War. What is it good for? Well, if you’re Sweden’s Sabaton, 20 years of power metal themed around it - and somehow it’s only on their ninth album they tackle one of, if not the, bloodiest wars of all time. The band have honed their craft over the past two decades and from the first salvo of ‘The Future of Warfare’ it’s evident that despite it taking this long to tackle the Great War, it’s been well worth the wait. Nor could it have come at a better time as the band are able to fully realise their ambition and the scope of the record especially in their live show that now features a two-ton tank and enough fire to make Rammstein blush.
In keeping with the breadth of the subject matter, the band also offer an expanded “history” version that features narration before and sometimes after tracks so for those who want to learn more about the legendary figures and battles from the war can and there’s many tidbits of fact interspersed throughout their assault.
Despite the seriousness, Sabaton still manage to inject fun into the proceedings especially from Joakim Broden’s camo-clad baritone such as in moments such as the punk-infused ‘Devil Dogs’ with a shout of “come on, you sons of bitches! Do you want to live forever?”. It’s cheesy and over-the-top but this has been their stock in trade for twenty years and it damn well works. ‘The Red Baron’ opens with a rather more jarring harpsichord before galloping riffs charge in to drive fists as well as planes skyward. ‘82nd All The Way’ sings of Sergeant York fighting to the German trenches of Hill 223 and its rousing chorus is easily one of the best of The Great War - certainly saying something given the band’s knack for massive choruses. The closing salvo of ‘Fields of Verdun’ and ‘The End Of The War To End All Wars’ pack an emotional gut-punch that would mark a near-perfect ending to the album - if it weren’t for ‘In Flanders Fields’, an acapella rendition of its namesake that strips away all bombast and pretense for an arresting, emotionally devastating close.
The album isn’t without fault - ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ plays it a bit safe with the usual Sabaton formula and their typical, wall of sound production doesn’t quite let every instrument breathe fully. That said, new guitarist Tommy Johansson makes himself known on the riff-writing front and the drums thunder like artillery and the symphonic flourishes and choral arrangements serve to accentuate the songs rather than overpowering. While it isn’t necessarily reaching the heights of Carolus Rex, the band have woven a tapestry telling both the glories and horrors of war, tackling the subject with all their usual cheese and bomast guaranteed to put a smile on your face whilst treating it with all the seriousness it deserves, right down to the closing ‘In Flanders Fields’ that truly hammers home the horrors of the Great War.