war as something respectful. As a historical snapshot into things over two centuries ago, it offers more than just simplistic tales of whitewashed butchery. But the rest of their albums, essentially, are tales that might appeal to teenagers, with their testosterone and interest in killing technology. Epic music and catchy shout-along songs have been used for much more nefarious purposes in the past, of course, but Sabaton does have a burden it will carry in a world of changing attitudes and critical opinions for the rest of the band's career.

The slightly embarrassing worship of the dirtiest undertakings of mankind is naturally even more obvious in live setting. Sabaton is a good live band, as are most Swedish bands that make it outside of their native land on their tours. But witnessing a guitarist pranking around in an obviously scripted way, and sitting on the vocalist who lies on the stage and keeps belting out the tune to some battle that claimed hundreds of lives decades ago seems like anything but respect for the dead, heroes or not. The overall merriness of Sabaton's playing runs counter to their claimed message.

To look at the issue in another way, movies are a very good example of way attitudes gradually turn against the idea of glory in war. After WWII, the major films of the whole war were epic war movies. Yeah, you know, in the way The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far show the war as a series of individual events involving individual men, all acting in good faith, some of them dying and a handful fearing, but never showing anything visceral or horrible. The first signs of changing times came with the likes of Patton and Big Red One, with some of the pro-war mentality turning into critical thinking instead, and by the early 80's, the likes of the excellent and extremely cruel Soviet Come and See, and the German Das Boot, started to crack the idealistic facade of war. By the late 80's, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket and their kind had turned the attention to suffering and futility of war, and by the time Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan were in the theaters and Band of Brothers on TV, very few saw war as something to glorify. Instead, they witnessed a highly accurate depiction of men being mowed down on Omaha Beach, not falling silently in a glorious assault on Hitler's Western Wall, but being blown apart and crying for their mothers while bleeding to death on a beach, clutching the torn guts spilling out of their bellies.

Sabaton still stick to their guns, though. Instead of scared and wounded men freezing to death, or a third of a million of horrible deaths, they still see heroism and glory in the Winter War, aptly described as a strategic mistake and tactical brilliance in "Talvisota". They plaster the abattoir of Gallipoli with fake sentimentality for the brave but futile deaths of the ANZAC troops. They pay respect to the deeds of the Wehrmacht's 7th Panzer Division in "Ghost Division", being careful to choose a non-SS division in the highest tradition of Commando comics, and so forth. In other words, in the language of movies, Sabaton is still stuck in the 1970's.

OK, it's time admit running very close to hypocrisy here. Sure, thousands of metal albums contain lyrics on war and carnage. Hell, Iron Maiden has half of its recorded running length on battles, and it might be a wee bit difficult to claim that their point of view is any more critical than Sabaton's. But it is. Just look at the lyrics of "The Trooper" and see. Sure, it's about a cavalry charge, but it's more about the fear, the hate and the unavoidable horror of death than any faux glory or honour. The Trooper, charging on his horse, has more in common with Braveheart's drafted Scottish peasants peeing in their kilts before a battle than with the heroes of Commando comics. Sabaton, in its unquestioning and childlike worship of war heroes, is in a class of its own. Accurate, perhaps, but clinical and naïve.

The worst offender out of their songs, on a personal level, was still to come. On Coat of Arms, two years later, they introduced the song "White Death", on the legendary Finnish sniper Simo Häyhä. Sabaton depicts him as a merciless killing machine, a feared menace to Russian troops, and a superhuman hero. In real life, Häyhä was a silent, efficient soldier, but essentially refused to become a war hero. Only the internet times have brought him to public attention, and in one of Häyhä's extremely rare interviews, he said he only did what he was asked to do, as well as he could do it. He was an excellent marksman, and definitely a deadly soldier, but not a one-dimensional Commando brand hero. He was a somewhat typical Finn, and turning him into a plastic imitation of life, into a template war hero, is simply unfair. And a fair bit insulting, to be honest.

The fine folks over in the USA figured this out well over two decades ago. And replaced it with something equally dishonest: now it's all about the fake sentimentality, the "thank you for your sacrifice and service" to the dullard next door who spent seven years serving substandard soup to marines in Guam. The French horns playing when the final scene of Saving Private Ryan are somber, and reek of the other brand of offensive crap, The Glorious Burden. But let us not go there now. Suffice it to say that sentimentality does an equal disservice to those who will never recover from their burns, lost limbs, or events that destroyed their personality and replaced it with eternal fear. War is visceral, evil, and fundamentally horrible business, and even if it sometimes might turn out to be justified, it still needs no worship packaged as a goofy Swedes doing their amusing tumbles on stage in camo pants.

The Art of War is a fine album, musically. Who wouldn't enjoy a bit of catchy, well-executed and sing-along-y power metal every now and then? Especially with such a simultaneously merry and epic atmosphere? The goofy lyrics are perhaps a forgivable misstep, but they are unfortunately hardcoded into Sabaton's template. And they are going to become a burden for the Beast from Falun. Mark old Napero's words here young ones. Napero has seen too much to trust a smiling band of Swedes in such serious matters as the public image of war itself. Sweden has not seen war in two centuries, so maybe they just don't remember any more.

Brodin? Sir? You can do better next time. This is past its best-before date. And has been since the 1970's... I'm sorry, but it had to be said. Sabaton is the equivalent of a brave wall of Polish cavalry attacking the German panzers in their stubborn fight against changing times.