It’s been two months since the last post in this series about my favourite rock and metal concept albums. All the previous albums in the series have been from the 70’s to the 90’s, but this time I’ve picked The Great War from 2019, by a group that I’ve only recently become familiar with, the Swedish heavy metal band Sabaton. They have been around for 20 years and early on in their career decided to focus their music on historical themes primarily related to war, after watching Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. I have to admit, I’m not comfortable writing about a band that celebrates mass destruction, but I do enjoy the music and hope that stays the focus of this post rather than the purpose behind their music or the type of fan base this may attract. Their previous efforts have included 2008’s The Art of War (about Sun Tzu’s military treatise) and 2012’s Carolus Rex about the rise and fall of the Swedish Empire during the 17th/18th century. The Great War is their ninth album and I got hooked onto it after hearing The Red Baron, a song about German flying ace Baron von Richthofen.
Albums: The Great War (2019)
Narrative theme/concept: Descriptions of famous battles and feats of heroism from the First Wold War
Best songs: Seven Pillars of Wisdom, 82nd All the Way, The Red Baron, Ghost in the Trenches
What makes it special: There is something strangely appealing about the no frills song-writing centered around band co-founder Joakim Brodén’s gruff speaking-style vocals punctuated by anthemic choruses and packaged within a tightly woven melodic musical structure. There isn’t a great deal of variation in the music from one song to the next, but by the same token the songs are all consistently good and are usually no more than 3-4 minutes long…no fillers or duds in this album. If you listen to the songs while reading the lyrics and accompanying notes on the Sabaton website, it becomes a sort of history lesson and brings alive the tragedy of war. One can only marvel and shudder at the conditions that these men fought under and the horrors they faced.
The best songs in the album are related to famous war heroes, each of whom have been the subjects of literary works and films over the years:
- The song Seven Pillars of Wisdom is named after the biography of T.E. Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia, and tells of his actions as the British liaison to the Arab forces fighting the Ottoman Empire during the First World War.
- One of my favourite songs in the album, 82nd All the Way recounts the heroic efforts of Sgt. Alvin York as a member of the 82nd Infantry Division in capturing German positions against overwhelming odds during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Sgt. York was one of the most decorated soldiers in US military history and was famously played by Gary Cooper in the 1941 biopic directed by Howard Hawks.
- The catchiest song in the pack and the one that introduced me to this album, The Red Baron, is about Baron von Richthofen, considered the greatest flying ace of all time, credited with 80 victories and killed by ground fire at the age of 25 a few months before the end of the war.
- A Ghost in the Trenches describes Corporal Francis Pegahmagabow’s heroism during the War, specifically the Battles of Passchendaele and Scarpe. He was an expert sniper credited with 378 kills and became the most decorated native American soldier in Canadian military history.
At nearly 5 minutes length, the longest song of the album is titled The End of the War to End All Wars. It has an epic feel, starting with a ballad-like intro, transitioning to choral backing vocals, then diving into full-blooded heavy metal riffs.
I am working my way through Sabaton’s back catalogue. Since a number of their other releases have been concept albums, I may end up writing about Sabaton again in this series.