PAUL DI’ANNO’S BATTLEZONE – Killers In The Battlezone (1986-2000)

Paul Di’Anno’s contributions to the first two Iron Maiden albums would be enough alone to secure him a legendary status. His rough edged, almost punky style did so much to give those now classic recordings a real energy, and both ‘Iron Maiden’ and ‘Killers’ have continued to receive a massive amount of love, even decades after fans heard them for the very first time.

Such is the ubiquity those albums, pretty much all of Paul’s subsequent work has been drastically overlooked. His brief spell with Praying Mantis, with Gogmagog, and even his own band Killers – a power metal band who released the hefty ‘Murder One’ in the early 90s – have all been dwarfed by Maiden’s gargantuan presence. Di’Anno’s other contributions to the world of metal have also been drastically diminished due to endless repackaging of re-recorded Maiden tracks and a selection of recordings he made with ex-guitarist Dennis Stratton in the 90s. The original release of ‘The World’s First Iron Men’ was a cynical cash in to begin with, actually being an old Fastway recording with new vocals added, but the fact that these have reappeared unofficially time and again with new artwork just makes the Di’Anno legacy look cheap and nasty.

The endless repackaged compilations and live sets have also led to his best post-Maiden band, Battlezone, getting lost somewhere in the noise. Perhaps the most important part of Di’Anno’s post 1981 legacy, the short lived group recorded two albums for the independent Shatter and Scratch labels which have spent far longer out of print than gracing record shop shelves. Neither could be called genuinely classic, but each one features enough gold to make them worthy collection fillers, and for those who’ve worn out the grooves of their vinyl copies of Maiden’s ‘Killers’, they’re certainly albums that’ll retain a genuine appeal.

‘Killers In The Battlezone’ – a three CD set released by Cherry Red Records’ metal subsidiary, HNE Recordings – finally makes the Battlezone recordings from the 80s available again. Sourced from the best available tapes, their debut LP still sounds like something recorded in a shed, but unlike the terrible needle drop used for the 2014 Krescendo Records release, Pete West’s bass is actually audible, making the record sound full once more.

Clearly, from the start, both Battlezone and that 1986 debut ‘Fighting Back’ promise no nonsense metal, and ‘Welcome To The Battlezone’ injects a grumbling bass sound into something that sounds like a NWOBHM throwback and features Paul in fine vocal shape, very much revisiting the voice at the heart of the ‘Killers’ LP. There are moments where you can hear the shrill edge of the guitars (supplied by John Wiggins and John Hurley) taking on more of a mid 80s tone, but never in a way that diminishes the power of the old school riffs, and a shouty, sloganeering chorus is used effectively throughout, quickly sounding like the kind of thing that would have roused a live audience. The rough production doesn’t always bring out the best in the performance – the lead guitars sound like they’re bleeding through from the next room – but it’s possible to experience the players melting their fretboards as if this kind of studs ‘n’ leather metal will never go out of fashion, before ‘Warchild’ brings yet more thundering rhythms and sharp edged riffery that allows Di’Anno to venture into one of his more shouty, unrelenting performances. In a little under three minutes, the track demonstrates Battlezone’s raw power in a very primal way, with the riffs mixing early 80s metal with an old rock ‘n’ roll trashiness, and another shout along hook presents yet more of Battlezone’s no-frills and all guts charm.

