Review: Planet Zero

I’ve been waiting for this one since the first time I heard the title track. Planet Zero got pushed back from its original April release to today, July 1, due to a manufacturing delay for the vinyl edition. But that’s okay. It’s definitely worth the wait.

Shinedown was, some years ago, my favorite modern rock band. They were the headlining act of the first indoor concert I ever saw—I’m still kicking myself for being too late to see Halestorm open for them—and they just made good music. Their last three albums (Amaryllis, Threat to Survival, and Attention Attention) all felt lackluster to me, and some of that comes from the big letdown after 2008’s amazing The Sound of Madness, which I will call the best rock album of its decade without any hesitation.

But “Planet Zero” sounded like a return to form, and it sounded like it had a message, a purpose. That’s something rock has been getting back to, so why not check it out?

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The intro track sets the tone and the stage, because this is, in a way, a concept album. It’s a quick instrumental with electronic elements, fitting for the futuristic setting. Nothing to write home about, but it tells you that you’re listening to something intended to be cohesive.

No Sleep Tonight

This is the first “real” song on the album, and it’s your typical Shinedown: hard and heavy, but always with a little lift. And a great solo in the middle, which is not what the band is known for. More importantly, though, the lyrics have a distinct theme that resurfaces throughout the course of the album. “We’re tired of being powerless,” it says. And that is a familiar refrain.

Planet Zero

The title track was also the first single. If you haven’t already heard it, you don’t know what you’re missing. It’s even heavier than “No Sleep Tonight” was, with a stronger sense of anger, and that anger is directed towards the woke, towards cancel culture and all its evils. As someone who feels the same, “Planet Zero” resonated with me from the first listen. Finally, here was someone who understood what I was saying.

Welcome

This album has six interstitial tracks. “Welcome” is first, followed by “Standardized Experiences” (track 7), “Do Not Panic” (track 9), “A More Utopian Future” (track 12), “This Is A Warning” (track 16), and “Delete” (track 19). I won’t cover them individually, because they’re basically all the same.

They tell the story of the eponymous Planet Zero, which may or may not be a future version of Earth. (Considering the opener’s title and the fact that, in Orwell’s novel, London had been renamed Airstrip One, I think the parallels are pretty obvious.) On Planet Zero, as the helpful computer voice explains through these tracks, everyone is happy and sociable. They have to be, or else they’re sent in for reeducation or surrendered to the populace for “social judgment”—in other words, canceled.

If that isn’t a direct indictment of modern leftism and the Great Reset, I don’t know what is. It couldn’t be any clearer. Those hateful ideologies have the goal of eliminating nonconformity and thus individualism; Planet Zero is clearly the end result of that, a dystopia called a utopia, a combination of 1984, Brave New World, and The Matrix. That’s the direction our world is heading, so it’s always good when someone with a platform speaks out against it.

Dysfunctional You

After what’s actually a seriously dense metaphor packed into about 30 seconds, “Dysfunctional You” is a jarring contrast. A light melody typical of Amaryllis tends to overshadow some surprisingly deep lyrics. This song, as far as I can tell, is about being yourself even when other people think you’re crazy.

It’s a powerful message when you think about it, and all the more so in our current climate of normalizing every possible peculiarity. But we’re not talking about embracing degeneracy here. No, this is more about those minor or moderate mental disorders we too often treat as much more. They’re not. Working for someone who is dyslexic, I’ve come to understand how it affects a person, but it’s not the end of the world. While anxiety—one of my own maladies—can be crippling at its worst, it’s a part of who I am, and something I’d rather learn to control through my own actions rather than with drugs.

If anything, that’s the message of this song. Be who you are, and be proud of it. Don’t change just to fit in. That goes for the anxious and the depressed as much as for the tomboy being pressured into transitioning.

Dead Don’t Die

Another hard track, another of the back-and-forth pendulum swings that mark Planet Zero. This time, it’s more like classic Shinedown. And that’s a little odd, because it just doesn’t fit with the rest of the album. It doesn’t really continue the dystopian storyline, and it honestly reminds me of nothing so much as “Diamond Eyes” from the soundtrack to The Expendables.

