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From Falun To Brixton: Sabaton And The Rise Of Power Metal

Wednesday, 25 January 2017 Written by Alec Chillingworth

Falun is a small city in the middle of Sweden. Once an integral copper mining community, the capital of Dalarna County boasts a population of around 35,000 and is surrounded by idyllic greenery and ski slopes. Its shopping centre is a sprawling, suburban loungeabout and on the outskirts of town there’s a Max Burger restaurant. Its mine and the surrounding areas are a Unesco World Heritage site, too.

“It’s the opposite of a working-class hero town,” says Blackwald. Blackwald plays keyboards in Twilight Force, a power metal band who call Falun home. Well, nominally at least. Twilight Force, you see, exist in a universe of their own creation, one inspired by Dungeons & Dragons and past forays into fantasy by bands like Rhapsody and Blind Guardian. Blackwald isn’t his real name, either. It’s the title he adopts when he dons a cape on stage and becomes a leper of the Winterreach Mage Guild.  

As a genre, power metal is supposed to be overblown. It’s supposed to be as grandiose as you’d expect a combination of neo-classical guitars, orchestral pomp, cheesy synths and speedy descriptions of dragons, battles and castles to be. As veteran Kerrang! and Metal Hammer writer Dom Lawson once said: “Heavy metal bands know that they’re being ludicrous. How ridiculous is Alice Cooper? It’s preposterous in every possible way and that’s why it’s good.”

Twilight Force are one of the many bands to have fully embraced that fact. They dress up, they refuse to reveal their true names and they even have full-on Lore videos detailing their backstories. This band’s work is meticulously crafted in the most heartfelt of fashions. Twilight Force are a fully-realised entity and they’re only on album two – ‘Heroes of Mighty Magic’, if you’re wondering – but audiences in Sweden are, at large, refusing to see past the spellcraft.

“They don’t take it seriously, they think it’s silly,” says Lynd, the band’s guitarist. He’s sitting next to a giant purple sceptre, by the way. “People go to the concerts anyway, but it’s not respected at all, not like in Italy.”

Italy is the homeland of Rhapsody, or Rhapsody of Fire as they’re now known. Since releasing their 1997 debut ‘Legendary Tales’, the band have become one of the most respected acts in power metal, weaving their intricate Emerald Sword narrative across five records and even roping the late Sir Christopher Lee in to provide album narration for ‘Symphony of Enchanted Lands II: The Dark Secret’.  But Rhapsody of Fire don’t dress up like wizards or pretend they’ve rolled an 18 on Charisma. They look like normal blokes.

“You could easily take it as a parody of some sorts, which it absolutely isn’t,” Blackwald says of Twilight Force’s take on the genre. “We sing about dragons and castles, so you can find that funny, but we really put our hearts into the music, which goes hand-in-hand with the costumes. It’d be really unnatural to play this kind of music dressed in shorts and t-shirts.”

Watching Twilight Force in full flight at London’s Brixton Academy it’s immediately apparent that the costumes are a good call. On stage a merciless 10 minutes after doors open, the band ride on sonic wings of cheese and glory, taking the ever-growing crowd along for the ride. By the time they’re done, they have amassed a sizeable following in the 5,000-capacity hall. But why are they here? Why did this obscure, obscenely ridiculous band get the chance to open the floor at one of London’s most iconic venues?

Because of Falun. In 1999, years before Twilight Force existed, another power metal band emerged from the city. That band was Sabaton. Now eight albums deep, they’ve enjoyed a storied career worthy of the genre’s greats, one that now has a tick next to the box marked ‘Headline Brixton Academy’. In close to two decades together the band have fought a hard fight. In 2012 they weathered a near complete line up switch, while their war-themed lyrics and campy, Eurovision-on-steroids riffs have also led to them denying accusations of Nazi sympathising. These days they’re coated in armour, but it still deflects shots from time to time. Sabaton are huge in Sweden and pretty big across mainland Europe, but they keep having to prove themselves.

“Some people are afraid of the words power metal because it’s a sub-genre,” explains Sabaton’s bassist, Pär Sundström. “And the sub-genre can never be as big as the main genre in some people’s closed-minded views. We had an argument with Sweden Rock Festival last summer, we were the Saturday night headliners for the biggest rock festival in Sweden, and the argument was: ‘You guys are no legends. You walk on the street, you sign autographs, you go to bars, and you go to the supermarket… and people post pictures of that?’ Yep.

“‘But our headliners live in closed areas in Los Angeles! They’re untouchable and they drive limousines! That’s the kind of headliner we have for our festival.’ That kind of headliner doesn’t really exist anymore, and we outsell them. ‘But you’re just normal people!’ Yes, we are. And we’re bigger than these ‘legends’, but the promoters still have to think about that. It took them five years to consider but they finally put us as the main headliner. They realised it was the right thing to do.”

The core line-up of Sabaton we know today – minus Sundström and vocalist Joakim Brodén, who’ve been in place since the beginning – formed prior to the promotional cycle for the band’s sixth album, ‘Carolus Rex’, once touring plans became too heavy for other members. The new recruits donned the band’s trademark camouflage trousers and set about taking Sabaton to the next level. Their live show started to incorporate pyro, background graphics and, naturally, a tank for a drum riser. It defied the small parameters of power metal’s beginnings, almost making press darlings of Sabaton in the process. And that’s something Sundström is all too wary of.

