The infernal casino is a heavy place.
Sometimes old dogs like to revert back to old tricks, though in the case of Grave Digger front man Chris Boltendahl and guitarist Alex Ritt, it’s been something they’ve been meaning to attempt for a few years now. Owing to a lot of extra free time last year courtesy of the pandemic, these two veterans of the Teutonic metal scene have tapped Orden Ogan bassist Steven Wussow and ex-Freedom Call drummer Timmi Breideband and have managed to field an entire LP of old school heavy metal thunder just a year after the highly ambitious “Fields Of Blood” came raging out of Grave Digger’s creative well and hit the shelves. The aptly dubbed Hellryder is a project that could well have been born right out of a smelting mill, channeling a number of prominent figures in heavy metal’s development during the late 70s and early 80s, and it’s beast of a debut “The Devil Is A Gambler” comes wreathed in flames hot enough to reduce the unprepared to cinders.
Despite billing itself as a pursuit of heavy metal in its more primitive nature, this album is not an overt throwback to the production practices of the bygone days of analog tape recorders as often trotted out by NWOTHM bands of late. Instead, what is heard here can be best described as what the early offerings of Tank, Accept, Motorhead and several other prominent German and British bands from 40 years prior would have sounded like if they had access to the studio magic of the 2020s. The sheer density of the rhythm section, the pummeling heaviness of the guitars and the colossal vocal presence of Boltendahl’s smoky, berserker-like growl has been compressed to a degree that I doubt even the likes of Pantera, Machine Head or Exodus could have achieved a comparable level of sonic intensity prior to 2004. It’s a sound that is technically accomplished by a mere 4 musicians, but comes across as though twice as many were in attendance during recording sessions.
When seeing the visual of a flame-bound skull with massive horns protruding out each side of its forehead on the cover, it goes without saying that the music contained within isn’t going to pull any punches. Coming down like a 2 ton anvil, the opening crusher and band’s namesake “Hellryder” rides in on a brief drum intro and lays on the heaviness with a vengeance, essentially blurring the lines between old school heavy and modern groove metal, especially during the deep chugging principle riff and the verse section. Interestingly enough, this song is not an aberration, as the pummeling speeder “Chainsaw Lilly” is largely constructed along the lines of an up tempo number heard out of the likes of Saxon with some occasional Neo-classical flourishes, but is so massive that it also reminds a bit of Pantera’s “Primal Concrete Sledge”. Even when things settle into a more down tempo groove and the riff work has more of a rocking character as on “Passion Maker” and the Judas Priest-like grooves of the title anthem “The Devil Is A Gambler”, the aggression factor cloaks the retro character of the music all but completely.
Then again, for an album that is so steeped in modern production practices, the nostalgic character of the old school heavy metal vibes shines through regardless. When dealing with the fast paced, speed infused character of some of the songs found on here, specifically the frenetic, double kick steeped thrill ride that is “Sacrifice In Paradise”, along with more free-flowing faster offerings like “Jekyll & Hyde” and the quasi-thrashing beast “Harder Faster Louder”, it almost seems that Boltendahl is attempting to channel the early days of Grave Digger when their powerhouse debut “Heavy Metal Breakdown” was rivaling the likes of Iron Angel and Paradox. Alex Ritt’s highly expressive lead guitar work proves invaluable in this capacity, breathing that classic guitar hero persona into each song as was commonplace throughout the 80s, yet does so in a reasonably tasteful and measured fashion, allowing compact and accessible rocking anthems like “Night Rider” and “Faceless Jesus” to remain as such while also imbuing them with some needed flash and flair.
This is a fairly different beast from the ones that current day fans of Grave Digger are familiar with, and it is pretty obvious from the moment the first note is struck that Boltendahl and company were looking to cater to fans of yesteryear. The modernized yet more stripped down approach will definitely hold similar appeal to those who have been continuing to follow the recent output of Sinner and Herman Frank’s solo work, particularly the latter given the similarities to Alex Ritt’s signature shredding style to the one-time axe man of Accept. There is very little in the way of nuance to be found here, no ballads or softer moments to provide a respite from the onslaught of sonic steel, just a straight dose of metallic fury spread across twelve short and to the point songs. To those who want to remember the days when an LP was short enough to fit on an audio cassette but still present degree of modern heaviness that only digital recording can provide, there is no gamble involved here.
Released By: Rock of Angels Records
Released On: May 28th, 2021
Genre: Heavy Metal
“The Devil Is A Gambler” track listing:
- Sacrifice in Paradise
- Night Rider
- The Devil Is a Gambler
- Jekyll and Hyde
- Faceless Jesus
- Chainsaw Lilly
- I Die for You
- Bad Attitude
- Passion Maker
- Harder Faster Louder
In what can be described as the latest triumph in heavy metal supergroups, this union of such noted acts as Grave Digger, Orden Ogan, Freedom Call, Bonfire, Domain and Xandria delivers an iron-clad sonic fist of rugged, gritty old school heavy metal in a colossal modern package.