There exists a certain kind of terrible album. Not just albums that are bad or annoying, but albums whose core concepts and ideas are so fundamentally idiotic and broken that they were always going to fail. Albums that are so thin on anything worth engaging with on any level that they aren’t even worth deep, genuine consideration in the way most albums, no matter how bad they may be, are. The Great War is one such album; not only is it terrible, but it is a flat out non-starter. Just spelling out what it is at its core perfectly sums up why this is the case – it’s a bombastic, cheesy, formulaic pop/power metal concept album about the horrors of the First World War. There is no possible way a concept like that could ever have been executed right, it is that bad of an idea right out of the gate, an idea so bad that any attempt at will not only sound mindblowingly stupid and self-defeating, but also genuinely repugnant and difficult to listen to. Of course, this is nothing new for Sabaton, with much of their back catalogue focusing on the topic of war (with their last few albums being concept albums) and their music as of late tending towards the safer side of power metal, but it’s really with this album that their schtick finally rubbed me the wrong way enough to talk about it.
As stated, on a musical level this is not a significant departure for the band, which is a very big problem when The Last Stand was one of the most formulaic, sterile and tepid metal albums of 2016. In fact, this album sounds nigh indistinguishable from their last album, not just in style but in the individual ideas used, and thus the flaws of that album carry over too. The guitarwork, a seemingly endless series of the chord progressions we’ve heard before with not much punch or weight to them with not many riffs in sight, is one of many problems that plagued their last album and it’s just as big of a problem here. The marching, mid-paced drum beats across the album are a similar story; they all sound incredibly similar and get tiresome very quickly. The synths too like last time, are just layered and layered and largely bury the guitars in a wall of generic, uninteresting and flat-out annoying bombast. The production is of course incredibly glossy and sands whatever edge was left from the instrumentation, giving it a level of sheen reserved for a pop album, one that would doubtless be 400x better than anything on display here. All the songs follow the same predictable verse-chorus structure, and there are basically no twists and turns to be found in the performances or the writing. Pretty much the only saving grace are the vocals, which are gruff but can still carry a good melody; not something you hear very often, and it is appreciated here.
Of course, all of this by itself would make for an album that is pretty terrible, but not absolutely useless and loathsome. The problem is that this entire musical foundation has been built up to serve this idiotic concept; not just the specific WWI theme going on with this album, but the general approach to music Sabaton has had for years now, where they write this bland, sugary music to set lyrics about real life conflict to. Any positive statements one could make about the music – a catchy hook or melody here and there, the vocals, the general competence of the entire arrangement – are rendered entirely moot as it is nigh impossible to derive any enjoyment from them when put into the context of the album. And of course, the flaws become far more annoying when viewed through this lens, as how safe and boring and dolled up the music really is just feels so out of place. This highlights the ultimate issue with the album really – Sabaton do not and have never had the tact or investment to give the topics they cover the respect and proper context they deserve; their music for quite a while now has sounded like pure glorification of the conflicts they cover. Setting lyrics about real people in real conflicts that ended and ruined real lives, lyrics that try to convey the horrors of war but just end up glorifying battle and ‘our heroes’ to this Disney metal is… disgusting. And this is not me saying that every album about war has to be this grim, pulverising extreme metal opus; there are many straightforward trad metal bands that have covered war successfully, but their music has actual bite, tact, substance and grit to it, be it in the performances, the song and lyric writing, the production, the atmosphere etc. – all of which Sabaton’s music entirely lacks.
And then one has to consider not just Sabaton’s general schtick, but how it manifests on this album, where they chose to write about the First World War. One of the most grim, dark, bloody conflicts in all of human history. A conflict that until recently had people that survived to recount it. A conflict started by imperialist powers that did not like one another and were willing to forcibly sacrifice millions of their own men (and many more men from societies they colonised and brutalised) to settle their differences. A conflict that ancestors of myself (as British subjects in India) and my friends would have fought in and/or lived through; I’m sure many reading can say the same. It is a conflict that for these reasons strikes a real chord with me emotionally (I found 1917 to be a tearjerker.) This is the conflict and Sabaton decided to focus in on, and due to their tactlessness and detachment when making music on this matter they end up glorifying it all. And despite how detached these songs and the band members themselves may seem from the conflicts they write about, their entire schtick is anything but apolitical, as intentional or not, whitewashed, uncritical stuff like this basically entirely feeds into the glorification of the military and war that is so prevalent across many societies and a lot of history. I cannot assess the personal character of the band here; they certainly seem interested in war and well-read, but no matter how they feel about the topic the songs they end up writing just turn into these jolly singalongs that glorify some of the darkest points in human history, with seemingly no self-awareness. There is no grit or fire or ugliness to the presentation of it all, rendering this entire package to be the equivalent of casting Will Ferrell as the lead in 1917 and scoring it with that cutesy ukulele stock music we’ve all heard a billion times; it’s an absurd album that is revolting in how disrespectful it is. It is truly detestable and without question the worst metal album of the previous decade.
Lest We Forget.