Judas Priest Albums From Worst To Best
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.
After touring with Pantera and Annihilator in 1991, Rob Halford became more and more drawn to the more aggressive side of heavy metal that was becoming fashionable at the time, and coupled with rising tensions within the band, he did what fans thought would never happen, officially parting ways with the band in 1992. While Halford was driven from the get-go after leaving Priest, forming the groove metal band Fight with Priest drummer Scott Travis -- the poor fella was caught in the middle of the two squabbling sides -- and releasing the debut album War Of Words in 1993, his former band floundered, putting out the Metal Works '73-'93 compilation as a stopgap release, Glenn Tipton collaborating with Cozy Powell and John Entwistle on what would eventually become his first solo record.
If Priest wanted to carry on as a band, the remaining members would have to bite the bullet and find a replacement for one of the most distinct and -- let's face it -- irreplaceable lead singers in the genre, so in 1996 Tipton, Downing, and Hill took on the mammoth task of auditioning potential new vocalists. Although Gamma Ray's Ralf Scheepers was a high-profile contender, the band went with a complete unknown, hiring one Tim Owens from Akron, Ohio, after being impressed by his work in his Judas Priest cover band back home. The story quickly became the stuff of legend, interpreted in typically garish Hollywood fashion in the Mark Wahlberg film Rock Star, and you couldn't help but feel happy for the young singer who was nicknamed "Ripper" by his bandmates. He was getting to live the dream.
However, there was the matter of showing one and all that Judas Priest could still matter without Halford, and one thing 1997's ludicrously titled album Jugulator proved was that, nope, Judas Priest without Halford was a complete lost cause. Like Iron Maiden's two albums with Blaze Bayley replacing the great Bruce Dickinson, Judas Priest's output at the same time tries far too hard to stay relevant, coming across as desperate in the process. It's no fault of Owens', as he sings his heart out on the material he's given, but rather the fault of Tipton and Downing, whose songwriting is lazy, devoid of melody, and mired in the sludgy, down-tuned murk that dominated heavy metal in the 1990s.
With such titles as "Blood Stained," "Dead Meat," "Death Row," "Brain Dead," "Decapitate," and "Burn In Hell," Jugulator is a miserable, joyless experience. Much like Halford's Fight, Tipton and Downing seem preoccupied with mimicking Pantera (perhaps as a response to Halford who said Priest wasn't extreme enough for his tastes anymore) than exhibiting mastery of dynamics and theatricality, balancing aggression and melody. The cold, sterile production does these songs no favors, either, making the material sound even more blunt and just plain dumb than it already was. Coming on the heels of the glorious Painkiller, the way this album carries on with its tuneless, hour-long circle jerk is astonishing, not to mention inexcusable.
To find any redeeming qualities in Jugulator is a challenge. "Death Row" is mildly catchy in a Pantera sort of way, while the nine-minute "Cathedral Spires" is the one moment where the songwriting opens up just a crack to allow Owens a little more room to show what he could do. In the end, though, this is a sorry, sorry state of affairs that, to no one's surprise, tanked commercially, reducing Judas Priest to a mere shadow of its former, glorious self. It's no wonder the band seems to be quietly burying this album today, because it's a complete embarrassment. In the late '90s, metal fans worldwide were thinking, "Help us, Robert John Arthur Halford. You're our only hope." But there was still one more Ripper album to slog through yet.
Ram It Down (1988)
A tie-in with the Anthony Michael Hall comedy Johnny Be Good -- already enough to make a metalhead cringe -- the cover of Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" felt far too forced for comfort, its rigid, crunching riffs and slick '80s polish stripping the song of all its reckless charm. Rob Halford tried to sell it as well as he could, but it was all for naught. The whole exercise felt beneath the band, but after the success of the Top Gun soundtrack, which the band foolishly declined to be a part of, it was obvious they wanted to make up for that lack of foresight. Instead, the movie tanked, as did the single, paving the way for an album that would be even more shambolic.
For those who bought Ram It Down in mid-May 1988, it took all of 30 seconds for any optimism to wither away. The savage scream Halford lets out at the beginning of the title track is about as exciting as the entire album gets; after that moment the song not so much launches as limps out of the gate as a limp imitation of older speedsters as "Exciter" and "Freewheel Burning." The guitars have no bite to them, as Tom Allom's production saps the album of any energy whatsoever. The lyrics are far too corny, even by Priest standards ("Thousands of cars and a million guitars / Screaming with power in the air"). And worst of all, the drumming, or lack thereof, is deplorable. Any novice listener could tell that Dave Holland was nowhere to be heard on this record, instead replaced by a painfully obvious drum machine even more rigid than Holland'sstiff backbeats.
It all felt like a bad simulation of a once-great band, and to this day it's painful to listen to. The band repeatedly attempts to assert its metal credibility, but songs like "Heavy Metal," "Monsters Of Rock," and "I'm A Rocker" feel like Halford, Glenn Tipton, K.K. Downing, and Ian Hill are all trying embarrassingly hard to let their fans know that after Turbo they're still capable of sounding heavy. The main riff on "Love You To Death" is killer, but the lascivious lyrics are unbearable and borderline hilarious. That damned drum machine dominates the entire album and proves to be a distraction on many a track, especially "Hard As Iron," but one cannot let Tipton and Downing off the hook either, as their Aerosmith sleaze rock riffs on "Love Zone" rank as the single worst moment I have ever heard on a Judas Priest record.
One song does stand out. The ballad "Blood Red Skies" is an effective one, a moody piece that actually puts the drum machine to good use, which along with the tastefully used synths gives the song a (for then) cutting-edge industrial feel. It's the kind of experimental combination of metal, pop, and creative production that would have added some welcome depth to Turbo, but on this record it comes nowhere close to redeeming a painfully mediocre piece of work.
Looking back, it's so apparent Priest was going through an identity crisis. They were using their well-earned clout in the music business to try new things, going so far as to record a series of tracks with UK pop producers Stock, Aitken, and Waterman -- the minds responsible for "Never Gonna Give You Up" and countless others -- which have never been released, and reputedly includes a cover of the Stylistics' R&B hit "You Are Everything." In the end, if there was one good thing to take from the failure of Ram It Down -- certified gold in 1988, it has never gone platinum in the US -- it just might have been the kick in the pants the band needed, because two years later Priest would be back with a great new drummer, a back-to-basics attitude, and a new record that would prove to be one of its very best.
Live In London (2003)
Whatever the reason, whether the band felt its audience needed an audio version of a DVD released the previous year, or they were contractually obligated to put out a new record, or if their label SPV just wanted one product bearing the Judas Priest brand to flog, Live In London could not be more pointless. With the commercial failure of Demolition in 2001, the people had spoken. No matter how hard the band tried with Tim "Ripper" Owens as its lead singer, it could never replace Rob Halford, and after the apathetic reaction to the album, it made no sense to commemorate a tour in support of a flop, and especially when a live album with Owens was already released in 1998.
Recorded at the Brixton Academy in December 2001, Live In London is a largely rote run-through of many Judas Priest standards, all the usual suspects present in the setlist: "Metal Gods," "Heading Out To The Highway," "Breaking The Law," "Green Manalishi," "Painkiller," "You've Got Another Thing Comin'," "Living After Midnight." Interspersed throughout are selections from Demolition and Jugulator, with "Feed On Me" fitting in decently, while "Blood Stained" provides a well-timed bathroom break in the two-hour, 26-song set.
The only interesting moments Live In London gives listeners are a fiery performance of the Killing Machine gem "Running Wild," as well as the return of the great "Desert Plains" to the setlist, and Owens puts in very good performances on both tracks. Unfortunately, by the time this live album came out, rumors were already rampant that Halford would be making his long-awaited return to the band. Indeed, only two months after this record's release, the band announced Halford was back in the fold, the excitement leaving Live In London to be forgotten practically as soon as it came out. Leaving the band amicably, Owens would join American power metallers Iced Earth, while Halford would record his first album with Priest in 15 years, and all would be right in the metal world at long last.
After the chilly response given to the 1997 album Jugulator, Judas Priest's first with new singer Tim "Ripper" Owens, the band knew that if it wanted to restore any semblance of credibility in the minds of the longtime fans, it would have to step up its game in a huge way on the follow-up. Adding to the pressure was the fact that Rob Halford's new band, aptly named Halford, had just released the far superior album Resurrection in 2000. Although his vocal talent was wasted on Jugulator, Owens proved to be a competent replacement performing with Priest live, and it was clear that if Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing stepped up the songwriting to actual Judas Priest levels of mastery rather than the lazy Pantera imitations heard on the last record, then maybe, just maybe, people could finally accept this incarnation of the band.