Still, it’s a good song, a nice “you can’t bring me down” anthem that could apply to just about any situation. It doesn’t drag the album down, but it doesn’t do much to pump it up, either. I guess everybody needs some filler every now and then.

America Burning

Track 8 should be the headliner, but I absolutely understand why it was saved for the full album release. If it weren’t, I don’t believe it would’ve come out at all. More than any other song, “America Burning” nails the message of Planet Zero.

Again, it’s a harder one, but forget about the music and focus on the lyrics. “You might be woke but not awake,” one line reads. “Is this apocalypse now? Who let the animals out?”

Anyone who saw the massive riots over the summer of 2020, triggered (at least in part) by the death of a random drug addict, knows what “America Burning” means. Anyone who watched as blatant election fraud was swept under the rug, even as those who stood up for fairness were vilified and jailed, understands the even deeper message. That anyone is brave enough to speak out against the senseless destruction of our country and the indoctrination of our children is astonishing. That it comes in the form of a catchy and memorable song is so much better.

A Symptom Of Being Human

Back to the light side again. As with “Dysfunctional You”, here’s another track about facing the odds to be yourself. In this case, it’s more about feeling out of place, something I can’t help but get. “Sometimes I’m in a room where I don’t belong,” is how the chorus opens; well, that’s just about every room I’ve ever stepped into.

We’re all crazy in our own unique way. That’s a fact of life, and it’s something that progressives, with their desire to neutralize all differences between us, fail to grasp. But that craziness is what gives us life, and what makes that life worth living. It creates society, with all its ups and downs. Mild insanity is, to put it simply, a symptom of being human.

Hope

“Hope” is by far the most inspirational song on this album, and quite possibly one of the brightest Shinedown has ever released. (“I’ll Follow You” and “Unity” from Amaryllis both come close.) The acoustic guitar work and the mildly heavy riffs in the solo give it a quality akin to 90s alternative and pop rock; listening to it, I was reminded more of Collective Soul and Sister Hazel than the band that was banned from MTV for daring to let a white man stare down the barrel of a .45.

Even the subject matter is almost cloyingly positive, but that still manages to fit the tone of the album. If “America Burning” is the realistic look at what our country is facing, “Hope” is the whitepill, the reminder that we can still make it right as long as we’re willing to be true to ourselves.

Clueless And Dramatic

Following a brief interruption from our AI overseer, track 13 jumps right back into harder rock. This time, Brent is railing against what many on the right side of the internet have begun to call the NPC Race, that significant group of people who aren’t ignorant, but shockingly poor at reasoning.

“Clueless and dramatic” is indeed a good way to describe the Twitter blue-checks who show no self-awareness, no memory of recent or historical events, and far too much emotion for something they clearly aren’t emotionally invested in. Think the many, many calls for “my body, my choice” regarding the recent Dobbs ruling, often from the same people who, two years ago, said that the decision whether to take an experimental drug was something the state could and should mandate.

The best defense against these people is to ignore them. And that’s the remedy Shinedown offers: turn it off, save yourself from the clueless and dramatic.

(Also, this song has a nice callback to 45, the band’s first real hit.)

Sure Is Fun

If I didn’t have MP3 tags, I would’ve thought this was Imagine Dragons. I’m not entirely sure what this song is saying or why it’s a part of the album. It sounds more like the lowest points of Attention Attention and the reason why I had given up on Shinedown for a decade. Call it a filler track, really.

Despite that, it’s not too bad. There’s more spitting in the face of wokeness, which is always good. The melody gets stuck in your head. Give it a listen, but there’s really no need to come back to it.

Daylight

“Daylight” was the third single for Planet Zero, and it’s the only true ballad on the album. As I’ve said repeatedly, both on here and in real life, a ballad is a necessary component for a great record. It just is.

When I first heard this one—less than a month ago, but it feels like much longer—I broke down. I truly felt as if the words were meant for me and me alone. Rather, for myself and my partner. “I was diagnosed with a fear of getting too close.” Yeah, that’s me. “Had to tell the ones I love I was on the ropes.” Yep. Did that.

