On Through The Night (Mercury ’80) Rating: B
One of the brightest lights leading the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM), the movement that also included Iron Maiden, Diamond Head, and Saxon, among others, this first album is actually the rawest and most metallic that the band ever got. The performances aren't quite there yet (singer Joe Elliott in particular would soon show significant improvement), and the songs aren't as commercial or as memorable as what would come later, but this is a very solid first album that is often unfairly dismissed, even by the band themselves. Produced (not all that well) by Tom Allom (Judas Priest), the album starts with "Rock Brigade," an anthemic opener that gets things off to a fine start. The harmonies on "Hello America" are a far cry from their pristine later efforts, and the synths sound cheesy and dated, but it's still catchy and fun, and the band then gets mellower and more atmospheric on "Sorrow Is A Woman," which still features some nice guitar work from Steve Clark and Pete Willis. Actually, that duo is the main attraction on this album, as their impressive interplay elevates otherwise average tracks such as "Satellite," "Rocks Off," and "Answer To The Master." There are still a few too many generic entries here, and even fewer real standouts, but the chorus of "When The Walls Come Tumbling Down" does stands out a bit more than the norm (even if the spoken word bit was a bad idea). "Wasted" is a strong fast-paced groover (whose lyrics would prove all too prescient), and "It Don't Matter" is simple yet rocking and is also one of the album's more memorable tracks. The album's most atypical track is "Overture," an epic length (7:45), almost prog-like finale that actually works surprisingly well, in part because it's so much more ambitious than anything else on the album. Still, I can't quibble too much with the band's meat and potatoes approach here, especially since I would later often yearn for such simplicity.
High n’ Dry (Mercury ’81) Rating: A-
On their sweat soaked second album the still quite young lads in Def Leppard delivered a good time Saturday night album that remains very underrated. High n’ Dry is an energetic, basic rock 'n' roll record whose heavy guitar crunch will probably surprise fans who got on board with the more heavily processed and polished (i.e. overproduced) Hysteria. Heavily influenced by AC/DC, Def Leppard share with that band an ability to come up with great riffs and beats, and here they are likewise aided by the stellar production hand of John “Mutt” Lange, who greatly improves the sound quality. But what really put this band a notch above their peers was their undeniable knack for the killer chorus, with their vocal harmonies lifting even the lesser songs to sing along status. Elliott's vocals are much improved, too, being far more distinctive and authoritative than on the last album, and Clark weighs in with several sizzling guitar solos. Lyrically the band betrays their age with not especially deep lyrics about getting drunk on Saturday night (most memorably in the gloriously wasted anti-anthem that is the title track), rocking out, and the like, but there's no denying the catchy choruses of poppier tracks such as "You Got Me Runnin'" and "On Through The Night." In addition to several hard charging rockers that seem heaven sent for the teen set (or for older listeners like me who refuse to grow up), Def Leppard also deliver several moodier changes of pace. This is best exemplified by the brooding power ballad “Bringing On The Heartbreak,” the clear high point on an album whose strength is in its consistency. If its peaks (also including “Let It Go,” “Another Hit and Run,” “Lady Strange,” and “Mirror Mirror (Look Into My Eyes)”) don't rise quite as high as on the next couple of albums, neither does it really have any valleys (the fast-paced "No No No" is somewhat formless but overall I have no major complaints), and on the whole High n' Dry was a considerably more accessible yet still quite rocking second album from a rapidly improving band.
Pyromania (Mercury ’83) Rating: A
Phil Collen replaced Pete Willis during the recording of this album, supposedly due to Willis' excessive alcoholism, but the band didn't miss a beat. In fact, it was this breakthrough album that catapulted Def Leppard into the big leagues, especially in the U.S. where the band became a major arena rock attraction. It’s easy to see why, for on Pyromania the band delivered a more polished but still hard rocking pop metal sound that's perfect for partying - or for just listening to on the radio, preferably played loudly. The raw abandon of the band’s previous work gives way to a multi-layered, note perfect studio sheen, as Mutt Lange’s state of the art production starts to share center stage with the band’s basic songwriting approach. The middle ground reached here works extremely well, mostly because the songs are consistently stellar and the production gimmicks generally enhance the material. The major highlights here are the three top 40 hits that helped propel the album past 10 million in worldwide sales: "Photograph," "Foolin'," and "Rock Of Ages." In particular, "Photograph" is not only Def Leppard's best song but is one of the quintessential songs of the '80s, what with its classic riffs, big sing along chorus with evocative harmonies, that classic scream around the 2:25 mark, Clark's melodic guitar solo - it all came together on this one. As for the lyrics, well, it's Def Leppard; who cares about their lyrics? "Foolin'," and for that matter "Too Late For Love" (not a hit but it was another radio track), are dramatic power ballads (or "atmospheric mid-tempo rockers," take your pick) to rival “Bringing On The Heartbreak,” with Elliott in exemplary form, while "Rock Of Ages" features terrific vocal hooks and riffs along with an anthemic, fist pumping chorus. Hell, even those stupid made up words at the beginning of the song are fun, as are “Rock Rock ('Till You Drop)” and “Action! Not Words,” though they are the album's least inspired songs; the sheer silliness of the lyrics actually does detract from these two songs. More ambitious, epic-minded attempts include “Die Hard The Hunter” and “Billy’s Got A Gun,” a pair of evocative highlights with surprisingly weighty lyrics. I'm not sure that the keyboards were necessary, and perhaps the songs stick around longer than necessary, but the band's evocative sound wins out in the end. As for the rest of the songs, and this is very much a song-based collection, “Stagefright” and “Comin’ Under Fire” are extremely strong album tracks. "Stagefright" has hard-hitting verses and yet another melodic, singable chorus, and even its canned applause adds to the experience, while on "Comin' Under Fire" the riffs and chorus are again the main selling points. Pyromania is simply Def Leppard's best album; it has its cheesy moments, but on the whole it's filled with eminently likeable, radio ready anthems that still sound great.
