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I had a hard time formulating my opinion on this one. Existing as the second of three full-lengths that constitute Grave Digger's "Middle Ages Trilogy" Knights of the Cross finds itself exhibiting many of the amicable qualities present on classics like Heart of Darkness and Tunes of War. Boltendahl makes a concerted effort to espouse the legends of the Holy Grail with conviction, but the concept lacks coherency this time around for some reason.
The heavier keyboard presence coats the entire affair in melodrama that isn't necessarily always welcome. This is the first Grave Digger album to feature Katzenburg as a full time member of the band, and it contains more keyboards than perhaps any other Grave Digger record. His performance is still subdued by most modern standards, but he goes out of his way to coexist with the band on tracks like "Baphomet"; something that rarely occurred afterward. Lulis' tone and performance are more reminiscent of Heart of Darkness than anything, which I certainly don't have any problems with. The riffs aren't quite as massive as they would be on this album's direct successor Excalibur, but the emphasis on the operatic choruses and atypical songwriting elements help push this deficit into the background. The band really pulls it together for crushing, yet catchy numbers like "The Curse of Jacques" and "Lionheart", both of which embody everything that is so great about mid-period Grave Digger. Many of Boltendahl's most infectious choruses are present on this album, and that is definitely no mistake on the band's part
While Knights of the Cross spends most of it's duration playing up the atmospheric, epic heavy metal route, it still has some blistering speed metal lurking within it's halls. "Monks of War" is probably the fastest cut here, showcasing Lulis blurry picking hand and a keen sense of melody all at the same time. "The Battle of Bannockburn" has some speed as well, but defers to a galloping mid-paced velocity more often than not. Grave Digger chose this one as the album's single, which is an interesting decision since it is the record's closer. The band feels the need to shoehorn a Middle-Eastern themed track into nearly all of their albums, and Knights of the Cross is no exception, giving us "Fanatic Assassins". I can go either way on this one, it has it's moments but is let down by it's place in the album's procession. The drop-out sections featuring Boltendahl alone are also frustrating for those hoping for more concerted bursts of speed.
As stated above, most of Knights of the Cross' sonic aesthetics fall in line with earlier albums like Heart of Darkess. The one possible exception is Boltendahl, who is unusually upfront and showcased more than usual. He is more than up to the challenge, but it does take away from Lulis' vehement riffs more often than I would like. I personally consider this to be the final album of Grave Digger's first chapter post-reformation. Starting with Excalibur the band started to put more emphasis on each individual song as opposed to letting the grand concept deliver most of the anachronistic appeal. That's not to say most of Knights of the Cross' songs are weak, but it definitely benefits the listener more to tackle it as a single experience as opposed to a collection of disparate tracks.
If my arm was twisted and I was forced to cut some of these songs out, I would undoubtedly choose "Heroes of This Time" and "Keeper of the Holy Grail". The former is more offensive than the latter, but both come off as necessary fluff accrued by the use of such a bombastic concept. I still enjoyed this a lot more than Tunes of War, and if anyone is a fan of Grave Digger's output prior to Excalibur, they will find most of the best of it here on Knights of the Cross. Definitely not their best work, but more than worthy of the Grave Digger name.
Grave Digger were one of the first bands of the metal genre with whom I got in touch. I regularly listened to their Medieval Age trilogy featuring the albums "Tunes Of War", "Knights Of The Cross" and "Excalibur" but I later discovered and adored the more recent stuff of the band and fell in love with their experimental works in "Rheingold" or "The Last Supper" for example. A few days ago, I stumbled over the old stuff again and gave this album a couple of spins. When I was young I liked the album but it didn't impress me all too much. As I listened to this over and over again by now, I though realized that this album has aged quite well and is better than I remembered. In fact, "Knights Of The Cross" is easily a highlight within the big back catalogue of the legendary German heavy metal band. I still wouldn't say it's the best record of the band but maybe the most complete work of the typical Grave Digger records. If there was an album to choose to introduce someone to this band, this one would probably be my first choice.
