Sabaton at SSE ArenaSupport: Apocalyptica| Amaranthe
February 8, 2020 at SSE Arena
In an era where heavy metal is struggling for mainstream attention and music pundits and former rockstars are queuing up to proclaim its decline, it is wonderful to see a success story like Sabaton’s. After plugging away as a fringe band for two decades, it was only in the last few years, helped by the release of their ninth studio album The Great War last year, that they began to find the popularity they craved. In the UK especially, this has been a long road for the Swedes, who generally got more attention on the continent with their brand of bombastic power metal with military-history-themed lyrics (which has also inspired the band’s own ‘Satabon History Channel’ on YouTube). A headlining slot at Bloodstock Festival last year though did the trick and demonstrated to the UK metal scene what they can do on a large stage. They were given another chance to do so at the start of the new decade when ‘The Great Tour’ came to a sold-out Wembley Arena.
Opening up this grand stage for Sabaton were fellow Swedes Amaranthe. Comprising the standard guitarist, bassist and drummer, but with three lead singers (female clean, male clean and harsh vocals), it’s safe to say that their unique blend of power metal, metalcore and pop is not something that is for everybody. The logic of having them open the show however was sound, as their upbeat brand of metal is perfectly suited to warming a crowd up, and so it proved as their opening song ‘Maximise’ instantly got the crowd moving. Though they can sometimes struggle to win over fans, there was no danger of that here as they put in a commanding performance, engaging the audience and getting a full response on all their attempts at crowd participation. In the forty minutes that they had onstage, they definitely left their mark with especially good performances from singers Elize Ryd, Nils Molin and Henrik Wilhelmsson who all used their time in the spotlight very effectively. They may not get much love from the metal purists, but when they bring their A-Game, Amaranthe are terrific fun live and proved themselves to be more than capable of handling a larger setting such as this.
Next to grace the Wembley stage were Apocalyptica, a band with another unique take on the heavy metal genre as they use cellos rather than guitars as their instruments of choice. As a result, their performance was a much less energetic affair than what had gone before, but this is not to say that it was any less successful. Certainly, the crowd responded just as warmly to them during breaks between songs, and sometimes during the songs themselves whenever they played a cover, of which there were numerous from their recently released album Cell-0. Most instrumental acts would not be able to continuously entertain a Wembley crowd for fifty minutes in the way that the trio of cellists Eicca Toppinen, Perttu Kivilaakso and Paavo Lötjönen and drummer Mikko Sirén were able to do. They did have some help at one stage as Amaranthe’s Elize Ryd joined them for excellent renditions of ‘Seemann’ and ‘I Don’t Care’, and the audience was in full voice when it came to their famous versions of Metallica’s ‘Seek and Destroy’ and ‘Nothing Else Matters’. The rest of the time though, they simply let the music do the talking – and watching three guys with cellos dash about a large stage playing heavy metal is really something to behold. Even their takes on classical pieces got great reactions from the crowd, which is not something most people would expect from a heavy metal show, but it’s just another example of how Apocalyptica have their niche and exploit it brilliantly.
A screen was erected during the short interlude between bands to mask the elaborate stage set-up, although some stage-hands in soldiers’ uniforms could still be seen, proving that if nothing else attention to detail is a strong suit of Sabaton. Sooner than most in the audience expected the screen came down and the show started with a literal bang as fireworks introduced the band and their ubiquitous opener ‘Ghost Division’. Sabaton are known throughout Europe for their immense stage production, and they rose to the occasion of their debut show at Wembley by bringing everything they had. The stage was set out with enough barbed wire and sandbags to make Wembley look like the backdrop to a scene from 1917 (complete with a giant tank behind which drummer Hannes van Dahl was situated); and they included enough pyrotechnics to make even the most spectacular heavy metal acts take notice. Following their opener, they picked heavily from their latest World- War-I themed album The Great War with tracks such as ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ and ‘82nd All the Way’ and succeeded in filling the large arena with their huge power-metal sound.
All of the choreographed chaos of a Sabaton live show is held together by lead singer Joakim Brodén, who was at his very best darting about the stage in his trademark battle vest, and engaging in some excellent banter with the audience. Despite the subject matter of their lyrics, Sabaton have never been ones to take themselves too seriously – the epitome of which came when the band wheeled out a small organ in the shape of a WWI fighter plane which Brodén used to get the crowd to celebrate “Swedish culture” by singing the word “Ikea” to the melody of ‘Swedish Pagans’ before launching into ‘The Red Baron’. The rest of the band also played a big part in the show’s success, and it is worth mentioning because it is wrong to think of Sabaton as pure style and no substance. Guitarists Chris Rörland and Tommy Johansson were excellent throughout, trading guitar solos with seeming ease, while bassist Pär Sundström and van Dahl gave the music much needed heft to be able to come off well in the venue. All members should also be given credit for their vocal performances which give the songs their choral effects, making them work so well in a live setting, particularly with the likes of ‘The Lost Battalion’ and ‘Night Witches’ (the latter of which was also met with enough explosive mayhem onstage to make you almost feel like you were experiencing what the band were singing about).
By far the highlight of the entire evening however, was when the band brought the three cellists of Apocalyptica back onto the stage to provide backing for some of their tracks. In particular this gave some of their biggest songs ‘The Lion from the North’ and ‘Carolus Rex’ an even greater sense of power and gravitas than usual. Both bands left the stage following this extraordinary segment only for Sabaton to re-emerge for their encore shortly afterwards and the crowd, who had continued singing the melody to ‘Swedish Pagans’ all the way through the band’s absence, were rewarded with the song itself, as well as a few more favourites such as ‘Primo Victoria’ and ‘Bismarck’. Sabaton opted suitably to go out in a blaze of glory with one of their most energetic songs ‘To Hell and Back’, after which a thrilled crowd cried out in vain for more. Sabaton didn’t just rise to challenge of playing Wembley Arena, they smashed right through it and proved why they should be taken seriously as one of this generation’s biggest metal headline acts. They were thoroughly entertaining from start to finish, and given the way that they expertly cultivate their image and provide for their fan-base both on and off stage, this wave of success looks sure to continue.