Sabaton // Carolus Rex
Rating: 4.5/5.0 — Triumphant (till skillnad från Karl XII)
Label: Nuclear Blast [EU | US]
Websites: |
Release Dates: US: 05.22.2012 | SE: 2012.05.23 | EU: 2012.05.24/28

Sabaton - Carolus Rex (Svenskt omslag)When I first heard that Sabaton was working on Carolus Rex I have to say that I was kind of excited. We’ve all heard a lot about medieval Scandinavia because of the folk and viking metal movements, but early-modern Sweden, which is Sweden’s only period of military might—the so called Great Power period of Swedish history (Stormaktstiden)—is something probably seems insanely foreign to most people thinking of Sweden as the home of ABBA, Pippi Longstocking and a policy of neutrality that kept Sweden out of the greatest wars of the 20th century. In fact, Sweden has not been to war—aside from peacekeeping missions they now engage in—since 1814. Norway got its independence from the country without a bullet fired in 1905, and since then the country has turned into what it is today. All of that said, despite being so long ago, Stormaktstiden is a bit of a touchy subject for Swedes. Swedes generally feel uncomfortable with the use of Karl XII (also known as Charles XII or by his latinized name Carolus Rex) and the Swedish flag because they have been associated with nationalistic movements, neo-nazis and anti-immigration sentiments. So I was very curious to see how these Falun-based Swedish power metallers would thread this needle between writing something interesting and historically unique in the world of heavy metal, while simultaneously being cautious about subject.

Let’s skip the subject matter for a while and just talk about the music. Compared to everything I’ve ever heard by this band, I think that Carolus Rex is easiest the band’s most inspired record ever. The songs are pummeling power metal, laced with choirs and keyboard orchestras that move at a million miles a second most of the time, but drop into crushing groove that is entirely too addictive. That is to say, this isn’t something you haven’t heard before. A fan of Blind Guardian? Falconer? Nocturnal Rites? You know the drill. But Sabaton’s trick is vocalist Joakim Brodén’s baritone, which is the first thing that separates the band from the others. His performance is slightly raw at times, but he isn’t your classic wailer and it gives Sabaton the balls that a band like Stratovarius has never been able to muster.

On a compositional note, Carolus Rex is actually quite impressive, which isn’t something this Angry Metal Guy has previously thought about Sabaton‘s material. While not wandering outside the realms of orchestral or classic power metal, the record is chalk full of super catchy melodies and harmonies. While songs like “Gott Mit Uns” (that’s German “God with Us”—think Thirty Years’ War) and “1 6 4 8” are really just cookie cutter meanderings into power metal, the superiority of the melodic constructions, choruses and bridges differentiate this band from the common chattle. But the stuff that really gets me excited, is when the bands break out into the kind of melodic, groovy and rhythmic use of choirs and keys like they do in “1 6 4 8” or “Karolinens Bön” (“The Carolean’s Prayer). This shows a kind of musical sophistication that I never would have accused the band of previously. And the quality of the musicianship shows up throughout the album, the guitar-work of the now-departed leads Rickard Sundén and Oskar Montelius is fantastic, with some memorable leads but never really taking up too much space. Bassist Sundström and now-departed drummer Daniel Mullback also work together well, holding down the low end of these records but never seriously showing off.

Sabaton 2012But, of course, the primary focus of this record is still the concept. The album tells the story—though I don’t have the lyrics so this is a bit of an assumption of places—of the rise and fall of the Swedish imperial period. Starting with Gustavus Adolphus (Gustav II Adolf) who was known as the Lion of the North (“Lejonet från Norden” / “The Lion from the North”) and moving through the end of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648 (“1 6 4 8”). While all these songs are great, one of the highlights of this section is the remarkably anthemic “En Livstid i Krig” (“A Lifetime of War”). Then the focus shifts towards the rise of the next royal house, using specifically the Caroleans (Karolinerna) who were the elite fighting unit of Karl XI and Karl XII. After the young and inexperienced King had brought all of the enemies to knee but the Russians after the start of the Great Northern War, he and the Caroleans were routed at Poltava in 1709 after the Russians used scorched earth tactics to starve them out (Karl XII apparently never heard the wisest of all sayings—“Never fight a land-war in Asia”). On “Kungens Likfärd” (“Long Live the King”) they deal with Karl’s untimely death as he tried to take back Norway from the Danish king, with the goal to take it back before turning his forces back to deal with Russia. At this point the Great Power period of Swedish history is done, “never to return” (“aldrig återvänder” from “Ruina Imperii”). In fact, for those interested, the period that followed is also fascinating. For half a century Sweden had a parliamentary rule which was unique to the world, one assumes as a strong reaction to the Karl XII’s militaristic adventurism which brought the empire to ruin.

