Ballads of a Hangman by Grave Digger
Release date : January 2009
Reviewed by Anthony Morgan
By mid July 2008, initial pre-production in support of Grave Digger's thirteenth studio album had been finished, as well as the arrangement and composition of ten tracks. On August 15th, the outfit entered Münster, Germany's Principal Studios to begin cutting the full length, entitled Ballads of a Hangman. Later that month, it was revealed that Grave Digger had inked a record contract with Napalm Records. By the 29th, after two weeks of recording, sessions had been completed. Additionally, an early January 2009 issue was slated. Upon the track “Lonely the Innocence Dies”, Benedictum vocalist Veronica Freeman lends guest vocals. Production was spearheaded by Grave Digger, and the Resetti brothers. Jörg Umbreit, guitarist Manni Schmidt and Vincent Sorg engineered Ballads of a Hangman, with Sorg additionally overseeing the mastering process. With a cover artwork concept being helmed by vocalist Chris Boltendahl, Gyula Havancsák designed the album's artwork.
In late September, a music video surfaced in support of the track “Pray”, its EP issue occuring on November 28th. Besides its title cut, the EP boasts the non-album tracks “Overkill”, “My Blood Will Live Forever”, and “When the Sun Goes Down”. During late October, an audio sample of the number “Ballad of a Hangman” was made available for streaming via Grave Digger's official MySpace page. Grave Digger honoured three Russian live dates that month, and those dates saw the group perform in Moscow, Kaliningrad and St. Petersburg. Early the following month, Ballads of a Hangman's track listing was revealed, and its cover artwork unveiled. Later that month, a music video in support of “Ballad of a Hangman” materialized, as well as a widget to accompany the Pray EP.
An acoustic guitar forms the beginning of inaugural cut and instrumental “The Gallows Pole”, the instrumental itself slowly twanging its chords in a melancholic fashion. A man wistfully hums, conjuring images of a weather beaten pensioner sitting by the roadside, busking in the hope of earning spare change. The humming paves the way for sophomore number “Ballad of a Hangman”, where the humming is continued by a host of choir vocals. Guitars rev the track's fiery engine, an approach additionally exploited elsewhere during Ballads of a Hangman upon the likes of “Grave of the Addicted”, “Into the War”, and “When the Sun Goes Down”. A slightly prolonged wail announces the arrival of Chris Boltendahl, who launches into the pacy composition's initial verse. More pronounced in this specific instance, the humming supplies “Ballad of a Hangman” its actual chorus, and shouts of “hangman” lend capable support. An adept choice, the humming will encourage immense audience interaction at festivals across the globe. Albeit failing to approach the lofty status attained by Iron Maiden's “Fear of the Dark”, the track will nonetheless prove to be a weighty anthem amongst Grave Digger's live set list.
Upon Ballads of a Hangman, the title cut isn't the only track which supplies an anthemic, hook-laden chorus. The way Boltendahl phonetically sings proves occasionally reminiscent of Saxon's Biff Byford, and chorus' equally invoke the group's spirit. During “Sorrow of the Dead”, Boltendahl's voice extremely wavers whilst uttering words such as “winners” and “losers”. Furthermore, Boltendahl shouts “hell” in two instances prior to shouting “Hell of Disillusion”, and uses similar effects upon “Grave of the Addicted”, “Into the War”, and “When the Sun Goes Down” - Saxon's great compositions utilize such an approach. Additionally, further components recur during Ballads of a Hangman's time span. Quick, rapid guitar solos usually materialize roughly two to two and a half minutes into the tunes, as is the case upon such tracks as “Hell of Disillusion”, “Grave of the Addicted”, “Into the War”, and “When the Sun Goes Down”. In numerous instances, the verse's riff actually surfaces yet again as the track's outro, something audible upon the likes of “Ballad of a Hangman”, “Sorrow of the Dead”, “Into the War”, and “When the Sun Goes Down”.
Markedly different than its fellow cuts, “Lonely the Innocence Dies” is an irrefutable highlight. Through mid paced guitars which team against drums, the track epically builds. Almost one minute into the number, sombre acoustics and piano lend Benedictum's Veronica Freeman an appropriate musical background, a background in which she belts out her lyrical plight in a heartfelt demeanour (“Show me the way back to the light / 'Cos I'm so afraid”). The verse's pace slightly quickens upon Boltendahl's arrival, who solely concludes the verse. The two duet upon the chorus, united in voicing the track's genuine despair. Epically oriented, “Lonely the Innocence Dies” constantly builds its itself towards greater heights, and guitars aid in this endeavour. Guitars execute the number's refrain, and subsequently rev for a lengthy period. The swansong verse materializes, and acoustic guitar fuses against electric guitar, cementing a gradual outro which lifts listeners' emotions down towards more familiar surroundings. Albeit magnificent, “Lonely the Innocence Dies”' epic build up could've reaped greater dividends. Nonetheless, the track is still an unquestionable highlight.
Spanish oriented acoustic guitars inaugurate “Funeral For A Fallen Angel”, and suggest the track will venture towards different territory. However, the tune opts in favour of Ballads of a Hangman's familiar stylings. Furnished courtesy of a minor Spanish styled mid section, “Funeral For A Fallen Angel” nonetheless returns towards its primary stylings following this brief deviation. Two minutes into “Sorrow of the Dead”, the tune spontaneously slows via mid paced drumming and tapping of the cymbals. Guitars subsequently both ascend, and descend. “Stormrider”, meanwhile, is rooted in the vein of earlier tracks, and so is concluding number “Pray”.
Classic eighties Metal is the sole focus of Ballads of a Hangman's stylings, and leans heavily towards Power Metal's sphere. Numbers mostly favour a quicker tempo, a tempo initially realised by a potent verse riff. Hook-laden, anthemic chorus' seize the listener's focus, causing the individual in question to belt along to each respective tune. If you happened to couple such ingredients alongside quick, decent guitar soloing, then Ballad of a Hangman's track structure would be largely pinpointed. This proves to be the full length's main strength, and the full length's main weakness. Safe, assured territory is mostly coveted by Grave Digger during this record, and within that territory, Grave Digger pen great, respectable Power / Speed Metal oriented compositions which garners the listener's attention at countless different junctures. Overwhelmed with courage, Grave Digger author compositions like “Lonely the Innocence Dies” which explore the outfit's unfulfilled potential, and lend credence to the fact that more variety lies within the group's armoury than they themselves would admit. Upon future outings, Grave Digger need to exhibit more courage. Having said that, this isn't an overriding weakness, and doesn't mar Ballads of a Hangman's general quality. Should Ballad of a Hangman's usual track structure, largely pinpointed earlier in the paragraph, venture towards your favoured musical alley, then Ballad of a Hangman warrants listening. Should you like to hear moments where acts stride away from their respective comfort zone, then “Lonely the Innocence Dies” additionally warrants listening.