Monday, 16 January 2017

Sabaton - London Review

Sabaton are one of those bands who seem to get bigger and bigger by the day. While power metal in general is in decline, or reduced to cult status, the Swedish band have managed to transcend this trend and have become household names now for even the most casual of metalhead. Their high-energy live shows are definitely a big factor in their growing popularity, and their willingness to tour anywhere and everywhere has certainly earned them plenty of respect. The last headline show of Sabaton's that I saw was in the small Hub venue in Plymouth, as part of an extensive UK tour in 2014 that took in many places off the usual beaten track. They were far too big for many of the venues they played, but this did not deter them and they stirred up excitement in clubs up and down the country. The next year I saw them at Bloodstock Open Air, as special guests to Friday night headliners Trivium, where Sabaton played to one of the biggest crowds of the weekend and were easily one of the bands of the festival. This current European tour, dubbed The Last Tour as it is in support of latest album The Last Stand, only took in a handful of UK dates this time around, but they were in venues that were far better suited to Sabaton's stature and ever-growing stage show. Their venue of choice in London was the large O2 Academy in Brixton, a venue I have only been to a couple of times before but is, I think, one of the better venues for live music in the city. The sloping floor ensures a good view wherever you stand, and the sound is always very clear. While the Academy was not sold out, there was still a very large crowd gathered throughout the evening, and the atmosphere throughout was excellent.

Fellow Swedish power metal rising stars Twilight Force must have hit the stage the minute the doors opened, as I could hear Battle of Arcane Might spilling out of the venue as I was still in the queue, but they treated the growing crowd to half an hour or so of their over-the-top Rhapsody of Fire-esque bombastic metal. It was only back in October that I last the band, as they supported Sonata Arctica at the Shepherd's Bush Empire, but this performance was stronger overall. The sound for one was better, and their complex, multi-layered sound sounded fresh and exciting, and much more dynamic than on their overly-compressed studio albums. Frontman Chrileon in particular impressed this time, with his high-pitched voice cutting easily through the swathes of metal beneath him and he managed to get the ever-growing crowd interested on what the band were doing. Flight of the Sapphire Dragon was one of the highlights of the set, with Lynd's (guitar) plentiful neo-classical soloing providing some of the best pure musical moments of the evening. The real highlight however was the anthemic Gates of Glory, a song with a massive chorus, and one that many in the crowd already seemed to know. Twilight Force are really starting to make a name for themselves now, and I doubt it will be too long before they attempt some UK headline dates of their own. The setlist was:

Battle of Arcane Might
To the Stars
Riders of the Dawn
Flight of the Sapphire Dragon
Gates of Glory
The Power of the Ancient Force
Knights of Twilight's Might

By the time special guests Accept hit the stage, the Academy was pretty much full and I am sure there were many in attendance who were there mainly to see the German Invasion-leading legends. The fact that Sabaton can get such a well-loved and influential band to support them speaks volumes of their popularity, but Accept treated it as their own show and went out there to wow everyone in attendance. With an industrial-themed backdrop the band stormed through an hour of heavy metal classics, mixed in with newer songs from their critically acclaimed recent run of albums, and had the whole crowd on side by the end. Frontman Mark Tornillo has given the band a real shot in the arm, and his rasping voice and strong stage presence is part of what makes the band so good live. Newer songs Stampede and Stalingrad got the set off to a great set, before the crowd were given a heavy metal history listen with the classics Restless and Wild and London Leatherboys. The latter in particularly impressed, with the whole band providing gang vocals throughout the catchy chorus, as founding member Wolf Hoffmann's (guitar/vocals) jackhammer riffs drove everything. Hoffmann actually took the spotlight more than Tornillo, often standing on a riser at the front of the stage to peel off solo after solo. New recruit Uwe Lulis (guitar/vocals) was content to stick to rhythm, but did join Hoffman on the riser for the dual solo in the ultra-classic anthem Fast as a Shark which was sung loudly by the enthusiastic crowd. This song was also a showcase for new drummer Christopher Williams who played the thrashy intro with ease, and just generally gave one of the tightest and well-disciplined sets of heavy metal drumming I have seen in a while. While the whole set was great, it ended particularly strongly. Teutonic Terror is probably the most well-known of their newer songs, and it was greeted by the crowd like an old friend, before their signature anthem Balls to the Wall saw the biggest crowd sing-along of the night up to that point. As predicted, Accept's set was a triumph and I hope some of the younger members of the crowd that might not have been familiar with the band's music before the show are now converted fans! The setlist was:

