Saturday, 17 September 2016

Sabaton's 'The Last Stand' - Album Review

While the power metal genre on the whole is slowly in decline, it's glory years behind it, one exponent of the genre continues to go from strength to strength. I am of course talking about Sweden's Sabaton, who's career continues to blossom despite releasing their eighth album, The Last Stand, last month! There are many bands out there who have never reached their eighth album, let alone see their star rise at the same trajectory as Sabaton's still is, so this is achievement is something not to be understated. Despite having their feet firmly rooted in the power metal camp, Sabaton have always worn their love for traditional heavy metal on their sleeves. Foregoing the traditional power metal clichés of high-pitched vocals and lightning-fast guitar solos, Sabaton have much more in common with bands like Judas Priest and Accept than they do with bands like Helloween. This is probably one of the secrets of their success, and as a result they appeal to a wide range of metal fans. The lyrical niche the band have carved for themselves has always played a part in their success. The historical themes are not unique to Sabaton, but few bands have done it with as much passion. Founding members and main songwriters Joakim Brodén and Pär Sundström really know their stuff, and their keen interest in military history is infectious and instills a thirst for knowledge. There are few bands that will have you flicking through Wikipedia articles after listening to their albums! Sabaton are survivours too, having survived a major line-up overhaul in 2012 that would have crippled a lesser band. The Last Stand is the second album with the post-2012 line-up, and follows on nicely from 2014's Heroes (which I reviewed here). Heroes reigned in some of the over-the-top theatrical and cinematic elements that the band had experimented with on 2012's Carolus Rex in favour of a more guitar-driven metal album that saw the band return to their roots somewhat. It was well-received, so the band have wisely followed a similar path on The Last Stand. That being said, Brodén's keyboards are much more prominent this time around and that gives the album a strong 1980s vibe at times, with some pretty retro synthesiser sounds used at times! As a result, The Last Stand sounds like a bit of a mix of Heroes and Carolus Rex which works well and the songwriting style used here is pretty typical of the band's past work. It is also the last Sabaton album that will feature the guitar skills of Thobbe Englund who left the band amicably after the album was fininshed. Tommy Johansson (Golden Resurrection) has joined the band as his replacement, but does not feature at all on The Last Stand.

Sabaton albums always start with a bang and this one is no exception. The mid-paced anthem Sparta, which is set to be a live favourite for years to come, opens with a majestic keyboard-driven motif with ringing power chords and Hannes van Dahl's rolling drums. The verses are quite sparse, with Sundström's growling bassline taking the lead as Brodén's low voice tells the first of many epic tales told on this album. While never a fast song, Sparta packs a serious punch throughout, and especially during the chorus which sees good use of gang vocal sections, and soaring vocal melodies that have become the band's trademark. It is one of the most instantly memorable Sabaton songs from the past few years, and is an instant classic. Last Dying Breath picks up the pace, but the keyboard-heavy sound remains as the guitars intertwine underneath. The verses have a classic Judas Priest feel, with a simple, driving rhythm that makes the most of Brodén's deep vocal style. While not possessing much of a chorus, the reprise of the song's intro riffs serves as such, as the pulsing keyboards rolls back time into the 1980s. Chris Rörland's guitar solo is quite lengthy too, with a good mix of fast shredding runs and slower, atmospheric sections. Blood of Bannockburn is a song that I did not like when I first heard it. It was released online prior to the album's release and it sounded very weak compared to Sabaton's older songs. While my opinion on the song has improved somewhat since, it is still the weakest song on the album for me. The fact the song was written in a major key makes the song stick out terribly with a strange, upbeat vibe to it, and the bagpipe melodies clash with the guitars. That being said there is a good, but short, Hammond Organ solo from Tomas Sunmo that adds something different to the established Sabaton sound. After the sombre spoken word piece Diary of an Unknown Soldier, which features the voice of fellow military history enthusiast Jon Schaffer (Iced Earth; Sons of Liberty), comes The Lost Battalion which is a good old-fashioned Sabaton romp. Much has been made of the gun samples used to make the drum sounds on this song and it sounds great, giving the song a rhythmic pounding feel that helps to bring the story in the lyrics to life. Englund's mournful guitar solo fits the song really well, and the chorus is one of the most memorable on the album. Sabaton have a great knack for using backing vocals to their advantage, and the huge choir amassed for this purpose really shines here and helps bring the song to life. Rorke's Drift is less keyboard-focused and sounds like a song left over from the Heroes sessions. As a result it has a heavier overall feel, with some great speedy guitar riffing and drumming that allows van Dahl to cut loose somewhat. It is a high energy song, which sits well after the mid-paced power of the previous song. It always features a great dual-guitar solo which sees the band's two guitarists trading leads and peeling off each other perfectly.

The album's title track is up next and it is my favourite song on the album. It contains all the classic Sabaton traits, and is based around a fantastic mid-paced piece of music with a great story about the Swiss Guard to match. Brodén sounds even more inspired than usual on this song, and delivers what could be one of his greatest vocal performances ever. The religious imagery of the lyrics, and the story they tell, gives this song a unique feel, and Rörland's neo-classical solo is the icing on the cake. If someone was to ask me what was so great about Sabaton's music, I think this is the song that I would play them as it really contains everything that has made them so successful. After the majesty of the album's title track, the metallic Hill 3234, comes in like a steamroller with a thrashy main riff. This is another song out of the Heroes mould, and features some more technical guitar work than is usual on this album. The two guitarists mix intricate passages together well, and dominate the song with little interference from the keyboards. Most Sabaton songs feature quite simple guitar passages which help to emphasise the power of the melodies, but sometimes it is great to see them cut loose with more technical lines. Shiroyama features some of the most parp-tastic keyboards in the band's whole career and makes you wonder if Brodén has been listening to lots of Survivor recently! The song's verses are fairly non-desrcipt, as the whole song is built around an extremely powerful chorus that dominates. It is one of the more memorable moments on the album, and is sure to be a highlight of any future live show. Winged Hussars is another masterful display of mid-paced metal from a band who do it so well. Structurally this is similar to Sparta, with bass-driven verses and an extremely powerful chorus that makes good use of strong gang vocals. The main keyboard riff is ridiculously cheesy, but works well in the context of the song, even if it sounds like something Europe would have written around the time of The Final Countdown! The song is pure power however, and shows that metal does not always have to played at break-neck speed to achieve this. The album's final song, appropriately called The Last Battle, opens with a guitar/keyboard combination that is sure to get anyone pumped up, and the rest of the song does not disappoint. It is a simple song that really just plays to the band's strengths and has the feel of a victory lap after an album that is packed full of classic power metal anthems. Overall, The Last Stand is another great addition to the strong Sabaton discography and, the weaker Blood of Bannockburn aside, will probably be seen as one of the band's better albums in the future. This album will almost certainly appear in my Albums of the Year list come January, and it will more than deserve it's place. As a final note, the delux edition also comes with a couple of extra songs (including a good cover of Judas Priest's All Guns Blazing) and bonus DVD featuring a full live show filmed in France earlier this year. This is one delux edition that is well worth the extra few quid!

The album was released on 19th August 2016 via Nuclear Blast Records. Below is the band's promotional lyric video for Sparta.

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