Those who are not in the know and new to the band might mistake Germany's Grave Digger for being a Swedish death or black metal band. But that would be way off base -- way, way off. (And, FYI, they have absolutely no affiliation with monster trucks, either.) Indeed, these stalwarts are actually natives to two things: Gladbeck and power metal. And not only that, but they are easily one of the finest traditional/power metal bands to emerge from said city/country, and are so good at what they do that they actually round out "The Big Four" in the genre, right up there alongside Helloween, Blind Guardian, and Accept. They can shred the pants off just as well as just about anybody, and are also no strangers to strong vocals and excellent hooks.
But where Grave Digger stand out from the rest of the herd is in their lyrics. See, they are very well-known for crafting intelligently-worded and interesting concept albums. But their seventeenth full-length, 2014's "Return Of The Reaper," as it is the first G.D. record in recent memory not to be conceptual. Indeed, here, the band just let their musical abilities and obvious, copious instrumental talents do all the talking. This is not an stupid or ill-conceived notion for any band, just so long as they are capable of producing this vast amount of blistering, speed metal-lite riffage, fiery leads, and inspiring solos.
The record begins with a darkly melodic and ominous little intro piece in the title track before flowing into "Hell Funeral," which, with its consistently strong riffing, Dickinson-inspired clean singing, and really memorable choruses, almost sounds like it could be an Iron Maiden cover song. Almost. See, the tune distinguishes itself from anything that those Brits have ever recorded by the fact that it also features a memorably frenetic, careening, wah-wah-soaked guitar solo. The blistering "War God" comes next, and it is hands down one of the heaviest pieces of the set. It is a nimbly-fingered buzzsaw-riff and pounding, galloping double-bass-driven piece. And it all flows perfectly into unforgettably anthemic, chanted, Maiden-esque choruses.
"Tattooed Rider" is a more mid-tempo and involved venture, playing like a restrained cruncher of a song with industrial-strength chug/churn guitar leads and blazing melodic solos; but the ensuing "Resurrection Day" again puts the listener back in thrash-oriented territory. It is a ripper that is simply brimming with tasty guitar crunch, twiddly soloing, and huge choruses. As good as it is, though, it is almost -- if not QUITE -- overshadowed by what comes next: "Season Of The Witch," the record's five-plus-minute long epic centerpiece featuring gruff and extra-flinty-sounding vocals that strongly evoke Motorhead's Lemmy Kilmeister.
Said song does end on a surprisingly melodic note, as it does adopt a sudden, ominously melodic guitar and spoken-word vocal-aided breakdown; but the aptly-named "Road Rage Killer" proceeds to promptly again launch you back into blustery, speed metal-like aggression, with crunchy, grooving guitar riffing and wild, shred-happy, wah-obsessed soloing. But then "Return Of The Reaper" delves back into more restrained and subdued territory, as "Dia De Los Muertos" is a meaty, steady chugger that might have plenty of banging tom-tom drums, but is actually mostly highlighted by some more terrific, air-guitar-worthy shredding, though, including jazzy melodic leads. And a blazing, shredding solo comes ripping through the mix like a serrated knife, too.
"Satan's Host" bears a very, heavy Motorhead-esque influence, from its Lemmy-like bass intro right down to its abundant use of adherent grooves, hooky licks, and motoring, speed-punk-inspired double bass drumming. Next up, the very fiery riffing, anthemic vocal patterns, and huge choruses of "Grave Desecrator" set the stage perfectly for the portentously-entitled "Death Smiles At All Of Us," which might begin with a proggy little melodic guitar intro, sure. But it is just a matter of time before it slams into blistering, ripping thrash/speed metal-dom.
But things all then wind down for the concluding "Nothing To Believe," the set's sole anomaly, as it is a placid, docile, and very touching bit of piano-driven power balladry. It might be a surprising move by the band to end the album this way, but at the same time, it also somehow seems very fitting. (After all, every great power metal record needs to have at least one ballad, am I riiiight?)
True, "Return Of The Reaper" is not exactly a genre-redefining release. But even if it breaks very little new ground, and does not move the world of heavy metal music forward at all, it is still, nonetheless, an extremely solid and very satisfying record, and one that is well-done and entertaining enough to warrant being a must-hear for all serious enthusiasts of the traditional heavy/power metal genres currently occupying ever last corner of this toilet earth.