Def Leppard –Mirror Ball: Live and More
** (Two Stars)
By Anthony Kuzminski
Buy the record HERE
Over the last six years Def Leppard has been an annual resident on the summer touring circuit on package tours giving fans great bang for their buck. Visually they’re a dynamite force you realize we took for granted in the 1990’s. They hit the stage and for ninety-minutes wallop the crowd with hit-after-hit in note-for-note reproductions. For a band whose most popular work was slickly produced by Mutt Lange, it’s rather shocking to see how well they recreate these numbers on the concert stage. Joe Elliott’s voice is in fine form and even if it’s not what it was twenty years ago (no one’s is) yet he’s defiant in his delivery. Drummer Rick Allen and bassist Rick Savage lay the groundwork which guitarists Vivian Campbell and Phil Collen build upon creating some of the most pleasing and vibrant soundscapes in all of rock. You lose yourself watching them in concert, their physical presence is dynamic as they cover the entire stage barely hinting at their age. They’re a presence to be reckoned with. So why is it that in spite of all of the previously mentioned highlights that their ‘Mirrorball’ live record is a disappointment?
“Rock! Rock! (Till You Drop)” assaults the listener immediately (without a fade-in) as the crowd roars in the distance as the band members take to the stage one-by-one. “Rocket”, performed as the single mix, continues the celebration. From there the songs unfold one at a time in faultless arrangements; which is the albums downfall. I don’t think Def Leppard has ever performed a bad show in their career. They’re too talented and too prepared for that to ever happen. The performances are spot-on, tight and on target but the sense of danger and adventure are nowhere to be found. With the exception of one song, all are note-for-note reproductions of their studio counterparts. While this is something casual fans wish for in concert, on a live album, it makes it hard to distinguish from what we’d hear on the radio. While listening to it I didn’t loathe it, I was just disappointed by the lack of distinction in the arrangements and lethargic song choice. The one standout element of Mirrorball is how the guitars were mixed. Phil Collen’s mix can be heard exclusively in your right ear’s headphones while Vivian Campbell’s is in the left. If you listen close enough, you will fully realize the depth of their talent and what accomplished players both men are. That being said, this isn’t something you will reach for daily to hear. Of the three new songs, one is cut in the classic Leppard vein with a heavy Queen influence (“Undefeated”). The other two, again, are by no means bad songs but don’t warrant further exploration and even the pining to hear them live ("Kings of the World", "It's All About Believin'"). In the CD era, “Undefeated” would almost be worth the cost of the package but I say download “Undefeated” and buy the band’s Historia / Live: In the Round, in Your Face DVD which provides the visual excitement missing from Mirrorball.
Def Leppard finds itself in a precarious situation; their concert tours have become larger year-by-year whereas their record sales have gone off the deep end. They haven’t had significant sales from any studio albums in over fifteen years but that doesn’t mean they haven’t created quality work. Each of their studio records of the last fifteen years has been quite diverse and distinctive but you would never know because the band has continually shied away from performing the majority of the cuts in concert. This is a shame because one can’t help but feel that albums like Euphoria and X would have greatly benefitted from full scale tours around the albums releases rather than six months down the line where the band is performing two or three new numbers. I know it’s selfish of me to ask for songs from Slang or even deep cuts from Songs From the Sparkle Lounge but there’s more to Def Leppard than Pyromania Hysteria. The band’s last five albums are represented by a mere four songs here; “Bad Actress”, “C’Mon, C’Mon”, “Nine Lives” and “Rock On”, a completely unnecessary cover from their Yeah! covers record. On a set that excludes “Women”, “High and Dry”, “Promises”, “Now”, “Slang”, “Let It Go” and “Work It Out” the inclusion of a cover is almost a slap in the face to long standing fans.
I’m still a fan of live albums for as flawed as they may be. There’s urgency to the performances and hearing the band feed off the audience is something magical that no studio recording could ever capture. However, with as many hits as Def Leppard has, they have fallen victim to their own success. For the better part of the last three decades, with two exceptions (Bruce Springsteen and Garth Brooks) live records have been bought up by the most devout fans only. As a result, several acts have catered to the fan base willing to buy multiple shows. Pearl Jam has had their own bootleg series dating back to 2000, KISS sells the shows individually after each performance, Rush makes sure every tour is captured in both video and audio configurations and Tom Petty recently released a multi-disc live collection covering his entire career. My question is why Def Leppard wouldn’t do the same. They have three decades worth of shows to choose from and they basically mixed and mastered one summer’s worth of shows and appears to released it with a cover that appears to have been created in a third grade Photoshop course. Even though the collection is taken from a series of shows (noted from Joe Elliot’s name dropping of the cities) the band has been locked into a set list ever since their minor league ball park tour in 2005. The dual bills they are on don’t do their legacy any favors. While it’s proven to be enormously booming and filled the back pockets with more green bills than even during their 1980’s heyday, they’ve sacrificed their art as a result. They left Q-Prime (their management firm) and things have never quite been the same. Year-after-year they distance themselves from artistry by performing the same set of songs over and over again. To their credit they performed more than half of High ‘N’ Dry during the summer of 2007, alas, none of those performances are captured here (even though there was room). “Bad Actress” hails from Songs From the Sparkle Lounge and on an album with a handful of bondafide radio hits (“Only the Good Die Young” and “Tomorrow”) it amazes me the band chose “Bad Actress” to be played live.
“Bringin’ on the Heartbreak” and “Switch 625” are the sole songs worthy of keeping checked on your iPod. Performed stripped down with acoustic guitars, the band doesn’t plug in until the guitar solos where the band unleashes on the crowd in a glorious performance topped by the instrumental of “Switch 625”. You can’t experience this on record, but live it’s a highlight on every tour where this arrangement is present. Ditto many of the performances of “Hysteria” which usually feature an extended bass introduction that segues into the song with such delicacy you can’t help but be entranced. Here on “Mirrorball” the intro is missing from “Hysteria”. Mirrorball is not by any means a bad record, but it’s simply that previously released B-sides, live EP’s and bootlegs have done the job better. For example, the live cut on the deluxe edition of Adrenalize of “Photograph” feels less forced, more fluid and more energetic. This is the sound of a band ready to battle after a four year absence whereas the versions on Mirror Ball feel like a consummate set of musicians delivering what they believe the audience wants rather than what is brewing inside of them. I witnessed the 2009 tour and my memories of it are great; that being said, I didn’t exactly pine for having a souvenir of the tour. While the band is faultless in their performances and in-person it is an enlivening experience, on record, it simply falls flat. The way the adrenaline pumps when the house lights go out or when one of those iconic riffs permeate through 20,000 fans is tough to capture on record, but still, it should take you back to that moment in time and jolt sensations of that blistering evening but Mirrorball does the opposite and sent me scrambling to their best of collections.
Wal-Mart is exclusively carrying the record, but in an odd twist of fate, of the dozen or so Wal-Mart stores I have visited since its release, not one of them was had the album on its shelves. If no one is carrying it do Def Leppard fans even know it exists? You can’t go wrong with purchasing a ticket to see Def Leppard even when the set lists have little to no variation. They’re still at the top of their game despite what anyone may think. That being said, they’re a great live band deserving of a great live album/collection; Mirrorball isn’t it.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com and can be followed on Twitter