Part of the Teutonic thrash metal scene that sprang up in Germany in the early '80s, Grave Digger originated as a speed metal outfit before marrying their love of American Bay Area thrash with melodic power metal in the 1990s. Alongside contemporaries Accept, Helloween, Kreator, and Sodom, the band carved out a huge swath of regional sonic real estate, becoming one of Germany's elite metal institutions in the '80s and early '90s via career-making albums like Heavy Metal Breakdown, Witch Hunter, and Tunes of War. The late '90s saw the group shifting toward a more progressive and conceptual route with ambitious outings like Heart of Darkness and Excalibur. They continued to explore the fantastical into the next century with power metal-forward offerings like The Last Supper, The Clans Will Rise Again, and The Living Dead.
Formed in late 1980 by frontman Chris Boltendahl, guitarist Peter Masson, bassist Willi Lackmann, and drummer Albert Eckardt, Grave Digger debuted three years later on the Rock from Hell compilation. They returned in 1984 with their speed metal-fueled full-length debut, Heavy Metal Breakdown, followed by the more NWOBHM-influenced Witch Hunter in 1985. Lackmann left the fold shortly after the album's release, making way for new bass player C.F. Bank, who made his studio debut on 1986's War Games. The group then shortened its name to simply Digger for 1987's more commercial-sounding Stronger Than Ever, which saw guitarist Uwe Lulis substituting for Masson; Boltendahl then dissolved the project, finally reuniting with Lulis in 1991 and recruiting new bassist Tomi Gottlich and drummer Jörg Michael for the hard-hitting The Reaper, credited once again to Grave Digger. Drummer Frank Ullrich replaced Michael for 1995's Joseph Conrad-inspired concept LP Heart of Darkness, with percussion duties handled by Stefan Arnold on 1996's Tunes of War, the latter of which was built around a narrative concerning Scotland's struggles for independence from England in the 13th century. Jens Becker assumed the bass for 1998's Knights of the Cross, the second installment in the band's Middle Ages Trilogy. Keyboardist H.P. Katzenburg expanded the Grave Digger lineup to a five-piece for the trilogy's conclusion, Excalibur, which was issued a year later.
Arriving in 2001, the macabre The Grave Digger drew some of its inspiration from the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, while 2003's ambitious concept album Rheingold was based on Richard Wagner's epic Der Ring des Nibelungen. Released in 2005, the critically acclaimed The Last Supper, despite featuring several songs concerning the last days of Jesus Christ, saw the band dropping the narrative-driven architecture of previous outings, as did 2007's Liberty or Death. Ballads of a Hangman, the band's 14th studio effort, marked the first Grave Digger outing to feature twin guitars, and served as the band's inaugural release for new label Napalm. A flurry of lineup changes heralded the arrival of 2010's Clans Will Rise Again, which served as a "loose sequel" to 1996's medievally inspired Tunes of War, and a 2012 EP, Clash of the Gods, provided fans some sonic sustenance while they waited for the band's 17th studio album. Their patience was rewarded with the release of Return of the Reaper in 2014. Longtime keyboard player H.P. Katzenburg departed prior to the release of 2017's Healed by Metal, which heralded the arrival of new keyboardist Marcus Kniep. The following year saw the band issue its 19th studio LP, the ghoulish Living Dead, with a lineup consisting of Boltendahl, Kniep, Becker, and Axel Ritt. ~ James Christopher Monger