If all goes well, I’m going to meet Leslie in person for the first time next week. After three years of waiting, including the “one year and three months in the dark” of lockdown madness that Brent so eloquently states here, I have finally made it to the point in my life where I can do this. And every single line of this song is what I want to say to the woman I love, the one who has given me a reason to go on throughout it all.

The Saints Of Violence And Innuendo

If you ask me, “Daylight” would have worked better at the end of the album, because how do you follow that up? (It’s the same for “Call Me”, all the way back on The Sound Of Madness, but that one was at the end.)

Well, this isn’t the way. Another stand against the woke mob doesn’t really flow from the tearful reminder of those who get us through the day, and no storyline filler can change that. Still, “Saints” is a great Shinedown song. It has the beat, the feel, and it would fit just anywhere in their discography. Its connection to the story certainly helps it here, however, because it’s easier to see the connection between the title and the target.

Army Of The Underappreciated

“Cry For Help” came out 14 years ago. I’ve probably listened to it a hundred times since then. And, for whatever reason, it’s all I can hear when I listen to this song. They just sound the same.

As with “Saints” before it, “Army” is a little generic. It’s a Shinedown song more than a Planet Zero track. That’s not bad, of course. You do want a band to sound like itself, since that’s what the fans are looking for. On the other hand, there’s nothing in here that stands out.

What You Wanted

Another Imagine Dragons wannabe closes out the album. There’s really not a lot to say about the music, because there’s not much music to deal with. You mostly have Brent singing over a kind of faux marching band and string section.

But this is the end of the story, too. Our visitor to the so-called utopia has been found out, his individualist thinking noted by the authorities. And he doesn’t care.

The lyrics here are a message, an ultimatum to the very real anti-human forces trying to rule the world today. You will not rule forever. Your end will come. And no one will come to your rescue. The pendulum is already swinging back in the other direction, as Dobbs, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, West Virginia v. EPA, and Carson v. Makin show. Wokeness is a hateful, divisive ideology, and its followers should be careful not to let that pendulum hit them on its way back. But honestly, they deserve no less.

Conclusion

I won’t say this was the best album I’ve heard. It’s not even the best Shinedown album. But its highs are much higher and more frequent than its lows. It has some really good tracks, not too much filler, and a coherent narrative running through much of it. As a bonus, that narrative is pro-human, pro-freedom, and very courageous in speaking truth to power. I felt the anger of “America Burning” and the, well, hope of “Hope” as much as “Daylight” left me crying.

That’s all I ask for in music: emotion and meaning. I got it here, and I’m glad one of my favorite bands has taken the right stand. That only makes it better.

Rock on

I grew up with rock music. Whether it was the classics of the 60s and 70s, the grunge and alternative that hit their stride as I was reaching adolescence, or the 80s pop rock in between, that was my jam. I never got into country, despite living in Tennessee—and having an uncle who knew all the country stars of yesteryear. Rap? Not for me. And metal only caught my ear after I was grown, so only one genre got to take center stage in my younger days.

For a few years, though, it seemed like rock was getting the short end of the stick in terms of popularity. Most of the 2010s just didn’t have anything worth listening to. The fads were faux-indie bands with banjos (think Mumford and Sons or Lumineers) or the screaming and growling that trickled down from thrash and metalcore. For people who just wanted to hear music, the pickings were slim.


That’s really started to change in the past five years, and we’ve seen a lot of great songs, albums, and artists in that span. After half a decade of doldrums, rock is back. Here are a few songs that have made an impact on me in that time. First, the emotional impact.

  • “Under Your Scars” by Godsmack. We’ll just start off big, with a song I have never been able to finish without getting misty-eyed. This might be the perfect ballad, and it’s by a band known for…kind of the opposite of ballads. Still, it’s a song about coming to terms with your imperfections, and realizing that you don’t have to be perfect to be loved. Maybe that’s why it brings me to tears.

  • “Redemption” by Three Days Grace. This one just came out a few weeks ago, but it’s already rising to the top. Again, that’s because it’s one of those that hits me where I hurt. I still think Adam Gontier is the better singer, but Matt Walst nails it here.

