Fight Fire with Fire is an ongoing series on our site where we pit two classic genre albums against each other to definitively figure out which one is better. “But they’re both great!” you’ll say. Yes, these albums are the best of the best. But one is always better. Plus, we love these sorts of exercises, and also love watching you battle each other to the death in the comments, so how could this possibly end poorly?
We’ve dealt with death metal in this column; we’ve taken on classic/trad metal; we’ve put grindcore classics against each other. But we haven’t really taken a look at the new wave of British heavy metal (NWOBHM) yet. The movement has some drop-dead classics, no doubt about it, and today we’re going to take a close look at two of them and face them off to see which one stands the test of time better.
In 1980, Def Leppard released their debut album, On Through the Night. It’s a great piece of NWOBHM, but the next year’s follow-up, High ‘n’ Dry, is incredible, the band taking their songwriting wonder and refining it to a perfect point; sure, one could argue that point got even sharper on 1983’s ultramega smash Pyromania, which has sold over 10 million copies in the US alone, but High ‘n’ Dry is the perfect mix of hunger and songwriting prowess (the band would lose more and more of the former as they took the latter to a place of alarming perfection over their next couple of albums).
Then we have Diamond Head, who are more than a little well-known because of Metallica’s relentless love for them. In 1980, the band released their debut full-length, Lightning to the Nations; of the seven songs on the album, Metallica have covered five of them (you can find four of those covers on Garage Inc.), and you are intimately familiar with at least three of those. So, even if you’ve never spun this album, which would be a mistake, you still know, like, half of it. Which means you know that it’s majestic NWOBHM, heavier and more ambitious than the Leps, a record that absolutely helped pave the way for thrash as it doubled down on its hard NWOBHM sound.
So, we’ve got two albums that are sort of similar but mainly very different takes on a particular subgenre of metal, two albums that we should all know and love, two albums that today must duke it out in the ultimate NWOBHM Fight Fire with Fire showdown.
Def Leppard – High ‘n’ Dry
High ‘n’ Dry is an absolutely perfect record when you want some melodic, driving, hard rock/metal that has a decent amount of bite to it. There is youthful energy all over this thing, and every one of its 10 songs is a winner; there’s no filler to be found here.
“Let It Go” is an incredible opener, the band laying down killer riff upon killer riff to create an unforgettable, brisk NWOBHM anthem. It’s hard to not shed a tear for what Def Lep once were when listening to this amazing rock song, the cowbell breakdown in the middle even ruling, the melodic riff that bursts up after it ruling even harder. Argh, I can barely handle how good this is.
I can also barely handle how good “Another Hit and Run”’s opening riff is, the Leps the master of melody already at this point, the moody song absolutely doing everything it set out to do, the riffs uplifting like the best metal/hard rock should, vocals totally nailing it, the guitar work nothing short of NWOBHM perfection.
Kinda-title track “High ‘n’ Dry (Another Saturday Night)” is about as 1981 feel-good as rock can get, and also introduced a young me to the idea of “whiskey and wine,” not that I knew what either was. But I did know riffs that made me feel like a king, and this song’s got an overflow of ’em.
“Bringin’ on the Heartbreak,” man, I always misplace this song as being one, maybe even two (believe it) albums later into Lep’s career (this confusion is probably a result of the band releasing a synthy version of this in 1984, to go with a reissue of this album post-Pyromania), but here we are, despite my odd mental block, enjoying this early victory taking on the power ballad that this band would end up leaning painfully hard on later in life. But, c’mon: like Warrant’s ballads, I can’t sit here and pretend to hate on this. “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak” is awesome.
And then to have “Switch 625,” an absolutely killer sorta-instrumental segue right into the ending of “Heartbreak” was bloody brilliant, the band managing to with that single move create this feeling of importance, of party rock made art, of something important playing out before your ears as you slam back one more beer in the beautiful, beautiful summer of ’81. Or the spring of ’21, where it still sounds fantastic. Love this one, starts out rocking and slow burns up to harder rocking before it burns out, first half of the album over, seriously impressing every time.
That’s a perfect side A, but side B ain’t no slouch either, starting off with “You Got Me Runnin’,” the chorus of which might have just popped into your head after reading those words, which means, hey, they got something right. The big, open riffs also are alright, the song just forward momentum, glorious NWOBHM, pre-chorus showing some serious vocal display over some hot-lickin’ riffs. Could have been the first song on the album and it would have worked just fine.
“Lady Strange” presents as a deep cut, placed as track 7 of 10, but, holy shit: “Lady Strange” is a total killer, the foreboding riffs, the sense of restraint, the “bring on the arenas” songwriting, and then, at 2:25, when things take a turn toward Maiden turf, shit gets real. This is one of the band’s finest moments, from the chorus to the sudden galloping.
I always, for some reason, didn’t like “On Through the Night”’s chorus that much, plus it always just brings up too many questions for me when a band places a song that has the name of their previous album on a record (looking at you, Propagandhi). But the verses storm the gates and it’s one of the most aggressive vocal performances on the record, so it’s still a win.
