FIRST IMPRESSIONS Volume Fifteen: Diamond Head – Lightning To The Nations

Diamond Head - Lightning To The Nations

Diamond Head – Lightning To The Nations

The First Impressions series, for which this is the fifteenth entry, revolves around discovering a record that is commonly regarded as a classic album within its genre for the first time, and then writing about the experience while describing both my thought process and my history with similar music in a manner similar to but distinct from a traditional review.

You usually need to know a fair amount about Metal and the history of Metal to fully understand absolutely every point I will make, and having listened to the album yourself will also help. If you don’t have a clue what I’m writing about but still wish to read, having a tab open on Wikipedia to intermittently check anything you don’t understand, as well as a tab open on Grooveshark, Youtube or something Spotify-esque to check any musical reference points you haven’t heard will help too.

The album that I’ll be listening to in this edition of First Impressions is Lightning To The Nations (also known as Untitled or The White Album) by Diamond Head. It was their debut full-length studio album and was released in 1980.

Despite being considered a classic album by people, the album is sort of stuck in the shadow of two things; the NWOBHM music scene and Metallica, and its difficult to talk about or think of the album outside of this context.

I’ve written before about how NWOBHM is a sort of politically incorrect genre name because the time also spawned Traditional Heavy Metal bands from other countries, so I’m adding the word ‘scene’ in, in a best of both worlds situation. This is apparently quite an exemplary album from the NWOBHM scene so it would be stupid to ignore that. Along with several other NWOBHM albums, this album is probably most famous for being inspirational to Metallica in particular (they cover four songs from it on Garage Inc.) and Thrash Metal in general.

I remember when I was young and I first heard about Diamond Head I thought that only show offs listened to them and that no one would genuinely like them, they only pretended to so as to seem smarter or to feel cool about themselves. I guess I equated it with the concept of a hipster as we know them today, but lacked the vocabulary to describe it at the time.

Looking back it is just one of many bizarre decisions that I made about music at a young age that had no basis in experience or education and it is very easy to recognize that sort of mindset in the comments section of things like Blabbermouth and Youtube today.

Its lucky that my generations unthinking children didn’t get to leak their every unfounded thought out onto the internet with such ease and it seems a shame that bands, fans, manager and labels have to operate knowing that there are a billion mindless insults floating about out there forever, issued by people who will grow out of it in a few years time and disagree with 99% of the things they said. (Well, the reasonable people anyway, some idiots never grow out of it, but that is a different matter)

Anyway; Despite having been a fan of Iron Maiden (the most notable NWOBHM band) for a good five or six years, the idea of trying any more NWOBHM never really interested me and even when I’d read reviews of Thrash Metal bands that I loved where the music was described as ‘souped up NWOBHM’ or ‘Supercharged NWOBHM,’ for some unidentifiable reason I never once felt curious enough to try any out for myself.

I had a very brief interest once last year, I became curious after having watched VH1’s documentary ‘Heavy: The Story Of Metal’… and listened to one or two songs each by bands like Quartz, Praying Mantis, Tygers Of Pan Tang, Wytchfynde, early Def Leppard etc via the website Grooveshark, but nothing I heard really set me off and I moved on.

Recently however, I decided to pick up a copy of this album because I enjoyed early Judas Priest albums so much and this seemed like a good place to step-stone on to next. I don’t feel like a hipster either, in case you were wondering.

If I could make one slightly hipster-esque point however, it would be this: I was pleased to read in the linear notes of the edition I bought that the band where influenced by Rush and Gentle Giant, which is definitely a point in their favour as far as I’m concerned. Furthermore, since Queen where inspired by Gentle Giant too, and Metallica were inspired by Queen, that’s at least two bands that indirectly brought some Gentle Giant to Metallica, the world’s biggest Metal band. I love Gentle Giant and I love Metal, so that idea just seems nifty to me.

Part of the reason I wanted to listen to it was because I wanted to hear another Heavy Metal album from when the style was still in its developmental beginnings, but after the wall had came down.

Not everyone will agree with me on this, but as far as I like to view things, people before Sad Wings Of Destiny and Heaven And Hell came out had some Heavy Metal songs, but no one had Metal albums. Some people think of Led Zeppelin as a Metal band for example, but with hindsight there is a blurry line between Rock and Heavy Metal that I feel Diamond Head fall inside of but bands like Zeppelin and Deep Purple fall outside of, despite what journalists may have said at the time.

The journalism of the ‘70s called a lot of things Heavy Metal that actually fit in a lot better with today’s definitions of Classic Rock or Hard Rock and I feel that though that is where the genre name came from, things evolved over time and even though some bands were in the same field, once the wall got built they weren’t on the same side as the companions that they once shared the one space with.

A lot of things in my scale start out as actually Metal from ’8O onwards, and Sad Wings is a rarity back at ’75. I’d actually quite like to hear a fully Metal album, not by Judas Priest or Iron Maiden that came out between 1975 and 1980 at some stage in the future. If you can think of one please leave a comment.

Listening to Lighting To The Nations now; the opening song, which is the album’s Title Track, is both pleasingly heavy for its time as well as structurally a little complex and still stuck in the Rush way of thinking, which is nice. You can really understand how the structuring of this song relates to how the first four Metallica albums worked, in the same way that you can see how the structuring of those albums related to a lot of the ‘epic’ Thrash Metal albums, where bands, usually around the third or fourth album, would take the songs in longer, more complex and dynamic directions. In hindsight, they should have been called ‘progressive’ instead of ‘epic,’ but people weren’t to know then that ‘epic’ would be a cliché now and also had to work around progressive attitudes being unfashionable in the wake of Punk.

