There’s so much to discuss in regards to Sabaton’s newest album, Heroes, a ten track paean to specific acts of heroism in wartime, and a strong contender to be the band’s best album to date. Let’s just get that out of the way first: Heroes is a great Sabaton record, not perfect… but really, really great. I usually avoid disclosing my overall consensus on an album until midway through a review, because after all, I’d like you all to keep reading throughout. Yet the story of this record is worth discussing in depth even though you know where my opinion stands. Its simultaneously a story of the self-driven perseverance of two friends and band mates and their vindication in the wake of what could have been crippling circumstances; as well as a collage of moments where humanity triumphed over the waste and destruction of warfare. Regarding the latter, this is a turning point for Sabaton, whose previous albums were largely made up of metallic anthems either depicting the intensity of war and its participants (for example, “Ghost Division”, “Into the Fire” or “Primo Victoria”), or paying homage to war heroes exclusively (“White Death”). There’s a bit of that on Heroes as well (certainly the cover art reinforces that), but surprisingly enough the album largely consists of songs honoring those moments when non-violence prevailed over all.
The last time Sabaton released an album was in 2012, with the thematic departure of Carolus Rex, whose release was clouded with inter-band strife —- resulting in four of the band’s members departing shortly after the recording sessions were complete. An American tour was coming up, and remaining members vocalist Joakim Brodén and bassist Pär Sundström had to scramble to assemble a new lineup. It wasn’t even certain if these new guys would last through the duration of the album’s touring cycle, much less stick around to participate on any future albums. I was there at the Sunday night San Antonio gig that kicked off the Carolus Rex world tour and served as the debut of new Sabaton guitarists Chris Rörland and Thobbe Englund, and drummer Robban Bäck. The new guys were obviously nervous, but so were Broden and Sundstrom. When they took the stage to a relatively small crowd of about fifty of us, they played as though they were in front of thousands —- Broden and Sundstrom leading the stage performances. By the end of that show, the nerves had noticeably dissipated, Broden was communicating his appreciation for the strong support, and I was marveling at just how well the new guys were gelling live in such a short time.
It was an inconspicuous debut —- though an auspicious one. The tour plowed on, and when I caught the band almost a year later back in Houston, they were firing on all cylinders, the new guys even equaling Broden in their stage performances. I’ve seen them a few times since then, most recently the other week opening for Iced Earth, this time with another new drummer Hannes van Dahl as replacement for Bäck who had to leave for paternity reasons —- and my impressions were further reinforced. Having seen both eras of their lineups, I feel that the current incarnation is the definitive lineup, and that’s not to discredit former band members, but the new guys just seem to “get” what Broden and Sundstrom have in mind when it comes to their live performance. The real question however that lingered throughout was just how this massive lineup change would affect a new recording? In terms of songwriting, there didn’t seem a reason to be concerned since Broden has always served as Sabaton’s musical scribe, but he composes on keyboards and leaves the guitars to his bandmates —- how would the new guys mesh with what he gave them? Exceedingly well as it turns out, and I gather this not only from my takeaway from listening to the album itself, but from comments made by Broden and Sundstrom themselves, who in a recent interview with Spain’s Metalovision mentioned their surprise at how quickly their new guitarists figured out and recorded their parts (apparently in only four days). It wasn’t guaranteed that Heroes would be a great album —- that Sabaton have accomplished this is a testament to the artistic bonds formed while touring Carolus Rex.
As far as what makes it great, listen first to five absolutely excellent standout tracks in “Night Witches”, “No Bullets Fly”, “The Ballad of Bull”, “Resist and Bite”, and album closer “Hearts of Iron”. In typical Sabaton fashion, what makes these songs so great is not only their precision honed array of hooks and musical ear candy, but the interesting subject matter and Broden’s skilled ability at lyric writing. One of the most gripping back stories is found on “No Bullets Fly”, honoring an incident in which a crippled American B-17 was escorted back to friendly territory by a German ace fighter pilot named Franz Stigler who was one confirmed kill away from qualifying for the Knights Cross. He said that he maneuvered alongside the B-17 and could actually see through the damaged air frame and look directly at the faces of its injured pilot, Charles Brown and remaining crew. He made a choice that could’ve gotten him executed had his superiors found out —- he escorted the B-17 back to the North Sea, his presence preventing German anti-aircraft batteries from firing upon the American craft. Upon reaching the sea Stigler saluted the American crew and turned back. Forty-seven years later, the two pilots would finally meet and became good friends. As a kid I grew up wanting to be nothing more than a fighter pilot, and I loved reading about the history of aerial combat —- and I’m torn between being annoyed with myself for not hearing of this particular story earlier, but very gratified that I got to hear about it through Sabaton’s monstrously epic, adrenaline pounding celebration of human decency. It sounds like an odd juxtaposition because it is: Group shouted vocals yelling “Killing Machine!… B-17!” during the chorus envelope the humanitarian sentiments of “Honor in the sky!… Flying Home!… Said goodbye to the Cross he deserved!” Its quickly become one of my favorite Sabaton songs.