Hysteria (Mercury ’87) Rating: A-
Now the world’s biggest selling hard rock band, Hysteria was one of the most anticipated releases of 1987, especially since four long years had elapsed since Pyromania. The delay was understandable, considering that their drummer lost an arm during this time (he would gamely continue as their drummer by learning to use his feet along with his one arm, thereby completing a truly remarkable comeback) and the band is known for their painstakingly thorough recording methods. Hysteria was certainly more pop oriented than their earlier work, as synthesizers play as big a part as guitars in creating a sort of techno-pop metal sound. Indeed, producer “Mutt” Lange dominates the proceedings as never before, providing many computer-aided sound effects that become integral parts of the songs, though not necessarily improving them. Also, the lyrics here are routinely dumb and many of the songs are too long, making the album seriously flawed and not a little lightweight. Fortunately, this album has an almost unseemly amount of catchy riffs and choruses to latch onto; in particular the album piles vocal hooks upon vocal hooks, so that eventually you find yourself singing along and enjoying the songs no matter how silly they are. Ear candy doesn't come much better than "Animal" or "Armageddon It" (how can you not love the airy vocals on those two?) and "Pour Some Sugar On Me" is a ridiculously catchy (if flat-out ridiculous) and comparatively hard rocking anthem. On the ballad side, the title track is a significant effort, and "Love Bites," though not a personal favorite (I find it long-winded and boring), is notable for being the band's lone #1 hit. Then again, all of the aforementioned tracks were at least minor hits or radio cuts, as were "Women" and "Rocket" (both quite good if overly long and overproduced), while lesser known album tracks like "Don't Shoot Shotgun" and "Run Riot" are also catchy as hell come chorus time. Alas, most of the albums weaker moments ("Gods Of War," "Love and Affection," and especially "Excitable") come on side two, foreshadowing their depressing future decline once this quintessential '80s band hit the '90s and beyond.
Adrenalize (Mercury ’92) Rating: C+
This one took a whopping five years to make, only the wait wasn't worth it this time. Again the band was beset with problems while recording the album, as Lange's participation was much less due to scheduling conflicts (Mike Shipley was the main producer) and Clark's drug and alcohol problems earned him a leave of absence from the band. Alas, he was never to return, fatally overdosing on January 8, 1991, and as a result Phil Collen also handles his guitar parts on this album (ex-Dio and Whitesnake axeman Vivian Campbell would join as a full time member later on, though his playing with Dio was far more impressive than it’s ever been with Def Leppard). Still, the band had overcome serious obstacles before, and coming off such a strong trilogy of albums this uninspired effort was all the more disappointing, though it still sold well (it was a #1 U.K. and U.S. album with several million in worldwide sales) if not nearly as well as the previous two once word got out about how listless it was (the changing market due to grunge and alternative happening also likely played a role). More than anything, the album lacks adrenaline, and though it's even poppier than the previous album the hooks aren't nearly as readymade. Killer riffs are almost completely absent, by and large the Bryan Adams-like ballads are lifeless and boring, and the harmonized choruses are often annoying rather than inspired and singable. Basically, the album was further product, period, because that's what working bands do, but I can't get past the feeling that they were going through the motions on this one, as perhaps all the hardships finally took their toll. I mean, the first single, "Let's Get Rocked," is pure Def by numbers, and the stupid beyond words second single, "Make Love Like A Man," makes Gene Simmons or Nikki Sixx seem like Bob Dylan. Some of the albums hookier moments are modestly enjoyable, such as "Heaven Is," "Stand Up (Kick Love Into Motion)," "Have You Ever Needed Someone So Bad" (the album's third and best single), "I Wanna Touch U" (arguably the album's best song), and "Tear It Down," but even these are a far cry from the band's best previous songs, and there are far too many flat out weak entries this time around like "Tonight," "Personal Property," and the 7-minute borefest "White Lightning." Oh well, the guys had a really good run for awhile there, and Clark was a big part of that, but with Adrenalize the band's momentum came to a screeching halt, both artistically (none of their subsequent albums have approached the aforementioned trilogy in terms of quality) and commercially (most of them haven't sold all that well either).