“In Sweden, we never had the support of radio or magazines,” he says. “We invited them to our shows and they didn’t even show up for reviews, but now they want to do articles about us so they can make money out of us. We were ignored by them until we didn’t need them anymore – we built this up without them. They had to come to us when they realised we’re so damn big that they can’t ignore us anymore.”

So how exactly did Sabaton build themselves up without the aid of the press? Firstly, it’s not like Sweden is anti-metal. The melodic death metal sprinting out of Gothenburg has become legend, with In Flames arguably the country’s most instantly recognisable extreme band. But those groups are harder, grittier. As are other popular acts like Meshuggah, Hypocrisy, Bloodbath and Amon Amarth (even though the latter have adopted a much more accessible approach of late – a sign of the times?). Sabaton are different. Sabaton play all ages shows. Sabaton make you smile, even if smiling isn’t cool.

“We did it our way in Sweden, the complete opposite of anyone who’s cool,” Sundström confirms. “We didn’t play the cool, credible places that pay more, and we cancelled every show that was 18+. I never played those venues. Even though when journalists review a show they don’t want to come to a place where there’s no alcohol and just kids, I don’t give a fuck. If the old people didn’t wanna come, they could stay home. I’d only play for the kids.

“Eventually, the kids grew up and they remember their first show: Sabaton. These 12-year-old kids can’t go to a Justin Bieber show, so they have to go see this low-volume, no-nasty-words Swedish Bieber. They can see that, or they can see a Sabaton show with tanks and fireworks. But they can’t see Opeth. Kids can’t see them until they’re older.

“Kids are the future and I wish more bands would see this. One of the biggest problems with the entire music industry is there’s still this thing called ‘classic rock’, but it doesn’t promote any new music. These bands know they’re important and they know their target audience is older people with money, so magazines and radio stations target that classic rock audience. But soon, new bands will bring a new audience and they will be the important ones.

“The young generation will never see a Motörhead show, so they’ll mean zero to them. My father once said to me when I was young: ‘If you want to play metal, you’ve got to listen to blues because that’s where metal comes from.’ I don’t give a fuck about blues. I never cared about it because metal is what I love. I don’t need to know where it came from because that came from somewhere too, and suddenly I’m sitting there listening to some guy who can’t tune his lute or something. That’s not interesting.”

Sabaton have had a significant impact on the Swedish music scene and they do understand their position. They take bands like Bloodbound, Battle Beast and the aforementioned Twilight Force on the road with them, while their own Falun festival, Sabaton Open Air, hosts acts ranging from death metal to, you guessed it, power metal. Previously, the event has featured the band Civil War – featuring members who left in Sabaton’s 2012 exodus – and this year’s edition will have older power metal acts like Hammerfall playing alongside fresher faces in Shadowquest and, in the name of camaraderie, ex-Sabaton guitarist Thobbe Englund.

Exposure in the live arena, particularly when your music is unlikely to make mainstream waves, is vital. Sabaton’s success has been a slow burn, but they’re now repaying some of the breaks that once came their way. Back in 2006, they opened for a soon-to-be-Guitar-Hero-immortalised Dragonforce and gained a vital first foothold on their way to Brixton.

They went on to headline London’s Purple Turtle to about 150 people. They completely stole the show at Sonisphere in 2010, playing at midday on a weekend that had Iron Maiden, Rammstein and Alice Cooper headlining. They dominated a co-headline run with Alestorm last year and now, after over 100 UK shows, Sabaton have really arrived. No power metal band has headlined the Academy before. Not one. The closest thing you could think of is Manowar, but they’re Manowar. This music is built for these halls, but it’s never been taken seriously enough to be given a chance.

“People who think power metal isn’t serious or legitimate music need to actually listen to a full album – loudly – or attend a show and see for themselves,” says Sarah Valentine, Sabaton’s UK publicist at Nuclear Blast Records. “The songs make you feel like you can take on the world – how can that feeling not be taken seriously?”

At Brixton, you’ve got your tank on stage, there’s a seemingly endless barrage of fire and some Spartan warriors turn up two songs in, flanked by death-vision 300 graphics. Brodén is on usual goosebump-inducing form, rallying his legion of camo-clad fans into singalongs and an awful lot of jumping. And the vibrations don’t stop there. The band’s most recent album, 2016’s ‘The Last Stand’, landed in the UK album charts at #17, nestling cosily between The 1975, Ed Sheeran, Tory Lanez and Biffy Clyro. Valentine also believes that those European festival headline slots will become UK festival headline slots.

“There’s definitely something happening in the UK for power metal in general,” Valentine continues. “Shows are getting bigger and we’re seeing more of these bands at festivals. Perhaps it’s an escapism thing in these times of austerity and terrible politics; people love putting on the war paint and singing about heroes.

"It’s gotten to the point where there’s plenty of UK fans now and they want to see Sabaton put on the show they’ve seen they can do in Europe via YouTube: tanks, pyro, great lighting, which isn’t always possible if the band are playing a small stage. Sabaton have noticed – they’ve always packed in as much as the venue will allow, but it’s exciting now we’re getting the full Sabaton show in the UK. It can only get bigger.”

No matter how pompous and overblown this band’s music may seem, it delivers an uplifting message in a way that affects people on a social level. Sabaton were made honorary Polish citizens following a performance commemorating 70 years since the Battle of Wizna, for example. Coupled with the music’s sheer muscle, things like this are helping Sabaton transcend the borders of power metal. “Time will be on our side and we are not giving up,” Sundström says. “Eventually, like they did in Sweden, other countries will have to realise that.”

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