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Sunday Old School: Grave Digger

Photo of Grave Digger

Band Photo: Grave Digger (?)

No need to check again, we're not featuring Grave in Sunday Old School for the second week in a row. Instead, the column is taking a trip over to Germany and the power metal genre and examining one of the country's most revered groups in their field, Grave Digger (though this would surely be a great name for fans of Grave.) Power metal is something of a cult genre in the United States and the United Kingdom, but in mainland Europe, particularly in Germany and Sweden, it has a much larger following, thanks in part to some of power metal's most revered bands such as Gamma Ray and Blind Guardian hailing from these countries respectively. Grave Digger may not have quite reached the same heights as these bands, but over three decades, they have established themselves as one of the style's most respected groups.

Grave Digger was formed in the city of Gladbeck in 1980 by the trio of singing bassist, Chris Boltendahl, guitar player Peter Masson and drummer Lutz Schmelzer. Schmelzer was quickly replaced by Philip Seibel and the three piece recorded their first demo in 1982. Following the recording, Boltendahl decided to concentrate more on the vocal aspect and so the band became a quartet by bringing in bass player Willi Lackman, while Seibel was also replaced by Albert Eckardt. This new incarnation recorded another demo entitled, "Born Again," which started to garner attention from labels, particularly Noise, who featured the group on their "Rock From Hell - German Metal Attack" compilation alongside such bands as Running Wild.

While their demos weren't all that well received, their debut album, "Heavy Metal Breakdown," released in 1984 through Noise Records, was met with quite a warm reception and was notable for including a cover of the Rolling Stones song, "2000 Light Years From Home." It was also their only record to feature Lackman, who quit the band following its release and thus, bass duties on their sophomore release, "Witch Hunter" was handled by both Boltendahl and Masson. "Witch Hunter" itself was also received very well and featured another cover song, this time seeing the group take on the Alice Cooper classic, "School's Out."

After releasing "Witch Hunter," the band finally found a new bassist in the form of C.F. Brank, who joined in time for a tour supporting fellow German power metallers, Helloween. They then returned to the studio to record another album, "War Games," which was released in 1986, also to a positive response, completing what fans consider to be the seminal trilogy of early Grave Digger material. In support of the record, they hit the road with Helloween again, being joined this time by Swiss avant garde/ proto-black metal band, Celtic Frost, in a trek that was billed as a triple headlining tour.

Though Grave Digger were doing well and had developed a loyal fan base, some big changes soon followed, with Peter Masson decided to leave the group, leaving Chris Boltendahl as the sole founding member. He was replaced by Uwe Lulis before the group decided to shorten their name to Digger and released the album, "Stronger Than Ever" in 1987. It was an attempt to break into the mainstream by softening their sound and aping American acts such as Bon Jovi and Van Halen, however it proved to be a poor choice as the album did not sell well, while the band's fan base saw it as selling out and as a result, the band folded that same year.

Chris Boltendahl and Uwe Lulis continued their musical careers by forming the band Hawaii in 1988, which lasted for three years and recorded one demo, before the duo decided it would be better to resurrect the Grave Digger name, where they were joined in the rebirth by bass player Tomi Göttlich and Jörg Michael on drums. The quartet took their time writing new material, which eventually surfaced in 1993 on the album, "The Reaper." The record received some of the best reviews and fan reaction they had ever had by this point and was considered a triumphant return to their roots.

Following the release of the EP, "Symphony Of Death" in 1994, the group recruited a new drummer named Frank Ullrich and toured as a special guest of Manowar during their German dates, followed by a fifth Grave Digger album, "Hearts Of Darkness" in 1995, which garnered an even stronger response than "The Reaper." It was a darker album than their previous works, both musically and lyrically and included an epic, twelve minute title track which was inspired by the novella of the same name, which was famously adapted into the classic war movie, "Apocalypse Now" by Francis Ford Coppola in 1979.

