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Album review: Sabaton - The Last Stand

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★★★★☆

When speaking to Sabaton co-founder and bassist Pär Sundström last February, he teased that, much like in their 2014 effort Heroes, “We have pretty much settled on tackling one topic for the next album […] There are a lot of song ideas, not so many completed songs yet.”

Six months down the line, the band’s ideas have finally come to fruition. The Last Stand, Sabaton’s eighth studio album, is here and its “one topic” is exactly what it says on the tin.

The entire record deals with historical, defensive battles: the infamous “last stands” of war.

As apt as its title may seem, a better name for it would simply be The “Fuck Yeah!” album. Because that’s what its listeners are going to be screaming at the top of their lungs as they experience this new, visceral slice of unfettering power metal.

The epic scale of The Last Stand is established astonishingly early with ‘Sparta’, which tackles the Greeks defending themselves against the invading Persians in the Battle of Thermopylae.

In recent years, films like 300 have taken this topic from historical fact straight into the realm of epic myth, so having it open your album is an act that sets the bar extraordinarily high very early on.

Even with that in mind, ‘Sparta’ smashes to success in what could be one of the most enjoyably grandiose opening tracks in heavy metal history.

After an ominous, ten-second build-up, it pounds its way into existence with matching, slow-paced electric guitar chords and drum beats being accompanied by empowering synthesisers. Lead vocalist Joakim Brodén – as well as what sounds like an army of backing vocalists – breaks into deep, war dance-like chants. The first verse becomes much more subdued, but it only lets itself build to ‘Sparta’’s intense chorus.

How this track was not chosen as a lead single, it is impossible to tell. While The Last Stand will go on to remain brilliantly strong throughout its runtime, nothing else on the album reaches the dizzying heights of its starting track.

‘Last Dying Breath’ keeps the momentum flowing, following the classic Sabaton structure much closer than its predecessor, before breaking into second single ‘Blood of Bannockburn’.

In what is quite possibly the best integration of bagpipes into metal since Eluveitie, the song tells of the Battle of Bannockburn, where a group of Scottish soldiers defended a recently-sieged castle from English attackers.

The primary strength of ‘Blood of Bannockburn’ is the perennial link between its music and lyrics; the bagpipes fit the theme of the track, demonstrating that extra step that Sabaton take in memorialising the topics they discuss not only lyrically, but also in tone and instrumentation.

The spoken word ‘Diary of an Unknown Solider’ leads into ‘The Lost Battalion’, an entry that succeeds almost entirely because of its choir-like vocal delivery, especially in its introduction and choruses. The same can be said for ‘Rorke’s Drift’, with the exception of the song’s guitar-work; its opening and chorus riffs are easily the best on the record.

The title track marks a return to prominence for the synthesisers in another track that is, honestly, better than both of The Last Stand’s leading singles combined.

‘Hill 3234’ and ‘Shiroyama’ follow, both sounding like they were genetically engineered to be played in a live setting, the former song especially; its bridge consists of roaring chants that are obviously intended to draw interaction from a large crowd. Picturing Sabaton returning to a massive festival like Wacken or Download with one of these cuts entered into the setlist will be enough to give hardcore fans chills.

‘Winged Hussars’ begins and instantly sounds eerily similar to the riff from an earlier Sabaton song: ‘Uprising’ from their 2010 Coat of Arms album. This in turn immediately makes this the worst song on the record for long-time fans, since it will basically distract them every time that riff breaks out. But it you aren’t familiar with ‘Uprising’, you’ll love ‘Winged Hussars’ just as much as you love the rest of the record.

‘The Last Battle’ is a perfectly solid closing chapter for The Last Stand, again following the classic Sabaton formula seen on ‘Last Dying Breath’. While it doesn’t stick out as well as ‘Sparta’, ‘Blood of Bannockburn’ or ‘The Last Stand’, it is far from leaving the listener with a sour taste in the mouth.

So even though The Last Stand is a truly fantastic Sabaton record – their second-best behind 2012’s Carolus Rex – and probably the most adrenaline-pumping album of 2016, there is no denying it is littered with a handful of small missteps that stop it from entering into “album of the year” contendership; ‘Winged Hussars’ sounds far, far too much like ‘Uprising’, while cuts like ‘The Last Battle’ and ‘Last Dying Breath’ aren’t quite as memorable as their counterparts.

But these are doubtlessly nit-picks, and while The Last Stand may not be the best record of 2016, it is definitely in the top ten. When Sabaton succeeds on this album’s many high-points, it truly entices and enchants the listener.

Fans of this Swedish juggernaut will be extremely far from disappointed upon hearing it for themselves. It serves as a brilliant farewell to guitarist Thobbe Englund, who will be sadly but amicably leaving the group after their latest touring cycle.

Check out our interview with Sabaton bassist Pär Sundström here.

The Last Stand will be available physically and digitally via Nuclear Blast Records on 19th August.

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