Not only the conceptual approach is particularly interesting and well worked out on here but the songs are all quickly addictive and feature numerous catchy fist pumping choruses for the crowd. After a less convincing introduction, the album kicks off with the title track "Knights Of The Cross" that takes no prisoners and features all elements one likes about this unique band. This includes simplistic and heavy riffs, unpolished crispy vocals, epic keyboards and emotional guitar solos as well as a simple but efficient chorus that immediately stays on your mind. The strong accent of the vocalist sounds mildly amusing but soon becomes a trademark and is what makes Chris Boltendahl so unique. This record features many typical Grave Digger songs with numerous catchy choruses such as the fist raising mid tempo hymn "The Keeper Of The Holy Grail".
As always, there are also some little experiments on the album that keep the whole release dynamic and gripping enough until the end. A good example is the slow and epic half ballad "Heroes Of This Time" featuring amazing clean vocals by Chris Boltendahl that he doesn't use very often anymore which is quite sad because they build a stunning contrast to his normal ranges. Another good example for his vocal talent is the outstanding "The Curse Of Jacques" which is maybe the best track on this release because of its atmospheric parts sending shivers down my spine and a very epic chorus one won't get out of mind. On the other side, there are also harder tracks on this record such as the addicting banger "Inquisition". Another experiment comes with the slight oriental influences in "Fanatic Assassins". After so many conceptual tracks about the medieval history of Europe, it would be great if the band headed for a record about Asian history. The closing "The Battle Of Bannockburn" goes back to the concept of the previous release with a gripping pipe introduction and an overall epic structure featuring a great chilling closure. This track surely is a highlight for those who praised the critically acclaimed precedessor.
In the end, almost every song has something outstanding in its structure and all twelve songs make this release one of the most complete ones the band has ever written. Any fan of early or modern Grave Digger records should like this album that unites all the trademarks that make the band what it is. The high amount of catchy chorus and potential live anthems make this release even more entertaining. Nervertheless, the record is never just orientated on catchy hooks but also presents many interesting historic stories in the lyrics that are more versatile than ever before and even among the best the band has ever written. If you care about German Heavy Metal music and are among those that actually know that the nineties were not such a bad decade for the metal genre after all, this release is a definite must have. Anybody else should get hooked by my review and try this album out now.
Wow, what a marked improvement on Tunes of War this is! I find my head filled with questions as to exactly why this is, I mean, it’s not as if the formula is remarkably different; it’s still heavy metal, and it’s still mostly predictable. Honestly, why is this so much better? What is thus? Thusly, what is the reason for this thusness? Grave Digger may be adhering to Saxon’s law of heavy metal in which you simply cannot write songs about The Crusades and suck. But this is really what Saxon’s Crusader album should have been – a fully-fledged and proud conceptual heavy metal album, rather than one excellent song and a bunch of AOR dribblings.
It’s probably that this album does appeal to my inner half-hearted historian more so than its Scottish themed predecessor. But yet, it does keep everything I found endearing about Tunes of War in place, for instance Boltendahl’s pronunciation of “Jerusalem” is fantastic! Again, perhaps the images of beautiful Jerusalem (I’ve not been their but it looks great, and a holiday programme told me it was better than going to Cambodia circa 1979), and those sweeping deserts that make for better metal escapism than medieval Scotland. Also, that cover art is sick… worth my £5, easy.
But wait! There’s change to this old Grave Digger, the very same whose creations last ‘til doomsday… life in the old dog yet! Keyboards have been utilised to a greater extent here, not that this itself would be anything revolutionary, but they’re certainly there adding subtle textures and some nice counter-melodies along the way. A minor change from Tunes of War, at very least. Furthermore, ‘Fanatic Assassins’ is a rather strange Grave Digger song; surprisingly unpopular amongst many fans – but I happen to think it’s excellent! Muslims are a dark and scary bunch, Grave Digger understands this, sure, in the Jewish population has their Blood Libels and though they are distressing (I saw three the other week, poor Christian children…) they are no match for the great, unwashed menace that Islam possesses. Even back in the Middle Ages Islam commanded a fanaticism that commanded its subjects to all sorts of extreme violent and vile acts! ‘Fanatic Assassins’ does some way to show this with its macabre Arabic chanting and unsettling verses, followed by the maddened, stomping chorus. Goofy, yes, but really enjoyable! Islam: fear its name! Oh, this album may have songs about the Inquisition, but really now, that only effected wizards and witches – the Muslims were far less discerning in their violence.
