Copycatting is behavior generally reserved for little twerps on a mulch-surfaced playground at recess (and only slightly less annoying than asking “Why?” non-stop). Imitation naturally extends to metal as well, though it typically has to transcend influence and homage into rank apery before bands get a strike against them. Even blatant mimicry can earn a pass nowadays if done with enough gusto (hello, Hellbringer). Civil War continually, desperately strives for such status. Last time around, we beat our steel drum over how glaringly Gods and Generals imitated Sabaton, the band from whom our anachronistic Swedes seceded. As suggested by vocalist Nils Patrik Johansson throwing shade at Sabaton not so long ago, Civil War won’t be surrendering in the war for your history metal soul. But with the departures of bassist Stefan “Pizza” Eriksson and original Sabatoneur Oskar Montelius, does The Last Full Measure have the bodies needed to mount a successful offensive?
For anyone unfamiliar with Civil War or his accompanying acts (Astral Doors, Lion’s Share, Wuthering Heights), Johansson was the kid in high school who organized talent shows just so his Dio tribute band had a captive audience. He trades on his sublime channeling of the late great Ronnie James and leaves little room for doubt regarding his vocal prowess. However, Dio fanboyism is best left to Astral Doors and keeping Johansson from riding the tiger was paramount to The Last Full Measure’s success. LFM opens with the bombastic major key guitar-work of “Road to Victory,” borrowing heavily from modern power metal conventions while Johansson guides you on a personal tour of all the glorious vocal hooks he can dream up. Sabaton remains the most direct comparison but LFM’s tuning and production set the axes higher and thinner than the typical Sabaton song, exchanging the meatiness that suits Joakim Brodén’s gruff delivery for a subdued sound that lets Johansson shine. His weathered crooning stands front and center and “Deliverance” is as close to pure Dio as it gets. Though sounding surprisingly strained at times, Johansson still effuses the flair and panache necessary to carry the record.
Unfortunately, originality is in short supply here. LFM is largely derivative of Civil War’s past work and doesn’t expand upon the scene in general. They never drive their knives as deep as Lion’s Share or soar to the fantastic heights of Wuthering Heights or even Powerwolf. “Gangs of New York” spotlights how heavily Civil War relies on Johansson to elevate otherwise average licks, while “America” and “The Last Full Measure” feature capable, full-throated performances but ultimately fail to impress. Though consistently hitting the double-wide target for which they aim, I’d view the entire album as too safe for its own good if not for the inclusion of curveballs “Savannah” and “Tombstone.” It’s hard to tell if The Last Full Measure suffers from a vocal emphasis that leaves the instrumentation high and dry or if the vocals are the only thing keeping the Swedish ironclad afloat.
Patches of diversity remain refreshingly scattered through LFM, damning their rivals’ creative approach to rewriting the same song eight times and calling it an album1. Civil War keeps the album fresh in this context, even if they fail the larger litmus test. “Gladiator” shreds as hard as anything on the album, while highlight “Deliverance” dishes out a lithe dose of Dio-worship that conjures up cheesy yet undeniable hooks. Similar to how Ensiferum’s “Two of Spades” disco metalled its way into my heart, “Tombstone” blends off-kilter folk ditty with full-fledged ripper that pleasantly caught me off guard with its low-fret noodling and out-of-left-field approach. There’s less narrative substance than a Sabaton history lesson but, while I appreciate that aspect of Sabaton, the gimmick has worn thin. Civil War do well to avoid another “Braveheart;” their lyrics are still on the nose but at least there’s no more dancing Scots.
The Last Full Measure furthers Civil War’s campaign as a competitor in this subset of good-if-uninspired power metal but doesn’t exceed Gods and Generals. If you enjoyed that platter, I see no reason not to enjoy this one. Frankly, Civil War passed up a golden opportunity to establish itself as a frontrunner in the scene. Though unshackled by the stagnation of their opponents, they leave the brass ring behind, opting to entertain but rarely fulfill. Civil War didn’t win the war, they just didn’t lose it.