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Whoa! I never expected this to come out of a band that came up with "I Wanna Touch U"! I can't believe that Def Leppard has actually created some good stuff in the 90's! "Retro-Active" is a compilation, but it's way more entertaining than anything released by the band in the late 80's and early 90's. Are there ballads involved with it? Of course there are! Are there radio friendly songs on here? Of course there are! Then why isn't this album worthy of being used as a mini Frisbee for your dog? Cos if you listen beyond the cliches Def Leppard's known for, there's actually some incredible songs on here as well!
This album stands out from Def Leppards more recent releases, cos the band uses something they hadn't thought of in a long time; effort. "Ride into the Sun" features a chugging, NWOBHM-like riff that certainly takes more effort to play than "Let's Get Rocked", the main riff of which only consists of a few peppy-sounding power chords. The main reason for this is that "Ride into the Sun" is actually a newer version of a song of that title that appeared on the band's very first EP. It shows that Def Leppard hasn't completely abandoned their roots, at least not on "Retro-Active". Another notable song on here is "Ring of Fire", which starts off with a fantastic hook that contains a rapidly-played arpeggio combined with some power chords. It also delivers a driving, hard rocking sound that carries the song into making it into an awesome piece of headbanging goodness, something the band should have focused on more when making music.
And then there's "From the Inside", a song which really raises an eyebrow. It's not horrible, by any means, it's just an acoustic song that has an Irish-style riff as well as a tin whistle and a mandolin. I guess it's one of the more experimental songs that Def Leppard has done, cos you certainly wouldn't hear a tin whistle in a song like "Heaven Is". Sure, the band members themselves didn't take up the mandolin, but it's the mandolin, along with the other instruments, that make "From the Inside" unique in its own special way. Speaking of being unique, there is the opening track "Desert Song". Diehard Def Leppard fans who are familiar with the synthesizer-tinged "classics" like "Love Bites" and "Women" would be shocked to hear that "Desert Song" is not what they'd expect to hear from them. Instead, we get a hook that carries a spicy, middle-eastern-style vibe reminiscent of Rainbow's "Gates of Babylon" as well as a chorus that isn't annoying, but actually powerful and pleasing to listen to. "Desert Song" is only one of many surprises we get on "Retro-Active".
One of these surprises is the fact that even though there are some of those hated aspects of Def Leppard's music, they aren't as bad they would normally be if they were on any of their studio albums. Even the radio-friendly-sounding songs sound a lot better than you'd think they would. "She's Too Tough" is a song that the band wrote for the Canadian glam band Helix, and the radio-friendliness of it shows. Despite that, it manages to be WAY more appetizing than "Heaven Is". Sure, the song has a somewhat repetitive chorus, but Joe Elliot's vocals in this one display some of his finer singing qualities. His voice really soars when he hits those high notes, especially in the chorus, something you'd never hear in any song off "Hysteria". It's his singing on this song that actually makes it more fun to listen to, as opposed to....well, you get the picture.
As you may have guessed, there are ballads on this album, one of which is repeated not once, not twice, but three times, in different versions. I'm not kidding, people, three times, but more on that later. That ballad is "Miss You in a Heartbeat". The electric version is what you'd expect it to be, a glossy piece of crap meant to captivate the hearts of fangirls the world over and is really nothing special. However, the piano version is actually the most powerful version. It just consists of Joe Elliot's vocals and a piano. No glossy production, no robotic backing vocals, no drum machines, just piano, Joe Elliot, and emotion. With all of those gone, the song shows its true sentimental side without getting in your face so much. That is what I hear in a love song, not a computerized, syrupy, moneymaking song, but a more smooth and subtle song. Yes, the lyrics are cheesy, but they're more tolerable when in sung with the right instruments.
There are a few things about this album that I could complain about, one thing being the production quality. It's just about the same as every Def Leppard album post-"High 'n' Dry" with the computery-sounding drums and the robotic backing vocals. Not to mention the ballads that are repeated in different versions, which I feel is pointless. It's as if they felt they couldn't shoehorn the catchiness of them into us enough if they didn't repeat them. They could've just stuck with the piano version of "Miss You in a Heartbeat" and called it a day, cos we only need to hear it once. If they wanted to add more to the album, they could've made more awesome rockers like "Ride into the Sun" or "Ring of Fire". That would've made the album not only better, but also make it one of the finest that Def Leppard has ever created.
Repeated ballads aside, this is a far cry from anything Def Leppard has released before or since. It contains completely enjoyable, rocking songs that pay tribute to what they once were, and even the glam rock-style song "She's Too Tough" can be (somewhat) cool. It's a good album, but if Def Leppard had tweaked it and made those changes that I mentioned above, it would have been even better. Even so, it's a pleasant surprise for any of us annoyed by "Pour Some Sugar on Me".
