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Exclusive! Interview With Grave Digger Drummer Stefan Arnold

By Mark "The World Eater" Morton, Contributor
Friday, May 21, 2004 @ 0:03 AM

Master of the Ring: Grave Digg

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The concept album. When bands embark on these complex, thematic endeavors, the result is usually delicate at best. While most come off as pompous, overblown epics that are difficult to swallow in its entirety after one listen, others, when approached correctly, can mark the grandiose cornerstone of a band’s career (i.e. Queenryche’s Operation:Mindcrime, Cradle Of Filth’s Cruelty and the Beast, Blind Guardian’s Nightfall in Middle Earth, Jag Panzer’s Thane to the Throne, W.A.S.P.’s The Crimson Idol). Still there are other bands that seem to make an entire career out of the conceptual piece, most notably King Diamond, Savatage, Ayreon, Rhapsody, and Virgin Steele, just to name a few. Germany’s Grave Digger can also be added to this list, to a point, for unlike the majority of theme-based bands that explore and implement new musical tactics to evolve the band beyond their origins (and thus barely resembling the band they once were), Grave Digger remains surprisingly grounded. Yes, they experiment with new sounds and stylistic elements, but they merely add them to their arsenal of metallic weaponry, and do not use them as a replacement for the foundation already laid. When listening to their latest Nuclear Blast opus Rheingold, traces of their debut Heavy Metal Breakdown remain vividly intact, and that album was released in 1984, nearly 20 years ago! Now, over two decades into their career, Grave Digger will finally be displaying their unique brand of metal regalia to America at the Brave Words & Bloody Knuckles’ Six-Pack Weekend 2 in Cleveland during the first weekend in June – alongside such renowned metal talent as Metal Church, Flotsam & Jetsam, Dismember, and Doro.

Grave Digger’s adventures into the realm of conceptual albums dates back to 1996, when they released their 7th studio effort Tunes of War, a story rooted deeply in Scottish history, most likely strongly influenced by the film Braveheart. Following that came Knights of the Cross, which discussed the Templar Knights and The Crusades. Then they released Excalibur, which really needs no explanation. The three discs became known as the band’s ‘Middle Ages Trilogy’, but then a severe break with longtime guitarist Uwe Lewis occurred, and the band needed to break in a new guitarist (Manni Schmidt – formerly of Rage). Founding member Chris Boltendahl used the time to work through personal demons by essentially writing ABOUT demons in a collection of dark, horror tales on the 2001 release The Grave Digger. Now, minds clear and vision focused, Grave Digger settles back into the world of central themes with Rheingold, the band’s 11th studio album, based on the classic German legend The Ring Of The Nibelungs (subsequently made world famous in an opera composed by Richard Wagner).

Drummer Stefan Arnold (who joined the band for Tunes of War) offers insight on the band’s return to concept albums:

“He needed a break, honestly,” says Stefan, regarding the tribulations following Excalibur. “After the ugly thing with Uwe (he tried to steal the band name and make Grave Digger his own), and Chris had given up alcohol and drugs, the past three years have been really hard for him.”

He explains a bit on the specific trouble with Uwe, who had been a member of the band, since Chris reformed the band in 1992, after a 5-year hiatus:

“It was so stupid, really. Manni, Jens and myself are all substitutable, but Chris… he IS Grave Digger. It’s the same with Rolf from Running Wild, Peavy from Rage – these singers are characteristic of their bands; so it is with Accept, Saxon, etc. How can anyone be so arrogant as to say, ‘Hey, I’m the guitarist, I’m Grave Digger!’ Sorry! I’ve been with the band since 1995, and from my viewpoint, it was always half and half. It’s sick, because Uwe is still talking, in interviews when promoting his new band, about how he ‘is’ Grave Digger, but was such a gentleman; he gave Chris the name – that is such the biggest bullshit. It would have been a good idea to make The Grave Digger a concept album, but it came out as a collection of Chris’s horror visions and stories he wrote himself. Now his mind is free, he doesn’t care what Uwe is doing, and we have a great new guitarist, and everything couldn’t go better at the moment.”

So how did the idea come about to base an album on a 300+ year old Germanic legend that spotlights golden treasure, Norse gods, dwarfs, dragons, and magic weaponry?

“The Rheingold saga is the biggest German story ever written, and Richard Wagner created a major opera around it, so we thought we should do it… because it was so great. We actually went to the opera, the whole band in suit and tie, in Cologne, and it was really incredible to watch. Chris was reading the saga nights, and sat together with the keyboardist and worked out what parts of the Ring Of The Nibelungs they would use that would be most important to help the fans understand the story. Obviously, that took a long time to do, because the book is really long. One of the goals when we do a concept record is to bring old instrumentation together with our music. We mixed a full orchestra with the guitars on Rheingold. A lot of parts were taken from Wagner’s work. Our keyboardist is a studied classical pianist, so he really had the job of working out the classical parts with the guitars. We found the perfect mixture of classical music and heavy metal; we didn’t want the fans to get bored with all the violins and horns.”

Oddly enough, after exploring the background and storyline for Ring of the Nibelungs, I was shocked to find that the majority of JRR Tolkien’s ever-beloved Lord of the Rings was more or less plagiarized from this centuries-old saga. It will be interesting to see if Hollywood takes note and follows suit with another film epic.

When asked if Stefan viewed classical composers as the originators of heavy metal, the comparison between genres was evident, especially after the creation of Rheingold:

“You know, Joey DiMaio [of Manowar] once said in an interview, ‘Richard Wagner is the godfather of heavy metal.’ In my opinion, there are a lot of similarities, especially in the power and energy of classical music that can be compared to heavy metal. Maybe Wagner would have loved the new album. There’s really no other style of music that can integrate such deep classical elements and retain its genre.”

Not only is Rheingold a blend of classical and traditional metal, but also as previously stated, it is a harmonious unity of Grave Digger’s past and present stylistic elements. Stefan enthusiastically agrees:

“We pride ourselves on keeping the old school Grave Digger and new school Grave Digger sounds together, combined. All the songs have something fun about them. That is why I play in this band. It has nothing to do with money; for all of us, it’s a great honor to play in the band, as well as to write songs with these guys. I always look forward to discovering something new when we work together.”

Grave Digger had once before been offered an opportunity to perform in North America, however, situations arose that prevented it from being brought to fruition. Stefan explains:

“The problem was that the guy who organized the concert sent us a faxed image of the club, and it only held 200-300 fans, and when you come from Germany to the United States to play a one-club show, that’s not sensible at all. However, we’re excited about the upcoming show, and we are really working daily to try to get some more American shows together. It’s quite unbelievable how many letters we get in the mail from fans begging us to play; it’s great that there are so many kids still listening to heavy metal in the United States.”

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