War – what is it good for?: Sabaton return to WW1 with ‘The War to End All Wars’
For heavy metal, war is an object of fascination that can border on the fetishistic. When Black Sabbath founded the genre in the late sixties, they were playing back their parents’ trauma from the Second World War in music that roared, stuttered and screamed. They went on to appropriate Nazi iconography when they used the Schutzstaffel S’s on the cover of 1973’s ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’. This started metal’s flirtation with the wrong side of that conflict. Heavy music is (in part) supposed to explore the extreme edges of the human experience. It follows that war is compelling subject matter. But it can take a turn towards the exploitative, and sometimes the downright sinister.
Sweden’s heavy-metal military obsessives Sabaton are releasing a second album themed around the First World War, ‘The War to End All Wars’. The title of this new record is a phrase attributed to President Woodrow Wilson. It originally stems from a 1914 book by H.G. Wells called ‘The War That Will End War’. The expression wraps together both the idealism and cynicism that took hold between 1914 and 1918. The First World War was a conflict like no other, where deadly new technology was deployed, millions died, and the modern world was born.
Sabaton (named for the medieval equivalent of a steel toe-cap boot) explored WW1 in depth on 2019’s ‘The Great War’. After its release they felt that one album wasn’t adequate to cover a years-long conflict of that scale and significance. They knew there were many more stories to tell. When I spoke to him, drummer Hannes Van Dahl told me that the new record is ‘a sequel or big brother’ to the previous album.
‘The War to End All Wars’ doesn’t attempt to capture the immensity and complexity of the war. Instead it offers different perspectives within WW1’s vast theatre of conflict. Van Dahl points to “Hellfighters”, the album’s most aggressive song, that explores a lesser-known part of WW1 history. It concerns the 369th Infantry Regiment, aka the 'Harlem Hellfighters', part of the New York Army National Guard. This was formed of African-American soldiers as well as men from Puerto Rico, Cuba, Guyana and elsewhere. Vocalist and principal songwriter Joakim Brodén sings of the regiment’s ‘6 months of hell’ at the edge of the Forest of Argonne in northeastern France on the Western Front. They were the first combatants to reach the river Rhine.
One of the album’s singles, “The Unkillable Soldier” is emblematic of the band itself. Its subject, the Belgian-born British officer Adrian Carton De Wiart, fought in four wars over six decades. He lost an eye, a hand and sustained multiple excruciating injuries in the process. Before he died (outside of conflict) in 1963 aged 83, De Wiart wrote: ‘Frankly I had enjoyed the war.’
The same might be said of Sabaton, who here make blood-pumping anthems of the bullet-ridden chapters of WW1's history. Van Dahl is more wary of De Wiart: ‘I think though, just to write something like that, you have to be totally out of your mind,' he says.
"The Unkillable Soldier" is prime Sabaton. It begins with a flourish that wouldn’t sound out of place in a broadway musical. Then it is all galloping palm-muted riffs, stabbing synths and a fist-raising chorus about someone who took war and injury in his stride. ‘At the edge of madness, in a time of sadness/ An immortal soldier, finds his home,’ Brodén sings. This tribute to the soldier’s indefatigability is undermined somewhat by the song’s video. In it, the actor playing De Wiart is attended by a stereotypical ‘sexy nurse’ in a field hospital.
As comfortable as Sabaton are on their musical battlefield, they walk a fine line between the well judged and tasteless. Their strident heavy metal sometimes can’t help but sound like it is glorifying some of the harrowing atrocities it describes, even if the opposite effect is intended.
On 2014’s ‘Heroes’ and 2016’s ‘The Last Stand’ albums Sabaton celebrated the achievements of soldiers on different sides of multiple conflicts. They left it to the listener to untangle how to feel about it. Theirs is the province of heavy metal in general, where the sublime, the dubious and the ridiculous are kept so close to one another that they become one and the same.
‘We've never taken ourselves very seriously,’ says Van Dahl. ‘But we've always taken our music and the stories very seriously.’