The band then embarked on an ambitious project, deciding to record a trilogy of concept albums in what was to become known as the "Middle Ages Trilogy." The first of these records, "Tunes Of War" was released in 1996 and was based on the history of Scotland, focusing particularly on the 11th century to the Jacobite Rebellion in the 18th and featuring songs about such historical figures as James the 6th, Mary, Queen of Scots and William Wallace. The second part in the triptych came in 1998 with the release of, "Knights Of the Cross," which dealt with stories of the Knights Templar and again included songs about important names in history such as as Richard the Lionheart and Jacques de Molay, with the closing track dealing with another significant event in Scottish history, the Battle of Bannockburn. The trilogy was concluded in 1999 with the release of the album, "Excalibur," which of course, was based on the tales of King Arthur and his knights of the round table.

With such a challenging endeavour now behind them, Grave Digger announced plans to celebrate their 20th anniversary in 2000, included a sell out show in Bochum, which saw a wide variety of their back catalogue performed as well as several support acts. However, the celebration was soured somewhat by Uwe Lulis quitting the group shortly before the concert and attempting to claim the name Grave Digger for himself, citing his influence as the reason for their return in 1991, though his challenge ultimately proved unsuccessful and instead he formed a new band named Rebellion. Lulis was replaced by former Rage guitarist Manny Schmidt and the band recorded and released their tenth album, "The Grave Digger" in 2001. It is considered by fans to be one of their darkest works, along with "Hearts Of Darkness," thanks largely to the influence of the works of Edgar Allan Poe, which included songs based on the writings, "The Raven," "A Predicament" and "Haunted Palace" among others.

Following the release of their first live album, "Tunes Of Wacken" in 2002, the band recorded another concept album, "Rheingold," this time focusing on The Ring of the Nibelung by Richard Wagner. Many of the lyrics heard on the album were taken from an English translation of the epic, with some musical references too. While not the favourite of all critics, many fans loved it and rank it as one of their most interesting and daring works, which was a view held by critics for their next album, "The Last Supper," which was released in 2005 and marked their first non-concept album since "Hearts Of Darkness." That year, the band also released their first DVD, "25 To Live," which included a full concert shot in São Paulo, Brazil.

After a string of compilations and an EP entitled, "Yesterday," Grave Digger released their thirteenth studio album, "Liberty Or Death" in 2007 and supporting the record by teaming up with Swedish symphonic metal outfit, Therion for a co-headlining tour. "Liberty Or Death" itself was not as well received by fans as their previous albums, which the group made up for in 2009 with the release of the album, "Ballads of a Hangman." This marked their first release with two guitarists following the addition of former Running Wild and Holy Moses guitar player Thilo Hermann, though both he and Manny Schmidt left the band in 2009 (albeit eight months apart) and Grave Digger reverted to having only one guitarist, this time recruiting Axel Ritt of Domain.

Ritt's first contribution to the group as a full time member was recorded the album, "The Clans Will Rise Again," which is a sequel of sorts to "Tunes Of War," once again focusing on Scotland, this time paying more attention to the people and mysticism of the nation, though history was touched upon in the song, "Hammer Of the Scots." Two years later, Grave Digger released their sixteenth album, "Clash Of the Gods," which was held up by fans as perhaps their best album since "Rheingold" and peaked at number 29 on the German albums chart, while also finding chart success in Switzerland and Sweden.

The band returned to the style of their early albums for their next release, "Return of the Reaper" in 2015, which saw them break into the top 20 in their homeland as well as charting in Austria and the Czech Republic, in addition to Sweden. The album was also released as a limited edition two disc set, with the second CD containing acoustic versions of previously released songs. The momentum and power of Grave Digger is still going strong to this day, as only two months ago, the band released their eighteenth album, "Healed By Metal," which so far as received positive feedback from fans and critics alike, cementing their place as one of power metal's most mighty veterans.

Grave Digger - "Heavy Metal Breakdown"

Grave Digger - "Night Drifter"

Grave Digger - "The Reaper"

Grave Digger - "Circle of Witches"

Grave Digger - "The Dark of the Sun"

Grave Digger - "Rheingold"

Grave Digger - "Highland Farewell"

Grave Digger - "Hell Funeral"

Diamond Oz's avatar

Ollie Hynes has been a writer for Metal Underground.com since 2007 and a metal fan since 2001, going as far as to travel to other countries and continents for metal gigs.

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