Style: Power Metal
Release Date: 29 May 2020
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I remember Grave Digger from the eighties when they were a heavy/speed metal band and a decent one too. When they toured in 1985 to promote Witch Hunter, their second album, the support band was Helloween. After War Games in 1986, they co-headlined with Helloween and Celtic Frost. However, I also remember them briefly going commercial under the shortened name of Digger, which was ill-advised and a complete failure.
I lost track after that, but apparently they turned into a heavy/power metal band and this double milestone release (their twentieth studio album put out in their fortieth year as a band) certainly walks in Sabaton territory. It's a concept album about the struggles of the Scottish against the English and it isn't their first either. It marks the third in a thematic trilogy, after 1996's Tunes of War and 2010's The Clans Will Rise Again.
Concepts are a big deal to Grave Digger, it appears, as Tunes of War is also the first album in a trilogy of albums exploring history in the middle ages, to be followed by Knights of the Cross and Excalibur, the subject matter of those two being the Crusades and King Arthur respectively. Maybe that's part of why they turned into a power metal band. Concept albums fall naturally in that genre, where they don't to speed metal bands.
I liked this, though that's not too surprising given that it kicks off with a bombastic bagpipe-driven intro. Those of you who know me in person know I wear a kilt every day in my clan's tartan; I'm a Robinson, so sept into Clan Gunn. What connection this band from Gladbeck in North Rhine-Westphalia has to Scotland, I don't know, but I'm happy that they're treating this material with respect and having fun with it in the process.
A few observations leapt out immediately. One is that the obvious comparison is to Sabaton, who weren't even formed until three years after Tunes of War, so perhaps the comparison should be the other way round. Another is that the lyrics are much less specific than Sabaton, who delight in overdoing detail. Songs here may mention Clan Maclean, Bannockburn and the fields of Culloden, but the lyrics don't read like encyclopaedia entries because they dig into a deeper emotional truth rather than recite facts. I really appreciated that.
A third is that, for all the easy Sabaton references, this a German band and it doesn't take long for Accept to come up as a comparison. The first proper track is All for the Kingdom and its guitar solo is all classical nods. Much later, Barbarian kicks off just like an Accept song. Keeping with Germany, I have to say that Freedom often sounds like the Grave Digger of old, with the tempo ramped up, even if it's still power metal rather than speed metal.
As much as I might miss that old speed metal style, Grave Digger play power metal very well indeed and this is likely a better album than the ones that I recall from the eighties. The style works for the subject matter and there are hooks a plenty with a slight symphonic ring to them that fits the fields of blood to a tee. I've seen photos of the band not just in kilts but full getup and there were points here where I could have imagined them going all the way and recording the album live on the site of a highland battle.
Even a few times through, I have no idea which songs to call out as the best or even my favourites. There's a lot of variety within the framework of the style they've picked, so fast songs like Freedom sit well next to slow ones like The Heart of Scotland. I do really like how well the pipes incorporated into the latter and not just for the expected intro. They play well midway through Gathering of the Clans too and underpin sections of Thousand Tears, which is also elevated by the guest vocal of Noora Louhimo of Battle Beast. That's another power ballad I didn't hate and actually rather enjoyed. With all that said, I'd probably plump for All for the Kingdom and Barbarian.
Outside that brief commercial stint as Digger (and as Hawaii), Grave Digger have kept going for four decades without splitting up. The main man nowadays is lead singer Chris Boltendahl, whose voice fits this material so well it's hard to imagine that he ever sang a different style. Jens Becker has played bass for the band for over two decades, Axel Ritt guitar for eleven years. The new fish is Marcus Kniep, who joined on keyboards in 2014 but shifted to drums in 2018. They all fit this style as well as Boltendahl.
Clearly I need to catch up on Grave Digger. When they've spent three decades forging a career in a genre I don't remember them playing at all, I'm wildly behind.