I’d be remiss not to discuss in greater detail my love of the songs “The Ballad of Bull” and “Hearts of Iron”, two songs about non-violent humanitarian action in the middle of utter chaos. Again its refreshing to hear Sabaton’s scope increasing, their views on the concepts of heroism being greater than just focusing on combative actions. Broden’s lyrics are often startlingly direct, and they certainly are here, but I feel that it works better for the song —- what could he possibly couch in a metaphor? Some may be put off by the former’s piano drenched balladry, in fact a fellow metal critic/radio host friend of mine stated that he thought the piano on it was too “processional”, or too formal for his preferences. I can see where he’s coming from, but for me, that is precisely why I love it so much. I love that the heavy emphasis on naked piano seems to evoke a musical pastiche of the 1940s (or at least my impression of it), and its heavily pronounced major keys seem fitting to match such a near mythical tale of gallant individual heroism. Maybe its also that I simply love piano as an instrument, and amidst an album full of heavy, breakneck guitars, its arrival is a welcome contrast.
As for “Hearts of Iron”, its a song concerning the bravery of the German 9th and 12th armies in late April 1945, who facing certain destruction at the hands of the Soviets ignored orders to stand their ground; instead they fought to create and protect a corridor headed west across the Elbe river through which 25,000 civilian and soldier refugees could escape to surrender to western forces. It takes a certain amount of guts to pen a song in which you depict heroism from Nazi German forces, but as a lyricist Broden is deftly aware of this, “It is not about Berlin / It is not about the Reich / It’s about the men who fought for them / What peace can they expect?” Its one of Sabaton’s most tragic yet uplifting songs, with a chorus that tightens your chest with its noble sentiments, “Its the end / The war has been lost / Keeping them safe til the river’s been crossed”. Broden has made a career out of painting lyrical portraits of the vivid shock and terror of battle through multiple narrative perspectives and points of view —- on Heroes he branches out as a lyricist with a very un-metal-like appeal towards moments of human morality (just so there’s no confusion, I consider that to be a good thing).
Of course, that’s not to suggest that the band have entirely left tradition behind, as “Resist and Bite” is one of the band’s best songs to date and falls in line behind old classics like “40:1” and “Uprising” as us against them celebrations of sacrifice (though in this case it’s about the Belgian infantry resistance to the Nazis). I was driving along the spaghetti bowl of Houston freeways listening to the album this past weekend, and when this song came on I blew past the speed limit and barely saw a highway patrol car on the shoulder just in time —- a very close call! Its got that kind of adrenaline surging, pulse poundingly dramatic (and ultra-catchy) chorus that defines epic and makes you look like a maniac to other passing vehicles. The guitar solos in this track are worth mentioning —- on the entire album in fact, Englund and Rorland trade back and forth wildly melodic, furious soloing that is always complementary to the primary melody at work. Similar in old school theme is “Soldier of 3 Armies”, about Lauri Törni who as the title suggests fought for Finland during the Winter War, Germany in World War II against the Soviets, and the United States (in Vietnam as a Green Beret no less… and man, did this guy hate the Soviets or what?). Its a strong track that is a spiritual cousin to “White Death” from Coat of Arms.
The rest of the album fills up nicely with solid songs brimming with catchy hooks, interesting one-off musical moments, and of course loads of melody. I’m not sure if “To Hell and Back”, a song about the legendary World War II hero Audie Murphy, was the best choice for the lead off single (“Resist and Bite” fits the bill better), but its a good song nonetheless and its whistling motif has a real Scorpions call back to it. If there’s a tune on here that can merely be described as decent or good, its “Inmate 4859” —- about Polish resistance hero Witold Pilecki. Its a bit lumbering, the chorus is a touch too close to the verse in tempo, structure, and design (a very un-Sabaton quality), but it does have a nice guitar solo led bridge in the middle that is very pleasing to the ear. Again, not a bad song by any stretch, but it and a track like “Far From the Fame” just don’t live up to the high bar set by the other truly classic songs here —- but seriously, for any metal record seven out of ten isn’t a bad ratio.
My spirits have been buoyed by the artistic success of this album, I now know that Sabaton will be able to sustain any major lineup shocks and upheavals (though here’s hoping no more come). This is one of the most impressive bands in metal, they’re self-managed, they tour like they’re possessed, they have a great respect for their American audiences and actively seek to make a dent in the market Stateside, and they’re aware of their own identity in a way most bands are not. And they’ve also released one of the best records of the year so far, something I wasn’t predicting a few months ago. They get a lot of flak from more than a handful of popular metal sites, whether its for their subject matter, or their major key melodicism, or their pristine productions —- all criticisms that are actually the band’s biggest strengths. Critics will be critics, metal bands can’t all sound purposefully lo-fi and full of black metal tropes. Sabaton’s growing popularity is a testament to the honest nature of their audiences —- that there can be metal fans who are unapologetic about what qualities they enjoy in their heavy music, unaffected by trends or flavors of the month. I noticed it when I turned in any direction towards the crowd at the Iced Earth / Sabaton show the other week, real enthusiasm untempered by internet angst. There’s hope after all.