Elsewhere, well, it’s heavy metal, alright; rousing choruses, Priest a-like riffs, and all other hallmarks of, ummm, heavy metal. Sure, I’m not scratching my head and asking where this came from. But damn, I’m not enthralled too much by jazz or Belle and Sebastian, thusly I think I’ve got room for another heavy metal album, don’t you? Stuff like ‘Lionheart’ in particular acts as a celebration of the simple, unabashed effectiveness of a straightforward heavy metal song. You can pinpoint the influences: Saxon, Maiden, Manowar, Dio-era Sabbath, Priest, but you’re best off just enjoying this. Sure, this may be generic but it’s not Iced Earth – Grave Digger understands how to construct simple, efficient (very German in that respect) heavy metal. More importantly, they have a dog-eared passion that you can’t, and if you have any respect for the genre, won’t fake!
Things do take a turn towards Scotland for the final song, ‘The Battle Bannockburn’, and though my initial reaction was “What? Again!?” it’s actually very enjoyable, it certainly would have made it amongst the best songs on Tunes of War. Guess, Grave Digger really don’t England or something, maybe I am a bad person… maybe I should listen to – London’s very own – Shane McGowan more often. But it’s not that random, as it does fit conceptually – Robert the Bruce was excommunicated for wearing a skirt, or something.
Knights of the Cross is a very successful little album, the best from Grave Digger I’ve heard yet – and it gives me a bit more confidence in exploring the rest of their discography. More exciting still, is that this is a heavy metal journey through history that lives up to its potential. It really does sound like a fantastic life being in Grave Digger; all you have to do is read about the interesting bits of history and write concept albums (I will retract this statement if I ever hear them do a song about crop rotation).
This one bridges the (small) gap between “Tunes of war” and “Excalibur”, musically and vocally. More keyboards and effects (mostly decent places), less guitar-rawness than on TOW, and tons of multivox singalong choruses. Also Grave Digger manages to blend their riff-attacks within some great harmonies, partly due to the greater percentage of slow paced songs.
The album starts off with a spoken intro to the subject. The title track and “Monks of war” are fast trademark Grave Digger songs. “Heroes of this time” slows things down, rather simple and unspectacular. Next comes the strange “Fanatic assassins” with some of the worst vocals I know. It starts off with nice riffing, but then ... . “Lionheart” is the fast highlight on here, with great harmonies, cheesy but fitting chorus and nice soloing. The following winner “Keeper of the holy grail” features acoustic passages alternating with a very slow heavy riff and a very long, mighty refrain. Around 3:40 a pseudo-classical orchestration interludes. Besides, a slow ringing church bell adds to the atmosphere. “Inquisition” is in the mould of the title track and the midpaced “Baphomet” reminds of some pop song I can’t recall. Unnecessary “Over the sea” represents the only real filler and is followed by “The curse of Jacques” as a midpaced groove monster. The closing track “Battle of Bannockburne” features a small bagpipe intro and my favorite chorus from this album.
The digi-version provides you with the quite well done “Children of the grave” from Black Sabbath.
The second part of Grave Digger's Middle Ages Trilogy, and the follow-up to the amazing Tunes of War, is called Knights of the Cross. Obviously focusing on the crusades, this is another fucking solid Grave Digger offering, although by far the weakest of the Middle Ages Trilogy, and the second weakest album of all their 90's stuff (I haven't heard their earlier material, though).
Musically, there wasn't much change between Tunes of War and Knights of the Cross. One difference that is quickly notable is that the production is a somewhat sharper and cleaner. Nonetheless, the heavy crunch on the guitar of Uwe Lulis is still there, and the riffs are intense as always.
Another slight difference is that there are quite a lot of orchestral effects and keyboards on this album, which for the most part works really well.