The end result is the sprawling, eclectic, and somewhat unfocused 78-minute monstrosity Demolition. Although it was as rife with flaws as ever, at the very least you have to credit the band for returning to more melodic fare. This was a far better showcase for Owens' vocal abilities, and there are moments where he's able to compel listeners to stop whatever they're doing and think, Wait a minute. He's actually settling into this role quite nicely. "Machine Man," "One On One," "Feed On Me," and "Hell Is Home" are welcome returns to the straightforward heavy metal sound people expect from Judas Priest, and Owens comes through with superb performances. Although "Subterfuge" feels far too dated in its co-option of industrial metal, it's a rather fitting follow-up to the similarly brooding "Touch of Evil" from 1990's Painkiller. "Lost And Found" is a passable acoustic ballad, while "Jekyll And Hyde" is a quirky little combination of '90s era Priest and synth accompaniment.
Still, this being the work of a band that no longer knows when to say when, Demolition is rife with egregious mistakes, none more obvious than "Metal Messiah," which employs such nu-metal gimmicks as dumbed-down riffs, funky bass lines, and honest-to-goodness rapping. What might have seemed contemporary to the band is actually several years past its best-before date, and it came across as pandering when it came out. Today, it has aged very poorly and is an embarrassment to hear. Elsewhere, especially midway through the album, the band loses its focus, relying too heavily on post-grunge drudgery and silly, marble-mouthed singing by Owens, as if he's auditioning for Godsmack.
Despite being a considerable improvement over Jugulator, sales for Demolition were even more poorly received. In fact, the numbers were embarrassing for a band of that stature. The record peaked at 165 in America, and even worse, did not chart at all in the UK. Touring in support of the album was nevertheless as extensive as ever, which would yield another live album in the process, but by then the public had made its decision: Owens would never be fully accepted as the lead singer for Judas Priest.
'98 Live Meltdown (1998)
As underwhelming as 1997's Jugulator was, the real test of Tim "Ripper" Owens' mettle (metal?) was on the road, where he was saddled with the formidable task of performing so many classic tracks made famous by Rob Halford. Settling in as a new lead singer for an established band is a very, very difficult thing to pull off, especially in a genre where so much of the focus is placed on the lead singer, but when that band is Judas Priest, it's almost a lost cause. Owens had to not only sing the songs in convincing enough fashion to come across as credible in the eyes of thousands of longtime fans, but he had to inject enough of his own personality into the old material as well. It's a tricky balance to get just right, but you have to give the guy credit, because he pulls it off in respectable fashion on the band's first live album in a full decade.
Of course, the fact that Owens had an extensive background singing Priest cover songs works to his great advantage here, and more impressively, he's given the chance to showcase so much more vocal range than he was allowed on the woeful Jugulator. As a result, while Halford is still dearly missed, tracks like "Grinder," "Rapid Fire," and "Electric Eye" work surprisingly well. Even better is a powerhouse performance of "Beyond The Realms of Death," the best moment where you can sense the potential the band had in its new frontman. Sadly, that potential does not carry over into "Victim Of Changes," in which he sadly pales in comparison to Halford, whose performances of the track are definitive and inimitable.
Recorded at various locations during the 1998 world tour -- no specific locations are listed, annoyingly -- Live '98 Meltdown does a far better job showcasing Owens' abilities than Jugulator ever did. That said, this live album only works as a memento for those who saw the tour firsthand and enjoyed it. Otherwise, it's as inessential a live document as you could possibly have. But in the late '90s and early 2000s, this was the Judas Priest everyone was stuck with.
It's always great to see veteran bands that could easily get away with coasting in the latter days of their career instead manage to find enough inspiration in their work to create something audacious and uncompromising. Especially in metal, where more than its share of influential acts are perfectly content to comfortably stay the course, and the unwavering support of their fans lets them get away with it. Of course, there are the odd exceptions. Iron Maiden and Rush have stubbornly refused to go gently into that good night, putting out some remarkably strong work as they approach the age of 60.
Creatively rejuvenated after reuniting in 2003 and emboldened by the artistic and commercial success of 2005's Angel Of Retribution, Judas Priest suddenly felt itself brimming with ideas. Word spread in 2006 that the band was tinkering with making a full-blown concept album about the life of 16th century writer and seer Nostradamus, and by the time they entered the recording studio there was enough written material to warrant a double album. For a band that achieved mainstream popularity in North America by keeping things simple, this return to the flamboyant, theatrical progressive-minded heavy metal was quite a surprise to longtime followers. Priest hadn't explored this side of its music since the Sad Wings Of Destiny album in 1976, so this was about as bold a move as the band could possibly make, aside from going all free jazz on everyone. Causing some apprehension among some fans, however, was the revelation that the band was so happy with the bloated song "Lochness" on Angel Of Retribution that it spurred them on to tackle more direct heavy metal storytelling than Halford's usual lyrical vagueness.
No question, Nostradamus is ambitious. Comprised of 23 songs over an incredibly sprawling 102 minutes, there's a lot for listeners to take in, and most importantly, there's plenty of room for the band to slip up, to let its self-indulgence get the best of them. Indeed, it's a pleasure to see Halford, Tipton, and Downing tinkering with their tried-and-true heavy metal formula, bringing in rock keyboard great Don Airey to bring more emotional depth to the arrangements, as well as some welcome cinematic flair. And it's a very pleasant surprise to see the album get off to a strong start. After the quirky overture "Dawn Of Creation," which echoes the film scores of Italian innovators Goblin, "Prophecy" kicks into full gear, a mid-tempo stomper that's big and deliriously goofy, Halford selling his rather straightforward lyrics convincingly.
Aside from a handful of brief interludes to link the story, the first disc features Judas Priest at its most focused, fiery, and glorious. "Revelations" is a brooding headbanger of a track, Airey's keyboard work giving the song welcome richness and resonance. "War" is suitably intense and foreboding, underscored by Scott Travis's primal tom-tom thuds and cymbal crashes, while Halford turns in his strongest vocal performance in years on the galloping "Pestilence And Plague," highlighted by his commanding chorus of, "Nella tentazione / Cercando la gloria / Il prezzo da pagare / E' la caduta dell'uomo." "Death," meanwhile, succeeds where "Lochness" failed miserably, combining a morbid doom sound with Halford's flamboyant persona, and the man absolutely dominates the furious "Persecution." He truly steps up on this album, his best singing on record since Stained Class.
Although thematically it would have made no sense, from a musical standpoint Nostradamus should have stopped at the end of disc one, because after "Persecution" the album comes to a screeching, dead halt, singing into a morass of musical melodramatic balladry as tacky as anything by Andrew Lloyd Weber or Claude-Michel Schönberg. In fact, the second disc starts off with 17 minutes of morose moping, not picking up until "Visions," a decent return to the taut, mechanical sounds of Painkiller's "A Touch Of Evil." Aside from that song and the rampaging title track, there's far too much maudlin filler on the second half of the album to command the attention of even the most forgiving of listeners, the nauseating, Elton John-style "New Beginnings" being the worst of the lot.
When all's said and done, only 45 minutes of Nostradamus' 102 minutes are worth listeners' time. Granted, those highlights are at times sensational, but an average of roughly 40% is inexcusable for any band, let alone one as important as Judas Priest. While it was good to see the band so creatively driven as they enthused about the record during the making of it and during the promotional cycle and tour, Halford, Tipton, and Downing bit off more than they could chew on this album. Still, the lingering post-reunion positivity was enough to make the album a mild chart success, placing higher in America, the UK, and Canada than Angel Of Retribution did. Although the tour in support of the album was well received, uncertainty would lie ahead at the end of the decade, with a key member retiring, placing the future of the band once again in doubt.
Rocka Rolla (1974)
Of all the debuts by heavy metal's most important bands, Judas Priest's Rocka Rolla ranks as one of, if not the strangest of the lot. Unlike Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, and Metallica, who hit the ground running with a style that already felt fully formed, Judas Priest was still very much a work in progress. The band might have been slowly gaining traction with its new lineup led by K.K. Downing and Ian Hill, and featuring new drummer John Hinch -- already its fifth drummer -- and new singer Rob Halford, but despite playing more shows than ever and touring across Europe, Priest's music was nowhere dear refined enough to warrant an album that could hold its own among the heavy hitters in the burgeoning heavy metal scene. The band's visual presentation was also a mess, with Downing sporting a ridiculous Stetson hat and a fringed-haired Halford adorned in satin outfits. But the band was fortunate enough to score a deal with new label Gull Records, a subsidiary of Decca, thanks to a performance at the Marquee Club in London that convinced label head David Howells to sign the youngsters.
