Nuclear Blast Records, 2000
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 10/11/2000
On paper, it seemed to be an interesting marriage of styles - a German heavy metal band taking on the tale of King Arthur and Camelot. So much of the metal out of Europe is warrior-style songwriting that this concept seemed like a refreshing change of pace. Enter Grave Digger, a hard-rocking quintet who mixed the legend in with a little warrior music (albeit fitting for the material) and came up with Excalibur, a concept-type album that works for the most part, but it also shows the limitations of the band.
Although all the songs tie together in a similar storyline, I hesitate on calling this strictly a "concept album" simply because there is so much going on in the storyline that many of these tracks could stand on their own without relying on the plot to hold them up. This alone is a rarity among concept albums, and for Grave Digger to have successfully pulled it off is no small feat.
The band - vocalist Chris Bottendahl, guitarist Uwe Lulis, bassist Jens Becker, keyboardist Peter Katzenburg and drummer Stefan Arnold - themselves are an interesting mix of musical styles. Every once in a while, you hear the ghosts of thrash rear their heads up, especially in Arnold's drum work. And while there is definitely the European style of metal present in these songs, they don't seem to be held back by any stylistic boundaries. Maybe part of the reason is that they're tackling a British legend; maybe it's because their own musical influences span the globe. Whatever the case, it works.
The story of King Arthur and the Knights Of The Round Table does jump around a little bit - then again, you try condensing such a complex story into an hour-long album. Tracks such as "Pendragon," "Morgane Le Fay," "Mordred's Song" and "The Final War" all are powerful songs in and of themselves, and they do help to move the plot of the story along well. (It should be noted that reading the liner notes as you listen to the disc is the greatest aid.)
Yet one wonders whether Grave Digger was holding back on some of their own musical fury in order to keep the story line moving on Excalibur. Lulis's solos are good, but I can't help but think that he was operating at a fraction of his true musical power. I'd also have moved Katzenburg's keyboards up a little more in the mix.
And though the band admirably tackles different styles of metal, the pseudo-ballad "Emerald Eyes" shows the group's greatest weakness. What should be a gentle ode to a loved one before dying (Arthur's deathbed ode to Guinivere) is marred by Bottendahl's vocal style. At times on this disc, he delivers the lines flawlessly, but on this one, it sounds like he gargled with battery acid before he recorded his vocal line. It's a flub... and, regrettably, it's a big one.
Some copies of Excalibur include a bonus track, "Parcival," which is a decent enough track on its own. I just don't quite know how this one fits in with the story line (if indeed it fits at all). It's still good enough for me to suggest that if you have the option of buying either the straight release or one with the bonus track, splurge on the bonus-track edition.
Excalibur is an interesting album which pushes the envelope on concept albums, and while it's not perfect, it's a very solid effort. The Lady of the Lake should be smiling upon this disc.