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Def Leppard – ‘Drastic Symphonies’ album review

Def Leppard are resurgent right now. Less than a year after releasing the best album they’ve produced since ‘Adrenalize’ with ‘Diamond Star Halos’, the band have conjured up a brave and unique re-working of some of their biggest hits and deepest cuts with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in ‘Drastic Symphonies’.

Recorded at Abbey Road studios in March of 2022 ‘Drastic Symphonies’ sees Leppard following in the footsteps of bands like Metallica and Kiss in drafting in an orchestra to add a different vibe to some of their most beloved songs. It would have been easy for the band to just market this project as a ‘greatest hits with strings’ kind of thing but they wanted something much deeper and more meaningful than that. The album features 16 tracks with new arrangements from Eric Gorfain, a classically trained violinist and composer who has previously worked with artists like Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and Neil Diamond.

“It was never on my bucket list to do an album with an orchestra,’ Joe Elliot recently told Classic Rock Magazine but what a great idea it has tuned out to be. Using the original vocals on most of the tracks (except a newly recorded ‘Pour Some Sugar On Me’ and new vocals on ‘Too Late for Love’), Gorfain and the Royal Philharmonic have added orchestration into some songs, removed guitar parts or drum parts in others and come up with a project that is both interesting and impactful to listen to, even if there are a couple of mis-steps along the way.

The album opens with two huge deep cuts. What a ballsy and brave thing to do. For Leppard die-hards ‘Turn to Dust’ and ‘Paper Sun’ will be as familiar bedfellows as ‘Animal’ and ‘Photograph’ but what proportion of people attending the band’s triumphant Bramall Lane show in Sheffield on Monday will be able to sing either of these choruses? And that’s the genius and beauty of this project because it is when the light is shined on songs like that and on other ‘deeper’ cuts like ‘Love’ and ‘Kings of the World’ that ‘Drastic Symphonies’ really hits home.

In Eric Gorfain’s hands ‘Turn to Dust’, a cut from the band’s 1996 ‘Slang’ album is transformed into an eastern-tinged ‘Kashmir’-esque monster with heavy guitars and huge harmonies that meanders its way towards an uplifting and thrilling climax. Similarly, ‘Paper Sun’ is transformed into something akin to a James Bond theme tune. The trademark harmonies are augmented by sweeping strings as Joe Elliot sings about fear and the ‘anger inside of you’ on this thoughtful and impactful song. A fantastic mid-song guitar solo and orchestration have now added a ‘Still of the Night’ style passion to this song that is not there on the original.

The deeper the cut, the more returns for your money you get on ‘Drastic Symphonies’. ‘Love’, plucked out of relative obscurity from ‘Songs from the Sparkle Lounge’ is perhaps the stand-out highlight of the whole album. You can hear the ghost of Freddie Mercury all over this ambitious and audacious anthem. ‘Why do I keep searching high and low?’ Elliot asks just before the drums kick in and the song begins its ascent towards a ‘Night at the Opera’ denouement with guitars ablaze, military style drums and sweeping, dramatic strings before Elliot brings the song back to a tender end in a mirror of the way it began. That power and passion is matched pound for pound on album closer ‘Kings of the World’. This is a 6 minute plus Queen-esque epic that feels like it has been lifted right off the ‘Flash Gordon’ soundtrack. Ballsy, bombastic and slightly ridiculous in terms of it’s overblown histrionics, you can also hear a hint of an Abba style melody in the opening verse as the song thunders along to its ‘defenders of the universe’ chorus. The joy in this project is that Def Leppard, Eric Gorfain and the Royal Philharmonic have turned a number of the band’s less familiar tracks and made them the stand out moments on this fascinating album.

Other highlights include a re-recorded vocal on a very dramatic ‘Too Late For Love’ and a huge 007 double whammy on ‘Bringing on the Heartbreak’ and ‘Switch 625′. Explaining the re-recorded vocal, Elliot told Classic Rock, “Once we did the strings, the original vocal sounded a little too bombastic so I sang a new vocal. For a guide, I listened to the isolated vocal that I did with Mutt Lange at Battery studios in 1982, it was kind of spooky.’ In essence, Elliot duets with himself on the track. The guitars are removed in favour of strings and a huge , almost ominous drum sound and it works brilliantly. The ‘High n Dry’ double pairing of ‘…Heartbreak’ and ‘Switch 625’, meanwhile, combine to produce something that Chubby Broccoli would be most interested in for the soundtrack of the next Bond film! Gorfain has kept the iconic opening guitar line of ‘…Heartbreak’ in as the song opens but then the strings take over as it builds towards an anthemic chorus before segueing into the gloriously dramatic romp that is ‘Switch 625’.

