GRAVE DIGGER have been around for 29 years now and there’s still no letting up. After their “Liberty Or Death” album in 2007 the German frigate docked with Austrian Napalm Records for their latest effort “Ballads Of A Hangman”. Now GRAVE DIGGER are something of an institution in Metal, never having been overtly original or groundbreaking, but at the same time being able to churn out one quality effort after the other within their trusted style of Heavy/Power Metal with the characteristic voice of Chris Boltendahl as one of the anchor points of their sound. For this album former RISK/RUNNING WILD guitarist Thilo Herrmann had joined the band, I’m not sure, why he’s back out of the band, but with the exception of this, the line-up has been stable for the past couple of years and albums and it shows, because they sound tighter than ever.
The title track sets out with thundering double-bass, crunchy riffing and Boltendahl’s love-them-or-hate-them vocals and you know exactly where you are with GRAVE DIGGER. Well, there still is a certain difference to be detected, which is that the bombast has been tuned down a little and we get a slightly earthier version of their sound, as the choirs are not as grand as on some earlier albums, but that does in no way mean that it doesn’t work either, “Ballad Of A Hangman” is almost pre-destined to be a huge sing-along hymn in the live circuit, so much is for sure! For some the lack in experimentation might pose a problem, but then GRAVE DIGGER (or big parts of Power Metal) are not the right band for you anyways, because they have found their style and they’re sticking to their guns and quite frankly, I would not want the band to radically change their style, if I feel like listening to something that doesn’t sound like GRAVE DIGGER, I’ll listen to something else, period.
Overall the veterans of Teutonic Metal sound fresh and energetic, which might be partially due to less bombast and maybe also the fact that “Ballads Of A Hangman” is not a concept album, it almost seems as if by taking a step back they managed to take another step forward. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love their super epic choirs, but it is good to see, or rather hear, that they are not stuck in a rut. No GRAVE DIGGER album would be complete without a more or less sappy ballad and “Lonely The Innocent Dies” is the slow track of this album, where Chris tries his best to actually sing in a duet with BENEDICTUM front lady Veronica Freeman and the contrast between her voice and Chris’ rather gravelly approach has its certain charm, also because there’s not too much sap and it has a somewhat dramatic touch in the chorus. But despite this GRAVE DIGGER just work best when they don’t fiddle around and put the Power in the Metal and the following “Into The War” will bulldoze over you like a wrecking ball out of nowhere (maybe also as contrast to the slow song before), straight, fast, with a no-frills approach, works as well.
I have big doubts that GRAVE DIGGER will be able to convert anybody to their sound that did not like them before, but I think that is a risk that they are very willing to take, while any fans of the Germans will surely enjoy “Ballads Of A Hangman” and might be a little surprised about the a little more stripped-down approach. And if the album doesn’t quite work out at first listen yet, give it another spin, because the second time around is when it connected with me.
(Online April 1, 2009)