Is there life for Sabaton after, well, Sabaton? Judging by their recent tour and the mania that ensued during their show at Woodstock in Poland (captured on their live release Swedish Empire Live), you’d have to say things were pretty healthy. Pun intended given their lyrical content, the band have bravely soldiered on in the face of losing more than half of their members two years ago, and new recruits Chris Rörland, Thobbe Englund and Hannes van Dahl have settled in very well alongside Joakim Brodén and Pär Sundström.
This, however, is the big test: the first album with the new lineup. Released this Friday coming via Nuclear Blast, Heroes is the best indication yet of how Sabaton are really coping behind closed doors, because anybody can step into a band and perform well on stage – just ask Guns N’ Roses. Mind you, it’s a false start all round as the album artwork gets more confusing with each look – simple enough image, but there’s no way someone’s arm can extend that far given the rest of his proportions. Nor will someone’s neck..
Based on the impact of opening track Night Witches though, there initially appears to be little to worry about – it’s got the Sabaton stamp all over its three minutes, from the building intro to the fast paced thunder of the lyrics and drums and the now standard lyrics about conflict (the album is entirely based on stories from 20th century wars). What’s also very positive to see is that the band are not trying to be like they used to and making Rörland, Englund and van Dahl out to be little more than hired hands. Gone are the keyboards that used to soar over the songs and everything is a lot punchier and to-the-point. Musically, it’s exceptional – Rörland and Englund have been given full opportunity to weave their own creativity on the record and they’ve done so with style and panache. From the stomp of Smoking Snakes through the tantalising Wild West flavour of Through Hell and Back and the Iron Maiden-esque assault of Soldier of 3 Armies, the duo are a fantastic twin-axe attack. Van Dahl, although never getting as much of the spotlight, still holds his own brilliantly, with a wonderful intro showcase on Far from the Fame as well. As for Brodén and Sundström, it’s business as usual, but they’re not sounding tired or monotonous in the slightest. There’s even their first proper ballad on here, showcase classical piano, The Ballad of Bull, which is a nice breather in the middle of the huge choruses and massive guitar hooks.
Thing is, if there is such an expression as ‘too punchy’ then Sabaton have hit the bulls-eye. Ten tracks appear on the album and it’s still only just over half an hour long – and eight of them are over before they’ve hit the 4-minute mark. All too often the song comes to a finish and leaves you wanting more – it’s a rude snapback to the reality that you’re not in the coolest history lesson ever. The less said about No Bullets Fly the better as well – it’s far too cheesy and cliché even by Sabaton’s standards, which takes a lot of doing. The album also doesn’t benefit from having no narrative – although themed around about individual feats of brilliance (which probably lends itself to the overall title), what was strong about previous albums was having a singular thread running through the core of the album which tied it all together. Fading out closing track Heart of Iron wasn’t the smartest move either.
That said, for Sabaton to change 60% of its lineup and come out with an album like Heroes is an absolutely sterling effort, and it shows a huge amount of potential for future releases with the current quintet. In fact, if you were to look at this as the debut from a brand new band, it’s a great record. Unfortunately its not their debut, it’s album number seven. If you want to hear Sabaton at their absolute peak, I would still look no further than The Art of War.
Joakim Brodén – vocals Pär Sundström – bass Chris Rörland – guitar, backing vocals Thobbe Englund – guitar, backing vocals Hannes van Dahl – drums
1. Night Witches 2. No Bullets Fly 3. Smoking Snakes 4. Inmate 4859 5. To Hell and Back 6. The Ballad of Bull 7. Resist and Bite 8. Soldier of 3 Armies 9. Far from the Flames 10. Hearts of Iron