  • “Daylight” by Shinedown. Another one released not all that long ago. (Last week, in fact.) Shinedown remains one of my favorite rock bands, and not only because they were the headline act at the one concert I actually attended. But their albums in the 2010s were very lackluster, in my opinion. Nowhere near the quality of Sound of Madness. Everything I’ve heard from them this year, however, sounds like a return to form.

  • “Heat Above” by Greta Van Fleet. This isn’t a song that makes me cry, but it’s one that gives me a feeling that’s hard to describe. I’ve often written about the idea of innocence on here. It’s a theme that I carry through many of my stories. And something about this song makes me feel innocent. Maybe because it’s moderately upbeat without being sappy, psychedelic while still sounding new, or something else. I just feel younger listening to it.

  • “Autumn Breeze” by The Allman Betts Band. The Allman Brothers Band has always been one of my favorites. I can remember lying in the back seat of my parents’ car (before they divorced, even before my brother was born), listening to “Ramblin’ Man” and getting lost in the melody. Growing up, I heard the stories my uncle told of playing and partying with the band. And I will tell you right now that this song is the one that proves the children are following in their fathers’ footsteps. It’s beautiful, and it’s Southern. Doesn’t get better than that.


Beyond the emotional impact of good music, rock is also becoming the home of “subversive” music. More and more artists are fighting against the narrative, while “popular” acts who made a career out of being rebels are supporting it. Rage Against The Machine, Foo Fighters, and The Offspring all have all required experimental gene therapy as a condition of attending their concerts. That’s sick enough, but at least others have joined the good guys with their music.

  • “Planet Zero” by Shinedown. (Yes, I put two of theirs in, but “Daylight” hadn’t come out when I first envisioned this post.) “They’re murdering our heroes” is an apt description of the woke mob today. The message is a little subtle, but that’s what makes it good. It doesn’t beat you over the head with the fact that some 30% of the country would gladly put you in a concentration camp because you know that there are only two sexes. Plus, it’s a great song.

  • “Zombified” by Falling In Reverse. Kind of the opposite. Here, cancel culture is explicitly called out, and that’s because it’s the artist’s personal experience. I’ve never liked zombies. I like even less that some people (even in my own family!) are turning into them. So I’m glad that someone else recognizes what’s going on and is willing to speak up.

  • “Trust The Science” by The Lone Wolf (ft. Topher). Tommy Vext basically got kicked out of Bad Wolves for telling the truth. The 2020 election was stolen, George Soros is undermining our Republic, and nobody needs a vaccine for a cold. As a solo artist, he can say it however he wants, and so he does. This track is rap rock, and every single word is there to take the evildoers to task.

  • “Stand Up” by Papa Roach. When I was a teenager, Papa Roach was the emo kid cutting his arms and crying about how much he wanted to kill himself. Now, he’s one of the few strong voices speaking out. Not what I would’ve expected back in 1998. This song isn’t as overtly political, but it’s a good fight song that slips in some shots at mass media and propaganda.


I could go on, but I won’t. The point I’m making is that rock is not dead. It never was. Maybe it went to sleep for a while, but it woke up a few years ago. Since then, it has only gotten louder, stronger, and more willing to take a stand. Music can move people, as the first half of this list shows, so it’s a good thing that so many of the movers are pushing in the right direction.

Requiem

Music has the power to stir the soul. A song can change our mood, can push our emotions to new heights. Never is that more true than during those times where we are already emotional, whether from joy, grief, or somewhere in between. I’m often moved to tears by music, and I feel that everyone should admit, at least to themselves, that it’s possible for them to feel the same.

Over the past few years, I have shared some of my favorite songs, albums, and musical stories on this site. On this dark night (I write this shortly before 1 AM) I would like to do so again, but this time for a different purpose. I don’t intend for you to listen to these four songs because I said so. No, I’m telling you that a day will come when they will be played for me, and I won’t be there to listen. Whether the time until that day is best measured in months or decades, I can’t say. I know that they have summoned some of the strongest emotions I’ve ever felt, so I want them to be heard at the one time I’m certain people will be emotional because of me.