According to writer Neil Daniels, it was Howells who convinced Judas Priest to take on a second guitarist. Having worked with Wishbone Ash, who had taken the twin guitar approach pioneered by Fleetwood Mac and the Allman Brothers to new territory, Howells sensed the more extreme, flamboyant sound of Judas Priest -- namely Halford's formidable voice -- could benefit from an equally bombastic instrumental counterpoint. Downing was eventually convinced it was a good idea, and Flying Hat Band guitarist Glenn Tipton was hired. A few years older than the rest of the band, he would eventually bring maturity to Judas Priest's songwriting as well as a more meticulous, professional attitude compared to the more mercurial, instinctive personalities of Downing and Halford. The key word is "eventually," because Tipton had only been in the band a few months when it headed into Island, Trident, and Olympic Studios in London in June 1974 to record what would eventually be Rocka Rolla.
The band could not have asked for a better credentialed producer than Rodger Bain, who had previously helmed Black Sabbath's immortal first three albums as well as the first two albums by the great Welsh trio Budgie, but a producer does not make an album great, good songs do, and despite having a repertoire of live staples ready to put on record, nearly everything on the debut falls flat. The ambition is there, but despite some strong moments, nothing coalesces.
A handful of songs dating to back to when founder Al Atkins sung for the band are present, the strongest being the heavy blues rocker "Never Satisfied," while the bulk of the record is written by Downing and Halford. Of those compositions, the best is the bizarre "Dying To Meet You," which blasts a remarkable, swaggering coda -- some claim that "Hero, Hero" segment is a separate song that the label decided to combine with the previous track -- that hints at the innovation that would dominate the follow-up. On the other hand, the nine and a half-minute suite "Winter"/"Deep Freeze"/"Winter Retreat"/"Cheater" (got all that?) is far too disjointed to work as a progressive rock epic. Written in collaboration with Tipton, the brooding "Run Of The Mill" feels a lot more confident despite its tendency to meander. However, Tipton's value as a songwriter would be shown thanks to an inspired last-minute addition.
Graphic artist John Pasche, the man responsible for the Rolling Stones' iconic lips and tongue logo, had a Coca-Cola-lampooning piece bearing the "Rocka Rolla" logo that was rejected by the Stones when the band was recording the Goats Head Soup album the previous year. He offered it to Judas Priest, who needed an album cover, and they took it. The band was asked by Gull to write a song bearing the title "Rocka Rolla," and Tipton helped quickly put together a lively little rocker that bore more of a resemblance to Status Quo and Slade than what Priest was doing at the time. However, it works as a lark, and offers listeners a tantalizing teaser of the kind of dual-guitar interplay Tipton and Downing would perfect in the years to come.
Judas Priest wanted to immediately stand alongside the more towering figures of early heavy metal -- Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Uriah Heep -- but Rocka Rolla didn't do it, turning out to be a commercial flop. The band was never happy with the result, dissatisfied with the production. Additionally, some very dubious production choices were made, as four new songs were left off: "The Ripper," "Genocide," "Tyrant," and a reworked Atkins composition called "Victim Of Changes." Those songs, however, would appear on the follow-up 18 months later, and heavy metal would never be the same again.
The tour in support of the Turbo album was the biggest, most elaborate, garish show Judas Priest would ever put together, featuring a gigantic robotic monstrosity with hydraulic arms dubbed "The Hellion." With the band's stylish leather costumes, Rob Halford prancing around, and K.K. Downing sporting the unfortunate combination of a mousse-abused perm and aviators, it was '80s metal excess at its most extravagant, and from a marketing point of view it was a good idea to document the spectacle and release it as a live album and, as was the trend at the time, a VHS concert film.
Recorded in Atlanta and Dallas in June 1986 and featuring woeful, woeful art design, the double album Priest…Live! was just as sleek on record as the concert visuals, buffed by producer Tom Allom to the point of overkill. As annoying and antiseptic as the constant fading in and out of crowd noise is -- you hear an audience but you don't hear much true interaction at all -- the band is adequately potent as it goes through a solid set centering mostly on Turbo and Defenders Of The Faith material. However, despite the energy of such tracks as "Breaking The Law," "Living After Midnight," and "Heading Out To The Highway," in no way does the album even come close to the visceral power of the classic Unleashed In The East. Besides, although "Out In The Cold" remains a great, underrated song, it was a terrible idea to start off a Priest show with a subdued power ballad, which saps the show of its energy instantly.
Interestingly, fans did not get a complete Judas Priest show on this double live album. In an effort to place the focus more on the band's 1980s material, "Victim Of Changes" and "The Green Manalishi (With The Two Pronged Crown)," which were performed on that tour, were both left off, as well as the Point Of Entry gem "Desert Plains" and the Turbo single "Locked In." To make matters even sillier, the Wayne Isham concert film inserted "Desert Plains," "Green Manalishi," and "Locked In," while dropping "Metal Gods," which appears on the album. Whether a ploy to get fans to buy both the album and the VHS, or just a matter of cutting tracks that didn't work as well visually as on record, or vice versa, neither product made fans think they were getting the total package, and that cynicism ultimately mars a half decent, albeit completely inessential live document. Fans would take notice, too, as Priest…Live! would only reach gold status in America and Canada, the UK by now apathetic towards such arena rock pandering.
Angel Of Retribution (2005)
In the summer of 2003 metal fans worldwide were elated when Rob Halford let it slip in a CNN interview that he was indeed back with Judas Priest for the first time since 1992. However, people would have to wait a while for new music, as the reunited band had some serious brushing up to do, not to mention try and find that old chemistry once again. Starting with the compilation of the career-spanning Metalogy box set in early 2004, it was a gradual feeling-out process for everyone as the band kicked off a reunion tour in Europe followed by a co-headlining spot on OzzFest in America that summer. New songs were written, and the band headed into the studio with producer Roy Z, who had overseen Halford's own eponymous band's albums in the early 2000s. Originally slated for a late 2004 release only to be delayed until March 1, 2005, Angel Of Retribution proved to be every bit worth the nearly 15-year wait for Judas Priest's fanbase, whose anticipation grew with every glowing review of the band's rousing reunion performances.
At a rather economical 10 tracks over 52 minutes, Angel Of Retribution is, for the most part, remarkably focused, returning to the classic style of such albums as Painkiller and Screaming For Vengeance, with nary a trace of Tipton's '90s metal pandering. One cannot underestimate the excitement of a veteran Priest fan upon hearing the opening bars of "Judas Rising," which kicks off the album. Halford's seemingly immortal, godly scream, Tipton's and Downing's churning, majestic riffs, Scott Travis's double-kicks adding greater force to an already towering track, "Judas Rising" is a perfect announcement of Judas Priest's mighty return. "White bolts of lightning came out of nowhere / Blinded the darkness, creating the storm," he bellows authoritatively in classic Halfordspeak. It sounds just plain right. Halford and Judas Priest were meant to be together.
The album bursts with energy in its first three quarters. Referencing old haunts in Birmingham and playfully looking back on the band's career, "Deal With The Devil" is a rambunctious heavy rocker, the rhythm section of Travis and Hill locking into a tremendous groove, enhanced greatly by Roy Z's robust, off-the-floor recording. "Demonizer" and the tremendous "Hellrider" sound like they'd fit right in among the other tracks on Painkiller. "Wheels Of Fire" and "Revolution" are reminiscent of the more mainstream-baiting moments on Screaming For Vengeance, but to hear the band embracing that side of its music for the first time in more than two decades, it's easy to forgive. The acoustic ballad "Angel" is a good, mellower moment, but arguably the best song on the album is the shockingly catchy "Worth Fighting For," whose dusky mood and driving groove echoes Point Of Entry standouts "Desert Plains" and "Solar Angels."
As good as all those tracks are, just how much of a success Angel Of Retribution is depends primarily on how forgiving you are of "Lochness." Combined with the three-minute instrumental dirge "Eulogy," it takes up a whopping 16 and a half minutes, a sprawling, lumbering, plodding doom monstrosity built around a grating atonal riff that segues into a pattern that mimics 1990s Black Sabbath. It all wouldn't have been so bad if the lyrics didn't reach Spinal Tap levels of ridiculousness: "A beastly head of onyx / With eyes set coals of fire / Its leathered hide glides glistening / Ascends the heathered briar." The song goes on and on, to the point where you can practically envision a two-foot Nessie being lowered from the lighting rig at its climax. It singlehandedly kills any positive momentum the rest of the album had.
"Lochness" is a slip-up, and a gigantic one at that, but it wouldn't be fair to declare Angel Of Retribution not worth fans' money, because the rest of the album is still plenty enjoyable. And more than a few fans were willing to either accept or look past that one fault, as the album would turn out to be a resounding success, debuting at 13 in America, Priest's second highest-charting album there to date. A triumphant world tour in support of Angel Of Retribution would commence, again to glowing reviews, initiating a period of renewed interest in the band, which in turn would inspire the members to record one of the most ambitious albums of their career a couple years later.
