Review Summary: Diamond Head committed commercial suicide with this release. But what went wrong, and is there anything to love about this album ?
By late 1982 Diamond Head were very much one of the darlings of the so called New Wave of British Heavy Metal. In the world of the music press 'Sounds' and its sister publication 'Kerrang' seemed to believe that the band could do no wrong and they were even being touted as 'the next Led Zeppelin' by some over-enthusiastic rock journalists. Then along came 'Canterbury' in 1983 and within a very short time it was all over. This was an entirely different sounding band to the one which brought us rollicking metal classics such as 'Am I Evil' and 'Shoot Out The Lights'. Gone were the Plant like screams, the bruising riffs and searing blues based lead guitar. It was an altogether more sedate, more experimental and more introspective affair.....and it flopped, badly.
The British NWOBHM fans were a notoriously fickle bunch. Even a hint of 'selling out' and releasing anything apart from the odd ballad or two was considered as a near unforgiveable crime. Def Leppard, for instance, received a huge backlash from fans and critics alike merely because of a single entitled 'Hello America'. Thankfully for Leppard it really was 'hello America' a few years later when their brand of pop-metal propelled them to stardom in the USA. Diamond Head were not so fortunate; MCA dropped the band in 1984 and they split for the first time a year later.
So, what is wrong with 'Canterbury' ? How did Diamond Head go from heros to zeros on the back of this one release ?
Well, there are a number of things badly wrong with this album.
Firstly the production is far too lightweight. Harris and Tatler were quoted at the time as saying they were bored with heavy metal and wanted to branch out. That was all well and good but someone should have reminded them that 'not playing heavy metal' does not necessarily mean 'removing most of the passion from the music'. Furthermore, Tatler was criminally underused. The band had two potential aces up their sleeve - Harris's wonderful voice and Tatler's lead guitar work. Harris's vocals on Canterbury are excellent but unfortunately Tatler was reduced to a role that a session guitarist could have filled on many of the tracks. Lastly, the introduction of ex Procol Harum keyboard player Josh Phillips-Gorse didn't really add much. Keyboards aren't used extensively on the album but when they are they seem to be trying to evoke a sort of ancient medieval feel and the final effect is cumbersome and even quite comical in places.
There are several songs on here that are transitional in style between their old sound and their new sound and here is where the main successes of the album lie. The epic 'Knight of the Swords' is a good example of a transitional piece that works well. The Moorcock inspired lyrics about Corum and his battle with the Chaos Lord Arioch come off as rather puerile but the music is where it's at. It fairly gallops along in a vein similair to Led Zeppelin's 'Achilles Last Stand' before a dark middle section with some great vocals from Harris gives way to trademark classy lead guitar work from Tatler. Live favourite 'To The Devil His Due' is another great moment on the album where they get things right. A chiming acoustic guitar intro leads us into a memorable riff and once again some great vocal work from Harris. Tatler is quite subdued on here compared to his earlier style but it's all very tasteful and beautifully phrased. Some of the outright pop/rock on here also seems to work such as album opener 'Makin Music' which sounds as fresh today as it did 30 years ago. Tatler immediately announces his intentions NOT to rehash former glories by giving us a lightly overdriven guitar tone and an almost folksy acoustic bridge into a poppy infectious chorus. Harris sings 'I was fooled by what I do.....Makin Music...it ain't for me.....it's for you' which is a sadly ironic line considering that he actually did want to make his new type of music and all the fanbase really wanted was 'Am I Evil part 2'.
The biggest mistake Diamond Head made with this album was trying to run before they could walk with respect to their new musical direction. And it's when the band start to experiment and fully embrace their new sound that the cracks start to show.
The title track features a flurry of cliched organ sounds that are supposed to invoke images of medieval times but it all feels rather forced and quite corny. When the main section kicks in it feels like a song that may have been ok as a driving hard rock song but sadly with all the 'hard rock' taken out. In fact, many songs on the album would have benefited tremendously from being given more power and urgency, both in sound and performance. 'Kingmaker' also features the aforementioned keyboard sounds but it fits within the framework of the song in this case and the track is redeemed by some blistering lead guitar work from Tatler during some of the heaviest passages on the whole album. In fact, the only real example of where the band actually seem to gel with the new sound can be found on 'Ishmael', a beautiful folky song with an eastern flavour and some wonderful vocal work over a hypnotic guitar motif. Harris demonstrates here that there was always far more to his repertoire than Robert Plant like histrionics and the wonderful throaty undertones in his voice suit the song perfectly.
There are a number of adjectives that could describe 'Canterbury' based upon one's interpretation of the music and the band's insistence on changing their sound so drastically; brave, experimental, progressive or maybe naive, artless and foolish. Perhaps if they had consolidated the success built upon their previous releases and made the transition to their new sound in a rather less abrupt fashion then they might have lasted rather longer in this incarnation.
I am not going to claim that the album was an artistic success or that it is some sort of forgotten classic but to this day I do believe that if you wade through some of the dross there is still some worthwhile music to be found.