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With The Force Of A Thousand Guns: Inside The Night Sabaton Seized Command of Wembley

Tuesday, 03 March 2020 Written by Matt Mills

Photo: Hannah C - @wtchfndr

Sat in his band’s dressing room at London’s Wembley Arena, Sabaton frontman Joakim Brodén looks oddly…normal. Over the past 15 years, the singer has worn onstage attire that's become iconic among his fans: aviator sunglasses, loose urban-camo trousers and a black battle vest, complete with steel abs and pectoral muscles.

Night in, night out, that’s the garb in which Brodén has led his band to prominence, rising from Swedish clubs to extravaganzas like tonight’s, sold out in front of over 12,000 diehards. To see him eschew that near-constant appearance in his downtime is jarring, to say the least. In its place, he’s donned a mundane t-shirt and jeans, while his eyes are uncovered. It elicits that same slightly awkward feeling as seeing your best friend’s dog without its collar.

“I actually bought the vest here in London,” he says. “It was 2006, I was drunk and I bought it for fun. But, that whole look, it represents Sabaton now. It doesn’t even need to be me! All you need is a metal six-pack, a weird haircut, a beard and sunglasses. On this tour alone, I’ve seen four or five fans dressed like that.”

In about three hours’ time, Brodén will don his all-too-familiar outfit once again, as he fronts his power metal battalion at the only UK show of their ‘Great Tour’. The aptly titled jaunt is in support of last year’s LP, ‘The Great War’, and finally gives Sabaton the arena-sized audiences that their bombastic music needs.

Since the release of their full-length debut ‘Primo Victoria’ in 2005, the Swedish quintet have been dealing in triumphant power metal inspired by the likes of Judas Priest (with whom they’ll tour North America later this year) and Manowar. Their lyrics, on the other hand, are far more bleak. 

They narrate harrowing stories of large-scale warfare, recounting the events of D-Day, the Gallipoli campaign, the Battle of Thermopylae and everything in between. On their newest album, while the tunes feel as grandiloquent as ever, Brodén spends his time exclusively singing about the horrors of World War I.

“It’s a paradox,” he says, acknowledging the disparity between the exciting music and darker lyricism. “We do take the music and subject matters seriously, [but] people go to a metal show to have fun and be entertained, so it’s not that weird in that sense.”

Brodén insists that Sabaton are vehemently apolitical. In his own words, they only “tell stories as they happened”. However, their dragging-up of certain countries’ less-than-desirable histories has drawn intense controversy.

When it first dropped, ‘Primo Victoria’ was denied a German release and labelled “Nazi propaganda”. Similarly, the song Ghost Division—which analyses the ruthless efficiency of the Wehrmacht’s 7th Panzer Division—led to its creators being banned from performing in Russia. Almost like a fuck you, this is now the track that opens every single Sabaton concert.

“I enjoy winning over those cunts who think we shouldn’t be talking about these things,” Brodén grins. “We get asked, ‘Are you a communist? A Nazi?’, anything that ends in ‘-ist’; nobody would ask Steven Spielberg after Schindler’s List if he was a Nazi. Nobody would ask Liam Neeson. It’s the same as what we do.”

Political sensitivities, as well as their not-exactly-radio-friendly lyrical topics, have made Sabaton’s climb to Wembley-level success an arduous one. It’s been a near two decade struggle, and rewards as fantastic as tonight’s sold out show have only been afforded to the band very recently.

“Heavy metal isn’t so big that you can only live off one generation of fans,” says Brodén. “There is no way to reach out through radio, like there is in other genres. So, it takes time. When we started, those who discovered us then are in their 30s now.”

As a result, the excitement in the Sabaton camp right now is palpable: the usually laidback Brodén lights up whenever he discusses the night ahead, easily his biggest UK show to date. “We never had any sort of controversy here in the UK. You aren’t sensitive here at all. I love that I can call our guitarist a cunt onstage,” he laughs heartily. “It’s gonna be a good party! The crowds are always good here.”

The band will mark the occasion with easily their most elaborate stage show yet. Tapping into the metallic theatricality of Priest and Iron Maiden, Brodén and co. will storm the stage armed with a literal tank as a drum riser—not to mention a ceaseless blitzkrieg of pyrotechnics. The frontman will belt his baritone vocals through a gas mask during the morbid Attack of the Dead Men, all before the cello group Apocalyptica join the band mid-set for yet more over-the-top pomp.

“We’ve wanted to do something with them for a long time,” Brodén says of the Finnish classical quartet, who are also Sabaton’s support act throughout The Great Tour. “We always prefer it when two bands are connected together, rather than just being two separate bands on tour together.”

To that end, Apocalyptica have been an essential part of the ‘Great War’ cycle. Their Sabaton-approved cover of the album’s lead single, Fields 0f Verdun, was intentionally released 24 hours ahead of the original song to generate hype. Similarly, and more bizarrely, a Russian YouTuber called Radio Tapok was approached by the band to cover Attack of the Dead Men before it had even come out, and not in English, but his own mother tongue.

Another creative marketing tactic came in the form of Sabaton History, a weekly YouTube series wherein each 15-minute episode explores the background of a chosen Sabaton song. Brodén explains: “This is all stuff we’ve always wanted to do, but we didn’t have the time, money or power in general. 

“With the History channel, we spend so much time researching our lyrics, [and] we realised some of them won’t make sense if you don’t know the basic story behind them. So why not go all in? Why not make sure everybody completely gets it?”

Sabaton view themselves as historical preservationists as much as they do heavy metal entertainers, keeping stories of battlefield heroism alive, or even exposing them to entirely new people. And, with tonight destined to conclude to the sound of 12,000 people singing lyrics about the D-Day landings, it would be hard to disagree.

‘The Great War’ is out now via Nuclear Blast.

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