It seems like most of the big names in power metal have been set in stone for years. With very few exceptions, the last number of years have not risen many new bands to a level that can compete with giants like Helloween, Stratovarius, or Avantasia. And while Sabaton certainly cannot be considered new, their debut is much more recent than many of these other acts. For this reason, it is astounding just how quickly their popularity has skyrocketed over the last few years. It seems like they really took off around “Carlous Rex”, and each subsequent album promises to be bigger than the last.
This brings us to “The Last Stand”, which has been hyped beyond belief by Nuclear Blast. To their credit, this is a great album. The label made some major mistakes in terms of promoting it (more on that later), but this is Sabaton’s strongest album since the brilliant “Coat of Arms”. Let’s get one thing out of the way quickly: this band gets more and more derivative on each record. Sometimes you feel like a melody before, but this record has a few too many of those moments to be comfortable. This is mostly because Sabaton’s formula never changes. The only real change is that the guitars seem to fade further into the background on each release, while the keyboards get louder. Both of the first two songs, “Sparta” and “Last Dying Breath”, emphasize this change in focus with their monstrous choruses (the latter of which might be a top 5 Sabaton song ever).
The choruses tend to be the focus of this album. A lot of songs start out exciting and mellow out into a verse driven by Pär Sundström’s bass playing, only to build up into an immense chorus. Every song is so catchy it hurts, which works both in the band’s favour and to their detriment. Tracks like “Shiroyama” and “Rorke’s Drift” push the boundaries of memorability. If you don’t want to sing along to these songs, something is seriously wrong! Where this uncanny ability to writing catchy melodies hurts Sabaton is when the songs just aren’t that good. “Blood of Bannockburn” is the only truly weak song on the record (unsurprisingly, it was promoted as one of the singles). This track has a Celtic melody driven by bagpipes. Ironically, it actually has a killer riff underneath, but it is a little too drowned out. Fortunately, this song is a grower, and gets better with each listen, but it still stands out as a weaker moment. Another one of the singles, “The Lost Battalion”, is yet another grower, but it works much better in the context of the album, where it is preceded by a short narration from Jon Schaffer. This song is also notable for the fact that the drums were replaced by gun samples, making for an even more epic sound!
Those two tracks are definitely head-scratchers the first time around, but the remaining songs on the album are all fantastic. Relative to “Heroes”, this album features a lot more upbeat and energetic songs. As great as Sabaton’s previous record was, it did feel a bit lifeless at times, but there aren’t any songs on this album that feel sluggish, dull, or uninspired. Even if they aren’t unleashing their best melodies, Sabaton is providing something enjoyable.
One factor working in the band’s favour is the improvement in the guitar playing. On their second record together, Thobbe Englund and Chris Rörland sound a lot more comfortable together. Their shredding is much wilder and more impressive. Even with their older lineup, Sabaton was never really a shreddy band, instead opting for simpler, melodic solos. On “The Last Stand”, however, that has changed. This is a major improvement because most of their contemporaries have solos that are a lot more technically challenging, so it helps the band keep up, and because Sabaton’s music is already fairly simplistic, so this makes for a more diverse and less predictable experience.
There are few bands that are as true to their original sound as Sabaton. As uninventive as they have been over the last few years, it is difficult to deny how proficient they are as songwriters. Their formula has been perfected into short 3-minute bursts of energy. They are essentially a pop band in disguise at this point, and while that might not work for a lot of metal fans, it is easy to see why so many people love this band. If I want something more challenging, there are any number of bands to listen to, but as an exercise in fun, catchy music, Sabaton is second to none!
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"Last Dying Breath"
4.75/5 or 95%.
Written by Scott