There are few bands in the metal scene who have been active as long as Grave Digger. The German heavy metal icons, led by Chris Boltendahl, have been playing under various monikers for close to four decades, producing 19 albums. Far from ready to settle down for eternal rest, the band are following up last year’s Healed By Metal with The Living Dead.
Grave Digger by name, and I guess by nature as well, as the music is keeping in line with the sort of connotations the name brings up. The guitar tone is a little abrasive, dirtying up the riffs with the mud and grime of disturbed earth. The leads, which are quite pretty at times, are rough around the edges as well, so as not to be too at odds with the riffs. Although this audio abrasion is by design, it became a little tiring as the album wears on, as it is quite full on, even in the calmer moments. Boltendahl’s voice is rougher still, as if his vocal cords were composed of the gravel, powering through admirably with grit and passion close to 40 years later. His intensity has likely been weathered by age, but he’s still giving his all, and that conviction can make a world of difference when you’re not quite able to fire on all cylinders. The rhythm section hurtles along with a cool, reserved demeanour, offering a robust footing complemented by some nice little fills and patterns when the opportunity arises.
Grave Digger’s best days have long past, but their creative wheels are still moving well enough. A lot of effort and attention has been put into the song structures, how they’re organised and how they develop and progress. I may not agree with some of the creative choices made, but everything feels natural. A handful of songs (“When Death Passes By” and “What War Left Behind”) open at a blistering pace and you just will them to rip through its duration at this lightning speed, only to have the brakes put on far too soon. Both are fairly good songs, but you have to wonder how they might turned out if they’d have really gone for the throat, as they eventually backtrack into the sort of pace that many of the other songs on the album do. What I do take away from these two tracks though is how well implemented these tempo changes are, as whilst I would rather they maintained the high speed they start with, the drop in speed itself is never jarring and feels completely organic.
Furthermore, recognising the strengths of some of these songs in the face of obvious flaws does make me appreciate the album more. “Fear of the Living Dead” is quite middle of the road as far as openers go, particularly for a heavy metal album, as it really doesn’t grab you at all. Nevertheless, a few spins unearths a half catchy earworm that is structurally sound and has a good flow to it. The slightly generic riffs that carry “Hymn of the Damned”, “Insane Pain” and “The Power of Metal” aren’t bland enough to undermine the more inspired ideas they contain (cornball lyrics of the latter aside), with the scything riff and stuttering beat of the former a moment of true quality. The jovial, folky jive of “Zombie Dance” is totally at odds with the rest of the album, which, despite being difficult to take seriously, is enjoyable all the same.
Having been a touch negative thus far, I have reserved a paragraph to state that when The Living Dead is good, it is really good. “Blade of the Immortal” has a riff that is so ridiculously heavy and groovy, that even thinking about head banging to it will give you whiplash. That this riff is flawlessly melded to an upbeat, power metal style chorus makes it all the more potent. “Shadow of the Warrior” opens with a softly picked motif and layered vocals for a medieval feel, before leaping into a powerful central riff. The medieval aura is due to an undercurrent of keyboards that runs through much of the record and, despite never really breaking through the wall of guitars, they are still audible enough be atmospheric. Frustratingly, The Living Dead is also one of those albums that consigns one of its better songs to bonus track status. “Glory or Grave” is definitely more glory than grave, with simple riff patterns that are in constant motion and some deft dual guitar work. It’s a great song, performed with guts and gusto, and comfortably usurps many of the regular album tracks here.
The Living Dead falls in line with many of Grave Digger’s most recent albums. It’s a far cry from their glory years, but they’re still capable of putting out some good, if slightly uneven records. If you are looking to pick up this album, just make sure the bonus track is included, as otherwise the final stretch may be a slog.
Highlights: “Blade of the Immortal”, Shadow of the Warrior”, “Glory or Grave”
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