Sabaton – Carolus Rex
I’d like to begin this review of the latest Sabaton album, Carolus Rex, by telling a story about the last concert I went to. I, together with several other Black Wind Metal writers, went to see Sabaton on May 15th in a headlining spot here in Minnesota. I myself had seen Sabaton about 9 months earlier when they opened for Evergrey, but I was the only member of our contingent to have seen the earlier show. Sabaton, in both their opening spot and their headlining spot, blew me away. They put on two of the best live performances I have ever seen. The things I heard from other members of Black Wind Metal after the headlining show (especially considering their prior misgivings about the band and their music) validated my claim that Sabaton puts on a fantastic live performance. If you have never seen them live, and you want a fun, energetic performance with a great crowd, I’d highly recommend their live show.
But this is not a review of their live show. This is a review of the band’s latest album, Carolus Rex, released just this week. Seeing Sabaton live is seeing Sabaton at their best. Their catchiest, most melodic, most driving, and most fun songs are the ones they include in their setlist because they are the ones their audience wants to hear. Sabaton has a number of these songs scattered across their 6 albums, but the vast majority of the remainder of their songs (and even a good number of those they play live) are extremely formulaic. Most of their songs follow the same verse-chorus-verse form, are generally all roughly the same tempo, and most have lyrics that are “cut from wikipedia articles about World War II,” to quote one of my Black Wind Metal compatriots. This doesn’t make the band bad – indeed much of their music is catchy and fun to listen to – but it does mean their music lacks experimentation, innovation, or genuine creativity. Carolus Rex seems to be one of their worst offenders on these grounds, though by no means is the album a bad album. There are very catchy moments, some fun moments, and if you enjoy Swedish history, perhaps some moments you will recognize, but largely the album sounds like you are hearing variations on the same song 10 times in a row.
On their first album, Primo Victoria, the lyrics almost exclusively about World War II were something of a novelty. It hadn’t really been done before (not in this way, at least), and the songs were catchy enough. Joakim Broden’s vocals are also distinctive in their own way (some will say a good way, others not so much.) The trap that Sabaton fell into is that of writing mid-paced power metal songs about War (mostly World War II)- and that this behavior can only go on for so long before it becomes repetitive. Sabaton wrote another great album with The Art of War, but the rest of their discography, including Carolus Rex is largely just a (limited) variation on a theme. In the case of Carolus Rex, the variation is Swedish.
At least on Carolus Rex, Sabaton has expanded well beyond World War II in terms of lyrical content. There isn’t a single song exclusively about the Second World War, nor is there a song specifically about any battles of World War II. In fact, much of the album concerns Swedish history. Most of the songs are still about wars or battles: “The Lion From The North” is about Gustavus Adolphus, “A Lifetime Of War” is about…well, a lifetime of war, and the title track is about Charles XII, a Swedish King in the 18th century who was at war for more than half his reign. Sabaton never really leaves the war theme, though this time they are targeting Swedish history rather than Nazi Germany. To properly understand the context of the lyrics, you may need to do a few google searches for these historical figures and who they are. Lyrically, if you’ve ever heard a Sabaton album before, you know what to expect. This band is consistent and predictable to a fault.
Musically, the album sounds similar to all the other Sabaton albums, though there is a heftier use of choral backing vocals, and even some female vocals. There are a wealth of mid-tempo power metal songs, with some decent riffs, some catchy choruses, but not nearly as many memorable songs as Sabaton produced on earlier albums. The riff on “Carolus Rex” is nice, and “The Lion From The North” is also a strong offering. The latter track is one of the faster paced tunes on the album and has some catchy, melodic vocal lines. “1648” also has a solid opening riff and “The Carolean’s Prayer” has my favorite vocal melodies on the album, despite being relatively slow-paced.
Picking a favorite song on an album like Carolus Rex is difficult, because so many of the songs sound similar, and all the songs use relatively basic structure, tone, and lyrics. However, if pressed, I think “Killing Ground” is probably the highlight of the album. It is about an old Swedish battle, but more importantly it has great riffing, is one of the faster songs on the album, and I love the chorus. Every person who listens to this album might have a different favorite song, because there aren’t any real standout tracks. That said, there are no standout tracks in either direction – none overwhelmingly great nor awful. Someone listening to this album won’t be disappointed, but won’t be awestruck either. It is a collection of 11 songs about Swedish history and war, and perhaps those knowledgeable about such matters will get some added enjoyment out of the songs. As an album however, it is nothing special. If you liked Sabaton before, you will like this album. If you did not like Sabaton before, this album will not change your mind. Primo Victoria, and The Art Of War are better albums.
Graham’s Rating: 3.25 out of 5