Dealing with these lyrical themes is quite well done on the Swedish version. While I don’t have all the lyrics, they sound like a substantial improvement over the band’s previous material. This is, of course, because they’re in Swedish, so the lyrics take on a whole different dimension than the English lyrics. While the English version of “A Lifetime of War” is an OK but slightly polemical song about power imbalances between kings and peasants, the Swedish version is poignant and smart—focusing on the drafting of peasants who were drawn into wars far from home, leaving their often bitterly poor families back in Sweden. The lyrics to title track “Carolus Rex” are another example, fantastic in the Swedish, subtly inferring the ritualistic and religious aspects of the autocratic king by using biblical language (“Vet att sådan är min vilja, och därmed ska det ske”), while in English are flat and “factual” and leave much to be desired. I understand that there are tensions between language choice and international success, but this is a good example of why bands often should just write in their mother tongue.

But even with the flat English lyrics, that’s pretty much my only complaint. The music is fantastic, the Peter Tägtgren production is mighty and beefy and really world class and the concept is well worked out and, as you can see from this monster of a review, educational. All the initial feelings of discomfort surrounding what could be a “nationalistic” feel disappeared as I listened to the record, which seem much more about telling a story than making any kind of point about Sweden’s politics. I’ve actually pre-ordered it despite getting it for free from the label. By now I hope you have, too.

Sabaton // Carolus Rex
Rating: 4.0/5.0 — Prima Rockta
By: Steel Druhm

Ever since hearing Attero Dominatus way back in 2006, Sabaton always struck me as a band with a cool sound that was capable of crafting killer songs, but not killer albums. On every release since, there would be four or five songs I really liked, and the rest were forgettable. Their last album, 2010’s Coat of Arms, was one of their least enjoyable to date, and I was on the verge of writing them off entirely. I was tired of their World War II schtick and was underwhelmed by a lot of their songwriting. When I heard their new opus would delve deeply into Swedish history and examine the age of Swedish power, I was apprehensive and (unlike AMG) disinterested. I’ll freely admit, the closest I’ve ever come to studying Swedish history was my attempt to follow the Vanger family tree while reading The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I was entirely unaware there was a time when Sweden rocked the world with something other than death metal. While I’ll leave the historical analysis to AMG, I will say that the topics covered by the huge new Sabaton album, Carolus Rex proved very interesting and entirely well suited to the bombastic treatment these guys give all their topics. Apparently, the topic truly inspired these guys, since this is, without doubt, their most accomplished album to date, with their most consistent and compelling song writing. They finally proved capable of delivering a killer album and it only took the ghosts of Charles XI and XII to get it done. While the album will be released in both English and Swedish language versions, I’ve only heard the English version so my opinions are based on that one (and I can’t understand Swedish anyway).

As soon as “Lion From the North” makes an appearance, it’s clear this is a more battle-ready version of Sabaton. It has their typical wall of sound, with dense guitars, keyboards and Joakim Broden’s military dictator-like shouts and roars. But, now, it features more bombast for the buck and there are choral segments and a more grandiose sound. It’s a stomper of a song and sets the mood for the military campaigns to come. Follow-ups like “Gott Mit Uns” and “1648” are zippy, beer stein swinging examples of mucho masculine power metal, catchy and memorable but still heavy. “A Lifetime of War” is an emotionally charged power ballad with simple but effective lyrics and a dark, doomy vibe.

The big winner for me is the title track, with it’s over-the-top chorus dealing with the divine right to rule and absolutism. Steel Druhm really relates to that, since that’s how I feel about my personal authority to rule and review. It’s a super addictive song, partly because its SOOO oversized and dramatic. It’s funny/cheesy at the same time, but its pure metal. You simply have to hear the chorus to understand. Other outstanding moments include the raging “Poltova” and the moody, folky strains of “Ruina Imperii.” There are no bad songs here (if you discount the godawful cover version of “In the Army Now” which was tacked onto the English version), and the entire albums has a great flow and energy.

