I must admit I felt a certain amount of trepidation at the news that Sabaton’s 10th studio album would be a follow up to 2019’s “The Great War.” I don’t believe I was alone in my concerns that “The War to End All Wars,” the second album in a row to focus exclusively on World War I, could end up feeling like an afterthought, or an album full of B-sides. I am delighted to announce that these fears were misplaced and Sabaton clearly took the time afforded by the absence of tours in the last two years to really hone this album to a fine point.
On a first listen, my overall impression was of fairly standard Sabaton fare. I felt a little disappointed by the lack of high-octane, super fast-paced tracks. There is no immediately apparent equivalent to “The Red Baron,” “Blood of Bannockburn,” or “To Hell and Back,” for example, and there are many songs that have a very similar energy level. However, subsequent listens uncovered a nuanced, pensive, and strangely beautiful album.
This is a stroke of brilliance, as the album echoes the subject matter in a very interesting way. Big-picture studies of the First World War are a monotonous slog through mud and trench warfare, but closer inspection reveals small-scale tales of bravery, tactical and technological advancements, and a fascinating period of social change, the effects of which are still felt in the world today. Therefore an intimate, detail-oriented album, with each track adding something of its own to a cohesive whole, is a perfect fit for this particular conflict.
Musically, this is the Sabaton we know and love, but elevated. They show a continued maturation in their songwriting as well as individual improvements as musicians. Many songs are reminiscent of older work but with a twist. Joakim Brodén’s lead vocal lines have more varied melodies, the guitar work overall is more complex, and there are some interesting little ways of playing with time signatures here and there. These elements combined confirm that while Sabaton is not a surprising band in their overall sound, they are certainly still pushing themselves compositionally.
Each track features some musical component that highlights its subject matter, from new elements of warfare and specific groups or combat environments, to specific individuals or events. “Stormtroopers” is fast paced and urgent. “Dreadnought” has an inexorable, flowing tempo, which puts one in mind of the rolling waves of the sea in which these formidable ships were at home. Back to back singles “The Unkillable Soldier” and “Soldier of Heaven” are differentiated by the former’s upbeat power metal vibe and the latter’s 80s inspired synths and more sombre tone. “Hellfighters” is heavy and determined – a fitting ode to the predominantly African-American regiment, bold on the battlefield but often unrecognised until recently in their home country. “Lady of the Dark,” about the highly decorated Milunka Savić, is punchy and contains a key change that makes you feel like you, too, could single handedly capture 23 enemy combatants.
Thus far, “The War to End All Wars” is a collection of solid tracks, the result of resident band researcher Pär Sundström marinating in World War I and its implications for a few years now. However, it is the penultimate track, “Christmas Truce,” that ties it all together. Opening with keyboards that allude to “Carol of the Bells” (a now-popular Christmas tune first performed as such in 1916), “Christmas Truce” could very well have fallen into gimmicky holiday-song territory. Sabaton has avoided this masterfully, focusing, as they so often do, on the human element. The result is a heartfelt, sing-along anthem which I can’t wait to experience live, and which highlights the human cost of the war, casting all previous songs in this light. However, unlike previous songs about the abject tragedy of World War I (such as “The Price of a Mile” or “Cliffs of Gallipoli”), “Christmas Truce” is bittersweet, focusing on the common ground between supposedly enemy combatants. There is a kernel of hope that this friendship can overcome war, even for a short time.
Closing track “Versailles” punctuates the hopeful note of brotherhood on “Christmas Truce” with a gorgeous violin melody – triumphant, relieved, and grieving all at once. It speaks about the Treaty of Versailles and the end of the war, and for a moment you almost feel as if the eponymous War to End All Wars could have truly been that. However, that is not to be, as we know from history, and the song shifts to a more melancholic and ominous tone, hinting at the implications of the treaty, and asking us if war can really end war.
At this point I must mention some differences between the regular version and the history version of this album. The history version opens with the track “Sarajevo,” detailing the assasination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the factors leading to the start of the war. This mirrors “Versailles,” sonically and thematically bookending the album. The narration and historical commentary also keeps the history version rooted in a more introspective tone. On the flip side, the regular version has a punchier opening track and a faster-paced flow, making it more catchy and cohesive for regular listening. It’s the clear choice if you’re just in the mood for some Sabaton songs rather than a serious think about history. There are merits to each and I will be revisiting both versions many times.
“The War to End All Wars” is frankly the Sabaton album I didn’t know I wanted, and the Sabaton album we probably all need. Far from resting on their laurels and giving us a pale follow-up, they have really sunk their teeth into World War I and delivered a cohesive concept album with some stellar songwriting. If you want to jump around and bang your head you’ll be satisfied, but if you want some more thoughtful material that gains depth with each listen you will absolutely be rewarded.
Standout tracks: “Dreadnought,” “Lady of the Dark,” “Christmas Truce”
Release Date: 4th March 2022
Label: Nuclear Blast
Written By: Astrid
1. Sarajevo (History Version)
4. The Unkillable Soldier
5. Soldier of Heaven
7. Race to the Sea
8. Lady of the Dark
9. The Valley of Death
10. Christmas Truce