A Touch Of Evil: Live (2009)
Released on the heels of the band's two post-reunion tours in support of the Angel Of Retribution and Nostradamus albums, A Touch Of Evil: Live is a curious inclusion in the Judas Priest discography. After all, it's not a proper full setlist but rather a compilation of 11 songs culled from various performances from around the world, and more often than not, such copy-and-paste efforts yield typically disjointed results.
Not this record, however. In fact, A Touch Of Evil: Live is a smarter than average live album, for a pair of distinct reasons. Firstly, all the concert staples, the "Breaking The Law"s and "Hell Bent For Leather"s, the material that's been performed thousands of times and which fans don't exactly need on record time and again, are smartly left off. Instead, the focus is on the deeper cuts in a Judas Priest performance, those moments during which the truest, most devoted fans cheer hardest. In that sense it cuts right through to the marrow of a Judas Priest concert, to the moments where the real rewarding parts are.
Secondly, it's a very fascinating snapshot of the post-2004 incarnation of the band. Rob Halford doesn't possess the same range as he did 30 years ago, but that doesn't mean he's not still a formidable singer. As any smart vocalist does, he instead reinterprets the material, steering it more towards his current vocal wheelhouse, whether having the guitars tuned down a step, taking a completely new approach to a song's vocal melody, or both. It's familiar, but it's a little different, and to hear Halford reimagine several tracks on this live album is absorbing, with several performances turning out to be just as good as the originals, if not a little better.
A great example is the rendition of Screaming For Vengeance's "Riding On The Wind," which is delivered by Halford in a psychotic snarl, howling the chorus in an otherworldly, upper-register scream, the other four members sounding every bit as taut and intense as it's expected of them. It was a joy to witness Priest bringing back the proto-thrash classic "Dissident Aggressor" on the Nostradamus tour, and the performance here is searing, Halford sounding harsher than usual, his feral growl making the already legendarily heavy, churning song feel even more intense. On the same tour the band also performed the Defenders Of The Faith deep cut "Eat Me Alive" for the first time, which is a very welcome inclusion on this collection, the ultra-heavy tone of the song perfectly suited for the band, Halford singing in one of his most dementedly lascivious voices ever on record. The classic "Painkiller" might be the one staple to make it on the album, but it's there for a very good reason, as Halford turns it into something even more savage and surreal than ever, his voice haggard and ragged, sounding ancient yet indomitable, in a way that suits the song perfectly. You can't help but listen in awe.
Four newer tracks are also presented -- "Judas Rising" and "Hellrider" from Angel Of Retribution, "Prophecy" and "Death" from Nostradamus -- and all prove very worthy inclusions into the Judas Priest canon. Although it has gone on to become a rather ignored album in the band's discography, A Touch Of Evil: Live is in actuality the best Judas Priest live album since Unleashed In The East, showing one and all that these guys still sound as forceful, intense, and transformative as ever. Unlike Priest…Live!, '98 Live Meltdown, and Live In London, this album actually showcases Judas Priest's undeniable power in a concert setting, in awfully splendid fashion.
Just as the New Wave of British Heavy Metal brought a fresh, young perspective of heavy metal at the end of the 1970s, metal was undergoing a similar evolution six years later. Only this time, the rate of evolution was exponential compared to that comparatively more innocent time. The established superstar bands -- Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Scorpions, Ozzy Osbourne, Dio, Deep Purple -- were about to be eclipsed by a tidal wave of bands that played harder, faster, louder, and it's interesting to see how they all reacted by trying to stay "current" and "relevant," only to make significant missteps as a result of that identity crisis. The degree of artistic success among those bands was varying -- Iron Maiden pulled it off with some semblance of grace -- but others, especially Judas Priest, took things so far that despite some strong chart success many of its core fans felt alienated as a result.
Finally flush with cash after a decade of hard work, Judas Priest was able to afford taking a more extended break than usual after touring in support of Defenders Of The Faith. Along the way Tipton and Downing became enamored with the Roland G-707 guitar synthesizer, which was, for then, cutting-edge technology, supposedly redefining what a guitarist could do with the instrument. With a desire to head in a more hook-driven direction than the dark and dystopian Defenders, and intrigued by ZZ Top's savvy combination of hard rock and high-tech electronics on the albums Eliminator and Afterburner, a bevy of songs were written as a result of this newfound interest. The band's intent was to release a double album called Twin Turbos, but convinced by CBS that it wasn't financially smart to release an album that'd be twice as much for consumers to buy, the members selected the nine best songs and renamed the project Turbo, recording it in the beautiful environs of Compass Point, Bahamas. While it would sell very well in North America, it would be one of the most controversial metal albums of 1986, and of all time for that matter. But to say it's devoid of merit would be unfair and wholly inaccurate.
In fact, Turbo is a very underrated album. It's been made fun of countless times for how the band pandered to mainstream America, but what few fail to realize is that with this album Judas Priest succeeded at what exactly it set out to do. With its digitally recorded sound, gigantic drum tone, and flashy guitar synth sound, it was modern, sleek, and garish, completely of the 1980s. But then again, so was the Delorean. Sure, "Locked In" was a horrible attempt at a pop song, "Rock You All Around The World" was comical to us in 1986, and "Wild Nights, Hot & Crazy Days" reduced the band to a glam metal joke (just listen to Halford preen, "I want some AC-SHOWWN!" like a Sunset Strip poodlehead), but more often than not, the fun vibe of the album is undeniable, and at the very least it boasts two of the band's finest songs ever.
For a song laced with some of the corniest car-sex metaphors ever, "Turbo Lover" is the one moment where Judas Priest's synthesizer experiment succeeded on every level. Whether it was intentional or not, an undeniable motorik beat pulsates for five and a half minutes, in the tradition of Kraftwerk's "Autobahn" and Neu!'s "Hallogallo," the synthetic, hypnotic feel of the song, from those Rolands to the vocoder-enhanced backing vocals, only adding to that decided krautrock feel. Combined with the heavy metal bombast of the chorus, which doesn't waver from that mechanical beat -- if Dave Holland was suited to play one drum pattern, it was this -- it was an ingenious blend of metal, pop, and experimentalism, delivered in a stylish package that was embraced by mainstream audiences. "Out In The Cold," meanwhile, is nowhere near as bold, merely a rote power ballad, but placed within this synth-laden milieu Priest had created, it has a very unique character to it. The synths in the intro add an apt level of iciness to the track, and when the heavy guitars kick in, the electronic elements enhance rather than overwhelm, while Halford puts in his strongest vocal performance on record, the first time in years he uses honest-to-goodness restraint.
Unfortunately the rest of Turbo fails to live up to those two standouts, but songs like "Private Property" and "Hot For Love" are spirited enough despite the cornball lyrical content. A clear response to being called out by Tipper Gore's Parents Resource Music Center a year earlier, "Parental Guidance" is cartoonish but fun, with an incessant, upbeat hook, while "Reckless" ranks as one of Priest's most overlooked songs, featuring Tipton's and Downing's sharpest guitar work and a clever vocal melody by Halford. Interestingly, the band was asked to contribute "Reckless" to the soundtrack for a new Tom Cruise flick called Top Gun, but the band refused. All the Top Gun soundtrack would do was go nine times platinum in America, and in the case of one song by Berlin, win an Oscar.
Turbo would peak at a woeful 33 in the UK, but by then that country was the least of Priest's concerns. The record sold like gangbusters in America and Canada, certifying platinum in both countries, paving the way for an extensive tour featuring a colossal stage setup, the most elaborate in the band's history. The band finally had the mainstream success it had craved for so long, but it came at the cost of its more metal-oriented fanbase, not to mention all the old fans back home. It would take an album four years later to win everyone back, but not before releasing an abomination in 1988.
Point Of Entry (1981)
For British bands, a sign that they'd officially made it big was when they started paying exorbitant taxes in their home country, and it was commonplace for major acts to record their new albums outside Britain just to avoid being taxed heavily. For Judas Priest, 1980's British Steel had become the band's first true hit record, and with the threat of the tax man looming very large, the band and producer Tom Allom decided to pack up for Spain. More specifically, the resort city of Ibiza, where the sun and booze would fuel the highly anticipated seventh studio album.
Writing for the new album had commenced prior to the move to Spain, but the band was so dissatisfied with the material that it decided to scrap the lot and start fresh once everyone had settled in Ibiza. They wanted a more spontaneous feel than the fussed-over British Steel, and indeed, Point Of Entry turned out to be Priest's most vibrant and eclectic album to date. Much to the consternation of a lot of fans, though, was that "eclectic" most often resulted in some very inconsistent, self-indulgent music, especially in heavy metal where musical conservatism is the norm.
If anything, what Point Of Entry proves best is just how good Judas Priest has always been at shifting from style to style. All Priest albums are markedly different, be it production or musical direction, and Point Of Entry was a very bold foray into Album Oriented Rock, similar to that of Foreigner and Journey, who were at the height of their popularity in 1981. At its best, it's a fittingly sunny and ebullient album, with its share of classic tracks, underrated gems, and silly but fun head-scratchers. "Heading Out To The Highway" is in the mold of "Delivering The Goods" and "Living After Midnight," an effervescent yet potent hard rocker boasting a nifty lead riff that perfectly drives Halford's road tune. A strong AC/DC-style element permeates the record, too, especially on the playful "Troubleshooter" and the deliriously stupid and undeniably fun "Hot Rockin'" (Julien Temple's video for the track is one of the campiest metal videos ever made). Two tracks, ending side one and starting side two, add a welcome touch of class and gravitas to a very goofy record: "Solar Angels" is an impeccable mood piece, with some very adventurous guitar work by Tipton and Downing, while the glorious, dusky "Desert Plains" is an all-timer, achieving the perfect combination of AOR melody and heavy metal power that the band was striving to pull off.
The rest of Point O Entry is one hell of a mess, but at least it's a fascinating mess. "Don't Go," as strange a choice for first single as anyone could imagine, is an awkward, slow plodder, while the too-mellow "Turning Circles" and the awkward boogie of "You Say Yes" rank among the worst songs the band has ever recorded. Needless to say, despite some very good moments Point Of Entry stumbled when it was released in February 1981, charting lower in the UK and America than British Steel did, and failing to certify platinum. With the New Wave of British Heavy Metal continuing to flourish -- Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, Raven, Venom, and Tygers Of Pan Tang all released classic albums in 1981 -- and a crop of emerging young American bands ranging from Riot to Mötley Crüe, Judas Priest was suddenly looking old and out of touch. It had to be in the band members' minds that something had to be done, if only to assert their position at the top of the metal echelon, and the next album would have to be a much more assertive statement. That record, Screaming For Vengeance, would go on to be Priest's biggest selling album of all time.
Redeemer Of Souls (2014)
Having gone through the whole lengthy ordeal of enduring Judas Priest without Rob Halford, fans know it could never get worse for the band than that. Still, though, when Priest brought in hired gun Richie Faulkner to replace the retired K.K. Downing on guitar, again there was plenty of trepidation. After all, Downing and Glenn Tipton had formed the foundation of Judas Priest's albums from day one, the most famous guitar duo heavy metal has ever known. They're true pioneers in the field, and the sentimental attachment longtime fans have with Judas Priest's music has a lot to do with the songwriting contributions, the riffs, the solos Downing had contributed for nearly 40 years. Seeing that partnership with Tipton gone, that core they formed with Halford and Ian Hill no longer a reality, is a huge mental hurdle to get over, and the knowledge that one key cog is gone would indeed loom over anything the band would ever record since.
However, the band did a very smart thing when it took on Faulkner to fill Downing's role. Everyone took things slow, the band gradually introducing Faulkner to the Priest audience on its career-spanning Epitaph tour in 2011. It's indeed a strange fit for a band having a new member who's half the age of three of his bandmates, but the London-born Faulkner does have a good background and strong stage presence, and the chemistry between everyone involved was there from the get-go. And besides, if recent history has taught the music business anything, aging baby boomer artists do benefit immensely from bringing on younger musicians into their bands.
Over the course of that tour and the subsequent Epitaph DVD release, Faulkner did settle into that role on stage right more naturally than some skeptics thought, and even more promising was the band's commitment towards writing and recording a 17th studio album, its third since Halford's 2004 return. Produced by Mike Exeter, best known for his work on Black Sabbath's 2013 comeback album 13, Redeemer Of Souls is extraordinary. In fact, the band hasn't sounded this energized since Painkiller 24 long years ago.
Central to this album's success is the fact that Halford and Tipton acknowledged that it's best for them to avoid ambition and experimentation, which bogged down Nostradamus six years earlier, and simply have Judas Priest sounding like Judas Priest once again, doing what it does best. Which means the entire album is rife with stately thudding and galloping heavy metal anthems, awash in glorious Halfordspeak, singing of Metalizers, Dragonauts, Vikings, flames, and of course, redeemers of souls, whatever that is. It's a wonderful welcome to Priest's classic sounds of the past: the intensity of Painkiller surfaces time and again, the sleek, steely guitar tone echoes 1984's Defenders Of The Faith is undeniable, and the more melodic moments recall 1982's Screaming For Vengeance. "Dragonaut," "Halls Of Valhalla," "Metalizer," "Battle Cry," and the splendid "Sword Of Damocles" are all Judas Priest at its most rampaging and bracing, Scott Travis's thunderous drumming matching Halford's vocal authority step for step. The galloping title track and the martial "March Of The Damned" are more measured in their approach, very much in the vein of German power metal bands Primal Fear and Gamma Ray, and schooling everyone in the process. Meanwhile, "Cold Blooded" is a spirited return to the deep cuts of 1982-'84, while Faulkner's influence can be heard most on "Crossfire," as the band explores its blues-influenced side for the first time since Rocka Rolla.
Interspersed with several slower songs to serve as mellow respites from all the intensity and bombast -- the best being the closer "Beginning Of The End" -- Redeemer Of Souls treads very familiar territory, but feels vibrant rather than complacent. Even the five bonus tracks that comprise the "deluxe edition" are a joy unto themselves, whimsical returns to the pop-oriented sounds of Point Of Entry and British Steel, incessant little songs that feel a lot more than mere throwaways. When all's said and done, it might not be a classic, but it's Priest's most consistent, joyous album in 24 years, a reminder of this band's inimitable appeal, and a return to the upper echelon of heavy metal where the band so rightfully belongs.
Screaming For Vengeance (1982)
Arriving on the heels of an album the band was happy with but one the fans didn't exactly warm up to, Judas Priest had a thing or two to prove in 1982. The AOR direction of 1981's Point Of Entry was far too tame compared to the much edgier heavy metal that was emerging at the time. Just a couple years removed from the band's biggest breakthrough, 1980's British Steel, Priest was already in danger of sounding irrelevant, and it was imperative that album number eight be a lot more assertive and not give in to the demands of CBS in America. Whether the band was fully aware of it or not, a perfect storm was about to happen, with heavy metal set to explode on a level no one had ever seen before, and the impact of Screaming For Vengeance, despite its several glaring imperfections, would be monumental.
Interestingly, the album was recorded in the same studio in Ibiza, Spain as where Point Of Entry was made. Only this time around, the band and producer Tom Allom took a much different approach sonically. Compared to the consistent but somewhat neutered sound of British Steel and the tepid, softer Point Of Entry, the sound of Screaming For Vengeance is completely in the listener's face. Tipton's and Downing's guitars sound absolutely scorching, while Holland's drums are given a gigantic tone, finally befitting his own simple, powerful style. Couple that with Halford's most aggressive vocal performance on record since Stained Class, as well as John Berg's striking, primary color illustration of a gigantic mechanical eagle on the album sleeve, and you've got a record that looked and sounded, for then, thoroughly modern.
Even better, though, the album's best moments are positively timeless. And does it ever open with a bang, starting with the stately overture "The Hellion," as effective an intro track that's ever been recorded in heavy metal, which immediately segues into the masterful "Electric Eye." Atop an arrangement built around some nimbler than usual rhythm guitar work by Tipton and Downing, Halford, who never was known for his lyrical prowess before or since, takes a turn for the brilliant, singing of a dystopian future of electronic surveillance that, 30 years later, sounded incredibly prescient: "You think you've private lives / Think nothing of the kind / There is no true escape / I'm watching all the time." Tense, ominous, and performed at an exhilarating pace, it's a perfect embodiment of what heavy metal is all about, arguably Judas Priest's greatest moment on record.
Things don't let up, thanks to the ferocious "Riding On The Wind," an even more forceful song than "Electric Eye," featuring a commanding, high-pitched performance by Halford, dive-bombing lead fills by Tipton and Downing, and one of Holland's best drumming performances on a Priest album. "Bloodstone" immediately follows with an emphatic march underscored by Hill's triplet-laden bassline and some particularly creative guitar work that somehow avoids the clichés Tipton and Downing were settling into. It's a marvelous, slower-paced counterpoint to the balls-out fury of the first two songs.
What has completely been ignored over the past 30 years, however, is just how quickly the album derails, as four of the next six songs show a complete lack of focus. Written by songwriter-for-hire Bob Halligan, Jr., "(Take These) Chains" is sleek North American pop metal in the vein of Blue Öyster Cult and Aldo Nova, and despite an impassioned vocal performance by Halford, it's far too safe a song for an album that started off so edgily. "Pain And Pleasure" and "Fever" revisit the same themes of dominance and submission explored on 1979's Killing Machine, but feel far too hackneyed in comparison, the former riddled with ham-fisted songwriting choices, the latter much too sleek, too reminiscent of Point Of Entry's middling direction. While "Devil's Child" was a much more spirited affair, the call-and-response singing feels juvenile, and Halford's lyrics are the polar opposite of "Electric Eye" ("Eat my diamonds / Drinking all my gin / Feast your eyes on / A whole lotta sin").
The ambitious, fiery title track -- which Halford told me in 2012 is his favorite song off the album -- brings a welcome dose of that early energy back to side two, but as luck would have it, the album would be permanently defined by a song that was tossed in at the last minute. While mixing the album in Florida, the band was informed it could use an additional song to help flesh out the second half, a common practice in the '80s to avoid dead air on cassettes when one side was longer than the other. A simple palm-muted rhythm riff was jammed over an equally straightforward backbeat groove, the song quickly came together, and according to Allom, was recorded in a single take, not counting overdubs and vocals. All "You've Got Another Thing Comin'" did was become the band's biggest hit in America, the song that would catapult Priest to superstardom.
The Julien Temple-directed video for "You've Got Another Thing Comin'" would become a massive hit on MTV, and played a big part in making Screaming For Vengeance hit platinum status in America six months after its release, and even faster in Canada. Interestingly, reaction to the single and the album in the UK was much more reserved, peaking at a solid 11 but dropping off the chart completely after three weeks. As a result, North America would be the primary focus of the band's touring for the next nine months, and it wouldn't be another two years until Priest would return to the UK. It was on the tour in support of Screaming For Vengeance where Priest would galvanize a new, younger North American fanbase, and that perfect timing is a huge reason why the album is loved by those in their 40s to this very day. For many Generation X metalheads, Vengeance was one of their first metal albums, if not the first, and that rose-tinted nostalgia tends to buff away the blemishes of the record's last two thirds. Still, those imperfections can't be ignored. Despite being a touch overrated, though, its importance is irrefutable, and Priest would not have been an upper-echelon heavy metal band in the 1980s were it not for Screaming For Vengeance.
Sin After Sin (1977)
With an acclaimed second album under its belt, a new deal with CBS Records, and a recording budget that seemed astronomical to the practically broke band, Judas Priest went into the Sin After Sin sessions in early 1977 with the intent on making an even bigger impression than the revelatory Sad Wings Of Destiny did the year before. Only despite the increased luxury afforded the band, it was a bumpier ride than anticipated. CBS suggested the band hire Deep Purple bassist Roger Glover as producer, based on his work on Nazareth's scorching cover of Joni Mitchell's "This Flight Tonight," but the idea was scrapped after the personalities couldn't gel, the band members preferring to produce the album themselves.
Weeks later, however, Judas Priest found itself in a bind. Drummer Alan Moore abruptly quit, leaving the band in desperate need of a replacement with only six days of booked studio time left at the Who's Ramport Studios. A phone call was made, fences were mended, and Glover was brought in to expedite the recording process. He brought in teenaged session drumming phenom Simon Phillips, who then was best known for his work with Brian Eno's and Phil Manzanera's post-Roxy Music project 801. The album was completed in five days, and despite a couple of missteps -- one minor, one much worse -- the resulting Sin After Sin continued the momentum set by Sad Wings Of Destiny.
By 1977 Judas Priest was quickly developing its own sound, and while not a stone classic in the vein of Sad Wings Of Destiny and 1978's Stained Class, Sin After Sin is a crucial transitional album in the Priest discography, and its best moments are spectacular. The band was evolving more and more, becoming faster and heavier, and this album is at its very best the more extreme it gets. Three tracks in particular are especially prescient. Opening song "Sinner" is startlingly aggressive compared to the previous two albums, Rob Halford adopting a menacing snarl that would quickly one of the most important parts of his vast vocal arsenal, the song boasting a towering chorus propelled by Phillips's thunderous double-kick beats. "Let Us Prey/Call For The Priests" is the fastest Priest song to date, Phillips echoing the rampaging pace of Deep Purple's "Fireball" and subsequently anticipating the initial wave of thrash metal five years later. "Dissident Aggressor," meanwhile, remains one of the heaviest songs the band has ever recorded, three minutes of churning, primal power featuring a striking, rumbling rhythm riff by Tipton and Downing and a classic vocal performance by Halford.
Just as important as the extremity of those three tracks is the streamlined hard rocker "Starbreaker," whose modern, hard-driving groove would anticipate the band's turn towards a more commercially accessible style two years later. Also of note is the galloping, bombastic cover of Joan Baez's 1975 folk tune "Diamonds & Rust," which was originally recorded during the Sad Wings sessions and given a sharper re-recording on the suggestion of Glover, who felt the album needed a good mainstream-friendly single, which, as it would happen, was a smart move.
"Raw Deal" is a strange curiosity, a bluesy rocker reminiscent of Rocka Rolla, with lyrics by Halford that in retrospect seem to hint at his homosexuality: "All eyes hit me as I walked into the bar / And seeing other guys were fooling with the denim dudes / A couple cards played rough stuff, New York, Fire Island." "Last Rose Of Summer" is a decent, passable albeit unspectacular progressive rock ballad, but although that song is an odd fit, even worse is "Here Come The Tears," a woeful ballad that cranks the emotional histrionics full tilt and doesn't let up until the listener is cringing with embarrassment.
Thankfully the good far outweighs the mediocre, and audiences were quick to pick up on the album's strengths, as it charted at number 23 in the UK. Although Sin After Sin made no impact in North America, the band's affiliation with CBS afforded it a chance to tour America for the first time, supporting Foreigner, REO Speedwagon, and most notably, Led Zeppelin. Despite a drumming performance that would influence many, Phillips could not commit to being a full-time member, but Glover saved Priest's bacon one more time, suggesting they hire Les Binks, who played on his solo album The Butterfly Ball And The Grasshopper's Feast. Not only was he capable of replicating Phillips' ferocious double-kick beats, but Binks would play on the next three Priest albums, which would go on to become three of the most revered titles in the band's discography. Big things lay ahead.
That 16-second drum intro you hear at the beginning of Judas Priest's 12th album is the sound of a band being awoken from creative dormancy. As well suited as drummer Dave Holland was for the band's more straightforward arena rock fare circa British Steel and Point Of Entry, his own limitations were starting to hurt the band, despite the concerted efforts made to enhance his drum sound, be it via Tom Allom's beefed-up tone on record or the addition of a second percussionist hidden backstage while on tour. Try as everyone did to return to the heavier sounds of Screaming For Vengeance or Defenders Of The Faith, 1988's Ram It Down had the band sounding like a bunch of granddads instead, well past their prime and completely lapped by younger bands. That same year Slayer's great album South Of Heaven featured a cover of the Sin After Sin classic "Dissident Aggressor" that was so good it had to have shamed the members of Judas Priest. Things had to be stepped up in a major way, and the band knew it.
After parting ways with Holland, the band found the perfect replacement in Scott Travis, who at the time was best known for his work with speed metal band Racer X. Unlike Holland, whose forte was strictly rock 'n' roll, Travis was as well schooled a heavy metal drummer as anyone could come across, and his supreme double-kick skill, which is on full display on that opening track and the rest of the album, is a huge reason why Painkiller is such a triumph.
Prior to the release of Painkiller, though, 1990 was a rough year for Judas Priest. Not only were there serious doubts as to whether the band could ever regain its classic form, but the members found themselves in the middle of a farcical trial in Reno, Nevada over whether their music contained subliminal messages and compelled two misguided young men to engage in a suicide pact. It was a circus, but Halford, Tipton, Downing, and Hill all showed up, clad in tidy suits, respectfully and calmly testified, and were rightfully cleared of all charges. It's romantic to think that Painkiller was an angry, in-your-face response to that nadir of 1980s "Satanic panic" in America, but in actuality the album was completed long before the trial began. However, the timing of the album's release, which happened ten days after the court case ended, was absolutely perfect. The band was in the public eye, and the explosive lead single captured everyone's attention.
Nobody expected the band to sound so intense, so incendiary on this album, but it's all on display from start to finish, starting with that notorious title track, the most punishing song the band had ever recorded, topping "Exciter," "Screaming For Vengeance," and "Freewheel Burning." Halford doesn't so much sing as snarl in an upper-register screech, while Tipton and Downing hammer out taut, intense rhythm riffs and sweep picking-happy solos with reckless abandon, the entire band propelled by Travis's devastating percussive assault. Tying it all together is producer Chris Tsangarides, who engineered on Sad Wings Of Destiny and was a bold, welcome change of direction from Tom Allom, with whom the band had started to sound complacent. It's an astonishing rebirth that everyone, from old fans, to thrashers, to death metal bands, took full notice of.
The pace doesn't let up, either, as the equally catchy "Hell Patrol" revisits the stately marchers of the band's Sin After Sin era, which leads right into "All Guns Blazing," which sounds lifted straight out of the Defenders Of The Faith album. The record has been criticized for its rather corny lyrics, but Halford feels right at home spewing nonsensical lines, and when you hear him spit out, "Raging fury / Wired for sound / Nitro bombshell / Shakes the ground," you buy into it because he's selling it so convincingly. After a couple of slight dips in quality in "Leather Rebel" and "Metal Meltdown" the album soars in its second half, ranging from the menacing "Night Crawler" to the thudding "Between The Hammer And The Anvil" to the surprisingly beautiful industrial-tinged ballad "A Touch Of Evil."
Ending on a strong note with the assertive "One Shot At Glory," Painkiller was one of only a handful of standouts in what was a transitional year for heavy metal, which was starting to diversify, move underground, and leave its 1980s icons scrambling to stay relevant. In one fell swoop Judas Priest had reinvented itself, but despite the critical and worldwide commercial success of the album, the band was starting to fracture internally, with Halford drifting away from his bandmates. As important an institution as Judas Priest was for heavy metal, Halford had some very valid reasons to do a little soul searching throughout the 1990s. Little did fans know, however, that they would not hear Halford sing on a Priest album for another 15 long, tumultuous years. At the very least, the man had gone out -- for the time being -- on a very high note.
British Steel (1980)
One of the most important pieces of advice Mutt Lange imparted on his young protégés in Def Leppard was that if you want to attract the arena crowd, you have to cater to the arena crowd. Bigger and simpler is better: for instance, arena crowds can't hear, and couldn't care less about flamboyant, jazzy drum fills. What gets across most effectively to mass audiences is a good, forceful, simple drum beat. More "Highway To Hell," less "2112." Going into 1980, it's as if Judas Priest was sensing the exact same thing. The overtly commercial-sounding 1979 album Killing Machine was a significant creative turning point, but with the band on the cusp of major success in America it felt that its sound needed even more streamlining, and drummer Les Binks was let go in favor of Dave Holland, who had previously played in Glenn Hughes's pre-Deep Purple band Trapeze. In direct contrast to Binks's free-flowing, swinging drumming style, Holland's approach was simpler, more focused on a very hard-hitting, taut backbeat. In other words, perfectly made for the direction Judas Priest's sixth studio album would take.
At the same time as Priest was ensconced in Ringo Starr's Tittenhurst Park home studio recording its new album, a new movement in metal music was gaining serious traction. Dubbed "the New Wave of British Heavy Metal" by Sounds magazine, a crop of ambitious, aggressive, and exceedingly talented young British bands was injecting new life into the still-developing genre. In 1980 alone, important and hugely influential albums by Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, Saxon, Diamond Head, Angel Witch, and Girlschool would be released, with key debuts by Raven, Venom, Tank, and Witchfinder General waiting in the wings. If that wasn't enough, Motörhead was becoming a major force at the same time as the album Ace Of Spades would complete an astonishing trifecta of albums in 19 months. AC/DC had become a global smash, and both Black Sabbath and Ozzy Osbourne would return to form with a pair of classic albums. A sea change was happening, and it was crucial for Judas Priest to capitalize immediately.
Partially inspired by the band's Black Country heritage and the striking steel workers of Thatcher's Britain in early 1980, British Steel catapulted Judas Priest to the upper tier of heavy metal. Its title, as well as its speed and aggression, catered specifically to audiences in the band's home country, while its brilliant pop sensibility was the breakthrough the band so desperately wanted in America. Incorporating pop music is an especially difficult tightrope for a heavy metal band to walk, but Judas Priest does it with unparalleled skill on the album's two most famous tracks. Boasting one of the most famous opening riffs in metal history, "Breaking The Law" taps into the time honored theme of rebellion in rock 'n' roll music ("You don't know what it's like!"), its chorus simple yet extremely effective, the kind of track that captures the imagination of casual listeners yet at the same time unites metal fans. A perfect two and a half minutes, it's one of Judas Priest's most enduring and endearing songs. "Living After Midnight," on the other hand, is a decidedly American-sounding party anthem, and although its hedonistic bent is a striking divergence from the darker themes for the first five albums, the hook of that chorus is undeniable, accentuated by Tipton's ebullient solo and anchored by Holland's contagious, lively backbeat.
Make no mistake, the heaviness is still present, led by the mighty, stomping "Metal Gods," which marches on at a powerful, mechanical pace, the churning riffs during the bridge and outro some of the mightiest sounds Tipton and Downing have created to date. Similarly straightforward and fist-pumping, "Grinder" effectively combines a hard-driving groove with a robust, muscular riff. Much more adventurous is "The Rage"; normally a bassist happy to sit comfortably "in the pocket," Ian Hill has a great moment during the intro, playing a nifty little reggae line before the song morphs into a stately stomper of a heavy metal tune. Still, despite being a very consistent record, the overall feel on British Steel is more mannered, more reined-in compared to Killing Machine. It holds back to the point of almost sounding sterile compared to that previous album and the ferocious Unleashed In The East. It's most noticeable on "Steeler" and "Rapid Fire," both of which could benefit from some more reckless drumming, as Holland's style doesn't suit the songs at all, rendering them stiff, whereas Binks would have had them careening at a mad pace.
Nevertheless, that simplicity was a major factor in British Steel becoming a big crossover success. "Breaking The Law," "Living After Midnight," and the god-awful pub sing-along "United" -- easily the worst track on the album -- were all significant hit singles in the UK, and that pop appeal coupled with the increasing interest in heavy metal catapulted the album to number four. Meanwhile, the record peaked at 34 in America, which was a major feat at the time. It was nowhere near as groundbreaking as so many other British metal albums that would come out in 1980, would go on to be one of the band's most popular albums, a marriage of pop and heavy metal that worked like a charm. Priest had officially arrived.
Killing Machine (1979)
One of the biggest challenges for a rising heavy metal band is to find a way to broaden its audience without alienating its already established fanbase, to make the music more appealing to the mainstream while maintaining some semblance of integrity. Judas Priest found itself at a significant crossroads by early 1978. The band had four albums under its belt, three of which were considerably groundbreaking for the genre, yet while success in the UK, Europe, and Japan was by then all but an inevitability, America was the one white whale Priest had to conquer if it wanted to rise above mere cult status. The problem was, Judas Priest's form of heavy metal -- epic, dark, progressive, arch -- was far too exotic for American heavy music fans at the time, who were more used to the simpler-sounding, flashier styles of KISS, Aerosmith, and Van Halen. If Priest wanted to make a splash, it would have to be both musically and visually.
By the time the band started its 1978 US tour in support of Stained Class, the members had all ditched the satin, chiffon, and spandex in favor of denim and leather. Halford especially was transformed, now sporting short hair, wearing a biker's black leather jacket and matching hat, and would soon be sporting a decidedly S&M-derived look, complete with handcuffs, shades, spikes, and a bullwhip. The similarities to Glenn Hughes' biker character in the Village People was uncanny, but metal fans ate it up, and quite frankly, the homosexual overtones didn't matter a lick. Heavy metal was, and remains, all about power, and Priest's new image, butch as it was, brilliantly conveyed power in a way no band had ever tried before. Soon everybody in metal was wearing black leather and spikes, a tradition that caries on to this very day.
More importantly, though, was the decided shift in musical direction the band undertook when writing its fifth album. Embracing shorter song lengths and a much more direct approach reminiscent of past songs "Starbreaker" and "White Heat, Red Hot," Priest's aim was to maintain the aggressive sound of Sin After Sin and Stained Class, yet create music that was much more radio-friendly. Recorded with producer James Guthrie, with whom the band bonded when recording the cover of "Better By You, Better Than Me" for Stained Class, the resulting album Killing Machine turned out to be a wildly eclectic masterstroke, one of the most audacious titles in the band's entire discography.
