Grave Digger ain’t no fools. After descending for a decade into heavy metal obscurity, they realized it’s time to change to survive. Heart of Darkness was the first step towards that change. Oh and it kicks ass, at least for your average heavy metal band. For a first-wave metal band hoping to make their mark in the 90’s, Grave Digger’s options were limited. Lacking a bad ass singer with great range or an axeman with unique style, they only logical thing to do was more complex songwriting and adding some atmosphere and theatricality to the blend. Yes. The horror… The horror!
Adding effects was the first step. The album makes frequent use of samples, acoustic parts and even chorus-like backing vocals. Chris Boltendahl tries his best to add some variety to his repertoire, regarding his fairly monotonous style of singing. An occasional demonic laughter here and there, the frequent use of clear vocals and some sampling do the trick. He doesn’t sound boring and this is a big success.
Next step was working on the songwriting. Till HoD, the band played like an Accept clone. In 1995, they decided to remain an Accept clone, but with longer –Princess of the Dawn- type of songs. They never quite managed to write such a powerful song, but by opening up to influences like Pantera and Metallica, the Germans didn’t sound terribly dated and with the 12th minute Heart of Darkness they come as close as ever to their own Magnus opus. Based on Apocalypse Now, it comes as a hybrid of the aforementioned Accept classic and the antiwar hit One by Metallica. It might even sound a bit like modern Megadeth, at least in the middle of the song, where the acoustic guitar mix with the samples.
What the heck, I am going to say it! The old timers actually did have some tricks up their sleeve, which may sound a bit ordinary today but back in day it was more than a welcome addition to the usual heavy metal formula. The Grave Dancer explodes with a typical Accept riff but next thing you know the guitars become unusually playful almost danceable (matching the title), using palm-muting technique. Not long after, it is difficult to resist banging your head to Demon’s Day’s and Black Death’s groovy Pantera like riffs, which is Grave Digger’s take on modern metal. These are much more that your typical bangers, oozing freshness, energy and… darkness!
This new recipe of longer, darker and progressive songs is a refreshing twist to the band’s sound. But as much as I would like to brand it their best album, there are some very obvious drawbacks. First of all, the album is a bit long. 67 minutes of Grave Digger -or for any average heavy metal band for that matter- is never a good thing. In the second side of the album, the trick becomes boring and the songs are just not memorable. If the album had the first 6 songs plus Black Death, it would run about 42 minute. In that case I would consider giving it a much higher rating, even a 4. Secondly, the production is awfully thin and raw. I never heard the re-issue but I can only imagine how much work had to be done to make this sound better. The drums sound weak and the bass is also a bit low in the mix. Also, i can’t stand the song Hate, but it is everything I despise in this band in 4 and a half minutes. Uninteresting, average heavy/thrash metal.
I like the fact that Grave Digger showed some versatility in a rather limited music genre. After all these years, it’s been proven that adding some variety and spice was the only way they could survive. Unfortunately, following Heart of Darkness, Grave Digger had become synonymous and relatively famous with epic concept albums, with little or no musical experimentation. But as the album that started it all, I treasure it as a beautiful process of change that only for some moments seemed promising.