Review Summary: Stand Up and Quack.
In order to craft a very good, resonating album, you need inspiration. We all know what happens when artists make something just to cash in on a trend, especially when they’re pressured by their record labels; soulless, half-hearted music is almost always the result. So it was with Stronger Than Ever
, Grave Digger’s awkward attempt to get in with the arena rock/pop metal crowd of the mid-80s. Even though we can take as an excuse a bit of historical trivia which says that Chris & boys, in an effort to pursue a more commercial, user-friendly direction, decided to shorten their name to simply ''Digger'', the album still has its issues, and they are not few.
To be fair, Stronger Than Ever
isn’t exactly an ''atrocity''; the instrumental performances are quite solid and competent, the sound is smooth and impeccable, and the aggressive, speedy rock songs still bear traces of the old Grave Digger crunch (though diluted in cheese). It is, plain and simple, an ordinary and uninteresting listen. Everything, every single song here is a sterile, boring and watered-down incarnation of radio-friendly hard rock that only succeeds stylistically in approaching every 80s stereotype ever existed; the guitar tones are brighter and less frightening, the rhythm section just pounds along in a thoroughly predictable way and the primitive choruses seem to emphasize ''brute force (just repeat the song titles!)'' over delivering well-crafted, creative and intelligent hooks. Technically well-performed songs, but that don’t covey much to the listener.
Completely lost in the effort to commercialize their sound and trying to keep up with the times, the band had forgotten to write any interesting hooks or riffs; Matthias "Matz" Ulmer contributes with keyboards, yet his choice of synth tones makes all the songs acquire an archaic, dated and tacky 80s vibe, while his poppy and plastic-soulful overdubs aren’t enough to redeem such directionless numbers as ''Listen to the Music'' or the hideous ''I Don’t Need Your Love''. And the riffage problem becomes especially crippling once you realize the guitarist is none other than Uwe Lulis. That’s right, the same Uwe Lulis who later contributed on iconic albums such as Tunes of War
or Knights of the Cross
made his debut here, yet you wouldn’t noticed him as the guitars are devoid of any real power, bite or roughness; his playing is not necessarily bad, just not distinctive, as those lines and riffs you can hear on cheesy songs like ''Moonriders'' or ''Stay Till the Morning'' could come from any other 80s metal guitarist.
Furthermore, vocally Chris Boltendahl varies between a deep, more melodic approach (sounding half like Turbo
-era Rob Halford at times) and his trademark gruff and manly style, and while his clean vocals really work on the Foreigner-like title track, when he pulls out his cavernous and rougher edged voice, as on ''Wanna Get Closed'' ('Hey little girl/The nighttime is alright/I'm gonna spend the night with you'
) or ''Listen to the Music'', the effect in general is really odd, goofy and laughable. His voice, in theory, is okay, but considering that the final product is squeaky clean, softer and glossier like nothing else in the Grave Digger catalogue, and lyrically all the songs deal with women, love stories and 80s clichés, his gritty vocals simply don’t mesh well with the actual music.
Redeeming factors are not easy to find; from the beginning, one can easily end up disgusted by the cheese. However there are some songs which could genuinely be called stand-outs; the metallic, speedy closing ''Shadows of the Past'' tries to give the album a last minute change, and although it sounds a bit sloppy and rushed, it's fun and powerful enough to stand out as a sore thumb within the present material, while ''Stand Up and Rock'', despite being an obvious rehash of 80s lyrical clichés (the title says it all), has the band making the best of all the pop metal ingredients and solidly fulfills its objective of being your typical kick-ass stadium rock anthem. And once you overlook the shock that it’s a pop/AOR tune that has nothing to do with anything Grave Digger would record later, the title track is more developed and focused than the rest of the album, and is the only moment where the keys don’t get annoying, providing a smooth and classy accompaniment to Chris’ performance.
Sadly, beyond those exceptions, Grave Digger’s attempt to keep up with modern trends resulted in a mostly forgettable and boring effort, as well as another good remainder to all of us how in those years many heavy groups tried to mellow out their sound either by own decision or by request of their labels. A (mercifully) short, bland and curious failure, this one. Not that the band was too tight-assed to admit it; Boltendahl himself has since then acknowledged that this entire stylistic detour was made in order to get money and have a serious break into the mainstream, even though the group re-recorded ''Stand Up and Rock'' in 2015. The album flopped and is out of print now, and wisely the band went on a hiatus soon after; it’s largely the knowledge that the best was yet to come. For completists only.