When it comes to epic heavy/power metal anthems based around historical battles, one band that immediately comes to mind is Swedish group Sabaton, who by this point have mastered their own style. In 2012, four members of the band (Rikard Sundén, Oskar Montelius, Daniel Mÿhr and Daniel Mullback) left and decided to start their own band Civil War, along with bassist Stefan Eriksson and vocalist Nils Patrik Johansson. The next year their debut The Killer Angels was released, and while Nils Patrik helped add a unique flavor to the sound, and musically it was a really solid release, I found too many songs bordered on straight up imitation (“I Will Rule the Universe” in particular felt nearly indistinguishable from many mid tempo Sabaton tracks, aside from the vocals.) It was a quality debut, no doubt, but I was left hoping the band would do better next time. Now in 2015, after going through some lineup changes (including the departure of original members Oskar and Stefan, as well as the addition of guitarist Petrus Granar) they’ve returned with a revamped sound, ready to unleash their second full length release Gods and Generals. This time around I think they’ve struck the right balance between sticking close to their roots and being more creative with their songwriting, which has resulted in an early 2015 favorite of mine, and certainly a big upgrade from their debut.
As expected, Gods and Generals has a few very bombastic speedier tunes which deliver the kind of epic power metal this lineup excels at. However, many tracks are surprisingly more laid back, starting off slowly with keys, orchestras and percussion, before building up to the huge choruses and melodies fans would expect. There are still times where the guitars come through, in fact on a couple tracks the riffs get surprisingly heavy, but on the whole this album is much more dominated by vocals, keys, orchestras and even the drums at times. I find the production much cleaner on the faster songs this time around, which gives added power to those tracks, but somewhat surprisingly, it’s the slower and more melodic tracks that sound the most impressive. As with any album of this type, listeners can expect a nice balance between speedier tracks and mid tempo tracks, though this album also has a few surprisingly calm and slower songs, so there’s a pretty good variety to the songs.
As on The Killer Angels, vocalist Nils Patrik Johansson is the member who most helps to set the band apart from the rest. I always loved his dynamic vocals he displayed with Wuthering Heights over the course of three albums, but I found his work with Astral Doors to be solid but more limited. On The Killer Angels he added an extra edge to the music, which helped give the band an identity of their own even on the more familiar sounding tracks, and this time around it feels like the band has shifted their sound just a bit to help emphasize his vocals even more. The perfect example of this is “Braveheart”, a very theatrical sounding mid paced track which starts out with keys and orchestra before Nils Patrik takes over, and it’s his epic high pitched wails that help turn an already great song into an instant classic. At the same time, the softer tracks allow him to use his vastly underrated lower register, which sounds as impressive as ever on tracks like “Tears From the North” and “Admiral Over the Oceans”.
Instead of starting off with an intro track, album opener “War of the World” kicks off slowly, with keyboards and orchestras, lasting for around a minute or so, before the rest of the band kicks in and the tempo instantly picks up, turning into the fastest song on the album, as well as one of the catchiest. I like how the guitars have a more distinct sound to them, right off the bat, with more of that classic galloping guitar sound, which goes a long way towards avoiding the feel of sameyness that plagued the faster tracks on the debut. The chorus is certainly a highlight, but the epic guitar solo certainly isn’t far behind, and overall it’s one of my favorite album openers I’ve heard so far in the first half of 2015. Lead single “Bay of Pigs” keeps the momentum going. It’s a much slower, heavier track where Nils Patrik gets to really shine, especially during the chorus. Once again, though, it’s those amazing guitar melodies in the middle that help bring the song to that next level, making it another instant favorite. I already mentioned the next track, so moving on we have yet another favorite (and yeah, I guess this is the part where I should just admit most of these songs are “favorites”, I can’t help myself,) “The Mad Piper”. This is one of those the tracks where the band really surprised me by doing something just a bit different, as the bagpipes and marching drums at the start immediately give the song more of a war anthem feel, and this carries on the whole way through, with the chorus once again being spectacular, and Nils Patrik steals the show again, especially during the last minute.
Around halfway through we finally get another speedier song in “USS Monitor”, and there’s not much to say about it, except that it’s another great example of how to do epic power metal the right way. After this, the only other really fast paced song is the closing title track, which has possibly the best chorus on the album. Out of the two remaining mid tempo tracks, “Admiral Over the Oceans” is a more melodic track which again shows off the greatly improved guitar work, along with featuring a rather tongue in cheek line during the chorus (|”If you don’t understand, read the history book”), while “Back to Iwo Jima” is probably the heaviest track on the album, especially during the instrumental sections. Lastly, we have the two ballads. “Schindlers’s Ark” is a nice power ballad with great vocal melodies, an effective use of orchestras and choirs as well as obviously a great chorus, but it actually stands out as my least favorite on the album, mostly because of how superior the other ballad “Tears From the North” is. Again, the drums add more of a war anthem feel, and this combined with Nils Patrik, the orchestras, and especially the backing choirs vocals, adds up together to make for an incredibly epic metal ballad.
After hearing The Killer Angels several times, I initially considered Civil War to be a much lesser version of Sabaton. This feeling only increased further after hearing the latter band’s 2014 effort Heroes, which immediately grabbed my attention and never let go. With Gods and Generals, Civil War have proven themselves to be on an equal level, by creating an insanely addictive collection of war anthems which at times feel familiar but overall manage to add enough new elements in to make them stand out. One of my top 3 favorite early 2015 albums, and highly recommended for fans of epic heavy/power metal.
(originally written for myglobalmind: http://myglobalmind.com/2015/05/20/civil-war-gods-and-generals-review/)