Sabaton are something of a juggernaut, particularly in mainland Europe where they routinely sell out arenas. Van Dahl speaks of the ‘happy vibe’ and ‘theatricality’ of their live shows. Onstage, the band dresses up in camo, surrounded by the accoutrements of warfare. Van Dahl twirls his drumsticks behind a kit set up within a model of a huge tank. He adds that ‘there will be moments in the show which are more serious as well’.
For fans who want to go deeper, Sabaton even has its own history channel on YouTube. It is a collaboration with historian Indy Neidell. They publish fact-based explanations of their songs on their website and make any necessary retrospective corrections to the lyrics onstage. They consult experts when they feel unsure about something. Their live show is, in Van Dahl’s words, an ‘escape from reality’, even if it is rooted in the inescapable truths of the history of conflict. According to two great fiction writers, war can be seen as either a failure of language (Margaret Atwood), or man’s ability to be a thinking animal at all (John Steinbeck).
On ‘The War to End All Wars’ Sabaton has sharpened its craft. Brodén’s sandpaper baritone is bolder and he reaches for big singalong melodies throughout the album. Sabaton have pared the songs to the bone. Guitar solos are effusive and exuberant, in the vein of fellow countryman Yngwie Malmsteen. He also released an album called ‘War to End All Wars’ in 2000. Van Dahl’s presence is felt throughout, pushed ‘like hell’, he says, by guitarist Chris Rörland. Rörland himself first heard the band before he joined it while he was doing military service.
When Van Dahl first joined Sabaton in 2014 from Evergrey, he was taken aback by the demands of playing live. The material was simpler to play than Evergrey's on the surface. But one song might demand over five minutes of fast-paced double bass drum, then the band would immediately switch into a ballad. The drum breaks at the beginning of “Dreadnought” on 'The War to End All Wars' see Van Dahl take command on an album where the band’s chief concern is serving the songs.
This leads to some surprises. “Soldier of Heaven” opens with an electronic drum sound and is underpinned by keyboards throughout. The song has a strong pop sensibility. Van Dahl and the band stay in the pocket so that its lyric is clear and its chorus can soar. Sabaton’s choruses on this album rattled around my head for days and days. It made me wonder whether the band have been focused on writing deliberately big and bold hooks.
‘I think the moment you sit down and say, “Okay, I'm going to write a hit,” I don't think it's really going to work,’ says Van Dahl. ‘Unless you're
Throughout ‘The War to End All Wars’, Sabaton’s music is energetic, uplifting and, yes, fun. "Soldier of Heaven" concerns the Alpine Front, which ran along the border between Italy and Austria-Hungary. High in the mountains, soldiers were lost to the elements as well as in battle – ‘frozen in time’ as Brodén sings.
Ernest Hemingway set his 1929 novel ‘A Farewell To Arms’ in this region. It was inspired by his time volunteering in the ambulance service in Italy in 1918. There is a famous passage in the book where he writes:
‘If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.’
In the case of “The Christmas Truce”, Sabaton's song about the brief respite when German and British troops in the trenches exchanged gifts and played soccer in no man's land on Christmas Day 1914, it is about affirming the strength of our humanity in its broken places. They come back to the chorus a cappella – ‘And today we're all brothers/Tonight we're all friends’. This moment will surely be bellowed, like all the best Christmas songs, for years to come at Sabaton’s shows.
The band celebrated its twentieth anniversary at the Wacken festival in 2019, by taking over its two main stages which sit side-by-side in the main arena. They were joined by several former members and thundered out of the dual stages simultaneously. Sabaton planned the headlining show for years and spent a five full days solidly rehearsing beforehand. Van Dahl describes a feeling of serene calm; of the band being so well prepared he could thoroughly enjoy himself.
That night Sabaton opened the show with “Ghost Division”, which rolls out like the Nazi Panzer division it describes. It was led by Rommel and cut through France in 1940 during the Second World War. There’s something undeniably weird about a Swedish band headlining a major German festival and opening with a song about Nazi tactical superiority. “Ghost Division” (from 2008’s ‘The Art of War’) has long been a lightning rod for controversy. A Russian politician caused a fuss about it so that the band was excluded from a concert to mark the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad. Sabaton wrote a song about Stalingrad itself way back in 2005 on their debut album, ‘Primo Victoria’.
