This 7th studio album released by Sabaton bears more than just new music, it also introduces us to three new band members. Around the time that their last album, Carolus Rex, was released in 2012, guitarists Oskar Montelius and Rikard Sundén, keyboardist Daniel Mÿhr, and drummer Daniel Mulback (and later replacement drummer Robban Bäck) left due to family priorities or other unspecified reasons, since Sabaton is a heavily touring band. Joining longtime members Joakim Brodén (vocals, keyboards) and Pär Sundström (bass) are former touring guitarists Thobbe Englund and Chris Rörland – now full members – and drummer Hannes Van Dahl (former Evergrey). There may have been some concern with such a turnover of members, but Heroes is an album that should dispel any fears that Sabaton has lost their touch.
It should be said that Heroes is a different album of sorts than its predecessors, mostly in the fact that the war stories depicted in the songs are about individuals or very small groups of people – the titular Heroes – who went above and beyond in their respective calls of duty. The other aspect of the album that is different in some respects is the music; it is still very much the sound of Sabaton, but there appears to be more variety in style and experimentation that for some will be refreshing and accepted, or for others will be too far from the expectation and dismissed. It is up for the listener to decide, but Sabaton has ventured forth with another courageous album.
Heroes starts off with the in-your-face song Night Witches, which is about the Soviet 588th Night Bomber Regiment, consisting of female bomber pilots who flew old wood-and-canvas biplanes from the First World War to bomb during WWII with their signature approach of idling their engines, dive bombing their targets, and then powering up their engines to quickly fly off into the night. The sounds of their planes whooshing by in the silent darkness earned them the name “Night Witches.” This song starts off with a muted intro choir of the chorus, but builds to an ear-pounding start of the chorus-like verse with full blast vocals and drums especially. It ends again the same way it starts, with a fade away of the muted chorus. This song is very fast-paced and epitomizes the Sabaton and power metal sound, and this song shows that Sabaton is definitely back without a doubt. The lyrics are very tight and have the typical clever rhyming style to deftly paint the picture of these female war heroes: “Undetected, unexpected – Wings of glory, tell their story – Aviation, deviation – Undetected, stealth perfected.”
The second track, No Bullets Fly, is about a German fighter pilot (Franz Stigler) ordered to shoot down an American B17 (piloted by Charlie Brown) after it had bombed an aircraft facility in Bremen. When Stigler caught up to the plane, he realized it was already badly damaged from anti-aircraft artillery. When he recalled fighter pilot advice previously about not shooting down something that is already defenseless, rather than shooting it down, he escorted it safely to England, with no fire coming upon either of them in the company of the other plane. Had Stigler shot down the B17, he would have then been eligible for the Knight’s Cross award, but did not receive it due to his compassionate decision to not down the B17 as ordered. Stigler and Brown met about 40 years after this event and remained friends until their deaths. Again, the lyrics tell the story in a compact, effective way: “No bullets fly, spared by his mercy; Escorted out, out of harm’s way; Fly, fighting fair; It’s the code of the air; Brothers, heroes, foes.” This song is again at a peppy pace, and keeps a strong tempo throughout except for a brief channel in the middle where it drops to drums and a harmonized guitar line, then to just drums, bass, and synth with a nonverbal chanting that gives it a slightly different feel, but then returns to the pounding motif of the song. There is nice dual guitar interplay throughout the song, with the drums and bass keeping a solid beat moving it forward.
Smoking Snakes, the third track, and relates the story of 3 Brazilian heroes who fought and died Italy during WWII as part of the Brazilian Expeditionary Force, also known as “Cobra Fumantes (Smoking Snakes).” This nickname came from the unlikelihood that they would ever fight in WWII due to Brazil’s neutrality at the time and unwillingness to get involved – and that they would only go as soon as snakes started smoking pipes (akin to “when pigs fly” or “when hell freezes over”). Ironically, they ended up becoming the only independent South American country to send troops to fight in the war in Italy after Brazilian ships had been attacked. This song memorializes three Brazilian soldiers – Arlindo da Silva Lucio, Baeta Geraldo da Cruz, and Geraldo Rodrigues de Souza – when faced with a company of German soldiers they chose to die fighting rather than surrender. The Germans recognized their bravery, buried them in shallow graves, and left a cross behind with the inscription “helden Brazilianischen drei” (Three Brazilian heroes). As the song states, “The 3, rather died than to flee, know that your memory will be sung for a century…Cobras fumantes, eterna é sua vitória.” This song is relatively short, but impactful and has an upbeat, catchy melody at a moving pace, with the introduction to the song with a strong beat and vocal proclamation that begins and ends the song. The story is summarized in compact lyrics that interplay well, and follow a clear direction of the song with 16th notes keeping the song moving along the chord progressions and solos.