Restless and Wild
London Leatherboys
Final Journey
Princess of the Dawn
Fast as a Shark
Metal Heart
Teutonic Terror
Balls to the Wall

If anyone did not know what Sabaton were about, one look at their military-themed stage set would instantly give the game away. Sabaton's songs are all mini history lessons, telling stories of bravery and sorrow in war. This USP, combined with their high-energy stage presence, makes a Sabaton show always a spectacle, and this was no different. From the ever-present set opener Ghost Division, which opened with plenty of pyro and bangs, to the last notes of the encore, this was a top quality evening of live heavy metal and probably the best Sabaton show to date that I have seen. With a new album out, the setlist has undergone a rather large revamp, with many songs that have been ever-present for years seeing a well-earned rest. In fact, this was a very forward-looking set, with 10 of the 17 numbers played coming from the band's most recent two albums. The mid-paced fist-pumping anthem Sparta was the first of the new songs played and saw frontman Joakim Brodén, adorned in a Spartan helmet and cape, really get the crowd going. The song's chorus is made to be heard live and it did not disappoint! This was also the first Sabaton show I have seen with new boy Tommy Johansson (guitar/keyboards/vocals) and he acquitted himself very well with plenty of fluid soloing throughout the evening. Old and new songs sat well together throughout the set, and there were countless highlights for me. One of the early ones was The Last Stand's title track, which is one of my favourites from the new album, and it rocked the house like I always knew it would. The song's co-writer Chris Rörland (guitar/vocals) seemed even more animated during this one, and his solo came tearing out of the blocks with real melody. Halfway through the set the band performed The Final Solution acoustically, something which is very different from something you usually get at a Sabaton show. Johansson was behind the piano for this one, and the stripped back arrangement really helped bring the sombreness of the song's subject matter out even more. It was business as usual after this however, and when drummer Hannes van Dahl clambered back atop his tank drum riser after the little rest bite it was full steam ahead with Resist and Bite, with Brodén picking up a guitar to help bulk out the sound, and then Night Witches and The Lion from the North which are both fast-paced power metal tracks that always get the crowd going. The pace slowed a little again for the groove-based and rhythmic The Lost Battalion, before the rarely-played Union (Slopes of St.Benedict) brought the main set to a surprising but uplifting end. The roar of the crowd ensured there was more, and the ever-present Primo Victoria saw probably the largest amount of crowd noise and movement of the night. It is always one of the defining songs of a Sabaton show, and at this night in London it was no different. The show then came to an end with two newer numbers, Shiroyama from the new album and To Hell and Back from 2014's Heroes. The crowd was just as wild for these songs as they were for the older numbers, which shows that Sabaton's catalogue is great from front to back. They left the stage to a huge cheer, and once again showed why they are one of the most explosive live bands on the planet at the moment. The setlist was:

The March to War
Ghost Division
Blood of Bannockburn
Swedish Pagans
Carolus Rex
The Last Stand
Far from the Fame
Winged Hussars
The Final Solution
Resist and Bite
Night Witches
Dominium Maris Baltici
The Lion from the North
Diary of an Unknown Solider
The Lost Battalion
Union (Slopes of St. Benedict)
Primo Victoria
To Hell and Back

As predicted, this was a fantastic evening of live metal from three bands who gave it their all. While 2017 is not yet a month old, I would not be surprised to see this gig in my Gigs of the Year list when it comes to writing that come December!

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