But what exactly is the difference between Sabaton recounting the attack of a tank division hopped up on the methamphetamine Pervitin and other metal bands depicting Viking Berserkers raping and pillaging off their heads on psychedelic drugs? Well, time elapsed is one factor and context is another.
For their fans, Sabaton operate in the bardic tradition of storytelling with a dispassionate view on the events they write about. The band argues there is little difference between what they are doing and the portrayal of the Nazis in countless war movies.
But the great wars of the twentieth century are still being felt to this day. Fascism has not gone away. In fact, it is resurfacing in many places. I’m writing this piece on the day that Russia has invaded Ukraine. When I asked Van Dahl (we spoke on the eve of the invasion) about whether the prospect of a new conflict in Europe has created an unforeseen resonance for ‘The War to End All Wars’, he dodged the question: ‘That I don't know: I couldn't comment on that. I know too little about it. I don't think we should ask drummers too many serious questions in general! So I don't know.’
Would Sabaton ever consider documenting an ongoing conflict?
‘No, I don't think it's ever gonna happen,’ Van Dahl replies. ‘Because it is still history we're doing and for it to be history, it has to have started, and then it has to have ended. And it needs to be pretty clear, or very clear, what exactly happened and how. Because then, I think, if you go into that , it's very hard not to take any sides. And we never take any sides. It’s history telling – from those different perspectives, but it's still history. Whether you like it or not.’
However, history is not neutral. Like any historian, Sabaton make choices about what they write about and with that comes a degree of responsibility. Their music is entertainment first and education second. They work hard to get the facts right, but sometimes it's hard to understand their motivation. It’s also true that their evident sense of awe at some historical weaponry is not confined to them. They made the music video for 2019’s “Bismarck” (about the German battleship) with Wargaming, who make the popular 'World of Tanks' game. The game launched Sabaton’s own Primo Victoria custom tank in 2017.
Sabaton also helped save the Heugh Battery Museum in the UK from closure with funds from a specially designed T-shirt. The museum stands on the site of the only British World War One battlefield. As a thank-you, the museum's manager has invited the band to fire its 25-pounder gun on the eve of the new album’s release. The band can’t seem to help preserve history without participating in it in some way.
In June 2019, I took a ferry back to England from France after the 75th anniversary commemorations of the D-Day landings. The boat was packed with veterans of WW2, serving soldiers, random holidaymakers like me, and what I can only describe as hobbyist military-history enthusiasts. As the vehicles disembarked from the ferry, the majority of military vehicles were decommissioned trucks that were being driven by the enthusiasts. These are Sabaton’s people – they respect history but get a good kick out of playing with the toys as well.
But Van Dahl points out there are a large number of fans who come to their shows simply to enjoy some heavy metal. It’s not all 'World of Tanks' gamers who curate two-hour playlists of the band’s music to accompany their gaming.
‘The War to End All Wars’ concludes with “Versailles”, named after the treaty that ended the First World War. It contains the most joyful of the album's huge choruses: ‘Signed a treaty to change the world/Tensions fall and a peace is unfurled’. But the album ends on a wary note, as its narrator Bethan Dixon Bate (who also opens the album) hints at sinister forces at play: ‘In the underground something is growing in the dark. Because for some the war never ended. War will never entirely die, it will evolve, it will change and war will return, sooner than we think.’
This is the conundrum at the heart of Sabaton’s music. There is a never-ending well of human conflict that they can use for inspiration. But, as "Versailles" acknowledges, war keeps evolving. As a new war develops closer to home, it could cast this album in an uneasy light. Our current geopolitical situation might have some darker truths to reflect back at Sabaton than anyone anticipated.
At heart, I think Sabaton understands this and is an empathetic band. This is why even their stories of triumph are often tempered with tragedy; and the mighty periods of conflict they write about are perceived through the minutiae of their human participants.
Sabaton's tenth album, The War to End All Wars, arrives March 4th via Nuclear Blast Records. Order the album - HERE