I’m a metal fan, in case you haven’t noticed. I’m also a fan of stories, and that drew me into the power metal subgenre some two decades ago. Power metal is full of songs about fantasy; “Elvenpath” by Nightwish was my introduction to that, and Blind Guardian’s Nightfall In Middle-Earth remains one of my favorite concept albums of all time.
Sabaton is…a little different. They’re definitely worthy of being called power metal. They use the same style of music, the chord progressions and the riffs and whatnot. Their songs, however, aren’t based on Tolkien or Martin or another fantasy author (who’s going to be the first to write an album set in Sanderson’s Cosmere?), but real life. Specifically, the history of warfare.
Their latest album, The War To End All Wars, carries on as a direct sequel to 2019’s The Great War. As you might expect from the titles, those are both about World War I, and that already predisposes me to liking them. Since I started researching WWI for a school project in 6th grade, I’ve been fascinated by it. Its successor gets all the glory, all the notoriety, but why? This is the First World War we’re talking about here! It’s the birth of airplanes, tanks, trench warfare, and chemical weapons. It’s the last hurrah of cavalry charges and line infantry, and really the birth of “modern” warfare. So why don’t we talk about it more?
Some do. Indy Neidell’s The Great War web series explores the conflict in depth, while always reminding the viewer of the horrors of war in general and this war in particular. I wish I’d known about it when it first started, because it was exactly what I was looking for all those years. And Sabaton clearly thought so, too: they partnered with Neidell to make Sabaton History, which goes into detail about the stories behind their songs.
So let’s talk about those songs. We’ll take it from the top.
Though the signs were there for years, World War I officially kicked off with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914. The opening track of the album (as long as you got the proper version) is mostly a spoken-word telling of that historic event by narrator Bethan Dixon Bate, with the band’s refrain interspersed.
“Sarajevo” sets the stage, not the tone. The format reminds me of classical drama, with its narrator/chorus counterpoint in the opening act. The tension rises throughout the track, as Bate speaks of the web of alliances and the failed diplomacy that led to the Battle of the Frontiers and plunged the entire world into a deadly, devastating war for the next four years. From here on out, we’re on the battlefield.
Sabaton doesn’t judge. They’ve taken some flak for that in the past, as certain people believe they “idolize” Nazis simply because they don’t always portray them as unspeakably evil. But there are no good guys in war; heroes and legends can come from anywhere. The eponymous Stormtroopers were harbingers of things to come, a preview of the blitzkrieg tactics used by Germany a quarter of a century later, and there’s nothing wrong with telling that tale.
The first actual metal track on the album is very, very metal. Hard and heavy, with the sound that tells you, “This is a Sabaton song.” Which is great. That’s who I’m listening to, after all. The problem is, the song itself feels a little generic to me. It doesn’t have anything to distinguish it, and you could easily fit it into any of their other albums without even trying.
Except for the sinking of the Lusitania, Americans tend to forget that WWI was a naval war as much as a land war. The Dreadnought battleships that plied the waters of the North Sea get even less attention than the Western Front, and that’s a shame. They were just as innovative as the numerous technological debuts on land, and they changed the face of naval warfare in a way that’s still recognizable today.
As for “Dreadnought” the song, it suffers from the same problem as “Stormtroopers” before it. There’s nothing that singles it out as being part of The War To End All Wars. The music sounds far too much like a reuse of “Bismarck”, a promotional single from a few years ago. And something about Joakim Brodén’s voice sounds…strained. I don’t know if that’s from emotion, illness, or editing, but it’s stood out every time I’ve listened to the track.
The Unkillable Soldier
Here’s a case where Sabaton didn’t do the subject justice, but that’s because nobody ever could. Adrian Carton de Wiert was a legend. He was basically the Terminator a hundred years early. Shoot him in the eye, and he just laughs it off. Take him prisoner, and he’ll escape. And he was everywhere that mattered. If you want to make an action movie about WWI (and WWII, and the Boer War…) then he’s your guy.
