For nearly three decades, Germany’s Grave Digger has soldiered on, (mostly) bringing us some killer epic speed metal. (They’d probably love to forget their brief departure into Bon Jovi-esque pop metal—under the abbreviated name Digger—as much as everyone else apparently would. I myself have managed to avoid it, but it’s referenced in almost every biography of the band that I ran across and never once in a positive light.) It seems these guys seldom get the credit they’re due—it seems they’re typically mentioned as an addendum to comparable countrymen Helloween and Running Wild. And yet, Grave Digger is no less talented and no less worthy than their peers. And just to be fair, even as I lament their tendency to be overlooked, I’ll admit that I’m as guilty as many others, only seldom journeying into their section of my collection but never regretting it when I do.
Ballads Of A Hangman is the band’s lucky thirteenth full-length record, and it’s pretty much in line with what we’ve come to expect from them: speedy, melodic and driving, with Chris Boltendahl’s raspy vocals and some catchy sing-along tunes. Boltendahl’s voice is typically described as limited and thus limiting, but in truth, it’s one of the qualities of Grave Digger that I’ve always found most appealing–his rawness, his lack of golden-throated range, gives him a thrash-like sound, a rough-edged bite akin to a less-shrill Udo Dirkschneider. Boltendahl is in his usual form here, snarling and raging, and like earlier efforts I’ve heard, the moments in which the album falters are those moments that require him to be a better singer than he’ll ever be. (Witness here the pseudo-ballad “Lonely The Innocent Dies,” a duet with Veronica Freeman of Benedictum, that is both Boltendahl’s and Ballads‘ weakest performance.)
For the first time ever, Grave Digger features two guitarists, with newcomer Thilo Hermann alongside the veteran Manni Schmidt. (Since the album’s recording, however, Hermann has apparently departed and the band is back to only Schmidt.) The additional firepower doesn’t alter Grave Digger’s sound too terribly much, but along the way, the band has re-energized a bit, regained some focus, become re-inspired. Compared to the pomp of The Last Supper, Ballads is content to rock harder without shaking anything up, without trying to up that previous effort’s epic ante or add a single new twist to the band’s formula. Songs like the title track, “Pray,” and “Hell Of Disillusion” are some seriously stomping slices of fist-pumping metal, with memorable hooks and killer riffage, and in their simplicity, they’re simply great.
So there you have it—Ballads doesn’t step outside of the band’s well-worn niche. In fact, it hasn’t stepped one foot in any stylistic direction (except in the direction of “better,” but that’s qualitative)—it’s standing tall, standing proud, and rocking loud. This is what Grave Digger does, folks—this is why those who love ‘em love ‘em. So fans of Grave Digger and of true metal can sleep soundly knowing that one of the most consistent purveyors of heavy goddamned metal has brought us yet another solid record.
I’ll drink to that.