Enter the new Sabaton, same as the old Sabaton. Or Sabaton 2, whichever metaphor you find more fitting. I had a bad feeling when the first time I saw it on RYM, it’s score was super inflated. That’s always a sign of fanboys, which is always bad. I also had images in my head of my roomate blasting Carolus Rex and singing along much louder than needed flashing in my head. So not off to a good start. I also happen to have a distaste for most symphonic metal, so even seeing that tag, especially next to the power metal tag, is always a bit of a red flag for me. Regardless, I hadn’t done a review in 3 days (busy helping my dad move), so I figured what the hell, might as well.
First thing that stood out to me was the the synths were actually quite good. There were definitely points where I almost couldn’t tell if they had hired an orchestra or not. You can often tell if a symphonic metal album is going to be good by the quality of their synths, and these certainly checked out. For the most part. There are times where it seems like they used almost intentionally bad, retro sounding synths, which I guess fits in with the theme of old history, but I don’t think the 1980s is the period they wanted to harken back to. The driving rhythm that moves along many of the tracks on this album is nice in that it isn’t rhythm based on chugging, but on actual rhythm guitar and drums. You know, how music normally works. The vocals are legitimately epic sounding, while at the same time not sounding cheesy at all, which is a stunning accomplishment for a power metal album in my mind. That’s typically a one or the other kinda deal. They’re also extremely clear with their lyrics, as in you can hear every word, which is certainly something even in power metal. This especially helps me, as I’m pretty damn retarded at hearing lyrics. And while Gods and Generals doesn’t really focus on riffs too heavily, it does have a guitar focus, something that’s missing from countless other Symphonic Metal bands (see the Cain’s Offering review). So overall, the foundations of the album are solid. It does most everything it needs to do right, right, and doesn’t do too many things particularly wrong. A good start.
Going back to the guitar focus, while this album doesn’t focus on riffs, it does focus strongly on melody. Strong and clear melodies. With choruses even! I know that’s not supposed to be something to get excited about, power metal is supposed to have a chorus generally, but the song structure and melody line is just so clear and out front that it’s a joy to hear. Mind you, it’s not really a joy of “wow this is so entertaining and pleasing to listen to!” as more as it is a joy of “wow I finally don’t have to deal with the bullshit, I can just get right into the meat and potatoes of music”. Which is really what this album is about, just getting down to what song is all about. None of this prog bullshit, or any other atmospheric bullshit, or any of the various bullshit metal as a genre throws at you to get away from what song is all about: melody. I once saw an analysis of why people don’t think of today’s video game music as good as older video game music. It wasn’t because today’s music has gotten worse, it’s because today’s video game music generally doesn’t focus on melody. For instance, you can’t hum any of the Gears of War music. So why did older music focus on melody more? It wasn’t because they had some secret to making popular music stored in the composers brains or something, it was because they had to. Why? Because they had less to work with. An NES only has so much memory it can fit in a game, that the songs need to take up less room. Consequentially, the songs have less tracks, so what you do make has to count. So how do you make great music with less tracks? You focus the melody. And that’s exactly what Civil War does with Gods and Generals. Every single track has a clear melody line, without too many moving parts and harmonies, that anyone can follow along with. There’s a reason my friend was singing along to what he was listening to, this is very sing-alongable music. There’s also strong structure in the songs, with an intro, first verse, bridge, chorus, second verse, chorus, maybe a solo in there, refrain, end. This is very standard in almost all music, but in metal this is actually not seen very much, at least not in such a clear and obvious manner. Ironically, by being so standard, Civil War actually manages to be extremely refreshing and new.
But at the same time, this is the modern world, and in today’s world, you need more than just a strong grasp of melody and structure to be good, you need the ornaments. This album certainly does deliver ornaments, though I wouldn’t say in spades. Tracks like Braveheart have a nice quirk to them in the way the piano is used, it sounds almost sounds it belongs more in a musical than a metal album, with it’s rhythmic chord repetition accompanying the recanting of a tale of a scottish soldier. It’s cheesy as hell, but it’s a good kind of cheese. There’s the kind of cheese that makes you groan with how awful it is, and there’s the kind of cheese that makes you smile, let go, and have fun. This album is in the latter category. While this record doesn’t have an excessive amount of that, it has just enough to not take the serious nature of the subject matter too seriously.
However the album does take a very serious, and even dramatic turn in the last 3 tracks, in which all 3 are epic ballads of various subject matter, the last of which, the title track Gods and Generals, being generally about war itself, and how much of it is pointless and they’ll all die anyway, but it’s ok because they’ll die fighting with their brothers in arms. It’s an extremely fitting end to the album that simultaneously sounds depressing as hell, but with a hint of optimism. That hint of optimism is really what makes this album enjoyable. Nobody wants to listen to a power metal album and then feel extremely sad afterward, that’s like asking for a happy ending at a massage parlor, only for the masseuse to tell you how she’s abused at home by her husband while she’s giving it to you. There are certain things that are better left unsaid in certain situations. Being as the 10th and final track on this album does give you that optimism, I’ll say it avoided the musical sad handjob. And it’s not as if the other tracks in this mini-section aren’t good too. Back to Iwo Jima has a really awesome guitar solo in it that perfectly reflects what makes the solos in this album great, in that they’re a good combination of skill wank, and melody. Schindler’s Ark is a nice change of pace track that slows everything down and focuses on being lyrical rather than having that driving rhythm I mentioned earlier in the review (though it really could’ve used without the cheesy sad piano). All three are good tracks in their own right, but make everything much better in the context of them ending the album.
So why isn’t this higher then? I’ve said nothing but good things about this so far after all. And it’s true that there are no glaring flaws in this. But the one thing close to being one is the middle 3 tracks of this album, tracks 5-7, which all seem incredibly dull and uninspired. Listening to those tracks was that moment in an album where you keep waiting for the album to be over and start to not pay as close attention. The aforementioned solo on Iwo Jima is actually what really woke me up from this state. USS Monitor is about the closest thing this album has to filler. The other tracks suffer from being in a weird spot where they don’t have any of the quirks of the earlier tracks, and don’t have the emotional pull of the later tracks, so you get this middle ground that doesn’t appeal to anyone and in the end, everyone loses, sort of like the united states congress except without the real world implications. Which, considering this is about the Civil War, is quite fitting.
So yes, I will admit, I did in fact like Sabaton’s twin brother. It’s a simple album, but simplicity is sometimes the key to good music (minimalism exists for a reason you know). And it executes what it tries to bring to the table very well, which is always important, as you can have a great idea, but if you can’t implement it, it’s useless. I only wish I had more of a historical background so that I could fully appreciate the subject matter of this music like my friend did. I feel like if I did, I would be giving this a much higher score. With that in mind however, maybe it is a good thing I don’t have that reference so that I remain unbiased, which is always a good thing. I can still say that I have never intentionally listened to the actual Sabaton before, but at least when I finally do, I will be prepared. And hopefully, the results will be similar. An album that knows it’s place, fights a good fight, and ends in a combination of triumph and sadness. Just like any good soldier’s journey.