How many fourteenth albums can you name? Unless you’re keeping close tabs on musical longevity, probably not many. Plus, chances are, nine out of ten bands that reach that mark have either watered down (sold out to their fans), become a self-parody of themselves as they aged, or split up and reformed at least three times with completely different lineups (a fresh start, it might be called). The one exception you might be able to name off the top of your head is the mighty Iron Maiden, who still have plenty of talent and guts, as evidenced by last year’s A Matter of Life and Death, but a band you might not know about who also have that imposing credit to their name is Grave Digger.
Liberty or Death, following thirteen before it, is the latest offering from the band’s obscure nook of metal, tagged “power metal” by the metal authority. While elements of the fantastic are plainly visible, its quietly-building crescendos, slow tempos, and melancholy share a lot more in common with doom, and they include enough instrumental extras for it to be more or less unclassifiable. The outfit sounds at least a little world-weary by this stage, watching fellow Germans Blind Guardian and Helloween become internationally renowned while Grave Digger never got the recognition they deserved, but emerge strong on ten prolonged, ultra-progressive tracks.
They’re miles ahead of younger symphonic metal contemporaries, and while they do like to pull out the acoustic guitar, foreboding organ trills, and even swipe a few piano chords, they use such elements to enhance the mood of the record and not just for the sake of doing it. Besides, it’s logically impossible in metal to criticize all the choirs and cheesiness when the band know the value of a classic, undulating riff to back it up — “Silent Revolution”, “Shadowland”, and “Forecourt to Hell” all bear living testimony to this.
Grave Digger’s influences are held close to heart on Liberty or Death, but cleverly and subtly incorporated rather than aped. The six-and-a-half-minute “Shadowland” is structured like a Metallica song, with a riff like the latter’s “Enter Sandman” but with a few notes removed; “Highland Tears”, perhaps the strongest of the set, begins brilliantly in bagpipe melody before propelling itself into a Maiden-esque guitar harmony. Steely, serpentine acoustic strumming opens a progressive screwdriver into “March of the Innocent”. The band’s biggest asset on the record, though, is vocalist Chris Boltendahl, who can effortlessly encompass the obligatory growl and siren shriek in the opening to “Forecourt to Hell”. Best of all, though, his voice is not one-dimensional, meaning he can truly let loose with both a remarkably somber or demanding lyrical performance. The benefit of audible vocals makes a big difference to the band’s impact.
It’s easier to read deeper into typical metal self-affirmations like “We will never give up our right to be free”, which the lyrics are chock full of, particularly the album’s centerpiece, a power ballad called “Until the Last King Died”, seemingly there for no other reason than to make some sort of cryptic statement. But let’s face it, with music that’s as intricate and deftly crafted as this, it’s easier just to enjoy that. The ultra-sprawling “Massacra”, showcasing ethereal vocals and transcending different forms without feeling pretentious, is wisely saved till last to reinforce this. Liberty or Death has samey melodies in some of its parts, and none of it is fantastic, but it’s a nice treat, and sure evidence that the Germans still have what it takes on their fourteenth album, well into their middle age, to raise fists.