While RUNNING WILD has long been the emblem-carriers for Metal’s devotion to pirate lore, their equally raunchy yet tuneful Speed Metal counterparts GRAVE DIGGER don’t really have a distinctive image to go with their classic persona. However, with the release of “The Clans Will Rise Again,” something of an unofficial sequel to “Tunes Of War,” the all too familiar image of Highland warriors doing battle with the Vatican-backed British Crown may come to be that image. Coming down with the fury of a great war hammer to the epic sound of folksy Scottish pipes, this is the sort of album that boasts a lofty visual that will require an extravagant studio effort to match.
Suffice to say, the album delivers magnificently, all but upstaging the spellbinding comeback album “Ballads Of A Hangman” after a bit of a slump through the mid 2000s. The same mixture of classic JUDAS PRIEST speed-riffing with pounding ACCEPT laced guitar distortion returns with a vengeance, accompanied by a somewhat more epic character, rather than the haunting and dark one on the previous release. Chris Boltendahl’s vocals are still the same series of gravely, raspy, raw, barely tuneful shouts that have typified every album since the band’s early 90s reunification, but there’s a good deal more emphasis on clean backing vocals and keyboard elements that soften the exterior and almost push things back into a mid-80s feel, minus the updated mixing equipment, giving everything a modern sense of clarity and balance.
But the biggest switch and probably the most distinctive aspect of this latest offering is the entry of longtime shredder Alex Ritt to the GRAVE DIGGER family. Out of all the guitarists currently associated with German Power Metal, he was the last one that I would have expected them to recruit given his Glam and Progressive Rock tendencies. But at the same time, his noticeably expressive and melodic style proves to be a perfect foil for the band’s established sound, offering a very different take on soloing than the traditional K.K. Downing meets Dave Murray style of most in this genre. But he still maintains the same general riffing characteristics, adding perhaps an occasional fill/run that gives things a slight Rhandy Rhodes flavor at times.
The usually powerful offerings of vintage Speed Metal are present throughout the entire album. “Paid In Blood” and “Spider” really deliver on the textbook approach of formulaic riffing style with plenty of double bass goodness, but the real point of glory in the speed department hits like a ton of freshly smelted steel on “Rebels,” complete with a massive sound chorus that permeates the ears and sticks instantly in the mind. But ironically enough, this album really gets the job done in the ballad department, offering two undeniable classics in “Whom The Gods Love Die Young” and “When Rain Turns To Blood,” showing the band’s ability to utilize keyboards and quiet guitar work without morphing into a cliché 80s glam interlude. Ritt’s solos on these two songs are so melodic and consonant that they could literally be sung along to with about the same ease as the choruses, and the atmosphere is perfectly achieved, rendering images of endless green fields littered with the corpses of fallen soldiers.
It’s pretty much an even contest between this album and the last one, and in the case of both, arguably the best work put out by the band since the late 90s. The union of GRAVE DIGGER and Alex Ritt has a lot of potential for future fits of studio produced glory and just as likely also a riveting live album, so it will hopefully not be a short-lived one. In the absence of RUNNING WILD and METAL CHURCH from the dwindling ranks of 80s Power Metal mainstays, this is one of the few remnants that has basically maintained their sound and kept it free from modern influences. It has all the charm of a grand tail from the Highlands, and the bombastic bagpipes to match.
(Online February 15, 2011)