Grave Digger – Ballads Of A Hangman (2009, Napalm Records)
- The Gallows Pole
- Ballad Of A Hangman
- Hell Of Disillusion
- Sorrow Of The Dead
- Grave Of The Addicted
- Lonely The Innocence Dies
- Into The War
- The Shadow Of Your Soul
- Funeral For A Fallen Angel
- Jailbreak (U.S. bonus track)
Chris Boltendahl – Vocals
Manni Schmidt – Guitar
Thilo Herrmann – Guitar
H.P. Katzenburg – Keyboards
Stefan Arnold – Drums
Jens Becker – Bass
Veronica Freeman (Benedictum) - guest Vocals on ‘Lonely The Innocence Dies’
Produced by: Grave Digger & Resetti Brothers
Total Time = 45:38
It’s been a long and winding road for one of Germany’s best Power Metal bands, Grave Digger has survived multiple lineup changes, label changes and even a temporary hiatus to bring us studio album number thirteen…..BALLADS OF A HANGMAN. Not much has changed in the Grave Digger camp as of late, except their change to Napalm Records, they have been able to maintain a stable lineup since 2001 and it seems like every year we get treated to a studio record, live album or DVD. The band just keeps plugging away and still remains one of the founding fathers of pure German Power Metal alongside Helloween, Rage and Running Wild.
Not much has really changed in the Grave Digger sound as well. There are still blistering guitar solos, dual riffing and a double bass drum attack to go alongside Chris Boltendahl’s rough and tough Udo Dirkschneider-like vocals. The only difference is that the band continues to keep the “epic” sound in their music, something they have done well since releasing three concept records TUNES OF WAR (1996), KNIGHTS OF THE CROSS (1998) and Excalibur (1999). The album starts off with the instrumental ‘The Gallows Pole’ that leads straight into the title track, a song that has chant style background vocals open the song and lead into a furious main riff and double bass attack. Hearing Boltendahl scream right at the beginning gives you the sense that Grave Digger mean business but the song slows at the chorus for those chant backing vocals that sound like something Hammerfall did on LEGACY OF KINGS back in 1998.
‘Ballad Of A Hangman’
‘Hell Of Disillusion’ is another really fast song with breakneck riffs but the chorus actually slows things down again for the gang vocals. I actually like this song better that the title track because the drums are vicious and the solos are fast but also melodic. ‘Sorrow Of The Dead’ just kicks in and hits you in the head with pure speed and Boltendahl’s shriek while the duelling guitars make ‘Grave Of The Addicted’ one of the album’s best songs. Obviously, the band’s strongest quality is both guitarists: Manni Schmidt (ex-Rage) and Thilo Herrmann (ex- Holy Moses/Running Wild). Nothing against Chris Boltendahl, the band’s founding frontman, but the whole sound comes down to both guitarists trading off riffs and solos thoughout every song.
In 2009, there are only two ways to make Power Metal grow: do grand epics and/or go more melodic like Primal Fear has done. Grave Digger also flirts with the melodic by bringing in Benedictum frontwoman Veronica Freeman in to provide guest lead vocals on ‘Lonely The Innocence Dies’, a melodic power ballad. For Grave Digger, this is as slow as it’s going to get and it does remind me of some of the work Primal Fear did on NEW RELIGION (2007). What makes this song work is that the band brought in a powerful female lead in Freeman to go with Boltendahl’s rough style. Freeman is an excellent vocalist with a ton of power and she puts in a solid performance. What’s also nice is that the slower tempo breaks up the album a little because the band immeadiately slides right back into the frantic pace with ‘Into The War’. By now it’s the middle of the album so you already know what to expect, especially if you’re a Grave Digger fan, and ‘Into The War’ continues the power assault but it doesn’t really take any chances. Basically it’s more of the same from the first five songs that start the album. ‘The Shadow Of Your Soul’ has an extremely ’80s-retro style that sounds like Accept or maybe Judas Priest especially when the guitars cut out at times and you just have the vocal and the drums (both are kind of laid back). Unfortunately, the band falls back into the previous formula with ‘Funeral For A Fallen Angel’. I guess it’s a small complaint that the band continues to follow the same pattern but this is how a lot of Power Metal is and you either have to be a fan of the band or the genre to really enjoy it.
The opening guitars to ‘Stormrider’ signal a Judas Priest style song with the only difference being the rough vocals. It’s a good song and the riffs really don’t fall all over the place, they are more basic than anything else. Sounds like the band is going more straight forward here and it’s welcome, especially when Schmidt and Herrmann do their best Tipton/Downing harmonies. The first single from the album is ‘Pray’ and it’s a melodic mid-tempo song that retains it’s power when the gang style backgrounds come in for the chorus. The guitars are the cleanest of the album with their clear twin melodies and solos, definitely a song that brings me back to the Heavy Metal heyday of the mid-’80s. ‘Pray’ gives the album a welcome break from the constant pounding, I would have sequenced it somewhere in the beginning of the album.
‘Pray’ was released in advance in the U.S. a week before BALLADS OF A HANGMAN as the title track of an E.P. of the same name. For collector’s, the PRAY E.P. has 3 non-album tracks (one is a cover of Motorhead’s ‘Overkill’) and an extended version of ‘Pray’. If you bought the U.S. limited edition digipak of the proper album like I did (it was the only version available!) then you got a bonus track: a cover of Thin Lizzy’s ‘Jailbreak’. Why do band’s do this? I realize that it’s a business decision but why not tack on the two extra studio songs from the PRAY E.P. instead of the Thin Lizzy cover? Now that would be a bonus and I wouldn’t have to buy the E.P. AND the actual album! As far as covers go it’s decent but I’m not a cover song kind of guy.
Grave Digger continues to do what they do best in churning out fast and heavy Power Metal. In the grand scheme of things they haven’t really evolved their sound, it’s basically what they continue to do and that’s not all that bad. If you’re aren’t a big Power Metal fan then it’s all going to sound the same no matter what but if you really enjoy the genre then you can appreciate the proven formula and pick out the spots where the band takes chances. I like both the all out attack on most of the songs but I think that the more melodic and retro sounding songs add a certain dimension to the overall sound. I’ve been a Grave Digger fan since the early days so I’ve enjoyed this album a lot and I’m willing to bet that it’s going to be one of the best Power Metal albums of the year.
I’d have to go with the melodic duet ‘Lonely The Innocence Dies’ and the mid-tempo ‘Pray’ as two of the best songs along with the title track, ‘Stormrider’ and ‘Grave Of The Addicted’.