Part Twenty of the Def Leppard Review Series
Original Review: Slang 2 CD edition (1996)
“Too alternative!”, they moaned. “Doesn’t sound like old Def Leppard!”, they whined. But what choice did Def Leppard have?
The world of 1996 was not the same as 1992, when Def Leppard re-emerged after a long hiatus with Adrenalize. Leppard experimented wildly with their music on 1987’s Hysteria, but tended to stick to formula on Adrenalize. After the hardship of losing Steve Clark, we can forgive them for not trying to re-invent the wheel a second time. But by 1996, grunge had passed and the decade continued to move further away from classic hard rock and heavy metal. It was overdue for Leppard to re-invent themselves one more time. They owed it to themselves. But it was actually more natural that that.
Vivian Campbell was on board for his first real album with Def Leppard, only to find they were “moving the goalposts”! After making two painstakingly produced albums, it was time for change. The band desired a fresh start with Campbell, using no holdover music from the past. They wanted a more organic album, and part of that was Rick Allen incorporating acoustic drums back into his setup. They were going to try and express themselves a bit more, and take some serious chances. To hell with the critics, expectations, and old ways of doing things.
Regardless of how it sold, the final album Slang became a cult favourite for good reason.
Opening on a fade, the new Leppard begins different from any in the past. “Truth?” is a slow, exotic groove with background samples and loops. Not a stretch from “Rocket” in a technical sense, but completely different results. Deeply distorted chorus vocals are a striking shift from the past, but are just as fetching. An middle-eastern sounding solo nails the vibe, and drum loops offer more modern twists. The mix sounds just as dense as anything you hear on Hysteria, but with completely different elements. And fortunately Leppard haven’t forgotten how to write hooks, even if in a darker tone.
“Turn to Dust” takes the scene to India, with sitar and tabla. Tempos are still slow and deliberate. “Turn to Dust” has a bit more of the Def Leppard sound on the chorus, with Phil Collen singing backup, but the lyrics sure are different: “Sentence rape me, segregate me” is a stark turn from “Let’s Get Rocked”. But everybody was pissed off in the 90s. This one drones on with ample musical genius towards the end. Lots of strings and exotic instrumentation, backed by the grind of electric guitars.
The title track “Slang” is an immediate and fun change of pace. With a modern sound, it could have been a “Pour Some Sugar” for the 90s had it caught on. Beats and samples mixed in with an irresistible chorus make for a catchy concoction. It’s really the only upbeat song on the album, but a treat it is.
The ballad “All I Want Is Everything” was briefly previewed on the VHS release Video Archives, in an October 1995 acoustic performance at the Wapentake Club in Sheffield. That acoustic rendition did not really hint at the dark ballad on Slang. A simple but effective droning guitar part forms the backing, but the luscious Leppard melodies are delivered vocally and with guitar flourishes. It’s a different kind of ballad for Def Leppard, but no less stirring. It was a single, but underperformed compared to past Leppard hits.
Vivian’s “Work It Out” sounded more like a Crowded House song in demo form, poppy and quirky. Once Leppard wrestled with it, a different kind of track emerged. Duskier, heavier, with really dominating drums and surprisingly slinky bass from Rick “Sav” Savage. The final Leppard version is certainly superior to Viv’s demo in the long run though both have merit. “Work It Out” was another Slang single that should have done better.
One of the biggest album surprises (and perhaps most divisive) is the supple ballad “Breathe A Sigh”. Gentle tic-tic-tic R&B drum samples back a song that is mostly vocal with minimal instrumentation. Drums, piano, and understated guitar melodies should have guided this to a hit spot on the charts.
Flip the record for a darker turn of events. “Deliver Me” is more straight-ahead rock, but certainly not upbeat. This is heavy, foreboding and dangerous Def Leppard. Again, not without their knack for a melody. The quiet/loud dynamic is very 90s, but that doesn’t make it bad. The fact that Leppard always strove for a melodic foundation keeps it from falling into the morass of soundalike 90s rock.
“Gift Of Flesh” is another surprising twist. Blasting fast and loud, this track is the most old-school, but still dark like a cloudy sky. With lyrics like “scorch the Earth and torch the sky,” this is a more apocalyptic kind of rocker for the Leppard we were used to. But it does rock, and hard! You could bang your head to it even if you can’t rock rock ’til you drop.
Was Slang too ballady? “Blood Runs Cold” is the third such song, followed by a fourth called “Where Does Love Go When It Dies”. Joe Elliott really nails a killer vocal on “Blood Runs Cold”, which is very light and airey. “Where Does Love Go When It Dies” lightens the skies further. Acoustic strumming is a more traditional sound for Leppard. It’s a little more like the acoustic Adrenalize B-sides, with a minimal arrangement.
The last few Leppard studio albums had “album epics”: “Gods of War” on Hysteria and “White Lightning” on Adrenalize. Slang ends on an epic called “Pearl of Euphoria”. There’s a lot going on in this track, with guitar overdubs and drones. It’s a very Zeppelin-y song, but done in a modern way. It draws from the same worldly wells that Zeppelin often explored. Its fade-out alone is a minute long!
Unfortunately one of Slang‘s strengths, its adherence to the darker side of pop rock and hard rock, is also the factor that keeps it from hitting 5/5 stars like Hysteria. It doesn’t necessarily make you feel as great after hearing it. It does feel like you’ve heard something deeper and more profound, but not something that brightens your soul.
- The Early Years Disc One – On Through the Night
- The Early Years Disc Two – High N’ Dry
- The Early Years Disc Three – When The Walls Came Tumbling Down: Live at the New Theater Oxford – 1980
- The Early Years Disc Four – Too Many Jitterbugs – EP, singles & unreleased
- The Early Years Disc 5 – Raw – Early BBC Recordings
- The Early Years 79-81 (Summary)
- Pyromania Live – L.A. Forum, 11 September 1983
- Soundtrack From the Video Historia – Record Store Tales
- In The Round In Your Face DVD
- “Let’s Get Rocked” – The Wait for Adrenalize – Record Store Tales
- Live at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert
- Video Archive
- “Slang” (UK single)
21. I Got a Bad Feeling About This: Euphoria – Record Store Tales