“Mirror, Mirror (Look Into My Eyes)” is pushing it with the parenthetic titles that really don’t need to exist, but what a song, verses getting quiet but nowhere near balladeering, and that chorus is actually one of the best on a record full of show-stopping choruses. Amazing late-album burst of “holy shit” here.
“No No No” (looking at you, KISS) ends the album off with actually what is the weakest cut on the album, this one feeling a bit like a toss-off, but it does end the disc with a promise of even heavier albums to come, a promise that was, of course, never fulfilled, but that doesn’t matter, High ‘n’ Dry being the perfect amount of heavy from a band that had songwriting down head-shakingly well for such a young group, this record totally putting together everything great about early-’80s metal and hard rock, with just enough NWOBHM spit and bite to it (and by “just enough,” I mean, “I’ve been revisiting it for decades because I want just a touch more, which means they got it just fucking right”).
The worst thing about this record is trying to figure out if the “n” in the middle of the title should be capitalized or not when I type it (admittedly, no small bone of contention). Otherwise, unreal, 10 songs, 42 minutes, total rock perfection. Can Diamond Head top this with their masterful Lightning to the Nations?
Diamond Head – Lightning to the Nations
Alright, that was a lot of me going berserk over Def Leppard, so let’s get a bit heavier here and hop over to Lightning to the Nations.
Now, the first thing that always gets me about this album is the daunting song lengths; with only three songs on side A and four on side B, the record still manages to be just, like, 40 seconds shorter than High ‘n’ Dry, so that right there lets you know that you’ve gotta be in the mood for something a bit more demanding than the ready-for-anyone rock the Leps laid down on their second album.
And if you’re up for the challenge, man, the title track opens the record majestically, it being one of three songs here that are of reasonable length, the band offering up a looming intro before the two-step shuffle NWOBHM boogie begins, the song surprisingly light on its feet for a record that spawned “Am I Evil?” Great riffing, and fun, unpredictable but not alienating songwriting skills on display here, this opener managing to be both punter-friendly (the chorus just screams pre-show beer in the parking lot) and musician-approved with its slightly darker tone and more advanced playing. Approved, killer opener.
“The Prince” is up next, and we all know Metallica’s version of this totally rules, and it’s also totally two minutes shorter than the original, which helps. At 6:24, the song wears out its welcome a bit, but, I mean, we can just zone out for a minute or two during those extended instrumental breaks and just wait for the absolutely killer verses and choruses to come back—it’s worth the wait, and the closing glory-ride guitar heroics are awesome, too.
“Sucking My Love,” all 9:27 of it, closes off side A, and the opening riff rules, classic NWOBHM sounds, and when the song is rocking, man, it’s rocking, but when the band go “Whole Lotta Love” on us and start drifting aimlessly in the middle, it’s not so much a buildup to a climax as it is just taking a long time to… well, it gets somewhere, sure, but not where I want a song to get to after that long. Again, cut the crap and it’s awesome.
Also awesome is “Am I Evil?” but we all know that. Look, at 7:39, the song is just too long; that intro is insufferable, and if the song was a lean and mean 3:15 I’d probably love it even more. But, I love “Am I Evil?”’s riffs, I love the chorus, I love the verses, I love the vocal lines, I just love it. And, fine, I even love the insufferable intro, but I’m never going to admit that to a large reading audience (oops).
“Sweet and Innocent” may be the only song here that we don’t all have ready to go in our brains on a moment’s notice, but it’s a fun, Saxon-y boogie rocker that shows that Diamond Head indeed know how to keep it simple stupid when they need to. Ditto for the mighty “It’s Electric,” a fantastic, brisk, mighty rocker. I wish the band would have put the glory of songs like “The Prince” and “Am I Evil?” into these shorter structures, because it absolutely would have worked wonders. However, the mix of the two types of songs makes for a nice variety and actually keeps the album moving along at an enjoyable pace.
“Helpless” ends things off, and, yeah, it’s another massive victory, the band racing to the finish line here with a song full of classic riffs and vocal lines, right up there with “The Prince” on both counts. This could be the album’s finest moment, but, to be honest, we’re talking about a record filled with classics.
Lightning to the Nations is clearly a more difficult listen than High ‘n’ Dry, so a lot of this comes down to mood. These albums occupy different sonic and mental territory, but at the end of it all, they’re both NWOBHM records and today we need to determine which is better. Will it be the hard-rockin’ glory of Def Leppard or the more ambitious sounds of Diamond Head?
It’s probably obvious by this point, but one of these two records has emerged loud ‘n’ clear as the winner, and it’s not just because they have very little in common sonically, anchored together more by common musical ancestry. No, it’s because High ‘n’ Dry is an absolute masterpiece of NWOBHM-inflected rock, the band getting every single thing right on it, the record still making the listener feel like they can conquer the world, or at least conquer another beer, Def Leppard for the win today in Fight Fire with Fire with an album that doesn’t know the meaning of the word “lose,” an album that is nothing less than total rock victory.