If you encounter the word "Sabaton", you can almost be sure there is some Jewish and/or Israeli connotation. Even the pronunciation of the word may sound fishy to you. But you are wrong, the pronunciation is perfectly normal.
The word refers to the well-known Swedish heavy metal band, which in fact does not have any Jewish members. Their name-sake comes from a piece of battle armor from the Middle Ages used on a knight's foot. So where is the Jewish/Israeli connection?
Sabaton is one of the most well-known and popular heavy metal groups in Israel.
The love is mutual, because the band claims Israel as one of their strongest fan bases. "The Israeli crowd is more than excellent, one of the best in the whole world," stated lead singer Joachin Broden.
It comes to no surprise that their show in Tel Aviv on August 30th was completely sold out and the Reading 3 concert hall was fully packed with people.
This was the band's third performance in Israel and their visit received much media attention in both Israeli and international circles. Metal Hammer Magazine from the United Kingdom sent their journalist Greg Moffitt and a photographer to Tel Aviv to write a four page article about the band's Israel experiences. There was a lot to cover.
On the day of their show, despite a heat wave, one could find these Norsemen hanging out at the Ammunition Hill war memorial and museum in Jerusalem watching a documentary about the Six Day War. The band members took photographs with Israel Defense Force soldiers and shook hands with them.
In the early afternoon they joined troops for lunch and dined on army food at the canteen of an IDF armored corps base close to Modiin. After their meal, they were photographed among the tanks and an Israeli flag.
A real heavy metal band in a real army base with real tanks with a real Israeli flag -- the dream topic of every journalist.
So what's the story with these Swedish fellows? What makes them so extraordinarily popular in Israel? And last but not least, how did they end up at an army base?
First, a bit of history. This popular power metal group was founded by bassist Par Sundstrom and singer Joachim Broden in 1999 in their hometown Falun, Sweden. (The city is the municipal center of Dalarna county and used to be famous for its copper mine. The city tried twice and failed twice to host the Winter Olympics, and is the home of the famous summer rock festival Rockstad.)
Sabaton did not beoame immediately successful. Several years of hard work and financial sacrifice led to their groundbreaking album Primo Victoria in 2006. This summer, in 2012, they are touring for their latest album Carolus Rex. The band recently went through line-up changes leaving Sundstrom and Broden the only remaining original members.
Their music and image is immediately distinguishable from their peers. The band members always wear camouflage pants at their shows. The lyrical themes of Sabaton's songs are mostly about military history and international conflicts.
One of their biggest hits is Counterstrike from the Primo Victoria album, which is about Israel's victory in the Six Day War of 1967. A line from the lyrics reads, "one nation standing stronger than ever before." Of course they are popular here in Israel. Broden stated that some Israeli combat soldiers told him that they have been so impressed by the band, that they listened to Sabaton songs before certain missions.
One might expect that a band that always deals with war and wears camouflage pants includes either some kind of angry militants or stupid kids who don't really understand global conflicts. However the image and music are products of historical interest and curiosity on warfare. The members have mentioned many times that they are personally anti-war.
Broden told media outlets who joined them at the army base that in Sweden -- which is an independent country, their army is considered quite marginal -- to talk about war and the image of war is considered "cool", perhaps because the citizens are so far away from it. Broden said that it was fascinating to meet and to talk with real people who lived among real conflicts.
Those that listen to metal know that many bands in the genre are especially attracted to the warrior and hero image and interested in what is happening in the battlefield. (some examples include such bands as Manowar, and Hammerfall. The Finnish band Turisas even uses the term Battle Metal.)
But these images and lyrics are mostly based on fiction and fantasy and not from real life. Sabaton deals with real historical battles and even though the band members have never served in any military, unlike their Israeli fans. Their authentic depiction of the battlefield creates another bound with many Israeli listeners.
These Scandinavian headbangers are neither political advocates nor ambassadors of Israel. They simply like the country, the people they have met, the achievements of the army. Like to have a good time, going to the beach, and playing a great show, as well as becoming more familiar with Israeli military history.
It's no surprise that the band members asked promoter Yishai Schwartz of Raven Music to take them to some Israeli army related places before their show. On a previous visit they visted Latrun, the site of firece tank battles. This year they saw Ammunition Hill and the Shiryon base with a complete lunch. In both places, they met with soldiers.
On August 30th the Tel Aviv port was full of metalheads waiting in long rows before Reading 3. When the opening Israeli band, Desert started, it was almost a full house. They played together with the Swedes on several previous occations. During the song "Lament for Soldiers Glory" Desert's lead singer Alexei Raymar was joined by Sabaton's Joachim Broden. Of course Desert also performed their song "Masada Will Never Fall"
During the intermission, a song that is somewhat of an anthem in Sweden was played -- The Final Countdown from the rard rock/pop glam metal supergroup Europe. But afterwards, what a difference! The entire Sabaton army arrived on stage. Not glam, but real power metal. Their performance was excellent and very intense as expected. They played classic songs such as Cliffs of Galipoli, Uprising, Panzer Battallion, and Metal Crue as well as new tracks from Carolus Rex such as Gott Mit Uns and Lion from the North, Poltava and others.
With Joachin Broden one can definitely see one of the best front-men of contemporary metal music. I refer not only to singing ability and theatrics, but also excellent communication with the audience. He stated several times how the Israeli fan base is one of the best in the world and as I looked around the audience, I can attest that it was stated not out of politeness but out of experience. The new members of the band seemed as if they always played in Sabaton, despite only being in the band for around half a year. As to be expected, the concert closed with Counterstrike.
But what was the trigger for the song Counterstrike? Historical interest is just part of it. Every Israeli article dealing with the band mentions that Sabaton bass player and lyricist Sundstrom came to Israel for the first time 16 years ago. He was visiting his sister who was volunteering on a kibbutz close to Netanya. The name of the place is something the bassist already forgot, but not the kindness and friendliness of the locals. The kibbutzniks told him stories about the Six Day War and about Israeli life. The human factor was the most important aspect -- the encounter with the real people, who were kind, welcoming and ready to share their stories. Without this connection, there might not be Counterstrike, Sabaton might not have been so quick to repeatedly return to Israel and they might not have developed a massive fanbase here.
The new drummer, Robban Bäck told me that he didn't have any clue about Israel before the trip. The little that he heard was from the media. But his opinion was neutral and had no interest, like the attitude of many outside observers. After the show he said that he literally doesn't want to leave. He liked the people, the landscape, and basically everything except the heat.
So what comes next? Perhaps Israeli friendliness has made a counterstrike in the Western media.
All photo credits: Gabriella Licsko
Gabriella Licsko is a lecturer and historian who made aliyah from Hungary. She holds a B.A. in cultural history and an M.A. in Jewish studies. She is the former show host of Israel National Radio's Welcome to the Tribe. For podcast archives click here.