As I mentioned in my review Sabaton's The Great War, their ninth studio album to which this is an overt sequel, this sounds exactly like all the others. Sabaton are very good at what they do, to the point where this is instantly recognisable as their work and I do mean instantly. Who else in rock music would begin an album with a narration like "For decades, the Austro-Hungarian empire had been a powerful influence in the heart of Europe"? Only Sabaton and nothing else on offer will be of the slightest surprise to anyone who's heard them before. It really comes down to whether you dig this sort of thing or not.
Assuming you do, because you're still reading into my second paragraph, this is good stuff in all of the ways that you might expect. It's another look at war, indeed another look at World War I with every song revolving around people, battles or things that had a part to play in that conflict. It's a set of bombastic power metal, full of solid riffs and catchy singalong choruses, often delivered by a combination of voices to give a choral effect. There's nothing new here in the slightest, but that isn't necessarily a problem. They do what they do and they do it very well.
One thing I noticed here that highlights just how well they do it is how capably some of this music echoes the associated lyrics. Sarajevo, which opens the album, just like Versailles which closes it, is not really a song as much as it's musical theatre to accompany the narrative bookends. However, it grows almost reluctantly into a song, just as Europe grew almost reluctantly into a state of war. I should call out the narration here, which is very capably delivered by the actress and voice actor Bethan Dixon Bate, because it absolutely nails the tone of a BBC documentary.
Similarly, Dreadnought has a patient but incessant riff and chorus combo to match the battleships of that name, which were huge and confident but slow to shift. A sway that develops in Christmas Truce echoes the drinking and cameraderie going on during that unofficial pause in hostilities in 1914. I'm sure there are more instances of the music matching the lyrics, if only I delved a bit more deeply into the subject matter, but it's easy to get caught up in the Sabaton swagger.
Where I did some research was on what I think of as the truest Sabaton songs, which here are the pair about individual people of note. The band do this sort of thing a lot and I appreciate it just as much, because I'm not just hearing a good song, I'm learning about someone I should have known about all along (and only occasionally do).
The Unkillable Soldier is about Adrian Carton de Wiart, who's certainly a soldier of note, given his three decades of further service after being awards with the Victoria Cross. To quote just one line from Wikipedia: "He was shot in the face, head, stomach, ankle, leg, hip, and ear; was blinded in his left eye; survived two plane crashes; tunnelled out of a prisoner-of-war camp; and tore off his own fingers when a doctor declined to amputate them." He later wrote, "Frankly I had enjoyed the war."
Lady of the Dark is about Milunka Savić, a young lady who took her brother's place in the Serbian army and whose exploits while pretending to be male led to numerous decorations, more than any other female combatant in the history of warfare. She was awarded her first Karađorđe Star with Swords in the early days of the war, adding a second two years later after capturing twenty-three Bulgarian soldiers single-handedly. She was given the Légion d’Honneur twice, the Russian Cross of St. George and others from multiple countries. She was the only female recipient of the French Croix de Guerre with gold palm. And yet she faded into obscurity.
Like all nine of the songs proper, these are good ones because nothing lets the side down. Some, I have to add, are better than others though, this being another reliable release from Sabaton not a quintessential one. I like the riff in Hellfighters and I really like the build of Sarajevo, but it can't be many who won't plump for Christmas Truce as their highlight. It stands out from the album for me, just as the event it remembers stands out from history. It's only five minutes long but it's epic from the outset, aided by notable backing vocals from Flowing Chords.
And I'll wrap up a longer than usual review by appreciating Versailles, the sort of outro, because it both echoes Sarajevo very ably indeed and hints at what would come next. Joakim Brodén sings on Sarajevo about "A shot that would change the world" but ends in Versailles with "Sign a treaty to change the world". However, after the War to End All War ended, Dixon Bate mentions that it was not over for everyone. "In the underground, something was growing in the dark." And we all know what came next.