The crowd at Firestone Live was evenly divided between bright-eyed twenty-somethings and middle-aged, veteran metal heads. This was just what I expected from a show where the headlining band has been around since the '70s, and the biggest opening band could attribute much of its rising fame to YouTube fan videos.
Orlando, Florida was the first stop for the Sabaton/ACCEPT U.S. tour. For the German band ACCEPT, this was just business as usual. But for Sabaton, April 9th, 2011 was a landmark, as it was their first stop in their first-ever U.S. tour.
"Everyone here is so polite," Joakim Brodén, lead vocalist, remarks. "In places we have toured like in Eastern Europe, they're fucking crazy. They will kick down doors to get to you. It's a security issue, you know."
But at this venue in downtown Orlando, the band feels comfortable enough to mingle with their fans after the show. Fans line up past the merch tables, eager to have the band sign their shirts, albums, and ticket stubs. While I sat down to speak with them, fans constantly delivered rounds of beer and thanked them for coming.
"And everyone speaks such great English," Joakim laughs. "It's good practice." He continues: "When we have a show at home, pretty much everyone speaks Swedish. But when we tour anywhere else, we'll have like a British producer, and a German stage manager, and it's just a cultural mish-mash. So language is often an issue."
"We've performed in thirty, well, I guess forty or more countries now?" says Daniel Mÿhr, keyboardist for the Swedish power metal band. He looks to Joakim, who tries to count the countries in his head.
"Yeah," says Joakim, "something like that."
Sabaton's music is distinguished by orchestral keyboards and heart-pounding guitar riffs, precisely the sounds you expect to get yourself pumped. What really makes them stand out musically are Joakim's vibrant, lush vocals, that find a strange balance between an aggressive warrior-like growling and a dignified precision, making their music both forceful and majestic. This effect is only amplified by the echo of various backup vocals from band members and, in their studio albums, other vocalists.
Thematically, Sabaton stands out from other bands of its genre in that its main focus is on historical armed conflict. "It's better than slaying dragons," Joakim says with a laugh. "It is more engaging for us when writing songs. It just makes more sense."
And it's not surprising, for a generation raised on a steady diet of war movies and video games, that this has struck a chord with young metal heads. A fan-made video for the song "Primo Victoria" using footage from the blockbuster "Saving Private Ryan" is closing on six million views since posted in 2007.
"YouTube is a platform for world bands," says Mÿhr.
The official video for the song "40:1" has reached three million views since 2009. Official videos such as these are often a splicing of stage performance footage and historical or documentary clips. And in the case of "40:1" (wildly popular in Poland) some of the footage is from the Polish Independence Day celebration.
"Apparently there was a fan video of '40:1' on YouTube and they added Polish subtitles, and the song got really popular there," says Joakim. Sabaton was contacted by local Polish government representatives. They first performed the song for the Polish Independence Day for the 40th anniversary of the Battle of Wizna, and were surprised by the outcome. "There were over ten thousand in attendance. And it was a family event. I was surprised to see that parents came with their little children. And while we were playing, there were pyros and everything – a reenactment of the Battle of Wizna with pyros and explosives and everything. We'd just walked through that field! There were Panzers rolling up and I was like 'What?!'"
Not all Sabaton's music has been welcomed with such fanfare.
Songs such as "Wolfpack", "Attero Dominatus" and "Primo Victoria" focus on different aspects of the Second World War (the Battle of the Atlantic, the fall of Berlin, and the Normandy invasion respectively). But singing about such recent conflicts, even from a strictly historical perspective, comes with it's share of consequences.
"We get called Nazis all the time," says Joakim, incredulous. "Nazis, fascists, anti-Semites, communists. All the fucking time."
"But we sing in English, and that's not everybody's first language," Mÿhr adds. "They may know all the words to all our songs at shows, but they don't always know what those words mean."
Even songs such as "Back in Control" that focus on more localized conflicts, in this case the Falkland Island War, come with backlash.
"We got death threats," Joakim says, "because they thought our song was taking the side of the British. We had to explain that the song was based on the journal of a British soldier who fought in that war. He believed he was in the right. "
"We had to explain some of our songs for our fans who were not native English speakers," says Mÿhr. "After [what happened with "Back in Control"] we approached our songwriting more carefully. We thought, maybe we should be clearer with the message here or there." And this shows in their latest album, "Coat of Arms"
Unlike in many of the other countries they have toured in, Sabaton doesn't have to contend with language barriers in the United States. This may have contributed to the outstanding reception they enjoyed this night in Orlando. And the chemistry between the crowd and the band definitely played a role in an overall excellent night.
After opening with "Ghost Division", Joakim looked out through mirrored aviators at the screaming crowd, a pleased smirk on his face. The band put on a high-energy performance, Joakim reaching out to the crowd frequently, guitarists kicking each other in the pants with a jovial lack of professionalism, and engaging the crowd to sing and clap along. "Primo Victoria" was second to last in the setlist, and they made sure to tire the crowd out, having them jump with the beat at the chorus.
When Joakim finally removed his aviators before the last song, he looked out over the crowd as he had before. His eyes were glowing, stunned and delighted by this enthusiastic welcome.
Sure not to neglect their trademark closing salute to the metal gods that came before them, they closed with "Metal Machine", a song composed almost entirely of references to bands like Iron Maiden, Manowar, Judas Priest, Rainbow, and, naturally, headlining band ACCEPT.