Friday 13 January 2023

Def Leppard - Diamond Star Halos (2022)

Country: UK
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 27 May 2022
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I didn't deliberately avoid this album last year, as I was just back from my research trip when it was released in May and it took me a while to catch back up again. However, I'd have gone into it with a few hesitations, because I was never the biggest fan of Def Leppard's commercial sound and I had even less interest after they shifted into pop music in the nineties and noughties. To be fair, I don't remember what Slang and X sounded like but I remember not liking them. That said, I'd also have gone into it with an element of curiosity because I would have discovered various things that I've discovered going into it right now.

For one, they've stayed together throughout in Rammstein fashion, enjoying side projects during down times for Def Leppard; the last personnel change was to replace Steve Clark after his death, which is so long ago that I recall Tommy Vance airing a tribute segment on The Friday Rock Show. I see that they've continued to release albums too, albeit at a slow and steady pace; this one comes seven years after a self-titled effort in 2015 and that seven after Songs from the Sparkle Lounge. I have every respect for both of those details.

And for another, they apparently veered back into rock music once the grunge era petered out, to find a sort of Queen-like versatility. That self-titled album, which I haven't heard, boasted a set of songs that could have been gathered in from every period of their discography, from the earliest NWOBHM years through overproduced superstardom to their poppier years. Maybe this why was why Classic Rock magazine picked up the Def Leppard torch and listed Diamond Star Halos as their very best album of 2022, because it takes similar aim at their back catalogue and their influences before it, while still somehow feeling fresh and looking forward.

Perhaps inevitably, I found this a little inconsistent, especially over an hour plus running time. It's strong from the outset, with a couple of notably seventies glam rock tracks, Take What You Want and Kick. The album title comes from a T Rex lyric, from Get It On, and there's plenty of T Rex to be found in Kick. As you might expect, with Joe Elliott at the mike, there's plenty of Mott the Hoople too and a different angle to that shows up late on Angels (Can't Help You Now), a softer but much more straightforward rock song in the vein of David Bowie and Ian Hunter.

The pop angle kicks in hard with Fire It Up, but that's a strong pop song. Sure, it's pop through and through, even with emphatic guitars, and I heard a lot of solo Adam Ant in the chorus, but it's the most delightfully infectious song on the album. I found this pop approach is less effective on later songs like Lifeless and Unbreakable, their electronic drum sound annoying when it's a focus and a stylistic clash when the guitars fire up, especially on the latter. Worse still is an unashamed ballad, Goodbye for Good This Time, complete with manipulative orchestration.

At the other end of the spectrum, there's some vicious old school Leppard here. SOS Emergency is the first of these, with an excellent guitar riff to kick it off. Sure, it's softer than the early days but it isn't out of place in that company. From Here to Eternity, which wraps up the album, has a clear old school vibe. This one nails its groove immediately and maintains it well throughout, even as a long song for Leppard at almost six minutes; nothing else makes it past five. Gimme a Kiss starts out relatively generic but it builds well.

Even though it pains me given its awful name, I'd call U Rok Mi my favourite track here. It's utterly Def Leppard in every pore, but it's stripped down to its quick so it feels rather like a rehearsal. It's a great reminder of how raw this usually overproduced band can be, and how their patented hooks are at the heart of everything. Frankly, I'd love to hear the rest of the album this stripped down. It doesn' need an unplugged set to get back to basics and this is Leppard agreeably back to basics.

The most unusual song here is surely This Guitar and it moves as far from the core Leppard sound as U Rok Mi stays as close to it. It's another ballad but closer to country. Alison Krauss provides an excellent backing vocal, but she never duets with Joe Elliott as I had hoped to hear, given how amazing it sounds when she does that with Robert Plant. Instead, it falls to Elliott to lead it and, in this mode, his voice has a softness to it that's highly reminiscent of Jon Bon Jovi. It's another overproduced song, swollen with orchestration and polished until it has so much gleam it's almost blinding.

So this is a mixed bag. There's some excellent material here and it isn't only the old school guitar songs; Def Leppard as a pop band can be excellent too. However, there are some songs that I have no wish to hear again. Every time I get to This Guitar or Goodbye for Good This Time, I feel an urge to go back to Fire It Up and Kick, with its handclaps and na na na chorus, to remind me why I'm still listening. In between those extremes, there are filler songs and other tracks that have something but not as much as those around them.

And so this is better than I expected it would be but not as good as that number one slot on Classic Rock magazine's Best of 2022 list would suggest. I've reviewed seven of their other top ten choices and another five from the next ten and I'd put all of them above this except maybe the Porcupine Tree album.

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