The fourth song, Inmate 4859, is one of the heavier, almost dirge-like songs on the album, relating the gravity of the story it tells about the Polish soldier Witold Palecki, who accomplished amazing things in his 47 years and considered one of the greatest heroes of WWII. Among his many accomplishments, this song relates his intentional capture in order to enter Auschwitz to gather information about the true nature of the concentration camps, hence the title of his camp number as inmate number 4859. He eventually escaped from the camp almost 3 years later and reported to the Polish exile government in Britain, but his reports were considered exaggerated with no action taken by Britain or by the Polish Home Army. Palecki continued to fight in the Warsaw Uprising, and was sent to German POW camps as a result. He continued in his intelligence work after liberation for the Polish government-in-exile, only to eventually be arrested for treason/espionage (among other charges) by his own people and tragically executed. This song is slower in pace compared to the others and carries a weight to it as if to communicate to the listener the difficulties of Palecki’s life in the camps and the tragic twist at the end of his life as he tried to save many lives operating from the inside out. The haunting xylophone music box opener sets the tone for this song, and is the first song on the album to really change from the more usual upbeat power metal style of Sabaton to a darker sound. The song definitely remains heavy with a couple of softer interludes, and the addition of the background choir at the end of the song gives it a more Gothic feel appropriate to the topic as they relate to Palecki’s being an “inmate in hell or a hero in prison, soldier in Auschwitz who knows his name; locked in a cell, waging war from the prison, hiding in Auschwitz who hides behind 4859.”
To Hell and Back, the fifth track, paints the story of the most decorated American WWII soldier, Texan Audie Murphy. He won every award of valor possible for his actions and went on to relate his experiences in a memoir and a movie in which he played himself, both of which were also entitled To Hell and Back. He suffered from what we now know as PTSD, and detoxed himself from the addictive medications he was on trying to treat his symptoms in order to function (“They’re haunting in my dreams, they’re still there when I sleep”). Eventually, he also went on to act in Westerns, which was a coincidental aspect of this hero to be paired with the music in the song combining power metal and the spaghetti western motif that is heard at the beginning and throughout the song. Interestingly enough, Murphy was also a poet, and verbatim lines from his own poem entitled “The Crosses Grow on Anzio,” were used in the lyrics as part of the chorus to help communicate the song about himself: “Crosses grow on Anzio, where no soldiers sleep, and hell is six feet deep.” The song itself starts off with a synthesized whistle that reminisces from old western soundtracks, but then starts of briskly into the clearly metal foundation of the song. The whistling motif continues as countermelody underneath, and then reprises during the solo portion in conjunction with a Jew’s harp to continue the Western theme, as well with a bit of trumpet as the guitars rejoin after the little soli. The melody lines of the song are catchy with a more suspended bridge proclaiming the worthiness of Murphy as a candidate for a war hero: “Bright, a white light; If there’d be any glory in war, let it rest on men like him.” Despite what impression one may have about incorporating a spaghetti western-type theme with power metal, it really seems to work in the song. It is not overdone, but rather seems to complement the theme of the song while the guitars and drums remain a driving force throughout the track. This is one of the songs from the album pre-released as a single, and was the first music video made for this album highlighting Murphy’s story as well as the plague of PTSD of soldiers in war.