These are in no particular order. I know they also don’t exactly go together, but I’m a complex man. I have many facets. Not all of them meet at straight edges.

One

Avantasia – “Cry Just A Little” (Youtube link)

One of my favorite bands, and one of my favorite stories told through music. I’ve talked about The Scarecrow before, and I devoted considerable space to this song. But that’s because it deserves every word of praise I can give. It’s hard to do a metal ballad right. It’s even harder when that ballad also has to tell the story of a man rejected by society and willing to sacrifice his very soul for one shot at the life and love he dreams of.

The nameless protagonist begs not to be loved—he believes himself unworthy of that—but simply to be acknowledged. Why don’t you at least lie and say that you care, or that you even know I’m there? Believe me, I’ve been there many times. I don’t believe in the existence of demons or devils, unless you count the evil men and women of the world. There have been times, though, that I wished I did, if only to make the same offer of myself.

It’s not about love or fame or wealth. It’s about being remembered. It’s about having someone who cares enough to remember you. Too many people don’t have that, and I often wonder if I’ll number among them when the time comes.

Two

Breaking Benjamin – “Dear Agony (Aurora Version)” (Youtube link)

I specify the Aurora version of this song solely because of Lacey Sturm’s angelic vocals. “Hauntingly beautiful” is a phrase I use too often, but it’s very appropriate here.

Again, I’ve mentioned this song before on here. I’ve used it as a post title, added in the lyrics, and referenced it multiple times. I’ve dreamed myself and the woman I love singing it together. That’s how much it has affected me in the scant two years since its release.

I live each day in pain. I have for years. I don’t always let it show. Even my closest loved ones never know the true extent of it, because I learned long ago that few people want to hear about depression, and even fewer want to help in a way that relieves the agony for one precious moment.

A song about fighting with each breath until the pain finally does stop, until you reach that final moment where you know you’ll never have to feel again, that speaks to me. Coming from an evangelical family, I often heard my elders say of the dead, “At least he’s not hurting anymore.” As a child, I never truly understood that. As an adult, I certainly do.

Three

Anders Osborne – “Higher Ground” (Youtube link)

To speak further of pain, this song might be that feeling personified. The last time I listened to it was in January 2014, the night my cousin died. To this day, I can still recall the anguish of that cold, dark evening. I couldn’t bear to look at him, so I stayed with my grandmother. I locked myself in her bedroom, threw my headphones on, queued up Black Eye Galaxy, and just cried.

The singer was dealing with addiction (probably heroin, considering “Black Tar” is the name of another track); that’s what the whole album is about. But the message of this closing track is universal. We all want to find that higher ground, that way of rising above the aches and pains of earthly living. For those of us who aren’t religious, it’s much harder. We lack the comfort and certainty that come with faith. We can’t be sure, and that’s scary.

Once again, I have to refer to my family. As far as I can tell, none of them have ever had to struggle with that kind of doubt, and that means it’s something I can’t share with them. I can’t talk about it to those I’ve known the longest, because we’re so far apart on the matter that we just talk past each other. And that only feeds into my perception of being alone. In this case, I really am.

Four

Allman Brothers Band – “Will The Circle Be Unbroken (Live)” (Youtube link)

Despite what you might think, this is technically not a religious song; it was originally written for a secular purpose, and the religious trappings were added later.

I’m a Southern man. Always have been, always will be. And this is a Southern anthem, part of that collective unconscious we share as a culture. Especially when it’s performed by one of the culture’s greatest acts.

Really, what else is left to say? I love who I am, where I live, the people I’m able to call neighbors. There’s no other part of the country or the world that I’d rather make my home. While I can’t share in every part of what it means to be a Southerner, this is a common ground, a place in the middle where I’m willing to meet. And it encompasses all of the themes I’ve been trying to speak here. The pain, the grief, and the hope of something better for someone, if not myself.

We all need to let these things out from time to time. For me, music gives voice to the thoughts I find so hard to speak. I want that to be true for as long as I live, and even beyond.

Review: The War To End All Wars

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.

Sarajevo

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.

Stormtroopers

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.

Dreadnought

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.

Hellfighters

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.

Christmas Truce

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.

Versailles

“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.