The song’s great, too. It captures the madness of the war and the madness of its maddest of madmen. After two tracks that don’t really distinguish themselves, “The Unkillable Soldier” sounds fresh and powerful. (As an aside, it also has a video, where Carton de Wiert is played by the aforementioned Indy Neidell. That had to be an excuse to torture the poor historian.)
Soldier of Heaven
One of the great things about metal is the way it has room to take in other genres. Folk metal is an industry these days. A few metal artists incorporate rap in ways that make it bearable. Sabaton, though, occasionally tosses in what sounds like electropop elements. 2019’s “Attack of the Dead Men” did it, and “Soldier of Heaven” does in its intro. Take that little bit of discordance out, and you have an upbeat song that hides a truly chilling story.
White Friday (which fell on a Wednesday, oddly enough) saw thousands of soldiers perish in a series of avalanches. The forces of Austria-Hungary were camped atop Gran Poz, while Italians had massed in the Val Ciampi d’Arei. Heavy snow and frigid weather were major factors in the war already; a disastrous Ottoman advance into subzero temperatures served as one excuse for the decisions that led to the Armenian Genocide.
But avalanches are sudden. They strike without warning, and without care for nationality. On White Friday, they buried both Austrian and Italian forces. “Soldier of Heaven” speaks from the perspective of one soldier, presumably Austrian, who has scaled the mountain only to fall victim to the rushing snow. His body frozen in the avalanche, frozen in time, he waits for spring to come and release his body from its icy prison. Wow.
The perfect contrast, isn’t it? The Harlem Hellfighters were considered the dregs of the American army at the time. Composed mostly of black and Puerto Rican soldiers, the 369th had to earn its place in history, and earn they did. Forced to fight longer than most other regiments, they served as an example of many things, but drive is certainly at the top.
In a time of pandering to minorities, it’s refreshing to see someone who bucks the trend and looks at people as…well, people. This isn’t “The Lost Battalion” but black. There are echoes, however. Both songs have that same sort of desperation in their words, making you feel like you’re among the men, waiting as they are for the day you can leave the trenches and go home.
Race to the Sea
The Race to the Sea was one of the early events in WWI, the start of the trench warfare that was its lasting legacy. In Belgium, the first country to be invaded, King Albert I didn’t want to see his realm fall, so he took matters into his own hands. Literally. World War I was the last war among monarchs. King, kaiser, and tsar all had a part to play—never mind that the major players were cousins—but Albert was the only one who took the field.
The song “Race to the Sea” tells that story, and it does so in a way that lets the listener feel the pride Belgian forces must have felt at seeing their king fighting beside them. “For king and country” is relegated to history and fantasy these days, but the Battle of the Yser might be one of the last times men truly meant it. Sabaton turns it into an anthem here, an ode to the nationalism of bygone days.
Lady of the Dark
I knew about most of the stories on the album already. I hadn’t heard of the White Friday avalanches or Adrian Carto de Wiert, but the rest were new to me only in details. “Lady of the Dark” is altogether different, because it’s about a soldier from Serbia, and Serbia usually flies under my radar.
Milunka Savić, by contrast, flies under everyone’s radar, as she has for about a hundred years. Her brother was drafted into the Serbian Army, but she went in his place, dressing as a man until she was wounded in battle, then fighting openly as a woman and becoming one of the most decorated female soldiers of all time. But here’s the thing people today won’t understand: she got those awards and honors because of her deeds, not because of her sex. She wasn’t a token woman or a mascot, nor did she want to be either.
As with “Hellfighters” earlier, this is a case where Sabaton turns modern progressivism on its head. Yes, their song emphasizes that Savić was a woman, calling her “the girl in uniform” in the chorus, but it always comes back to the fact that she was fighting for her family. “Lady of the Dark” is one of the brightest lights in the darkness of this war-themed album, for both its message and its music.
The Valley of Death
Here’s another story I didn’t know before. The Battle of Doiran pitted Allied forces against those of Bulgaria. Most Americans today couldn’t find Bulgaria on a labeled map, so I’ll forgive you if you think this is a filler track. In actuality, it’s a last stand worthy of, well, The Last Stand. Bulgarian forces held out against a numerically and technologically superior force by virtue of their heavy defenses and the sheer will of their commander, who was later honored by his enemies.
