Every band lives the constant struggle to balance the reality of a band structure with the perception an audience has of the band. What that usually means is a degree of displeasure from the instrumentalists, while the singer gets the lion's share of the attention. It isn't fair, but because of how the personalities captured in voices draw the sharpest distinction between bands, it's the reality we all have to live with. Sometimes, however, the status quo isn't tenable, and things need to change. The most famous example is when The Band stepped away from backing Bob Dylan to become legends in their own rights, but many others have left the comfort of success to strike out on their own.
Civil War follows this tradition, the asylum sought by the members of the power metal juggernaut Sabaton, minus the face of that band. Bringing in journeyman singer Nils Patrik Johansson, Civil War is a debut only on a technicality. These are players with a long list of credentials, who demand nothing but the highest standards be set for their music.
Another Sabaton this is not. There are the obvious and expected similarities in tone, by virtue of their shared history, but Civil War makes it abundantly clear that they are a more metallic band than they had been allowed to be. These songs are heavier, feature more interesting guitar work, and reduce the emphasis placed on massive sing-alongs. In other words, it's the kind of music you would expect to hear from players who have been freed from the shackles of a charismatic singer.
On that front, “The Killer Angels” is a resounding triumph. The band sounds energized to be playing this music, and they pack the album with more riffs and leads than they had been known for, turning this into a true heavy metal album with nary a trace of creeping pop. Whether the sharp riffing of opener “King Of The Sun”, or the double-bass pounding throughout “Sons Of Avalon”, Civil War is out for blood – as much as a power metal band can be, that is.
While it's refreshing to hear a melodic band of this nature focus so heavily on the instrumental side of the proceedings, their past comes back to haunt them. Veteran though he may be, Johansson is ill-suited to front this group, his voice never matching the intensity or the vision behind the compositions. Only in the softer sections of “St Patrick's Day” does he shine, as throughout the rest of the album his voice sits in a strained part of his range that is difficult to listen to. I don't know if it is the result of songs not written properly for him, or if it's an affectation he put on to match the band, but he threatens to ruin the entire album with his caterwauling.
That fact is a shame, because these are uniformly strong songs that deserve to be presented in a better light. When you hit the orchestral choirs backing the chorus of “I Will Rule The Universe”, everything falls into place and reminds you of how good this music can be. Those moments don't come as often as they should from a band with so much experience.
What “The Killer Angels” does most of all is frustrate me. Sabaton has been making albums of massive melody with underdeveloped musical backdrops, while Civil War completely reverses the formula. This time around, the music is far more interesting than the vocals and melodies, as I would have expected. But while I understand it, I can't help but think both bands would be better off if the fracture never happened. Sabaton needs this kind of metallic firepower, and Civil War needs a frontman capable of giving them the massive hooks power metal demands. “The Killer Angels” is a good record, but its faults are too glaring to call it much more than that.