Elsewhere, ‘Have You Ever Needed Someone So bad’ is bigger and better than ever before. The strings seem to make what is already a huge chorus even bigger and the whole production seems to only augment the already fantastic harmonies. Two newer tracks, lifted from last year’s ‘Diamond Star Halos’ album, also impress. ‘Goodbye for Good This Time’ is a piano ballad and contains some very cinematic flourishes making it feel like a little soundtrack all of its own and ‘Angels (Can’t Help You Now)’ breaks out nicely around the 2 minute 15 seconds mark as Elliot is singing about ‘shadows over the sun’. The guitar solo, augmented as it is by the strings, is a powerful one here and feels very in keeping with the project as a whole.

Oddly, although maybe not so oddly once you think about it, where ‘Drastic Symphonies’ falters a little is when Gorfain and the band tackle their biggest, ‘Hysteria’ based songs. ‘Hysteria’ itself is a fairly straight-down-the-line reworking that doesn’t do anything to detract or add to it in many ways. I could say the same about ‘Gods of War’ too although I do like the dramatic drum sound and military presence although the removal of the main guitar line for a light-of-touch orchestration is a little jarring at first but it soon beds in as the song barrels along. ‘Love Bites’ is superb and perhaps the only one of the ‘Hysteria’ songs that feels like something new has been brought to the mix that is better than what was originally there. The distant rumble and portentous strings bring a very dramatic and slightly darker undertone to this well-worn ballad that really breathes life into it in an exciting way.

The two only real missteps come with ‘Animal’ and ‘Pour Some Sugar on Me’. The former has had its drums removed and this seems to have ripped the heart and the urgency out of the song, leaving it a little aimless. ‘…..Sugar’, meanwhile, has been re-worked into a slower, Jazz-leaning ballad with some Disney-round-the-edges orchestration inspired by what singer Emm Gryner did on an original cover version that the band heard and wanted to explore with her here. The piano vibes and slower pace seem to emphasise what is not Def Leppard’s greatest moment, lyrically, making the listening experience a little awkward in duet, ballad form.

Thinking about it, ‘Hysteria’ is probably the best sounding, best produced Rock album of all time. What Mutt Lange did on that album was unparalleled and hasn’t really ever been matched since. The ‘Hysteria’ songs are so layered, so over-produced in their original form that doing anything else with them doesn’t seem to work as well as it does on the other older or newer tracks that Lange didn’t have a lot to do with. There’s only one song from ‘Pyromania’ on this collection (another possible slight misstep) which he also produced but it’s the life, passion, fire and technical details that he brought to ‘Hysteria’ which I think makes changing them, re-working them and orchestrating them an almost impossible task.

‘Drastic Symphonies’ is a triumph of bravery and originality. It isn’t a ‘three-and-done’ listening experience like so many of these re-working or re-imaging projects are. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra have added so much drama, passion and complexity to so many of the songs on offer on this album that it’s breathed life into older, forgotten tracks and shone a light on others that may have been a little over-looked over the years. Sure, not everything is a raging success but when you take a risk, you can’t expect a 100% return and I do think ‘Hysteria’, whilst being the album that has provided Def Leppard with it’s most famous songs and biggest hits, might be an unsurmountable Everest of a challenge for a project like this. The rest of ‘Drastic Symphonies’ is a damn fine listen and a great blueprint for other bands who might be thinking of dipping their toes into similar water. The lessons here are clear – go deep, be brave and don’t always pick the most obvious songs. Where Def Leppard do that, they reap rich rewards.

With that in mind, I’d like to suggest the potential setlist for any future second volume of the ‘Drastic Symphonies’ series based around songs in Def Leppard’s back catalogue that I think would benefit from the Philharmonic approach. How about this for Vol.2?:

1.Tonight 2. Foolin’ 3. Billy’s Got a Gun 4. Lady Strange 5. Now 6. I Wanna Be Your Hero 7. Mirror Mirror 8. Sorrow is a Woman 9. Desert Song 10. Disintegrate 11. Invincible 12. Where Does Love Go When it Dies

Let me know if I’ve missed any songs you think would sound great with a Royal Philharmonic make-over!

Def Leppard
Credit: UMR

Track list: 1. Turn to Dust 2. Paper Sun 3. Animal 4. Pour Some Sugar On Me 5. Hysteria 6. Love Bites 7. Goodbye For Good This Time 8. Love 9. Gods of War 10. Angels (Can’t Help You Now) 11. Bringin’ on the Heartbreak 12. Switch 625 13. Have You Ever Needed Someone So Bad 14. Too Late for Love 15. When Love and Hate Collide 16. Kings of the World Record Label: UMR Release Date: May 19th Buy ‘Drastic Symphonies’ now

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Def Leppard are resurgent right now. Less than a year after releasing the best album they've produced since 'Adrenalize' with 'Diamond Star Halos', the band have conjured up a brave and unique re-working of some of their biggest hits and deepest cuts with the...Def Leppard - 'Drastic Symphonies' album review