Grave Digger. Outside of Germany and one or two Eastern European markets, they’ve never meant very much, which is a shame because they’ve always had something to offer, as evinced by this, another in Noise’s current rollout of nostalgic rehashed compilations.
Calling it ‘the very best of’ is a bit of a misnomer, as at 28 tracks covering four albums (from debut Heavy Metal Breakdown to Stronger Than Ever, which wasn’t even released under the Grave Digger monicker in 1986), there’s a lot of space to fill, meaning that all bar two of Heavy Metal Breakdown’s tracks feature here. And they ain’t all classic, let me tell you…
Still, tracks like Headbanging Man and Back from the War do get the juices running still 32 years after their first appearance on the metal scene, whilst guitarist Peter Masson contributes some beguiling riffage on the excellent Tyrant.
Shoot Her Down, which appeared on American versions of the album bridges the debut and second effort Witch Hunter, highlighting vocalist Chris Boltendahl at his most eccentric. Undeniably a heavy metal man to the core, to say Boltendahl’s vocals are an acquired taste would be an understatement. Here, sounding like a demented Udo Dirkschneider, he really comes into his own.
Witch Hunter, released in March 1985 reflects the time of its release, being altogether more thrashy and indeed accomplished than its predecessor, and consequently to the thirty years removed ear these songs sound, if not more sophisticated, then certainly slicker and less clunky. Get Ready for Power wears its Raven influences proudly on its sleeve, whilst slightly chortlesome power ballad Love is a Game carries an Accept-approved chorus but not much else to write home about.
Get Away, on the other hand, is a marvellous piece of not-to-be-missed eighties Teutonic speed metal, Boltendahl’s unhinged wailing being backed by more effective Masson riffwork and some tidy drumming from the admirable Albert Eckardt whilst the final track from Witch Hunter here, Here I Stand offers some straight-ahead, meat and potatoes metal of the sort this band really did excel at in the mid eighties.
Don’t Kill the Children was recorded at the same time as Witch Hunter but didn’t make the final running order; would it be cruel to suggest that listening to it now leads one to believe the band were right to allow it’s omission?
War Games, from 1986, was heavier still; I remember seeing the band at the time in support of this album on the bottom of a bill that also included fellow Noise compadres Celtic Frost and Helloween, both of whom effortlessly out-heavied GD and there’s certainly a sense here that maybe the band were running before they could really walk in an effort to stay up with the times. That said, Keep On Rockin’ is a pretty storming track, full pelt headbanging fare that has aged well it has to be said. However the band sounds infinitely more comfortable on the riffmongous Heaven Can Wait, where the spectre of Accept looms large again but won’t stop the listener enjoying its open-hearted heavy metal brilliance. Easily my favourite Grave Digger track, it took some beating back in the day and, I’m pleased to report, still sounds pretty good in 2016.
1986’s Stronger than Ever was initially released with the band calling themselves Digger; Masson had left, to be replaced by the flashier Uwe Lulis and the band moved into a sort of proto-hair metal stance that confused, bewildered and outraged many fans, who just weren’t ready for the band to start pretending they were Krokus. That said, tracks like Don’t Leave Me Lonely (replete with some strutting bass from CF Brank) and the cod-AOR of Stronger Than Ever weren’t actually that bad, all things considered, even if they did effectively end the first phase of Grave Digger’s career with a bad taste in the mouth and some clunking riffs in the ears…
Keyboard tingling and brightly-coloured spandex strides proved to be an unmitigated failure, however, and by the time the band returned under the Grave Digger ballad again for 1993’s The Reaper normal service was resumed – but that’s another story for another day…