SABATON’s popularity has snuck up on a lot of people. Power metal bands have a notoriously difficult time in the UK compared to on the European mainland where many start out, the cheesy vibe, nerdy themes and untamed over the top bombast seemingly culturally at odds with our national tastes; bands like SABATON may pack out enormous venues on the mainland with ease, but the closest thing to a success story here up to this point was DRAGONFORCE’s boom off the back of one song on a Guitar Hero game. Meanwhile SABATON are approaching their twentieth anniversary as a band and in that time they’ve not had one huge all-conquering album or single, their arguably most well-known song now twelve years old itself. They’ve very much become part of the furniture for many, but yet here they are on a UK tour with stints at Manchester’s 3500 capacity Apollo and London’s 5000 capacity Brixton Academy, the result of incredible consistency and undeniable hard work.
One wonderful result of this is that a band as beautifully absurd as TWILIGHT FORCE are also granted the opportunity to play these venues. If there’s a band in 2017 who encompass exactly why power metal has never taken off on our shores, TWILIGHT FORCE are it, dressed in fantasy-inspired costumes complete with pointy elf ears on a guitarist and playing music that’s like being slapped in the face with a bag of glitter. If that sounds like your kind of thing though, TWILIGHT FORCE are loads of fun. Frontman Christian Eriksson is an engaging personality and there’s a knowing playfulness to them as they mess with each other’s capes and frolic around the stage, and the synchronised sword unsheathing mid-song is frankly brilliant. Of course none of this would matter if they didn’t have any tunes but thankfully that they do too, Riders of the Dawn’s chorus sounding huge and the keyboard line in The Power of the Ancient Force lodging itself into the memory. Drawing heavily from soundtracks by the likes of John Williams, their cinematic sound is distinctive. Unfortunately it’s not fully captured by the sound system of the venue tonight, but they impress nonetheless.
Eight years and three solid albums on, ACCEPT’s reunion has reached the point where they too have once again become part of the metal furniture, and in a way as proud fliers of the heavy metal flag that almost seems to be where they belong. It’s fairly telling that across fourteen albums only their three reunion albums and three 80s classics are drawn upon for the setlist, but they easily have enough quality material from those to fill the hour they’re given with non-stop fist-pumping bangers. TWILIGHT FORCE’s extravagance and scope might have been failed by the mixing but ACCEPT’s far more simplistic old school heavy metal is sharp and honed. The opening pair of Stampede and Stalingrad is a reminder of their recent material’s quality, and bass-driven swagger of London Leatherboys certainly gets a few hips moving. Of course it’s songs from Restless and Wild that hit hardest, the galloping title track and the wild thrashing mania of Fast as a Shark both proving highlights. Synchronised guitar movements are the order of the day impossible not to grin at, and as the icing on the cake it’s nice to see a drummer beating the hell out of a giant gong in this day and age.
SABATON’s momentum though, even when over half the lineup was changed four years ago, has never truly stopped. It’s been gradual and it’s never been overly hyped or deemed “cool”, but this tour in venues of this nature much like NIGHTWISH’s conquering of Wembley Arena in 2015 is as much of a victory for power and symphonic metal as a genre as it is for SABATON themselves. To put it into context, these are the same venues the likes of JUDAS PRIEST and SLAYER filled on their last headline runs here. And as SABATON charge onto stage and launch into trusty set opener Ghost Division, it’s apparent that their fans are very passionate. The place instantly erupts into a writhing mess of giddy bodies giddy. It’s lucky that it does because while Ghost Division is too good a song to be ignored, unfortunately for whatever reason it does seem somewhat muted and quiet after ACCEPT’s bite. Sound issues don’t last for too long though happily, and SABATON hitting their stride becomes a snowball effect as each song seems bigger and better than the already brilliant last. It’s hard to say whether last year’s The Last Stand was a career highlight for SABATON when every single album that comes along seems that way, but what can definitely be said is that the tracks they choose to play from it are immense in the live environment. The rallying trumpets and chest-beating call of Sparta, complete with armour-clad warriors emerging on stage and the first of frontman Joakim Brodén’s various costume changes, is undeniable. It leads into the totally different but equally undeniable Blood of Bannockburn, the first SABATON song to be written in a major key which deserves credit for managing to incite a mosh pit during a Hammond organ solo.
With increased size in venues comes increased production values, and alongside the aforementioned Spartans and the ever-reliable SABATON tank there are increased visuals on screens pertaining to each song which helps give each a distinct identity. With eight albums now each with their share of heavy hitters and underrated deep cuts, SABATON have a lot to choose from when crafting a setlist, and they’ve proven excellent at not only being able to fill an hour and a half with non-stop monsters that every person in the room knows to words to but being able to mix things up in the process and bring different songs to the table on every run. Union (Slopes of St. Benedict) unexpectedly gets its first airing in a while, and a stripped back piano-led rendition of The Final Solution proves a surprisingly inspired choice as that heavy subject matter is given an appropriate vibe. It’s testament to just what a great catalogue they have amassed that the likes of Uprising, Attero Dominatus, Gott Mit Uns and even usual closer Metal Crüe are all sadly missed, and yet you wouldn’t want to lose the songs that fill their spaces either. They manage to save the best until last as an encore of Primo Victoria, Shiroyama and To Hell and Back brings the house down. It’s obvious why SABATON are the band from this world to have reached this point. Brodén’s deep and comparatively gritty voice is not as alienating to many rock fans as a high-pitched wail, and their songs are more muscular, concise and hard-hitting than the whirling neoclassical mania of some power metal (SABATON would fare far better on a bill alongside FIVE FINGER DEATH PUNCH for example than RHAPSODY OF FIRE would). What matters though with a plethora of outrageously big tunes, a live show that never drops the ball and years of hard work put in, is that they deserve it.
Check out our extensive photo gallery from the night’s action in Manchester from photographer Sabrina Ramdoyal here: