It didn’t take Lars Ulrich to tell us that Lightning to the Nations is one of the best metal albums ever made. Metallica covering over half the record might have kept it in print and helped the band avoid the fate of Witchfinder General, Raven or a half dozen other bands percolating in England at the dawn of the 80s who released classic albums that only NWOBHM scholars have ever heard of.
The notoriety that came from “The Prince” and “Helpless” being played in front of millions of people meant more than a steady stream of royalty checks. It allowed Diamond Head a second life, reforming twice during that span, most recently in 2000. Unfortunately the results have been mixed: guitarist Brian Tatler has long been the only remaining member from the formative years, and new vocalist Nick Tart sang on two mid-2000s albums that tarnished the band’s legacy.
Things turned around with the addition of vocalist Rasmus Bom Andersen. His soaring, classic rock-inspired pipes and enthusiasm pumped new life into the band on 2016’s eponymous release. It was easily their best album in decades, and the follow-up The Coffin Train is even better.
At some point, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal became a genre unto itself; this is why relative newcomers such as Haunt and Night Demon wear that label despite being neither part of the New Wave nor British. Brian Tatler and crew seem cognizant of this more than ever, or at least since the time they helped forge the genre; more than half of the new record is classic NWOBHM.
“Death By Design” could only be the man behind “Am I Evil?” The guitars ring out like a siren, segue into proto-thrash riffs during the chorus and culminate with a bluesy solo right out of Guitar Hero, early 80s metal edition. The backing chorus rekindles the days when Def Leppard were peers rather than Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees. Diamond Head doesn’t have many songs since Lightning to the Nations that sound like they could have been on that album, but this is one of them.
There are other moments that come pretty close: The album opener “Belly of the Beast” where Anderson seems to channel original vocalist Sean Harris’ wail, Dean Ashton’s slithering and chugging bassline of “Serrated Love,” the blistering solos of “The Phoenix,” and “The Messenger,” which churns like classic Judas Priest if they didn’t abandon their early boogie.
One of the things that derailed the Tart-era was how the band seemed to force itself to sound more modern. The remainder of The Coffin Train sees the band pushing in the same direction; however, it isn’t as off-putting now. This is almost entirely owed to Andersen’s vocals—it’s a lot easier to ape Soundgarden when the singer does a superb Chris Cornell impersonation as he does on the title track, the subdued “Shades of Black” and the symphonic melodrama of “Until We Burn.”
“The Sleeper” is a well-intentioned prog-metal orchestral piece that could have been a Mindcrime-era Queensryche epic except it doesn’t quite manage to live up to its own ambition. Thankfully, such missteps are rare. Most of The Coffin Train sees Diamond Head reflecting on their legacy to great results and the time spent looking elsewhere for inspiration doesn’t tarnish that legacy. It’s no Lightning to the Nations, but it’s a lot closer to that than Diamond Head has been for some time.