One of the things I love most about Sabaton is the way they make you interested in a story almost no one has ever heard before. “Last Dying Breath” and “The Final Battle” are two good examples from earlier albums, and “The Valley of Death” adds to that list. It’s not a standout track in the musical sense. It’s a little piece of forgotten history, a gem that shines through.
In the last week of 1914, something strange and wonderful happened. All along the Western Front, men of the Allied and Central Powers threw down their guns, walked into No Man’s Land, and shook hands. They talked to their enemy, shared a drink, swapped stories, and told the war to wait. Why? Because it was Christmas.
The Christmas Truce, as it became known, was quite possibly the last widespread display of civility in war. Nowadays, we’re used to seeing bombed-out buildings and castrated Russian POWs, and we’re urged to forget that those people we’re fighting are humans just like us. In 1914, the propaganda hadn’t set in, and there was still a sense, even after four months of horror, that war was a gentleman’s pursuit.
Sabaton captures this perfectly. The track starts with a hauntingly beautiful intro that draws from “Carol of the Bells”, also the source of “Christmas Eve – Sarajevo 12/24” by Trans-Siberian Orchestra, the song that invented modern Christmas rock. Joakim’s vocals then begin to speak of a soldier in the trenches hearing the guns fall silent, seeing the men who had been trying to kill him instead offering their hands in friendship. “Today we’re all brothers,” he says. “Tonight we’re all friends.” That’s something we lost, and we’re poorer for it.
“Christmas Truce” could have been the end of the album, and I’d be happy. But the troops didn’t come home by Christmas, as was initially promised. Instead, they stayed in the trenches another four years, until November 11, 1918. And the true end of the war didn’t come for almost a year after that, with Germany’s unconditional surrender at Versailles the following summer.
Our narrator returns for this outro track, speaking of the treaty and the events that led to it. She then turns an eye to the future. American forces return home. Russia has to handle the Communist Revolution that would almost destroy it. Borders are redrawn all over the world as the era of colonialism comes into its final act. (Forgotten in all this is the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire under the Sykes-Picot agreement, the direct cause of today’s troubles in the Middle East, but I digress.)
World War I was known as the war to end all wars. Today, that very phrase has become formulaic, and we interpret it as a claim of superiority. In its time, however, it was meant literally. The war was so destructive, and it reshaped the world so greatly, that it was believed to be the last of its kind. Yet it took barely two decades from Versailles to the Sudetenland, and those two events are directly correlated.
That’s the lesson to take from WWI. Not the intricacies of trench warfare or the geopolitical ramifications of three cousins fighting each other using millions of men (and the occasional woman disguised as one) as pawns. No, the strategies and tactics don’t matter in the long run. What matters is what we can learn from the events of the 1910s and what came after, how they compare to the things we’re seeing right now.
Nazism grew because of the privations forced upon the German people during the Weimar Republic; in America today, the people are beginning to suffer from the same hardships. The “eternal” Israel-Palestine conflict didn’t start until two peoples were forced together, and that never would have happened without the First World War. The tsar, leader of Russia for centuries and ruler of lands stretching from Kiev to Vladivostok, fell to Communist hordes, birthing one of the most deadly regimes of the 20th century.
History repeats itself, and we are witnessing that firsthand. While Sabaton may not be on the front lines in Mariupol, they’re watching the current war with interest, because who knows? It might be the spark that fuels a greater conflagration. Such things have happened before. The assassination of a noble plunged the entire world into war for four years, killing tens of millions. The treaty that ended this war subjugated a people and provided Hitler with the perfect foil. The two armies who destroyed his Third Reich then turned their sights—but not their weapons, thankfully—on each other, resulting in a series of proxy wars all over the world, the latest of which started a few short weeks ago.
I’ll give The War To End All Wars an 8 out of 10, but understand that this includes a bonus point for its timing. The world needs to hear this album, the stories within it. Even if you don’t like metal or history, it’s worth a listen. And then, when you’re reading the latest dispatches from Donbass, you’ll hear the echoes.