Heavy metal 'hasbara'

Swedish rockers 'Sabaton' sing the praises of the IDF.

Sabaton 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy )
Sabaton 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy )
They look and sound like your typical headbanging heavy metal band - hairy, macho and loud. But those able to discern the lyrics that accompany the music of popular Swedish rockers Sabaton might be in for a Zionist surprise. Rather than focusing on Satan and evil, or the more commonplace sex, drugs and rock & roll, Sabaton's songs dissect the world's rich history of war. And on their 2006 song "Counterstrike," their praise for the military victory achieved by the IDF in 1967's Six Day War reads like a speech that Israel's new representative at the UN, Gabriela Shalev, might give in defense of her country - if she were hairy, macho and loud. "Six days of fire, one day of rest June '67 taught them respect Control Jerusalem" ...and "Three nations fallen in six days of war Traitorous neighbors Received as deserved Under the sun in the dust of the war One nation standing stronger than before" It's highly improbable that the Foreign Ministry is aware of the latest hasbara (public diplomacy) tool in Israel's arsenal. But the "Counterstrike" video on YouTube featuring vintage footage of IDF fighters juxtaposed over the band's pummeling music and lyrics has generated thousands of user hits - both from heavy metal fans around the world and from young Israeli rock fans who may have found in Sabaton and "Counterstrike" an unlikely, inspirational source of patriotism. Not since "Neighborhood Bully," Bob Dylan's 1983 passionate defense of Israel, has a rock song declared such an unflinching allegiance with Israel's positions. And it's that sense of empathy and identity with Israel that has helped generate a rabid following for Sabaton among young metal heads in Israel, including soldiers who use the music to pump them up. "When I was in my compulsory service in the Duvdevan [undercover special forces unit], we used to put on Sabaton before going out on operations. It inspired us, and the songs spoke to us, and still do," said 26-year-old Tel Aviv resident Or Mussman "The thing that's so huge about "Counterstrike" is that you have someone coming from the outside, not connected to Israel, and telling us about our heroes and the war my father fought in. It was very emotional for me to hear it," Mussman added. According to Yishay Schwartz, the head of Raven Music, a company dealing with everything heavy metal in Israel, Sabaton has managed to touch the hearts of young metal fans in Israel "It's not every day that you find a metal band that's singing about how brave and gallant Israeli soldiers are. For some young Israelis, it gave them a sense of pride for the first time about being in the army," said Schwartz, who distributes European heavy metal records like Sabaton's in Israel and is bringing the band to play here for the first time next Friday at the Barbie Club in Tel Aviv. "Counterstrike" and much of the rest of Sabaton's music and lyrics is the creation of the band's bassist, 26-year-old Pär Sundström, who was exposed to Israel 10 years ago while visiting his sister who was volunteering on a kibbutz in the North. "I loved the country, its history and its hospitality and I came back home with so many impressions and memories," the soft-spoken Sundström told The Jerusalem Post from Sweden earlier this week. "While I was on the kibbutz, someone told me the story about the Six Day War, and it left a lasting impression on me. I did some research to find facts to bring to the rest of the guys and they liked the idea, there was no resistance at all. What happened in that war, with all those countries attacking Israel and the Israeli army still emerging victorious was inspirational." "Counterstrike" ended up appearing on Sabaton's 2006 landmark album Primo Victoria and has generated the most response of any song in the band's five-album repertoire. "That song has brought us amazing feedback. All we got were e-mails and letters from fans thanking us for it. There wasn't any anti-Israel reaction at all, from people in Sweden or from heavy metal fans in general," said Sundström, who added that he doesn't consider the song a political statement, but rather an attempt to celebrate the military prowess of the IDF. According to Schwartz, the success of "Counterstrike" and the band's attitude toward Israel in general is a boon for pro-Israel advocacy. "The fact that they're huge in Europe and Japan means they're doing a great service for Israel. They just played a big metal festival in Europe attended by over 60,000 people, who are hearing this pro-Israel song. I'm not sure what the government is doing for hasbara in Europe, but it can't be better than that," he said. For Sundström, the resonance "Counterstrike" has enjoyed is proof that heavy metal fans are interested in lyrics that have something to say beyond the conventional pop song rhyming. "From the beginning we wanted to write songs that people care about. There are so many bands that write lyrics only because they need to have something to sing. We think that's a waste of a good song," he said. Sabaton's latest album - The Art of War - is based on a book of the same title that was written in the sixth century BCE by Chinese strategist Sun Tzu and resulted in the band's first tour of the US earlier this year, where they played at the prestigious South By Southwest showcase in Austin, Texas. "At some point, we decided to focus on the topic of war, because wherever you live in the world, you have some kind of contact and impression from war. We're not history scholars. We all studied history in school, but mainly before we make an album, we read a lot about certain periods of history and the wars around them. A lot of it is based on ideas we get from fans. Then we make the decisions about which songs to write," he said. Sundström is careful to point out that just because Sabaton writes and sings about war, it doesn't make them war-mongers. "We are certainly anti-war. We're not promoting or celebrating war," he said. "War is terrible." While Sundström hasn't written any songs about Israel since "Counterstrike," he said he's going to keep his eyes and ears open on his upcoming trip to Israel, his first since his kibbutz experience. "I'm definitely open to writing another song about Israel. When we write about the US or the UK, very few people care. But when we write about Israel, it seems like a lot of people care."