What makes this album worse than Tunes of War and Excalibur is the inconsistency. Most of the songs are total fucking winners, but there are a few downers.
The first one being Heroes of This Time, a midpaced song that doesn't really flow very well. Most of the midpaced songs found on here try to be atmospheric, often featuring vocalist Chris Boltendahl alternating between his clean and gruff vocals. But, somewhere the songs just fail to create atmosphere. Heroes of This Time is no exception. It starts out quite nicely, but when the gruff vocals and distorted guitar riff kick in, it loses the flow and just doesn't work.
The song that follows it, Fanatic Assassins, is the worst Grave Digger song I ever heard. It starts out really nicely, with a menacing midpaced riff, then speeding up to headbangable tempo. But the verses found on here are total fucking CRAP. Annoying, whiney background effects and slow vocals that try but totally fail to be groovy. A steaming pile of goo makes better music than this.
The pre-chorus and chorus are pretty nice and catchy, but the verses completely and utterly ruin anything good about this song.
The next bad song found on here is Keeper of the Holy Grail, which is another failed midpaced tune. As the other two, it begins nicely, but the vocal lines feel uninspired, and the chorus is way too fucking long for it's own good, and gets old before it's halfway done.
Oh yeah, and the intro is also pretty lame. The spoken part is really annoying - Very nice orchestrations follow it though, worth waiting for.
What about the rest of the songs then? Total fucking winners, all of them.
After the intro Deus lo Vult, we get the title track. Knights of the Cross- Insane fucking speed metal! The riffwork on this one is mental, and totally awesome. But the key factor that makes this song stand above most of their other speed metal songs in the same vein is the pre-chorus and chorus. It's incredibly melodic and emotional, and extremely powerful. The solo is also amazing.
Monks of War follows, and is even faster than the title track. Headbanging madness guaranteed!
Later on, we have the masterpiece Lionheart, which is my favourite track of the album. It begins with a fast acoustic intro, and then in kicks the riffwork. This is totally fucking insane. And another thing that separates this album from their other releases is the spectacular melodies that they manage to fit inside even the most intense speed metal riffs, and Lionheart is a spectacular example of this.
The mesmerizing chorus also features the album's best usage of Chris' clean vocals.
Then we also have Inquisition- Fast as fuck, and the big and melodic yet intense and heavy chorus is totally amazing.
Baphomet- A midpaced number that totally works. Another big, melodic chorus is found on here, and it's just beautiful.
Over the Sea- Pretty fast paced, solid song with an amazingly atmospheric pre-chorus part.
The Curse of Jacques- Sad, melancholic and occasionally pretty heavy. Very good song.
And of course the huge closing track The Battle of Bannockburn. Fast, heavy and somewhat epic. A total winner.
So despite three really bad songs, this album is yet another asskicker by one of the greatest bands of all time, Grave Digger. Not quite as essential as some of their other works, but definitely worth picking up.
This album has a lot of positives and only one negative. Let me start with the one negative first. The only thing I did not like about this album was the vocals and that is for all Grave Digger as well. The vocalist maintains a low vocal range, something that is hardly seen in this kind of metal. It starts out really annoying, but if you listen to it over and over you just get used to it. Guitar wise, this album has some awsome riffs and solo's. For example the intro to Knights of the Cross has a cool riff that is both slow and heavy. Most of the times the riffs are fast, definetly awsome speed metal. Probably the fastest riff is on Inquisiton. There is fast songs and slow heavy songs, a great variety! Even the bass is pretty good, Baphomet has a great bass intro. By the way, this album is a concept album about the Crusades. A lot of the times I don't really like concept albums, probably because the bands make them really shitty. This one is actually pretty good though, the story is very interesting, which makes you want to listen to every song and not skip around to the cool ones. Another good aspect about this album is the sounds and symphonics. Grave Digger does a nice job of blending in all the background effects and symphonic, nice sounding and not sloppy. One more thing that makes this album cool is the intro. This guy actually comes out and tells you what the whole album is about. It also has nice orchestra stuff, church organ, and other effects that set the mude of the listeners! Overall great job, only thing bad is the singing, which takes awhile to get used to! Hihgly recommended!!!