2016, Nuclear Blast
Swedish “warfare metal” troupe Sabaton are 10+ years and 8 albums into their career and, at first glance at least, it is baffling that their star is still in its ascendancy. The European power metal boom ended a decade ago and most of the other big-hitters have either fallen by the wayside or are playing to smaller, more selective crowds these days. Here in 2016, Sabaton are even bigger in the UK currently than home-grown warriors Dragonforce, and that’s without the endorsement of any guitar-based videogames! They’ve forged a stellar reputation based on (literally) explosive live shows and of albums full of fist-pumping anthems; thankfully, The Last Stand is more of the same and should please old and new fans alike.
Many of Sabaton’s albums have a concept of sorts and The Last Stand is no different. From the Battle of Thermopylae to World War 2, each track here details a famous military defence against seemingly insurmountable odds. This could be construed as a metaphor for Sabaton’s career; not many bands (least of all one that makes quite an unfashionable kind of music) can survive the loss of 4 founding members at once and come out the other side arguably even stronger.
The general feel and format of the album is fairly similar to its predecessor, 2014’s Heroes, in that it has a short running time (about 36 minutes) and only one of its 11 tracks is longer than 4 minutes. It’s a delivery that distinguishes Sabaton somewhat from many of their European melodic metal peers; they eschew drawn-out epics in favour of short, sharp assaults on the senses. This is no lo-fi punk rock record though; Sabaton’s trademark, layered and bombastic sound is as potent as ever here. Things kick off in cinematic fashion with “Sparta”, a track that wouldn’t have looked out of place on the soundtrack to 300. A militaristic keyboard fanfare sets the tone, complemented by pounding drums, crowd chanting and a steady fist-pumping rhythm. It’s the sort of thing that will generate much audience participation in a live setting; an ideal track to open both an album and a show.
Regular Sabaton listeners will notice that there’s a prevalence of keyboards to beef up the “wall of sound” on The Last Stand, which Heroes was lacking somewhat. This is most evident on “Blood of Bannockburn”, the track that’s perhaps most likely to become a permanent setlist fixture. Organ and bagpipes combine superbly with the impassioned, bellowing vocal delivery of singer Joakim Broden: “Join the Scottish Revolution/Freedom must be won by blood” could one day be as popular a Sabaton lyric as “Through the gates of hell/as we make our way to heaven”. It is one of a few songs on The Last Stand though that is arguably too short; less than 3 minutes in length, “Blood of Bannockburn” is over and done with all too soon (one of the few occasions where a more epic approach would have been better).
Sabaton are one of those bands whose increased popularity is arguably more as a result of their live shows than their recorded output. Luckily, just about every track on The Last Stand sounds like it was meant to be performed live. Rorke’s Drift is a fast, frantic number that expertly evokes its dramatic subject matter, the Zulu War. The title track is one where you find yourself singing along to both the vocals AND the guitars. Somewhat reminiscent of Avantasia’s “Sign of the Cross” (in terms of both its central riff and Catholic Church-themed lyrics), it has the kind of relentless rhythm that’ll get the crowds bouncing along. And “Shiroyama”, about the last stand of the Samurai, contains a perfect Dragonforce-esque Japanese video game melody, with another great singalong chorus. However, as with “Blood of Bannockburn”, it could do with being slightly longer.
This is not a perfect album but, quite frankly, that hardly matters. As long as Sabaton remain fun, energetic and, of course, educational, their fans won’t be disappointed. The fact that some tracks on The Last Stand are perhaps too short or repetitive (“Last Dying Breath”, “The Lost Battalion”) hardly matters, as they all embody the power and enthusiasm that have served this band well for 8 albums and counting. They’re not reinventing the wheel nor really doing anything that they’ve not done countless times before but that’s not why people listen to this band. There’s an awful lot of history out there; if The Last Stand is anything to go by, Sabaton are still clearly more than up to the task of making it all come to life.