SABATON – Military Maneuvers In Manchester

January 19, 2017, 6 months ago

Mark Gromen

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The Swedes have finally found a way to translate the flaming conflagration, a big part of the visual Sabaton experience, to venues where pyro is banned. A multi-media production, with animation and colorful images displayed on a Jumbotron behind drummer Hannes van Dahl, is a stroke of genius, especially catering to a generation of fans who are used to getting their entertainment from staring at screens. Hopefully it can be scaled to fit all theaters. Like a lyric video playing out in real time, it shows words and images for each song! At the O2 Apollo in Manchester, UK, a theater that holds 3,500, but wasn't full, the setlist retained many of the same numbers played at Irving Plaza, in NYC, last October. The majority of the 19 inclusions (counting the short “Dominium Maris Baltici” which precedes “The Lion From The North”) were culled from the trio of most recent releases: seven off The Last Stand, four from Heroes and three picked off Carolus Rex. That doesn't mean there weren't any surprises, in terms of staging, song selection and/or, especially adaptations. Still a dose of good natured humor, courtesy of frontman Joakim Brodén, but more professionalism/re-emphasis on music, which some (especially the German faithful) complained had been overshadowed by a series of gimmicks/jokes on the last couple of tours.

“Ghost Division” remains one of the greatest openers. Prior to that stormer, two army men sweep the stage with a metal detector (the name of that device surely can't go unnoticed). They pantomime something to the crowd and return with a sign (in German; Achtung!) warning about unexploded mines. When pyrotechnics are allowed, it's a fitting caution for what will unfold, but even in these fire-free zones, still an apt description of the performance henceforth. The band races in from the wings, Brodén the last, racing from side to side, stopping occasionally to crouch into his leg extended body builder pose-down stance. “Sparta” sees a compliment of spear and shield toting helmeted warriors (capes and loincloths) stand guard, as the sing loses his trademark mirror sunglasses to don the warrior's metallic headgear for the expanse of the song. Not sure how well “Blood Of Bannockburn” (until tonight, typically held for the encore) the Scottish song of independence (from England!), went down in Manchester. Most came for a night of music, not centuries old politics, but (from this outsider's perspective) still a little weird seeing the image of the Scottish flag cheered. Sure, we're in the North, so maybe the reaction will be a little different down in London. 

Between songs, a bit of Iron Maiden's “The Trooper” (ode to British metal) teased the crowd, before the audience sung “Swedish Pagans”, with its seasickness inducing scene of violent rolling waves, revolving Hammer of Thor and re-enactor battle footage. Whenever there was a momentary lull, chants of “Sab-a-ton” erupted. Lightning flashes across the screen, as the singer re-emerges wearing a knee length blue/yellow military overcoat, for “Carolus Rex”. Overhead, a crown, crest and Swedish flags are shown. Pogoing up and down, under the alternate cover art for Heroes (the flames either side of the monument are animated), to start “Far From The Fame”. Stop action animation and a video of medieval armored warriors on horseback, with long lances, plays during “Winged Hussars”, both guitarists flank bassist Pär Sundström, center stage. 

A keyboard is wheeled onstage and Brodén explains how he was the keyboard player, when they first started Sabaton, saying “I was pretty bad and now I'm going to prove it to you.” After a pre-recorded sample of Van Halen's “Jump”, new guitarist Tommy Johansson thankfully steps up to “save the day.”  Seated on the opposite side of the stage, is Chris Rörland with an acoustic guitar. After a fanciful flourish from Johansson, demonstrating his prowess, the singer announces how they're going to try a new version of “The Final Solution”. Initially it's just the three of them, leaving Brodén’s voice bare (a risk for someone who has seen a fair share of in-print criticism about his vocals). Later, they are joined by drummer van Dahl, down from his drums, and an also seated & acoustic Sundström. When completed, they all clear the deck and the singer is handed a guitar. A brief Michael Jackson joke and “Beat It” guitar run, he adds the third six-string to “Resist & Bite”, lyrics for the chorus popping up onscreen. Under purple lights, the four instrumentalist meet at the front edge of the stage.

Old biplane footage and animation are used for “Night Witches”, a quick, staccato heavy hitter that sees plenty of fists thrust into the air. Once again, everyone departs, leaving a black stage illuminated by a single match televised on the Jumbotron. As if the spark to ignite a powder keg, it's the aforementioned “Lion From The North”, with images of the beast's head engulfed in flames, as well as an old map and the three crowns synonymous with Sweden. Opening with a 51 second Jon Schaffer (Iced Earth) voiceover (“Diary Of An Unknown Soldier”) accompanies WWI doughboy footage on “The Lost Battalion”, a mid-tempo clap-along that sees Rörland venture atop the military half-track to visit the drummer. Prior to the proper set ending “Union (Slopes Of St. Benedict)”, a long forgotten gem from the Art Of War disc, seemingly released ages ago, Brodén hints that the end is near, “You have to go home, rest all tomorrow, so you can go to church on Sunday.”

Of course the Swedes return for a few more, including “Primo Victoria” which actually begins with stage bare, as vintage WWII scenes and voiceovers, including Churchill's “Never surrender” speech (made famous in metal circles by Iron Maiden, although all the more poignant here in Manchester) are shown overhead. The short poppy “Shiroyama” clap-along follows, featuring artwork depicting samurai and kanji characters. After the singer thanks his opening acts, the introductory whistling of “To Hell And Back” is as much a final call as cue for the band to jump in place. A good portion of the audience follows suit. Onscreen, more flames, explosions and old movies of marching troops, but ultimately, it's the band logo that ends the evening, as Brodén thanks the crowd.

In April, Sabaton will begin a string of headlining dates in North America. Familiarize yourself with the newest material and prepare to enjoy a multi-sensory experience.

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