An early highlight, ‘Running Blind’ sets up a militaristic beat and then takes a dogleg out into something vaguely bluesy. The music in the extended intro – driven by clean toned guitars with occasional vibrato fuelled leads – sounds more like something on loan from Gary Moore’s ‘Victims of The Future’ LP, but marks a welcome appearance for Paul’s melodic voice, as heard on Maiden’s drastically underrated ‘Prodigal Son’. It’s all a ruse; soon enough the track explodes into life, actually becoming Battlezone’s heaviest, fastest workout. Many of its riffs take their cue from the US bay area thrash scene, with the two Johns absolutely going hell for leather in terms of rhythm and lead, but the performance is owned by ex-Overkill drummer Bob “Sid” Falck, who absolutely smashes his kit into oblivion. In terms of serving up hard and fast, pure metal, the bulk of this track succeeds with aplomb, in many ways presenting Battlezone at their most unfiltered. The more epic ‘The Land God Gave To Cain’ allows everyone to stretch out a little on a seven minute epic that conveys the kind of bombastic narrative that would have made Steve Harris proud, but musically relies on two much repetition. The main riff is almost entirely unwavering from its opening melody for the best part of the first three minutes, save for a brief bridge section dropping in where a chorus should be – and isn’t. For all of Battlezone’s great energy, when they miss the mark, they do so in a spectacular fashion. Into the second half of the number, things improve via a solid NWOBHM riff injecting pace, and an almost proggy interlude where cleaner guitars underscore a pure, crooning vocal from Paul, but it never gets around the fact that there’s an absolute lack of anything memorable here.

Another brilliantly aggressive workout, ‘Forever Fighting Back’ sounds as if it’s actually Di’Anno’s call to arms and a claim to his ex-band mates that he won’t be kept down. Musically, it tears along at top speed – straight out of the gate – in a way that sounds like an old NWOBHM cut infused with a classic Motorhead grumble and, obviously, this is perfect for Paul’s gruff style as he chews through the lyric with a real sense of anger. There are a couple of moments where he reaches for a top end scream – admirably, rather than perfectly – but in the main, it’s mostly about his gruff side and, as such, sounds like bits of Iron Maiden’s ‘Sanctuary’ peppered with bits of the vocal meter from Judas Priest’s classic ‘Steeler’. On guitar, Tokyo Blade’s John Wiggins is certainly no match for Adrian Smith and Dave Murray – something that becomes painfully evident via a really angry, yet sloppy lead break – but in terms of riffs he, and second guitarist John Hurley, make up for technical abilities with a genuine raw energy. And in a lot of ways, a raw energy is exactly what Battlezone were all about, being a harsh reaction to Paul’s more commercial, eponymously named band.

Elsewhere on the debut, the more commercial ‘Voice On The Radio’ throws out a punchy riff that seems to mix NWOBHM elements with a touch of the burgeoning US glam scene, and tempers some great hard rock riffs with a more melodic chorus. This allows Paul to experiment with a more tuneful vocal, and his mix of melody and grit seems perfect for the job in hand, reminiscent of old Maiden, but a sign that his sometimes limited approach could stretch into some fine melodic metal if needed. It won’t necessarily be a favourite with those who expect pure metal one hundred percent of the time, but in lots of ways, with its more spacious riff and melodic punch, it’s the best example of Battlezone’s collective talents. With Wiggins contributing a perfectly executed lead at the end, and West’s solid bass coming in waves throughout, there’s certainly much to like. The cheese-fest ‘Feel The Rock’ tips the hat to the US party metal scene, but keeps one foot in an old NWBHM mood. Paul sounds like he’s having a great time reaching for a full wail, and the guitarists spend the duration locked into a huge repetitive groove that works out for the best, and that’s probably enough to overlook the fact that the backing vocals sound like they were supplied by some workmen on a tea break. Throw in a shrill lead break and it becomes a really punchy piece of melodic metal, bad lyrics or otherwise. …And for anyone hoping for a twist on something in the vein of ‘Remember Tomorrow’, ‘In The Darkness’ is happy to oblige via a shiny intro clearly modelled upon the Maiden classic, before veering off into a mid tempo metal tune that blends the old sweat and leather of Persian Risk et al with a slightly US-centric chorus that takes Battlezone off into the realms of Keel. Decades on, you won’t hear anything revalatory or groundbreaking, but the number is well arranged and impeccably played by all concerned, with the Johns’ command of an occasional descending riff supplying a highlight.

Overall, ‘Fighting Back’ values grit over perfection and volume over restraint, but when this balls out, old school metal works well, it’s great. The distinctly iffy – and rather dull – ‘Cain’ aside, it gives the ex-Maiden mouthpiece a recording of which he could be rightly be proud.

Realising that you can’t fix what isn’t broken, the following year’s ‘Children of Madness’ offers far more of the same, and in a couple of instances, actually presents a couple of superior tracks. Reason enough to own it on CD, ‘Rip It Up’ captures Battlezone at full thunder with a barrage of riffs that sound like a future echo of Judas Priest’s ‘Painkiller’, and features Di’Anno reaching within himself for a massive wail. It’s old school metal played with real force, and although it isn’t smart or flashy, it all sounds very natural. Equally good, ‘Whispered Rage’ mixes old NWOBHM tropes with a power metal edge, occasionally casting a nod back to Paul’s Maiden days, and sometimes hinting at more aggressive things to come. It’s not afraid of branching out, either: a semi-acoustic middle eight has a vaguely proggy air, and a final twist into a groove laden riff to accommodate a string-bending solo shows how Battlezone were capable of far more than the debut actually delivered.

Lovers of Paul’s quieter voice will find plenty to love throughout ‘Metal Tears’, as he croons effortlessly against a huge drum beat and a riff that occasionally sounds as if it were borrowed from Led Zeppelin’s ‘No Quarter’. Even with a more restrained approach, it doesn’t ever sell guitarists John Wiggins and new arrival Graham Bath short, as the men contribute some superb work throughout. With the slightly more commercial ‘I Don’t Wanna Know’ harking back to the days of Paul’s previous eponymously named band, and ‘To The Limit’ (previously only available as a Japanese bonus track) dropping in with some solid, jagged metal fare that brings out the best in the assembled musicians – actually outshining the star vocalist – ‘Children of Madness’ actually feels like a much fuller work, and that’s before taking the title cut into consideration. That, with its concessions to classic metal at odds with an almost glam metal stomp and Paul’s apparent desire to stretch his voice, feels like the ultimate Battlezone hard rocker. Tough enough to please their metal-crazed fans, but melodic enough to place them in the same circles as bands like Dokken, it’s a hint at what could have been, if only the band hadn’t imploded at their peak.

Joining the Battlezone works in this box set, ‘Killers: Live In New York’ – a previously issued live set from Di’Anno’s later band, Killers – comes under the category of being nice to have, but doesn’t necessarily compliment the Battlezone albums themselves. A far heavier outfit, Killers are often a different beast, but the live set isn’t without its own charm. At its most entertaining, the recording presents Paul absolutely tearing through old Maiden classics ‘Wrathchild’ ‘Sanctuary’ and ‘Phantom of The Opera’ with his more intensive band absolutely playing up a storm. Also great – even from the more casual listeners’ perspective – is their take on the T.Rex classic ‘Children of The Revolution’. Granted, it comes with one of the all time great riffs – one that seems absolutely bombproof, and one that WWIII showed in a heavier suit on their sole album from ’91 – but hearing Di’Anno growl his way through the familiar lyric is also quite rewarding. The original Killers cuts are far more geared towards fans only, but even then, there’s some musical gold to be mined. Heavy takes on ‘Impaler’ and ‘Protector’ really showcase the intense guitar tones of Graham Bath and Gavin Cooper, and Di’Anno’s own fearless growl is match enough for the band’s heavier approach. Of course, the third actual Battlezone album (1998’s ‘Feel My Pain’) should probably be here in place of this, but this is solid enough.

Overall, ‘Killers In The Battlezone’ provides a solid career recap for those who need it. The addition of a couple of rare bonus tracks helps it to give a fuller picture for the fan, and a decent set of sleeve notes definitely rounds out the full package. If you’ve spent years trying to track down the Battlezone albums on CD at a good price, this will be a welcome reissue, certainly, and if you fancy a bit of speed driven retro metal, it should still supply a few thrills, even if you aren’t approaching any of the material from a purely nostalgic standpoint.

Buy the box set here: PAUL DI’ANNO’S BATTLEZONE – Killers In The Battlezone

Read a review of Iron Maiden’s ‘Killers’ here.

May/June 2022