Swedish power metal band Sabaton puts historical spin on albums
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It’s war for power metal band Sabaton. While history’s epic battles have been curious fodder for countless documentaries and dramas as well as bookshelves of fiction and non-fiction, the Swedish quintet — whose name refers to a piece of medieval knight’s armor — has gone another route, making eight albums all conceptually linked to wartime.
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Their latest record, “The Last Stand,” for example, takes cues from famous defensive holdouts, such as the song “Sparta” about the Battle of Thermopylae led by Greek King Leonidas in 480 B.C. or the title track referencing The Stand of the Swiss Guard near the Vatican in year 1527. It’s an interesting context for fans of the band to engage in history (if they listen closely enough) and is something frontman Joakim Brodén enjoys revisiting every night while on tour. Their first headlining trek in America in four years, buoyed by a new band lineup, arrives May 1 at Concord Music Hall.
“It leaves a certain amount of freedom to [tell these kinds of stories] in only an audible style,” says Brodén. “I think especially with our kind of music, heavy metal in general, you can find real emotions in the riffs, anything from pride, happiness, aggression, depression, hatred — it can be put all into that context. So, being able to reinforce those emotions in lyrics, it’s powerful mix actually.”
Even though their home country of Sweden has remained notoriously neutral throughout history, the members of Sabaton say their passion for revisiting these epochs came out of a general interest in history and a search for something real in their lyrics.
“When we first started [in 1999], writing lyrics was a necessary evil. On our first album we were singing about anything related to heavy metal, riding motorcycles, drinking beer, whatever,” Brodén recalls, jeering at the cliches. “But we had this idea for a song called ‘Primo Victoria’ about D Day, and I said to our bass player [Pär Sundström], ‘People sacrificed their lives there, if we’re going to do this, we’re going to do this properly.’ Singing about something that was real all of a sudden became interesting.”
Sabaton ended up scrapping the rest of the songs already written for that album (which also came to be called “Primo Victoria”) and essentially their brand was born, complete with the camouflage apparel they often wear on stage and a desire to have a budget one day to create mini-documentary music videos with actors role-playing the battles featured in each song. “It was a happy accident,” says Brodén, joking that with the way of the world today there’s a lot left to explore. “It’s not like we will run out of material any time soon.”
One thing their music is never about, though, is parody. Sabaton spends months before an album cycle researching potential topics. “We always take a certain amount of pride that you can check the facts on everything we ever state in our lyrics,” says Brodén. Topics have also included Operation Desert Storm, the Iraq War, the Vietnam War and a whole album, “The Art of War,” devoted to the Chinese military bible written by General Sun Tzu in the 6th Century B.C.
Almost half of the ideas end up coming from fans, says Brodén. “So many times they’ll give us books when we’re on tour.”
Sabaton has been a brute force in Sweden and the rest of Europe where they have gone multi-platinum and taken home numerous “Metal Hammer” Golden God Awards. In their hometown of Falun, the band also hosts their own radio station as well as the Sabaton Open Air music festival and an annual Sabaton Cruise (the idea of Sundström’s after being personally offended by how much it cost for the band and crew to take a ferry to play a show in neighboring Finland). But America is another story, where their normal 12,000-capacity shows are lucky to draw 1,200.
“There’s pretty good metal scene in America, but it’s harder to reach out because there’s not the same kind of media,” Brodén theorizes. “In Europe it’s more common to read about anything from Iron Maiden or KISS in normal magazines than you can in America.”
Those bands, along with Judas Priest and Metallica, are often featured as bonus feature cover songs on each album. “We grew up listening to these guys. As teenagers we’d sit around drinking beer listening to [Priest’s] ‘Painkiller’ and thinking we should start a band. Directly or indirectly they are the reasons why we do what we do,” says Brodén, lamenting that some of their younger fans aren’t familiar with those idols or even the classical music they also love— since 2015 Sabaton has started performing special one-off gigs with full symphony orchestras.
“A lot of people made good music back in the day,” he says. “We hope that maybe if these kids like us we can introduce them to something else they’ll like too.”
It’s just one more way Brodén and his comrades will keep fighting the good fight.
Selena Fragassi is a freelance music writer.