As with all past Sabaton albums, It’s the deep, baritone boom of Joakim Broden that makes their sound work. He doesn’t sound like the usual power metal singer and his gruff, powerful delivery gives the music an edge and heft that puts things over well. Nowhere was this more necessary than on this release. When covering topics like endless war, ruthless despotism and megalomania, it simply won’t do to have your singer mincing and prancing about and hitting as many high notes as possible. Joakim shines on tracks like “Carolus Rex,” ” A Lifetime of War” and “Poltova,” and this is his best overall performance to date. Rickard Sundén and Oskar Montelius also help keep things dark and heavy with crunchy riffing and moody leads. It’s a shame to hear they departed after the album was complete.

Lyrically, things can be a bit simple and fact oriented at times, and my understanding is that the Swedish lyrics are superior, but they serve their purpose and at times they are quite well done. Production-wise, this has the usual thick, slightly mechanized Sabaton sound, but adds in more flourish, pomp and Rhapsody of Fire-style cheese-wizardry. Peter Tägtgren makes it all work and the mix is appropriately balanced between Joakim’s huge bellows and the riffing. In complete candor, I’ve always wanted these guys to have a less “plastic” and “robotic” sound, but that’s not in the cards, and as their style goes, it sounds fine here.

I’m fairly shocked at how much better Carolus Rex is than their recent output and I’m not confident they’ll ever be able to repeat the quality on display here. I have a feeling this is their “lightning in a bottle” moment and their high water mark, especially with most of the band leaving right after they finished recording. Still, that’s no reason to skip it. It’s a great album, full of power metal swagger and tales of military glory (what could be more metal than Sweden invading Norway?). It actually got me to research Swedish history and it’s quite fascinating stuff! Who knew?

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  • Andrew Austin

    Awesome reviews. I was a massive fan of Sabaton a year or so ago, but since I grew tired of Coat of Arms my interest kind of slowly dissipated. Hoping this’ll rejuvenate things, sounds like a great record.

  • I love this record.  I was worried initially as when I heard the title track, I wasn’t keen on the prominence of the drums and the absence of the (or at least less forward mixed)  trademark Sabaton guitar/keys-based sound.  However, whilst that track has grown on me, a lot of the rest of the album is fantastic, especially after a few listens when I started to thread together the lyrics.

    There is, however, one thing I cannot stop laughing at – “All together,  Got Mittens!”  Sabaton – you are as amazing as you are ridiculous.

    • thats all I hear! GOT MITTENS!!!

  • groverXIII

    I love Sabaton, but so far this album hasn’t grabbed me like the last few have. It seems like it drags a bit in the second half. Still, it’s a good album, and one that I still need to listen to more. Chances are, it’ll probably grow on me.

    •  I found it took a few spins.  And I definitely don’t like the end as much as the beginning (although Poltava might actually be one of the best tunes of the disc). However, they really didn’t help themselves with that cover at the end …

  • Y’all should do this duel review type of thing more often; it allows us lowly readers to get more than one opinion!

    • It’s too much of a resource killer, though. We need to be reviewing different stuff to even make a dent at all the important stuff that’s happening.

  • Colin Stuart

    Love the Vocalist. I usually can’t get much into Power Metal because I’m not a fan of the typical vocals, but this is fantastic.

    • Yeah, baritones are definitely not around enough in power metal. I love this guy’s voice, too. 

  • I’ve never liked Sabaton but this I have to hear. 4 and 4.5 out of 5.. and it deals with my (and their) native history! I guess I won’t get the kind of insane goose-bumps I get from Iced Earths Gettysburg-trio but I’ll make an effort to nonetheless. ^^

    • Jag tycker den är mycket bättre än Gettysburg. Fast jag hatar ju Ripper Owens…

  • You have to see them live, Joakim gets the crowd fired up and involved like Bruce, the whole live experience will change your view of this band forever m/

    • Clifford Rusk

      I have to agree like mad. They were definitely one of the favourites in my collection before I saw them live in March, but that concert (in a tiny little bar showroom packed like a damn sardine tin) was an EXPERIENCE.

  • Now y’all made me want to see them live this Friday. Color me curious.

  • Great album, great reviews. It’s a pity that there’s no mention of their excellent Twilight of the Thunder God cover, though – the chorus is staggering.

    • I didn’t get the bonus tracks, just the record. I cannot review what I do not receive.

      • I had to track it down on Youtube. They did a fine job.

      • I had to track it down on Youtube. They did a fine job.

    • I personally prefer the original but yeah, they did an amazing job.

  • It’s a shame that both guitarists left the band,  Line-up changes are never good. 

  • Pallar inte skriva på engelska men vilken jävla recension! Kan inte mycket mer än instämma i allting du skrivit. Har följt Sabaton sen Brodén hade en dåligt friserad tuppkam, Ozzy-glasögon och läderpaj. 

