Judas Priest is heavy metal personified.
The most important innovator in the genre’s progression after Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, Judas Priest’s influence looms immensely on not only heavy metal’s music, but its visual presentation as well. Historically, the Birmingham band fits neatly in the genre’s second wave alongside Scorpions, UFO, Rainbow, and KISS, a crucial bridge between the music’s older progenitors and what would become the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal in the late 1970s.
More than any of the band’s peers, however, Judas Priest brought an unparalleled level of grandiosity to the music. Starting off as a fairly run-of-the-mill heavy blues rock outfit, named after the Bob Dylan song “The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest,” under the leadership of singer/songwriter Al Atkins, the band started to veer more toward the burgeoning heavy metal sound of the early 1970s when guitarist K.K. Downing took control of Judas Priest, after Atkins was replaced by a kid from nearby Walsall named Rob Halford, whose sister happened to be dating bassist Ian Hill. On the advice of the band’s record label, Gull, a second lead guitarist named Glenn Tipton was brought in to help flesh out the band’s sound, as well as to specifically build on the twin guitar style pioneered by British rockers Wishbone Ash, and after a rather bumpy start on the 1974 debut album Rocka Rolla, the band gelled in stunning fashion on the 1976 follow-up Sad Wings Of Destiny, which rewrote heavy metal’s rulebook, utilizing brash dexterity from the guitars, rampaging speed on the drums, and most notably, a singer with astronomical vocal range. Metal instantly became more extreme, more theatrical, more ostentatious, more powerful than ever before.
If Judas Priest had stopped there, their legacy would be set forever, but bent on honing that sound even further, broadening its audience more, the band continued to evolve with the times while, for the most part, still coming across as a leader and risk-taker. When the band ditched the hippy clothes for leather, spikes, and S&M gear in 1978, it didn’t raise alarm bells in the metal scene; on the contrary, everyone knew the look just fit. Then when Halford was the first major metal figure to come out as gay, surprise gave way to thoughts of, Oh, so that’s what “Eat Me Alive” is really about, and immediately after, acceptance and admiration by the entire metal community.
The breakthrough albums Unleashed In The East and British Steel in 1979 and 1980 coincided perfectly with the sudden rise of Britain’s younger, faster heavy metal phenoms. Then just a few years later, Screaming For Vengeance and Defenders Of The Faith introduced the band to an entirely new generation, especially in North America, where Priest would enjoy their greatest success. Over the course of 40 years, the band would have their peaks and valleys, flourishing in the early ’80s, losing their way late in the decade, redeeming themselves once more in the early 1990s, undergoing a major personnel change for a spell, returning triumphant in 2004, and seeing one of their key members retire six years later.
Because Judas Priest’s discography has been so eclectic over the past 40 years, there are certain specific tiers of Priest fans. You’ve got the older fans as well as the born-too-late crowd who steadfastly stand behind the band’s first four or five albums, followed by those who feel affection for British Steel, the Gen X-ers whose first albums were Screaming For Vengeance and Defenders Of The Faith. Then there are folks who became fans during the Turbo era, people who were in their early teens when Painkiller came out, or in the case of the Millennials, who have Priest’s complete discography at their fingertips, simply picking and choosing favorite albums or tracks, not clouded by sentimentality or bias.
And that, friends, is what makes ranking all 22 Judas Priest albums so damned difficult. How do you weigh Sad Wings, Stained Class, British Steel, Defenders, and Painkiller against each other when they’re so stylistically and sonically different? And what of the live albums, especially Unleashed In The East, one of the greatest live albums heavy metal has ever produced? Or because the lead vocals were completely re-recorded, does Unleashed qualify more as a studio album instead?
In the end, I decided to include all five live releases, and just bite the bullet and rank these albums as objectively as I could, including the band’s latest, Redeemer Of Souls, which came out this week. Like the Iron Maiden and Rush lists I’ve written for Stereogum in the past, all sentimentality for this band I’ve loved for 30 years went out the window — or at least as much as possible — instead focusing on the specific strengths and weaknesses of each record. So some album placements will undoubtedly make some people irate, but in projects like these, the ranking is never as important as the dissection of each album in appreciation and celebration of the artist. So please, read along, and by all means comment with your own thoughts on Priest and their legacy, or just toss in your own album rankings if you think I got it all wrong. No Judas Priest fan’s list is ever wrong. Well, that is, unless you have Ram It Down near the top. You might have some explaining to do then.
Feel free to follow me on Twitter at @basementgalaxy. I’m ready to defend my stance regarding Screaming For Vengeance.
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