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GRAVE DIGGER – Return Of The Reapers
Anthony Morgan
July 2014

Grave Digger (l-r): Stefan Arnold, Jens Becker, Axel Ritt and Chris Boltendahl

Writing responsibilities for July 2014 outing Return Of The Reaper – the 17th studio full-length by Köln, Germany-based heavy metal outfit Grave Digger – were spread across three individuals, namely vocalist Chris Boltendahl, bassist Jens Becker, and guitarist Axel Ritt. Guitar riffs and ideas are usually grouped together following their respective inceptions, the trio subsequently convening at Axel’s studio.

“We then start writing the songs and decide what’s good and what’s bad, and during this time I start writing the lyrics,” Chris Boltendahl continues. “Then it’s like a big puzzle; we put a piece together with another piece, and at the end we have a record. We started writing last year – in September 2013 – and finished writing in January. Then we started with the pre-production in the studio, which was again at Principal Studios here in the middle of Germany (Münster) where we’ve recorded since 1995 – every recorded we’ve recorded there, since then. It’s a great studio. The people there know each other. We’ve been friends for years, and there’s a really good atmosphere there. It’s completely digital there, because they’re at the top of the technical evolution these days. It’s great to work with them, because they know what they do. We know best what Grave Digger has to sound like, and the studio also. Everybody in the studio knows how Grave Digger should sound, and that is the reason why we always produce the records by ourselves. There are a lot of big German bands who record there as well, and they’re doing really good production there. We really like working there. We don’t want to change studios, like go to another studio in England or in the States, or something. We’re very happy with that studio, and yeah.

“From February until May we were in the studio. Not the complete time, but one week there and five days there. Yeah, it was really big fun to record this stuff. The studio work took six weeks. Mixing took three months, overall.”

To date, all Grave Digger efforts have been self-produced with the notable exception of late 1986 jaunt Stronger Than Ever, issued under the shortened moniker Digger. “That was produced by an English producer named Mick Jackson,” the frontman remembers. “That was through the record company at the time, back in 1986. We were with Noise Records, who said to us that we should sound a bit more commercial, and then they offered us this producer. It was a bad experience (laughs). Not one of the best in my life, I think. The demo tapes that we did for the Digger album sound really like Grave Digger; they were really, really heavy, but when the producer put it all together, it sounded like Bon Jovi for poor people.”

Chris hails Return Of The Reaper as being stylistically reminiscent of early Grave Digger offerings Heavy Metal Breakdown (October 1984), Witch Hunter (May 1985) and The Reaper (November 1993). “I think that this album is more in the tradition of Heavy Metal Breakdown, Witch Hunter, or Ballads Of A Hangman (January 2009), and not the completely epic stuff like we did on Tunes Of War (August 1996), Excalibur (September 1999), or Rheingold (June 2003),” he clarifies. “It’s more in the vein of the original Grave Digger stuff that we did in the beginning of the 80s. I think that the album breathes the spirit of the 80s, but it sounds like a modern production.

“It has a lot of power and a good, modern touch, which you have to have to survive these days. On the other side though, it has this old spirit and this old quality of good heavy metal. It’s always a matter of guitar sound, I think. We use a complete, unpolished guitar sound. It’s directly from the cabinet into the microphone, then to the computer. I think that’s something that you can hear. I think that’s something really special, that you have an album with a really good, powerful production but with an 80s feeling.

“I think for us, it was really important to bring out to people what we liked to do on this album. I think it’s the simplicity of heavy metal (laughs); a cool guitar riff, a good chorus, drums, vocals, bass, and not with all of these big keyboards, and all of the other stuff around. I like keyboards from time to time, though. It’s also good to compose with keyboards like we’ve done on previous records, but I also like a record like we did now, with less keyboards and more guitars – the essential things which heavy metal stood for, which we went back to. I feel keyboards weren’t there from the very first beginning in heavy metal.

“What we had on the first several records was not thinking so much about it. We wrote songs, wrote songs, wrote songs and recorded them, and not thinking about that, that, and that, and that is something that we did on this one too. If you work without a concept you have more freedom, and don’t work in such a small cage.”

Compositions ‘Season Of The Witch’ and ‘Nothing To Believe’ deviate from Return Of The Reaper’s general tempo. “If I listen to a record with only fast songs or only mid-tempo songs, then that could be boring. That is why we change between faster to slower songs,” the singer reasons. “I want to show people the complete arsenal we have, and I think that’s the easiest way to make entertainment for people. Both ‘Season Of The Witch’ and ‘Nothing To Believe’ are the slower songs on the album, but I think that ‘Season Of The Witch’ has a killer guitar riff. I like this slow, doomy, guitar-oriented stuff, like ‘Heaven And Hell’ (from Heaven And Hell by Black Sabbath, April 1980). That is something I also liked in my own path, in my own history. On the other hand, I also like ballads. I think ballads are also a trademark of metal bands. I don’t know why metal fans like so many ballads, but I do, and I also like to play them and record them too.”