    Jämför man samtliga fullängdsalbum från Sabaton så sjönk kvalitén på musiken med Metalizer (återutgåvan) och The Art of War som personligen inte tilltalade mig något särskilt. Men med Carolus Rex åter lägga sig i nivå med Primo Victoria. Väldigt stark!

    Dock lite synd att de svenska versionerna är överlägset bättre än de engelska. Får tillägga att Peter Tägtgrens lilla men ack så viktiga insats på Gott mit uns tillför så himla mycket.

    • Det känns ju lite konstigt att det som hände i översättningen från svenska till engelska var att allt dåligt om svenskarna suddades ut.. Förhoppningsvis är det bara bandets dåliga engelska som ledde till detta och inte något annat. Annars vore DNs totalsågning lite mer rättvis när hon skriver att “ämnet är en ställningstagande i sig.” 

      Men plattan är fan underbar. Det är verkligen bandets bästa hittills och jag uppmuntrar dem att bara fortsätta skriva på svenska.   

      • Shaytan

        Ursäkta att jag svarar på en tråd från en försvunnen tid, men DN:s totalsågning var helt och hållet ett ställningstagande från deras sida, inte Sabatons. Att vara stolt över sin historia borde vara en del av grundutbildningen i skolan.

  • Given that I don’t speak Swedish, is there any way for me to get a better grasp on the meaning of the Swedish lyrics?

    • Probably the best thing to do is take a look at the Swedish lyrics over at DarkLyrics and then translate them. 

  • yeah, but the riffs still suck

  • This is really impressive. I already liked their previous albums, especially Coat of Arms, but this is something else. This is more complex, more complete,  even more epic than their previous work.

    Even without understanding most of the language (or just because of that), I also prefer the Swedish version. Sounds more natural and right than the English version.

    Great booklet also with the album. They really put some work into it. Really love this album. I thought my album of the year choice would be between Anathema and Diablo Swing Orchestra, with the rest far behind, but Sabaton just made it an even more difficult choice.

    And I noticed Haggard is also finally releasing a new album this year. Might go see Sabaton live later this year in Brussels as well. It’s turning into a real Grand Cru year for me!

  • Thiago Oliveira

     I can still remember the goosebumps I had when I first listened Primo Victoria. Since then been stalking these guys like a bitch. They really need some DVD release.

  • Metal_Fan

    I think you got a miss click on the Battle of Poltava, it was actually 1709 and not 1907. Otherwise couldent agree with you more sir.

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  • Patrick Thomas

    So, I just need to give you guys a massive props for turning me on to this album!!! I know I’m way late to the party, but you guys are on the money. This is one of the best power metal/heavy metal albums I’ve ever heard. It’s so fun and addicting. Powerful, epic, and catchy as fuck. I’m not the biggest power metal guy, but I got bored of all my typical screaming death metal and metalcore stuff so I blasted some old school Iron Maiden, when I was done with that I still wanted more, something new, so I remembered you guys raving about this album, I re-read the review and I’ve been blasting this none stop for the last week! So thanks guys. I’m adding Sabaton to my short list of go to power metal bands alongside Iron Maiden, Kamelot, Nightwish and a few select others! m/

  • madhare

    AMG: “English version of ‘A Lifetime of War’ is an OK but slightly polemical song about power imbalances between kings and peasants, the Swedish version is poignant and smart—focusing on the drafting of peasants who were drawn into wars far from home, leaving their often bitterly poor families back in Sweden.”

    Yes! The lyrics lose so much! the English song is really quite generic comment to how differently wars are seen by the people starting them and the people actually fighting. But the Swedish version is beautiful and touching first-person tragedy.

    The song isn’t just about a peasant drafted into the war, but what makes it such a tragedy is that nobody will even miss this guy. And because he’s riding away from his home, I think the song is particularly about a cavalry draftee.

    If I understand correctly, a Swedish landowner could assign a man into the cavalry. He landowner had to provide the man, the horse, and also the equipment himself. But as a compensation the landowner would be exempt from taxes. So this cavalry man was mainly an financial investment for the landowner. The man could be selected from among the peasants working for the landowner, but it could also be a hired man, or someone else they didn’t care about that much. The landowner might even acquire and raise and orphan boy just so that he could be sent off to the cavalry.

    Hence the song tells what it is like to be that young lad, riding off to war, not knowing will he ever see the his home again. Even worse, he knows he’s only place in life is fighting for his country and no one will even miss him.