Back in 1984 when my friends and I were spinning Grave Digger‘s debut Heavy Metal Breakdown, if you had told me these guys would still be rocking in 2014 I’d have spit Meister Bräu in your face. Even their “classic era” albums were cheesy and goofy, and though I liked them, they never impressed me as a seminal or enduring metal act capable of lasting 30 years. Fast forward to 2014 and I’m a jaded, old metal critic working on my third Digger review since joining AMG. Return of the Reaper is their freaking sixteenth album of old school Germanic metal, entirely devoid of nuance or progression, but it’s somehow still enjoyable in a knuckleheaded Beavis and Butthead way. They’ve realized their strength lies in repeating the formula from Rheingold, which means up-tempo, ballsy tunes with big, meaty riffs, and to give credit where it’s due, both this and their last album benefitted greatly from the approach. Simple though this may be, it’s some of the purest metal you’re apt to find these days, and that’s a good thing.
Because latter day Digger knows what side their metal toast is buttered on, they offer stompers like “Hell Funeral” featuring their trademark fist-pumping, anthemic, quasi-thrash and the one-of-a-kind bellows of Chris Boltendahl. It’s completely brainless but fun stuff. They keep things locked in this groove for much of Return of the Reaper, and nuggets like “Wargod” and “Road Rage Killer” adroitly batter you with simple, crunching riffs and urgent energy.
The best of these barn burners are “Grave Desecrator,” which is a rocking and rolling metal tune that defies you to resist it’s lunkhead charm, and “Satan’s Host,” where the sound approximates a guitar duel between Motorhead and Running Wild. “Dia De Los Muetos” features some of the album’s sharpest riffing and the straight-forward, driving style works very well. They even try their hand at “Turbo Lover” style cheesy excess with “Tattooed Rider,” and while it’s awkward and goofy, it’s also pretty damn catchy.
Are there weak points? Sure. “Resurrection Day” is a bit dull and uninteresting and “Death Smiles At Us All” lets you down at chorus time. “Nothing to Believe In,” the obligatory ballad by a band that should never do ballads, fares better than most such Digger attempts and it has a nicely bombastic chorus. But seriously, Boltendahl sounded like a lunatic duck way back in 1984 and here in 2014 he sounds like a well worn lunatic duck. Sadly, the fact that lighter-in-the-sky moments are best left to others continues to be lost on these gents.
As with all Grave Digger albums, the material succeeds or fails on the strength of the riffs, and for the second album in a row, Axel “Ironfinger” Ritt brings his A game to the hall. He’s becoming rather adept at churning out the skull dusting riffs this type of music needs and this album has some of his finest work to date. The way the band develops one main lead line then pummels you with it for the song duration is far from creative, but it’s effective and gets the head moving. As for the vocals, what can be said about Chris Bolthendahl that hasn’t been said already? He’s perpetually limited as a vocalist, but he’s become such an institution that it doesn’t even matter anymore. His garbled warbling is as big a part of German metal history as Udo’s timeless screech and I give the man his due props (now please stop doing ballads).
You don’t buy a Grave Digger album to be stunned by creativity or dazzled by musicianship. You buy it to blast as you raise the horns, chug shitty beer and wallow in the annihilation of your brain cells. As it was in 1984, so it remains today. Here’s to a long metal life well lived.