Grave Digger is as Grave Digger does.
With Return Of The Reaper, as with any new Grave Digger album, the primary musical template has been long established. Fitting in the cracks between Accept, Blind Guardian, and Helloween, Grave Digger is a perfect distillation of Germanic metal – speed-tinted and melodic trad metal, with bombastic oft-harmonized choruses the catchiness of which seem almost in direct opposition to Chris Boltendahl’s roughshod gravelly snarl. The band’s seventeenth album in thirty years (counting the one they released under the abbreviated name Digger in the late 1980s), Return Of The Reaper offers nothing in the way of surprises, but that in itself is no surprise.
So, with Return Of The Reaper, as with any new Grave Digger album, it all comes down to the songs. Thankfully, herein Boltendahl and company deliver admirably, turning in a set of tunes consistently strong–stronger than anything they’ve released in recent years. The album title obviously harks back to 1993’s reunion effort, The Reaper, and like that one, Return Of The Reaper has none of the grandiose themes that characterized later Grave Digger discs. There’s no basis in Scottish history or Arthurian legend, no storyline, and no concept beyond just a collection of rock-solid and rocking traditional metal songs. And that’s perfectly fine with me.
After a knock-off piano-based instrumental intro, Reaper returns at full strength with the ripping “Hell Funeral,” the album’s lead single and a perfect distillation of both Grave Digger’s and Reaper’s strengths, being all driving riffs and a huge chorus. From there, Reaper rips through a bevy of quality tracks, each in the same form but distinctive enough to stand on its own. “Tattooed Rider” treads close to territory occupied by Judas Priest’s underrated and overproduced “Turbo Lover” — though thankfully without as much 80s cheese layered atop it — while “Season Of The Witch” rides a stomping slow groove that approaches latter-day Sabbath’s most epic moments. Still, Reaper is best when rocking, as alongside “Hell Funeral,” its best cuts are the raging “Road Rage Killer” and the short-and-sweet “Satan’s Host.” The only stumbling block is the ubiquitous Grave Digger ballad, closing number “Nothing To Believe” – it’s not awful, but Grave Digger could skip ballads and no one would be upset.
Grave Digger has never been one to reinvent wheels, preferring to stick to what they do well. Return Of The Reaper is an excellent example of that, of a band parlaying its strengths into a by-the-numbers record that doesn’t feel as retread or rote as it should. Sometimes, a clear sense of direction is all you need.
And of course, having some kick-ass metal tunes helps a bunch, too…