Album: The Last Stand
Label: Nuclear Blast
Sabaton. The great divide on this band never fails to amaze me. People either really love these guys, or strongly detest them. As per usual, I fall under neither category – I like them, I think they have great, catchy music, and they put on a phenomenal live show… but I don’t put a great deal of stock into them. Much like Manowar, they write kind of cheesy, epic music, but unlike Manowar, Sabaton doesn’t seem to take what they’re doing too seriously, which is exactly what I appreciate about them. I do enjoy their classics though – you know, the standard live songs. As such, after the success of Heroes (2014), and my tentative lack of enthusiasm over their first single, “The Lost Battalion”, I was quite curious to see how the new album as a whole would pan out.
Listen along on Spotify, if you like:
To be clear, I think I understand why people are so divided on Sabaton. I’ve heard them referred to as “a machine that keeps producing the same music over and over,” which frankly isn’t exactly an unfair criticism. They have a very distinct style that is high-energy, and good fun, and their music doesn’t get very experimental pretty much ever. You could argue that, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ might have been Sabaton’s motto over the years. However, I think they were aware of the risk of sounding the exact same when they wrote this album. As I mentioned, when I first heard “The Lost Battalion” I was convinced we were going to get another album of the exact same thing as always, but then I heard the first track, “Sparta”, which includes a rather different tone and I was quite impressed by the whole “boom-kah” thing – a totally new type of energy for these guys.
Ultimately, I think The Last Stand is a step up musically and there’s very little to complain about – these guys have tried a couple of new things, and while the album is still very much a Sabaton album, it doesn’t quite sound like the rehashed and recycled music I expected it to be after hearing the first single (though I do think the title track sounds a lot like a Christmas carol). I agree with those who would give them 100% credit not for using Japanese pipes and drums in “Shiroyama”, which would have been predictable and likely would not have suited their musical style. Conversely, in “Blood of Bannockburn” the bagpipe sounds, while not overdone, do feel a bit like they were tacked on for the purpose of emphasizing the song’s Scottish background, and I think the song would lose nothing if they left it out.
I think the song “Shiroyama” alone explains everything I like and dislike about this album in one go, so let’s focus on it for a while. Let’s flash back to the past – what has always made Sabaton a little bit respectable for me is their historical accuracy – and to be honest, I have not looked into it myself, but a friend who I consider a trusted source has attested to this. However, on both Heroes and The Last Stand, they have been slipping. The token Finnish song from the former, “Soldier of 3 Armies”, and “Shiroyama” from the latter have both failed in… I don’t want to say historical accuracy exactly, but they have failed to tell the whole story about the subjects in question.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the story of Shiroyama, I’ll recap the history here: the Battle of Shiroyama is largely viewed as the end of the Japanese samurai era. There is a lot of speculation over the situation, as it is almost as much a myth as history in Japan, however, what we can determine is that Saigō Takamori (the “last samurai”) had been instrumental in modernizing the Japanese army and making the samurai, including himself, redundant. Realizing his days of glory were over, he tried to sacrifice himself by going to Korea to ignite a war (something Japan had wanted), but was denied and sent home. Ashamed, he used his amassed fortune to found schools for the children of the samurai class people in his home province and essentially wanted to retire in peace and be done with war and politics. However, as one of the last and most powerful of the samurai lords, he became a hero (against his will) to the other samurai and the government decided to assassinate him, just to be sure, and failed. This led to a short Satsuma-samurai vs Imperial forces war, where Saigō led the samurai and Saigō’s old friend and fellow commander led the Imperial forces. It appeared that Saigō did not want a war, but he was given no choice because the Imperials wanted him dead to make sure the samurai didn’t rise into a full-blown rebellion.
Prior to the Battle of Shiroyama, the Satsuma forces had been beaten and forced back with the Imperials in pursuit. Many of Saigō’s forces wanted to make a last stand on the slopes of the nearby hills, but Saigō wanted to return to his home province for the last time. Losing most of his forces, he evaded the Imperial troops by using the cover of mist and made it to their fortress at Shiroyama, where they sat and waited for the Imperial forces, who soon arrived and built fortifications to prevent anyone from escaping. The samurai tried to parlay for peace, but they were told that the samurai was wanted dead by order of the emperor, so in essence, their options were fight and die or surrender and die anyway. The remaining samurai had melted down anything they could to make bullets and held their ground. The Imperials attacked with full force at 03:00a.m. and by 06:00 a.m. all of the samurai were dead. [Ed: A huge thank you to Björn Bumblebee for this summary.]
The point in me telling this story is to contrast the nuanced details to the rather black-and-white portrayal Sabaton has made of the situation. I’m unclear as to how exactly the Imperial force was “defied” unless they are just referring to the fact that the samurai didn’t want to give up and die, and the “sword face the gun” portrayal is not exactly accurate – the samurai were using guns as well, they were just more proficient in close combat than the Imperials were. The second set of verses don’t really offer anything to the story/song either; it’s pretty much just a rehash of the first verses. As well, the second bridge doesn’t make a lot of sense in context – “An offer of surrender / Saigō ignore contender…” What does this refer to? The samurai did offer to surrender (and die anyways), but what does “Saigō ignore contender” mean? And though it’s not inaccurate per se, it’s a bit unclear the way they group together that forty were left and then all were dead – that could have been more clear.
Basically, I really loved this song the first time I heard it. Honestly, I still kind of love it. It’s probably the catchiest song on the album, for good reason, and even though the lyrics “Bushido dignified” are cheesy beyond all reason, whatever, it’s all fun, right? Except, there was a lot to the story of Shiroyama. They could have written something truly epic about this little slice of history, but instead, we get a rather contrived group of semi-accurate words that at times don’t even make much sense. Lyrically, I hate to say it, but this song is a disappointment. I think they’ve gotten a little lazy on that front… to further my point, the word “last” appears in three song titles. Why not switch one to “final”, for example?
How many more Sabaton songs are like “Shiroyama” lyrically these days? Frankly, I don’t know. Ignorance is bliss, so they say. I like this album for the most part, and I don’t want to read too much into it and ruin it for myself. However, it does say something that I would have to choose willful ignorance to ensure my enjoyment of their music. What I would like to see from these guys is a little more research and some more inspired and accurate lyrics. Because frankly, when it comes to music, these guys know what they’re doing – I give the music on this album a hearty two thumbs up. Now it’s the lyrics where they should focus their attention and make sure they don’t phone it in in the future.
Rating: 8/10, 4 stars.
2. Last Dying Breath
3. Blood of Bannockburn
4. Diary of an Unknown Soldier
5. The Lost Battalion
6. Rorke’s Drift
7. The Last Stand
8. Hill 3234
10. Winged Hussars
11. The Last Battle
Summary of Shiroyama: Björn Bumblebee