Every decade has its own set of trends that define it. It normally takes hindsight to see what will make a particular decade stand out but 2020 has already made a horrifyingly immediate distinction for itself. A pandemic-induced alteration of the scene itself has resulted in delayed releases, canceled tours, musicians at near equal ratios of inspiration and burnout, Zoom as a primary means of communication, and livestreams taking the place of proper concerts. All things considered, I am glad that a top albums list could still be made with a multitude of strong candidates. It’s been a shitty year with the light at the end of the tunnel still out of sight, but we still got tunes.
It has been three very quick years since one of, if not the biggest, power metal acts Sabaton released their crowning glory Carolus Rex (Nuclear Blast), a bastion of bombastic brilliance, and one of the best Euro Metal albums. However, guitarist Rikard Sundén, drummer Daniel Mullback and keyboardist Daniel Mÿhr departed shortly after its release to establish Civil War with Astral Doors’ vocalist Nils Patrik Johansson.
Power Metal is an odd genre. Everyone is a strong, clean technician and there are so many competent acts, though it is very hard to be exceptional and damn near impossible to be distinctive or unique. Sabaton achieved that latter feat, and not just through having a characteristic vocalist in Joakim Brodén. Considering their contributions, the trio of ex-‘ton’s have done well to try and strike out and find their own voice again and while there are moments, such as ‘USS Monitor’ where you can imagine Brodén’s voice enhancing the chorus (Johansson, with a higher pitched Kai Hansen meets Biff Byford reedy voice, doesn’t have half the charisma of the Sabaton man), in the main they have managed to clear enough space to pitch their own towel on the crowded beach of Power Metal.
So, half the battle won, and Gods and Generals (Napalm) begins well enough with a rapid fire pairing of ‘War of the World’ and ‘Bay of Pigs’. However, things quickly go downhill, with the duo of ‘Braveheart’ and ‘The Mad Piper’, which it has to be said are simply fucking naff and frankly embarrassing; keyboard led, nursery rhyme melodies, (not to mention the dog-shit bagpiping) and lyrics that can’t have taken more than five minutes to write. Fortunately things do pick up and by the time the more epic ‘Schindler’s Ark’ comes around, a track with a vocal nod to legendary David Coverdale, and a musical tip to Angra, the early missteps are nearly forgotten, if not forgiven.
But, as I said, it’s easy to be a decent power metal band, but it’s hard to standout; one, because these are narrow lines we’re trapped between, and two, because the very best prove how big the gulf in class is. Civil War has a heritage to hook people in, but they need to improve the music to get them to keep coming back.