The Ballad of Bull is quite a divergence from the usual Sabaton sound, and as its name suggests, is a power ballad. The piano is featured quite prominently in this poignant sixth song on the album, which relates the story of Corporal Leslie “Bull” Allen, an Australian stretcher bearer who saved several American soldiers’ lives as he pulled the wounded from battle against the Japanese as they fought on Mt. Tambu in New Guinea. Like Audie Murphy, he also came from a troubled childhood and likely suffered PTSD from his war experiences, but this song focuses on his brave actions as he walked up and down the mountain a dozen times amidst machine gun fire to save 12 men’s lives that day by his own initiative when the American medics were down and other soldiers were fighting and could not go back for their own. For his actions, the US awarded him the Silver Star, though he did not receive any medals from the Australian military. Musically, this song is by definition slower and less heavy than the other songs on the album, and is a nice change of pace as these power metallers explore further musical options. As it states that “sometimes war is killing, sometimes it’s saving lives,” this song focuses on lives saved rather than lives lost, and this hope in the theme is reflected in the music as well. It has a more sweeping effect with the piano and orchestral arrangements, which give it a more epic feel while the latter part of the song carries a sense of authority as the full band instrumentation enters and finally ends with a majestic piano ending.
Resist and Bite is almost an antithetical follow-up to the previous track, musically speaking. This seventh song starts off with a single guitar tapping 16th note entry, while the opening vocals come right in and are punctuated with solid power chords that accent its heaviness and authoritarian feel to the song that is very guitar-driven. This whole song has a brisk pace and keeps the listener engaged and pumped. An anthemic song, this was pre-released as a lyric video to give the fans a taste of the album before it came out, and it is a great selection that highlights the Sabaton style and message. This song’s title comes from the Belgian Regiment of Chasseurs Ardennais’ motto, “Résiste et Mords!” (Resist and Bite!). Their emblem was the wild boar, adopted from the Ardennes region of Belgium they were named after and primarily fought in, and fought bravely against the Germans (eagle) in WWII, which is alluded to in the bridge lyrics: “Gloria fortis miles (Glory to the brave soldier), the Wehrmacht’s closing in, Adversor et admorsus (Resist and bite), the Boar against the Eagle.” This song is about their gallant effort of their small regiment to hold the line at the Belgian border from the incoming attack of the German Wehrmacht. Even though a message was sent to them to eventually fall back, they never received the communiqué and continued to fight bravely. When they were captured by the Germans and were asked where the other soldiers or backup armies were, they laughed in their interrogations because they really were the only defense fighting that location, much to their enemies’ disbelief.
The eighth track, Soldier of 3 Armies, relates the amazing story of Finnish soldier Lauri Allan Törni, who fought for armies in Finland, Germany, and the United States. This energetic song packs a great amount of history into a short 3:38, following the distinguished military career of Törni. The song relates Törni’s fighting for Finland against the Soviets in the Winter and Continuation Wars, and was so effective against the Soviets he was the only one to have a bounty on his head. After dissatisfaction with the peace treaty between Finland and the Soviet Union that ended those wars, he then joined the German Waffen SS so he could continue to fight against the Soviets, since he could not in Finland (for which the Finnish government convicted him of treason, but after being sentenced, escaping prison, and being recaptured, Törni was granted a pardon). In the 1950’s, he came to America as a political refugee and joined the US Army, changing his name to Larry Allan Thorne. In the US, he helped instruct Green Berets and was a part of the 10th Special Forces Group before he was killed in a helicopter crash in Vietnam. The chorus aptly summarizes his military career: “Shout! Lauri Törni’s name, a soldier of three armies knows the game….son of Finland and the Green Beret, may you rest in peace at last, Lauri Allan Törni.” Törni /Thorne was buried (as is previously sung hero Audie Murphy) at Arlington National Cemetery in 2003, not long after his remains were found and positively identified in 1999. This is another hard-hitting song that starts with a drum intro, sets the lively pace to the song that has a catchy, sing-along quality to it, particularly with the chorus. There is a bridge that pulls back a little from the instrumental onslaught, which then leads to a nicely segued key change for the last chorus before the end of the song.
