Photo Credit: Anton Corbijn
As part of the new wave of young heavy metal bands at the start of the ’80s, Sheffield, England’s Def Leppard (whose oldest members at the time were no older than twenty), managed two successful albums mostly through word-of-mouth and touring before releasing Pyromania in 1983, which became not just a massive chart success but helped establish metal as a mainstream pop entity (though at the same time ultimately splintering the genre). However, like Led Zeppelin (on whom their name is an obvious play), Leppard began to make it clear to everyone that they didn’t wish to be pigeonholed as a hard rock band. “Rocket”, for example (the seventh and final single from their 1987 album Hysteria) spelled out the band’s allegiance to non-metal rock acts like David Bowie, Queen, Elton John, and even the Beatles.
Taking its title from a lyric in the 1971 T. Rex classic “Bang a Gong (Get it On)” might suggest that Def Leppard’s eleventh album of all-original material, Diamond Star Halos, will be focused mainly on that direction. The early ’70s glam influence is definitely there on songs like “Kick” (which also includes just a hint of Foster the People’s 2012 hit “Don’t Stop”). “From Here to Eternity” is a fairly transparent homage to the Beatles’ “She’s So Heavy” while the heartfelt ballad “Angel” is backed mostly by an orchestra, suggesting it’s trying to be Lep’s answer to “Eleanor Rigby”, even though it comes quite a bit closer to the sound of the many acts inspired by the Fab Four which immediately followed them, i.e. Badfinger.
Generally speaking, with only the exception of 1996’s Slang (on which Lep couldn’t quite hammer down their take on Nine Inch Nails), the band’s sound actually hasn’t changed all that much, which has served them well for the most part. The solid opening cut “Take What You Want” shows they’ve never fully abandoned their hard rock roots. “Gimme a Kiss” comes off almost like a parody of Sunset Strip ’80s pop-metal like Motley Crue and Poison, a scene which Lep has always detached itself from (even though they’re touring with both bands this summer). But “Gimme a Kiss” still manages to be tight and catchy, like most of the best Def Leppard tracks.
Lep touches upon several other musical genres on Diamond Star Halos, with mostly successful results. Lead singer Joe Elliot attacks “Fire It Up” in the quasi-rap style of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, while the bassline in “U Rock Me” recalls that of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s classic “White Lines.” Def Leppard, however, has never followed the large number of their hard rock brethren who’ve explored hip hop in one way or another, such as by recording with rappers. In fact, Lep doesn’t have much of a history in terms of collaborating with any other major artists (with the surprising exception of Tim McGraw, who appears on the band’s 2008 release Songs from the Sparkle Lounge).
However, here they do welcome country-bluegrass artist Allison Krause, who lends her distinct vocals to two tracks, including “This Guitar”, a sentimental country-ish ode to every rock fan’s favorite instrument, “You brought me joy to no end… // It’s crazy I know, but this guitar saved my life.” What’s not as crazy is that guitars also pretty much save this album. Longtime guitarists Phil Collen and Vivian Campbell are both on top of their game, with their impressive fretwork and solos peppering even the not-so-good tracks. Between them and the band’s two former axemen (original member Pete Willis and the late Steven Clark), Lep has never produced a hard rock guitarist considered to be in the same league as, say, Ritchie Blackmore or Eddie Van Halen, just as founding member Joe Elliot has never been regarded as one of rock’s great or distinct frontmen (accordingly, he’s never attempted a solo career). Yet somehow, Def Leppard has always been greater than the sum of its parts.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Diamond Star Halos, which – after we dole out all due credit to the band for still being in the game and remaining somewhat musically ambitious – is, at best, uneven. But while the album probably won’t be certified diamond, like some of their previous ones, Def Leppard very much remains the stars that they’ve been for four decades.