Diamond Head may be one of the most influential heavy metal bands of the 1980s New Wave, but their early history is confusing, to say the least. They formed while still at school, then after a couple of demo tapes, they self-financed and recorded an album named Lightning To The Nations in 1980. The New Wave of British Heavy Metal was just taking off, and the youngsters were on hand to get in right at the start. When no record deal was forthcoming though, their management pressed some copies of the album in a plain white sleeve with no artwork, which they distributed themselves, but basically decided to treat it as a demo.
When the boys eventually landed a deal with MCA, they produced their first ‘proper’ album, 1982’s Borrowed Time. This featured re-recordings of a couple of the best tracks from the demo: the title track and the dark and sinister Am I Evil. The label splashed out on some decent promo photos and a stunning gatefold sleeve with fantasy artwork by Rodney Matthews, but also directed the band away from out-and-out hard rock and more into melodic metal territory. Borrowed Time put Diamond Head right in the front line of the burgeoning New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, but the original fans frankly preferred the old style, the demo album came out of the shadows and is now widely considered to be their actual debut, and a better representation of the early band.
It’s a shame really, because Lightning To The Nations was packed to the gunnels with great, driving rock songs, but suffered from rudimentary production. Borrowed Time was a much more professional, glossy product, but neither as hard-hitting or, in the long run, as popular. MCA proved to be an ill fit for Diamond Head and they never really fulfilled their potential, despite being a massive early influence on the genre as a whole, and on some massively successful bands, notably Metallica. Diamond Head broke up and reformed a couple of times, with several changes of line-up, before the turn of the millennium saw a more stable entity eventually reform around original guitarist Brian Tatler, firstly with original vocalist Sean Harris, then Nick Tart, and more recently with Danish-born Rasmus Bom Andersen at the front.
All of which brings us to the latest offering, as the current line-up decided to go right back to the beginning and re-record a 40th anniversary edition of the entire Lightning To The Nations album. And make no mistake, this was an astoundingly brilliant idea. Lightning To The Nations 2020 is a great, hard-driving heavy metal album, full of tremendous riffs, pounding beats and skilful musicianship. But it’s not a modern album; the guitars are fast and heavy, but still in the 1970s tradition, with minimal use of sweep-picking, two-handed tapping or massive compression. In addition, as the original vinyl was a pretty standard 41 minutes long, they have taken the opportunity to flesh out the new release with some extra tracks; covers of classic rock songs which we shall get to presently. Firstly though, the album kicks off with the original title track, Lighting To The Nations. Half a minute longer than the original, it’s heavier, harder, more competent and all-round better, with some nice harmony guitar highlights in small doses.
Rapid-fire metal thrash The Prince, despite being six minutes long, is still half a minute shorter than the original, although for some reason the lead guitar is mixed really quiet – in fact several of the tracks employ this policy, emphasising the driving beats at the expense of the instrumentation. This track also features short solo bass riffs at intervals, which make it noticeable that the bass is overdriven and distorted in this version, rather than the rumbly bass of the original.
The heavily Led Zeppelin-influenced Sucking My Love took up 9½ minutes of the original album, but the modern band wisely took the decision to cut two minutes of orgasmic Robert Plant-style wailing, cutting the track length down considerably. This is not to say there was anything wrong with the original, in fact it featured a hard-edged, more saw-toothed guitar riff than on the rest of the album, giving it a slightly punky vibe, but the new version is just superb, with the tempo changes and mood swings much more pronounced.
Then we come to the classic Am I Evil, which was one great track amongst many on the first recording, but was far and away the standout song on MCA’s Borrowed Time album. Here we have a third swing at it, and this is the best of the lot, as the vengeful son-of-a-witch plots his revenge on the locals who burned his mother in front of his eyes. Typical old-school heavy metal fare I suppose, but it’s a great song, here given the treatment it deserves, and the guitars are mixed more to the front too, which is welcome.
OK, I could go on in a similar vein with the remaining songs, Sweet And Innocent, It’s Electric and Helpless, but you get the picture. Listening again to the original recordings, the sheer nostalgia of the first days of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal hit me hard. For those of us who remember hearing this stuff in smoky pubs, or better still, were lucky enough to be in bands playing similar stuff at the same time, the naïve and youthful sound is a time machine. But then, to hear it played by musicians who have been at their craft for forty years, using modern sounds and state-of-the-art recording techniques is a revelation, and goes to show just how good the songs were all along. Possibly coincidentally, the variation in the length of the tracks cancels out, so that by the end of the original set, we have exactly the same 41 minutes of playing time.
To round out the picture, the four bonus tracks are covers of the following: No Remorse, from Metallica’s 1983 debut album Kill ‘Em All – a fair swap for Metallica’s 1998 cover of Diamond Head’s It’s Electric (which is also on this album – see video at foot of page). This is followed by a more-than-competent cover of Led Zep’s Immigrant Song, which showcases Andersen’s astounding vocal range, and features some glorious ascending bass riffs. Then Judas Priest’s Sinner, which starts as an upbeat, major-key standard rocker, before veering off into a complex, borderline prog-metal riff-driven piece with multiple sections tied end-to-end, weird time signatures and harmony guitars.
The album closes on a cover of Deep Purple’s riffy Rat Bat Blue, by no means an obvious choice, but then again Andersen shows himself capable of going full Ian Gillan – and if you can do that, then you should! I have to admit, the mixing of deeply nostalgic, traditional 1980s Black Country heavy metal with the pounding thud of modern hard rock had me grinning under the headphones. This is a classic album in every way. Keep ‘em coming boys.