Far from the Fame, the ninth track on the album is about the Czech hero Karel Janoušek, a soldier and airman who helped found the Czech air force outside of the country, first in France and later in Britain. He and the air force he helped establish fought against the Nazi and Communist onslaughts via Britain’s RAF during WWII, especially successful in the Battle of Britain, and attained the rank of Marshall and won a number of victories. When Janoušek returned from the war as a hero, he discovered his wife, one brother, sister, and 2 brother-in-laws had died in concentration camps or prison (to which the lyrics “home, siblings sent to their death, his wife paid the ultimate price” refer), partially as a result of his involvement with the Czechoslovakian Armed Forces in Exile. In 1948, a Communist coup took over Czechoslovakia and Janoušek, among others, was imprisoned, tortured, stripped of his rank, awards, and doctoral degree, and sentenced to 18 years of hard prison (and later a life sentence for not reporting an escape plan thinking it was a trap). However, some of his time was reduced and he was eventually released from a Presidential pardon in 1960, and honors and awards were reinstated/bestowed on him posthumously in 1991. This song was originally played on tour in 2012, but was added to the official roster of Sabaton songs by including it on this studio album due to its fit with the theme as well as numerous requests to be recorded. This song, as drummer Hannes puts it, is a “groovy” song to “move your butt” along, especially as the drums introduce the song before the guitars and vocals enter. The beat is contagious and one would be hard-pressed not to move along with it. The strong male vocal harmonies in the chorus give it a depth and authority while maintaining the groove, and is one of the strengths of the song.
The longest song on the album at 4:28, Hearts of Iron is a song that tributes the 9th and 12th German armies for their humanitarian effort at the Battle of Halbe. As the Soviet Army was encroaching upon Berlin, and success looked grim, the 12th Army created a corridor along the Elbe river to allow thousands of civilians and the younger soldiers of the 9th Army to escape being capture by the Soviets and surrender to the US Army, which was preferable. This song focuses on the German Army – usually vilified for WWII – and flips the usual perspective by showing their heroic efforts to save people as embodied in the German lyrics: “Nicht ein Schlacht, ein Rettungsaktion (not a battle, a rescue action/operation)…It is not about Berlin, it is not about the Reich; It’s about the men, who fought for them, what peace can they expect?” This song starts abruptly, rather than easing into it, with majestic vocals with the instrumentation to set the stage for a more epic feel to this song. The bridge has a nice rhyming cadence to it, with only keys and drums underneath, and leads effectively into one of the features in this song – and even on this album – is the inclusion of Bach’s Air on the G String from his Suite for Orchestra #3, which was played so beautifully in the solo portion of the song and again adds the human element to the song as it draws the inspiration from another famous German. There are even some nice countermelodies with lead vocals and choral background that take the song out nicely.
The first of the bonus songs, 7734, was previously released on Sabaton’s album Metalizer but was re-recorded and released on this album as a bonus track. This is a metal hymn of sorts, and has a much different sound than the original with a lower key, less keyboards, and push of guitars and more driving bass and drums. The harmonies in the chorus gives it depth, yet do not take away from the heavier but not laborious push of the song, and the melodies are pleasant and a bit softer from the usual Sabaton sound. Man of War, the last of the bonus tracks, is a song tribute to the band Manowar with a medley of several of their song titles, a song similar in purpose to Metal Crüe with band names. This is a fun song that it somewhat musically reminiscent of Swedish Pagans with a martial beat and fits Sabaton’s style and themes well (Viking/Norse/military/rulers) with the titles’ terminology from the American heavy metal band. This clever knitting together of the song titles will particularly appeal to Manowar fans.
With this album, Sabaton has returned a bit to its earlier sound, pre-Carolus Rex, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve regressed, only to stay true to their roots while still progressing with more musical experimentation. The songs are relatively short and to the point, and though they could be longer, their briefness allows the songs not to belabor any of the themes. Their shift in focus to the individual or small group rather than the large-scale perspective is a nice change that helps them stay fresh but allows them to remain in their niche of military history. The inclusion of various languages throughout the songs to represent those people and their countries of origin being depicted is a nice touch to relay the truly universal archetype of real-life heroes. New members guitarists Chris and Thobbe and drummer Hannes have eased into their respective seats very smoothly and have retained the Sabaton sound while their skills contribute toward moving the band forward. Joakim’s vocals and songwriting continue to stay strong, with longtime bandmate Pär’s songwriting assistance and solid bass grooves steadily moving the band along. This album has some winning hard-hitting songs such as Night Witches or Resist and Bite as well as some ventures into wider musical territory with songs like The Ballad of Bull and To Hell and Back that keep the album from being “cookie-cutter.” Whether or not this album is in the direction the fans wanted or expected, I find it to be solid, creative, powerful, and engaging. Sabaton has created another successful combination of song offerings on their newest release Heroes. It is likely to draw in newer fans like myself, and should also be satisfying to longtime fans as well.