Def Leppard, coming off of the spectacular Adrenalize misfire, decided to regroup and have a little fun in the studio. As a result, the band went into the vault in Sheffield (or wherever it is) and shined up some of their unreleased material and B-sides and shipped 'em out to the public. Half-assed cash-in, right? Nope. Turns out that the songs the Leps had elected not to release beat the high holy hell out of most of the stuff they had. And here's the kicker: this sucker is their hardest since Pyromania, with a nice handful of rock solid metal cuts and nimble glam rockers. The thing is polished too, one of the best knob-jobs (hee-hee) I've heard, but there is none of the insanely sugary Hysteria sound. This feels like a more mature High 'n' Dry, youthful enthusiasm tempered by years of experience. And I'll be damned if it isn't their best since that classic.
Def Lep picked up Dio's Vivian Campbell to replace Steve Clarke (R.I.P), and it'd be folly to say that Collen and Campbell can't play a mean guitar. Rick Allen seems less dependent on computerized beats, and Elliott's voice has aged well, better than his somewhat frightening appearance of late. Sav is... unremarkable as usual. Smiley bastard...
Just to show you that the band does still have balls, they kick things off with the roiling "Desert Song", the band locking into a mean groove over an eastern-style riff. The solo rips, and Joe gives us some convincing rock 'n' roll 'tude. He struts, he preens, and he snarls his way through this tale of heat-crazed pilgrims and sand-blasted wastes. To be honest, this song alone blows 95% of the material on the last two albums to smithereens. "Fractured Love" is even better, chugging metal like we've rarely heard from these guys. The riff is just hotter than hell, and I love how the band really ratchets up the tension before it kicks in. Just a great payoff after the tight 'n' taut verses is the chorus, further prove that hooks can rock and Def Leppard can do anthems in their sleep.
"Action" was a minor hit for Canadian hard rock (later hair) act Helix, and the Def Lep version blows it away. Not that I'm really a great fan of this song, this track showing off the glammy roots that lead to the extremely melodic direction the band took, something that prevented them from becoming the next AC/DC or Priest. Still, undeniably energetic, and the solo is perhaps the best on the album. "Two Steps Behind" is one of the bands premier ballads, just kicking the shit out of "Love Bites", "Heaven Is", "Love & Affection", etc.etc. ad fucking nauseum. Just a simple acoustic guitar and a heartfelt performance by Joe. The electric version is the weaker of the two, but it's got a pretty good solo in its favour.
Now, this next set is probably the weak spot on the otherwise splendid record. The skid begins with "She's Too Tough" an annoying glam rocker, a repetitive and simply irritating number. The crap backing vocals don't help either. The insipid catchiness of the thing will either have you singing along happily or getting ready to claw your own eyes out. Oh, the embarrassment you'll feel when you realize you can still hear it. "Miss You in a Heartbeat" is just a weaker "Two Steps Behind", completely unnecessary once, a real head-scratcher to include it twice, but THREE fucking times?! It isn't bad, it just isn't that good. "Only After Dark" is an amusing cover of an old Mick Ronson song, one of those tunes I've got a love/hate relationship with (see: the entire Hysteria record). On one hand it's happily catchy, the vocals hilarious, the riff jumpy and fun. And yet, man, I'm usually good with dealing with people insulting my music, but this crap is actually an embarrassment should anyone catch me listening to it. There's no defending this!
Luckily we are redeemed by some seriously solid metal. "Ride into the Sun" is one of the most interesting songs here, one of the ye olde Lep tracks from their first EP. It's old skewl. And dude, the new version rocks. The guitars are a force of nature, and that boogie-metal bite is the kind of pure sound that just gets in your blood. This is a wonderful groove with some mighty metal heft. In fact, this track alone makes X even more insulting than it already was. "From the Inside" is a sublime bit of moody folk, one of the darkest songs in their catalogue, effortlessly catchy but with a solid message. This folksy tune reminds me of Megadeth's "Use the Man" actually, except with the novel idea of seeing events through the eyes of the insidious narcotic.
Here's the last rocker on the record folks, and it's a doozy. "Ring of Fire" is not a Johnny Cash cover (awww, shucks), but rather a western-tinged little speed-rock diddler. It's kinda unremarkable, but I still think of it as a godsend considering what came after. "I Wanna Be Your Hero" is spoo, just another limp-wristed ballad without the charm of their quality limp-wristed ballads.
So, in summation, great fucking record. Lots of peaks and valleys as with most Leppard material, but the peaks are so high that the valleys are forgivable. This may be the last Lep record I review unless I borrow one or more of the others, but I've heard enough of them to give you a little roadmap of the rest:
Slang - Underrated and experimental. Good-ish record, unjustly ignored. Still, a lot of bad, bad ideas.
Euphoria - Crap. This is like Hysteria, had Hysteria been irredeemably awful. So Adrenalize II in other words.
X - A slap in the face. This is soppy pop crap at an unheard-of level. When you hire the guys who help write for N*Sync, brother, something is terribly wrong. AVOID.
Hey! - Disposable fun.
Stand-Outs: "Desert Song", "Fractured Love", "Ride into the Sun"