Grave Digger’s catalogue spans across 30 years (1984-2014), the catalogue boasting 17 full-length studio platters, not to mention a litany of EPs. Judging by that rationale, Chris seemingly isn’t bereft of musical ideas. “Music is my life,” he notes. “I grew up with heavy metal since I was 12 years old, and I like to do this kind of music. To stay fresh in the metal business, you must love what you do. If you love your work, then you can present it to people in a fresh way. If you don’t like or you work according to plan A or plan B or plan C, then people get bored, but when you stand behind what you’re doing, then people love it or not (laughs).

“I’m a really creative guy, and the other guys too. From time to time, you repeat yourself though. That happens for sure, but we try to figure it out and then stop it, or say ‘This idea isn’t good enough for Grave Digger.’ From time to time though, you can’t protect yourself with such a long career in heavy metal like Grave Digger. And as well, I’ve had writer’s block in my career for sure, but then I’d take a break for a week and find my creativity again. I don’t feel really bad to think that I might not have new ideas, because I know myself, and that’s the reason why I think really positive. If you believe in what you’re doing and if you do it with fun and passion, then you can never stop writing metal songs, and you always have new ideas. Nothing’s written, but we have ideas in our heads for the next one. I think we’ll start in 2015, definitely. 2014 is live, and 2015 we’ll find some time to write new songs. So, I feel totally creative and I’m looking really positive towards the future for the band.”

Return Of The Reaper’s lyrical musings concern criminal tales as well as horror tales. “I want to tell people little stories, little tales,” the mainman shares. “I think that Grave Digger isn’t a political band. We don’t take any political things to the people; it’s more on the entertainment side.

“We don’t want to do any lyrical concepts on the next couple of records, either. I think after Clash Of The Gods (August 2012), we stopped with that. We did so much of it in the past, so we’d like to do something different now and not any more concept CDs. I think people have enough of this concept stuff from Grave Digger. It’s easier for us to write lyrics now and follow the lyrics with the music, because I don’t have to follow a concept. We never say never, but at the moment, we want to walk this way.”

Hungarian artist Gyula Havancsák handled cover artwork duties for Return Of The Reaper, having done so since January 2005’s The Last Supper. “He’s a really creative guy – he can follow my ideas,” Chris compliments. “He’s such a really talented guy, so it’s unbelievable. He’s doing so many different things, but he has his own trademark. That is something that I really, really love. I love him; he’s a really, really good guy. There is long work together before an album comes out. For the new album, we worked nearly half a year together to find the right mood and the right colours, and everything. To get a really dynamic Return Of The Reaper (laughs). That was the most important thing; to find something which is dynamic, what people find interesting when they look at the cover.”

Grave Digger (l-r): Jens Becker, Stefan Arnold, Chris Boltendahl and Axel Ritt

A limited mediabook edition version of Return Of The Reaper includes a bonus disc, the tracks ‘The Emperors Death’ and ‘Rebel Of Damnation’ inaugurating proceedings in that regard. “They’re really good songs, but in the end we thought that they weren’t as good as the stuff on the regular album,” the lyricist reflects. “They weren’t 100% like the other ones on the regular album, so they were only 95%. They’re really good songs, but with the concepts of the songs on the album, we thought that they didn’t fit together. So, we decided to put them on as bonus tracks.”

Return Of The Reaper’s bonus disc is rounded out by live acoustic tracks which were recorded on May 6th, 2014 at a listening session for the opus. Taking place at Principal Studios in Münster, Germany, the event was attended by fans as well as media. “In the end, we took some classic songs and some songs that we haven’t played so often, and bits of this, a little ballad approach,” Chris summarises. “It wasn’t a big deal.”

The composer rules out the possibility of Grave Digger cutting an album solely consisting of acoustic interpretations of past material. “We’re a heavy metal band and make something special from time to time, but we would never do a complete record acoustically,” he emphasises.

A music video was filmed for the track ‘Hell Funeral’. “The lyrics for ‘Hell Funeral’ are really a horror story, about the reaper coming back and taking the souls of humans, and bringing them back to the graveyard,” the frontman divulges. “It’s a nice story, isn’t it? We filmed the music video for ‘Hell Funeral’ in the south of Germany at Frankensteins Castle. I wanted to have a clichéd video, with a lot of fire and death inside – all what the metal fans like.

“In September, we’ll do a music video for ‘Tattooed Rider’. We’re working on an idea, and all this stuff. It’s a real biker song for riding a bike, getting out of the street, breathing the dust in the wind, and everything, so it’s really cool.”

Debut outing Heavy Metal Breakdown reaches its 30th anniversary in October 2014. “In short words, making Heavy Metal Breakdown was chaotic but really, really cool,” Chris recalls. “We were young and drunk, and recorded a record (laughs). I think in 2015, we will celebrate something special for the 35th anniversary of the band. We will also take care of Heavy Metal Breakdown, but we don’t know exactly what we wanna do.”

Return Of The Reaper was released on July 11th, 2014 in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Finland, and Benelux, on the 14th in the rest of Europe (excluding Spain, Sweden, and Norway), on the 15th in North America, and on the 16th in Spain, Sweden, and Norway, all via Napalm Records.

Interview published in July 2014.