In their forty-three year (!) recording career, it isn’t unfair to say UK rock stalwarts Def Leppard are known for a pretty steady formula and approach of, in the main, pristine, polished hard rock songs, centred in an eighties sheen. Most of us could recognise a Def Leppard-style song without too much difficulty, and they aren’t (a few deviations – RetroActive, Slang, Taylor Swift, and Ghostly interactions – aside) known for their musical risk-taking or surprises.
Which makes Drastic Symphonies (Universal Music) all that more amazing and joyous, as their collaboration with Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, which could easily have been a stock “plonk”ing of an orchestra over some old recordings, has been taken seriously, with some exceptional results. This is no “stick some strings on the slow bits, willya” phone-in hack – this is a genuine collaboration, with original instruments remixed to give the right space and focus on the orchestra, with the arrangements by Eric Gorfain allowed to breathe through the songs. Indeed, this is as much the RPO plays Def Leppard, as the Leps adding the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to their songs.
While the original audio forms the backbone of each of the songs, the skeleton has been fleshed with new clothes – and not those stolen from the emperor. Indeed, several sections have been stripped right out, some completely rewritten, with some re-records, meaning we even get moments where Joe Elliott is duetting with himself from some thirty years previously. In the words of guitarist/songwriter Phil Collen himself the process meant “recording new parts, remixing previous sounds, taking some of our instruments out so the orchestra could breathe… literally making a new album (in) an amazingly inspirational process”.
Opening the album with a lesser know track from their most divisive album (1996’s Slang) is not just a bold move, but an inspired one, as the talents of the Philharmonic Orchestra bring a sleek, classy Middle Eastern Richie Blackmore meets Led Zeppelin feel to ‘Turn To Dust’. ‘Paper Sun’, from 1999’s Euphoria follows with this new version seeming torn from the intro credits of the next James Bond box office smash, and it’s immediately clear – this collaboration has something special about it, with the swirling, swelling orchestra up front and centre giving the song an epic power.
‘Love Bites’ benefits from cinematic drama in the verses and outro and swirling emphasis in the pre-chorus, ‘Love’ (from Songs From The Sparkle Lounge) builds from a delicate reflection to a multi-faceted Queen-inspired spectacle, ‘Gods Of War’ is pepped and strident,‘Angels (Can’t Help You Now) from Diamond Star Halos swirls and expands, particularly through its denouement, the second half soaring, while ‘Bringin’ On The Heartache’ is majestic, embellished, and, simply put, huge.
Stars of the show, though, are the musicale reworking of ‘Animal’ into something that could be the focus song from a The Last Showman, a thoroughly captivating version of ‘Pour Some Sugar On Me’ featuring Emm Grymer, whose reimagining and stripping back of the song gives such a gravitas, depth and angle on the song that turn it into something wholly new and powerful, and a fairly faithful, but nonetheless expertly enhanced version of the incredible ‘Hysteria’.
If there is anything of a criticism, it is that it would have been great to see a couple more songs get the treatment that ‘Animal’ and ‘…Sugar’ have been afforded, but when ‘Too Late For Love’, achingly minimalistic across the first half, showcasing Elliott’s desperation in the vocals, builds through to the trademark layered vocals and Collen solos of the bridges before a final crescendo, when ‘Switch 625’ sounds like a Stranger Things escape from the hell-dimension soundtrack, or even when ‘When Love And Hate Collide’ is layered knowingly in Richard Curtis rom-com soundtrack sentimentality, you can’t help but smile and admire master crafters at work.
And maybe there is something personal in this – growing up, one of the favourite CD’s of my family’s Saturday cards and games evenings was Justin Hayward’s Classic Blue, a record that saw the voice of the Moody Blues reimagine covers with Mike Batt and the London Philharmonic Orchestra: Drastic Symphonies more than earns its place in a very small and niche part of my record collection.
So… someone, somewhen, once said something about old dogs and new tricks, didn’t they? But our learned friend didn’t say anything about pedigrees and their abilities to embrace the classic arts. With Drastic Symphonies, Def Leppard have produced something that stands alongside the very best moments of their catalogue, making timeless songs sound new again, and presenting some hidden gems in a way that allows them to sparkle and shine as bright as diamond star halos.
Buy the album here:
9 / 10