In contrast to being able to hear the structural influence on Metallica that the opener had, the second track (‘The Prince’) has, in my opinion at least, a hugely audible influence on Megadeth musically. How the rhythm section works in a way that I can only describe as the fictitious word “boopy.” This ‘boopy’ mechanic is exactly how the rhythm section works (and contrasts with the guitars) on Megadeth songs like ‘Rattlehead’ ‘Loved You To Deth’ and ‘Killing Is My Business.’ In fact even as late as on the band’s third album, which featured a whole new rhythm section, tracks like ‘502’ and ‘Liar’ still carry on that ‘boopy’ sound.

To expand, this isn’t just the sound of Classic Heavy Metal, it isn’t a sound that comes up on the first two Iron Maiden albums, or on anything by Anvil or Judas Priest that I’ve ever heard either, it seems exclusive to Diamond Head as far as I can tell.

The third song, ‘Sucking My Love’ is much more straight ahead trad-metal, ploughing along on one or two riffs in the way that things like Black Sabbath’s ‘Paranoid’ and Judas Priest’s ‘Running Wild’ do. I wouldn’t be surprised if it had been issued as a single… Up until the shimmering proggy mid-section that comes four-and-a-half minutes in that is, when things go a little more in the direction of Camel’s brilliant ‘Lady Fantasy Suite.’ This is a real highlight of the album on a musical level, although I wouldn’t be surprised if fans at the time complained about things like self-indulgence and the like, in the anti-prog climate of the era. When things finally kick back in for the straight up Heavy Metal final minute, it seems all the better for having followed the mid-scetion.

When I heard the first few minutes of the track I thought it wasn’t as good as the two songs that it had followed, but now I think it is probably an album highlight.

The production on these first three songs is fairly rough and the vocals are a little unconfident sounding (or just low in the mix) but at the same time, even through the reverb, it sounds a lot easier on the ear than Mercyful Fate’s album, which I covered in a recent First Impressions article.

Next up comes the most famous song on the album (as far as I know), ‘Am I Evil?’
On my copy at least, the intro is crackly in a way that sounds like there is damage on the master tapes.

Of all the songs that Metallica had covered off of this album, this is the only one that I recognize. Despite having shared a house with a copy of Garage Inc. since its initial release, I’ve never actually sat down and listened to it properly. Even when I inherited this copy as my own, I never even really gave it a full listen. I knew ‘Die Die My Darling’ ‘Turn The Page’ and ‘Whiskey In The Jar’ very well just because they were more famous and had heard ‘Free Speech For The Dumb’ and ‘Sabra Cadabra’ a couple of times too, but still the idea of the album never appealed to me and so I didn’t really know the other three Diamond Head songs on here beforehand.

‘Am I Evil?’ though is pretty memorable, Metallica do play it on The Big Four Blu Ray that I own, and on The Cunning Stunts DVD which I had seen a few times. (They didn’t play it when I saw them live, but they did play both ‘St Anger’ and ‘Frantic’ with a guitar solo though, which is great)

Actually on closer listening, its the chorus that is pretty memorable, it’s the bit I recognize from Metallica, but I am hearing almost all the rest of it as if for the first time. It’s a pretty good song at any rate.

The straightforward ‘Sweet And Innocent’ which follows is enjoyable and has a sort of Thin Lizzy thing to it, but passes in a bit of a blur without me really focusing on any part of it in particular. A problem I also have with a lot of the album Queen II for some reason.

‘Its Electric’ is definitely my favourite track on this album; its catchy more than its electric, “perhaps they should have called it ‘Its Catchy’”…says wanky journalist.

This song, much like half the material of Judas Priest’s Sad Wings of Destiny album, is somewhat of a Blueprint for how to write good Metal, and that still applies today. Also, the trademark interrupting-double-cymbal-strike it features is so clearly influential on how Lars Ulrich plays that it seems almost as if Diamond Head are stealing it from Lars.

The final track ‘Helpless’ was actually a bit of a disappointment after having followed ‘Its Electric’ but I guess is inoffensive in its own right. The edition I have has a few bonus tracks that would have been a better fit for the album in my opinion, such as ‘Play It Loud’ or the very Judas Priest like ‘Streets Of Gold,’ (which may have the world’s oddest guitar tone for a trad-metal guitar solo) but that’s just personal preference.

Overall, I kind of feel like this was a good album on one hand, but at the same time a lot of it seemed to pass me by a little, as if playing spot-the-influence was too distracting. I imagine this is something that would get ironed out over repeat listens however, as it did with Dream Theater.

Of all the things I’ve listened to for First Impressions it wasn’t the worst, and I enjoyed a lot of it, but it also didn’t absolutely capture my imagination. The songwriting on the album is pretty damn strong and the production is charming in a fun sort of a way, but the overall effect might have been more impactful with a more professional recording and a better mix with more confident sounding vocals.

I’ll definitely give it a few more listens (both because I’m curious and because I want my money’s worth) and I think I will also try out more NWOBHM material as well. I think I’ll follow up listening to this with listening to Maiden’s debut at a minimum. I hated that album the first time I heard it but grow to like it more every time I learn something new about Metal, and having heard another full-length NWOBHM album, I’m sure something new will stir this time around too.

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