The way Killing Machine expands Priest's musical range yet still retains that established Judas Priest sound is remarkable. At times you can hear Queen, Montrose, Thin Lizzy, and Cheap Trick creep into the material, but that personality, from Halford's charismatic singing to Tipton's and Downing's searing guitar work, keeps the music grounded, no matter what musical flight of fancy the guys might have. There's a definite swagger in these songs that wasn't quite fully realized on the past albums, as "Delivering The Goods," "Rock Forever," and "Running Wild" head straight into party anthem territory, celebrating life and heavy metal, and doing so convincingly at that. Elsewhere, the band heads into pure pop territory, as "Evening Star" boasts the liveliest, catchiest chorus that band has written to date, while "Take On The World" is a shamelessly goofy rip-off of "We Will Rock You," only done in the form of a pub-style sing-along. And although the band's earlier ballads had always been its weakest songs, the subdued "Before The Dawn" works incredibly well.
More revealingly is just how risqué, gritty, and downright sexual this record is at times. Halford has always stated that he wasn't intentionally letting his own repressed gay perspective rise to the surface, but now that he's been out since 1998, it's easy to read into such overtly raunchy songs as "Burnin' Up" and "Evil Fantasies." Either way, the band is absolutely convincing on these tracks, and especially the two most menacing tracks, "Killing Machine" and "Hell Bent For Leather," the latter a two minute and 40 second scorcher that would become a longtime live staple, Halford playing up the biker image even more so by riding a Harley-Davidson onstage at the end of every show.
Killing Machine would fare respectably in the UK, charting at 32, its singles "Evening Star" and "Take On The World" performed on Top Of The Pops. However, the album's North American release, which was delayed four and half months, would actually be a significant turning point. Sure, the band's decision to acquiesce to CBS's request that the album be renamed Hell Bent For Leather to protect innocent American audiences from the murderous sounding Killing Machine smacked of compromise, but one thing the North American release brought the world was the mighty cover of the Fleetwood Mac classic "The Green Manalishi (With The Two Pronged Crown)" as an additional track. Although the Peter Green-penned original is foreboding and majestic in its own right, Priest makes the song its own with an astonishing rendition, highlighted by its vicious, measured palm-muted riff and wicked dual solos by Tipton and Downing. The cover would prove to be so popular that future UK pressings would be adjusted to include the track. To this day, talk to any North American Generation X-aged Priest fan about this record, and it'll always be Hell Bent For Leather to them.
Thanks to "Green Manalishi," Hell Bent For Leather, Killing Machine, whatever you want to call it, did exceptionally in metal-friendly Canada, peaking at 22. Although it only reached 128 in fickle America, the stage was set for an even more significant breakthrough, which would happen in a big, big way in 1980.
Unleashed In The East (1979)
In the 1970s, the live album was a fascinating phenomenon, offering rock fans a chance to experience a full concert by their favorite bands on record. And not only did it turn out to be an enormously useful marketing tool in the mid-1970s -- both KISS and Peter Frampton owe their careers to the success of their live albums in 1975 and 1976, respectively -- but such attention to detail was put into live albums that it was commonplace to doctor the recordings in the studio beforehand. While purists continue to cry foul over how band after band touched up live recordings in the studio, be they re-recorded guitars and vocals or accentuated/canned crowd noise, those great, classic 1970s live albums work so well because of how well the recordings were manipulated. KISS's Alive rules. Frampton Comes Alive remains his best work. And Judas Priest's Unleashed In The East, despite being given a gigantic overhaul in the studio, is not only a brilliant live album, but one of the band's best works in its history.
By 1979, the likes of Led Zeppelin, Bob Seger, Ted Nugent, Cheap Trick, Blue Öyster Cult, and UFO had also enjoyed significant success with their own live albums, so CBS knew full well just how valuable a release it could be for a band like Priest, who was just on the cusp of Stateside success. At the same time, the band had discovered it had a tremendous following in Japan. Priest's quick tour of Japan in July and August 1978 in support of Stained Class was warmly received, and after Killing Machine was released, the band made a return visit in February 1979. Despite the fact that illness prevented Rob Halford from delivering a satisfactory performance, recordings of two shows on February 10 and 15 were deemed worthy of being used for a live album. Nine tracks in particular from Sad Wings Of Destiny, Sin After Sin, Stained Class, and Killing Machine were culled (Rocka Rolla by now a distant memory). Halford was brought back into the recording studio to completely re-record his lead vocals with producer Tom Allom, who had first made a name for himself by engineering the first three Black Sabbath albums, as well as producing another successful live album, Pat Travers' Live! Go For What You Know, the same year.
While it's true that Halford's overdubbed singing doesn't make Unleashed In The East a 100% "warts and all" live album like Deep Purple's classic Made In Japan was purported to be, is the overall integrity of the listening experience compromised? Listen to this marvelous, searing 45-minute record, and you'll realize, hell no. The power you feel from the band is absolutely staggering, as the intensity of these nine songs is increased tenfold over their studio versions, and Halford's astonishing singing is the clincher.
Several tracks are especially awe-inspiring, going on to become even more definitive than the album originals. "Exciter" had already set the template for 1980s speed metal, but the version on Unleashed In The East is throttling compared to the somewhat muted original, Les Binks driving the song with his thudding drumming, Tipton and Downing keeping up with their equally intense and taut solos and rhythm riffs. The underrated "Genocide" is sped up considerably, Binks and Ian Hill providing a bedrock-solid rhythm section during the solo break, allowing Tipton and Downing to let fly with screaming leads. "Victim Of Changes" was already a classic, a proven staple of the band's, but the rendition on this album is unreal, careening to a spectacular climax as Halford delivers some of the mightiest screams to ever grace a heavy metal record. Who cares if they were performed in a studio? This is a towering, commanding, immortal performance.
Elsewhere, "Sinner" and "Running Wild" go over nearly as well, while the covers of "Diamonds & Rust" and "The Green Manalishi (With the Two Pronged Crown)" are phenomenal, the latter going on to be one of the band's most-loved live songs. If there's one track that is just a notch below of the others, it's "The Ripper," but despite being played a little too fast Halford still turns in an indomitable performance.
As if on cue, that combination of Judas Priest's rising popularity and the incredible exposure a good live album could bring at the time worked like a charm. Unleashed In The East burst into the US top 100, peaking at 70, while it cracked the top ten in the UK, right when the nascent New Wave of British Heavy Metal was just gaining serious traction. And indeed, it was those young bands emerging from Britain that threatened to overtake the older, more experienced Judas Priest. The next studio album would have to continue the America-friendly formula of Killing Machine, yet maintain enough credibility to continue to attract metal fans back home. The resulting record, entitled British Steel, would succeed beyond anyone's wildest dreams.
Defenders Of The Faith (1984)
Propelled to mainstream North American fame thanks to the surprise success of "You've Got Another Thing Comin'" and the platinum-selling Screaming For Vengeance, Judas Priest was eager to strike while the iron was still hot. Once again with Tom Allom at the helm as producer, the band headed back to Ibiza, Spain in the summer of 1983, the same location where the previous two albums had been recorded. Only this time around, compared to the buffed edges of Point Of Entry and the sheer attack of Vengeance, the resulting record was a different beast entirely, one that was a lot more fascinating, and which would turn out to be the band's most consistent album since British Steel, and in many ways superior.
The clear jumping-off point for the album that would become Defenders Of The Faith was the one half of Screaming For Vengeance that succeeded best. After nearly five years of tinkering with how the band's unique brand of heavy metal could be married with more hard rock-oriented song structures and hooks, Vengeance tracks like "Electric Eye," "Riding On The Wind," and "Screaming For Vengeance" went in the opposite direction, bearing more of a similarity to 1978's masterpiece Stained Class, only in a much more aggressive way. After playing to arena crowds across North America, the response to that heavier material had to have had an effect on the band as Halford, Tipton, and Hill commenced writing their ninth studio album. Heavy metal was exploding in 1983, but nowhere as impactful as in North America, and Judas Priest found itself right smack in the middle of the zeitgeist, and now it was expected of the band to come through with a new album that would have an even more monumental impact.
Although not quite the commercial success of Screaming For Vengeance, Defenders Of The Faith is the vastly superior album, a moody, brooding, theatrical opus laden with fist-pumping anthems, towering epics, and staggering lead vocals, all presented in a surprisingly dense, sleek sound featuring a massively heavy tone and even bigger-sounding, gated drums. Some might accuse it of sounding overbearing and unwieldy, but it never comes at the expense of the songs, most of which are exceptional. If anything, Allom's production casts a pall over the entire album like a black fog as Halford sings of vampires, lust, and sentinels.
Propelled by Dave Holland's brisk, oddly martial and mechanical beats, and punctuated by some of the most nimble guitar work by Tipton and Downing to date, "Freewheel Burning" is a classic opening Priest speedster in the tradition of "Exciter" and "Rapid Fire." However, as far as intensity goes, the band steps things up considerably, thanks in large part to a virtuoso performance by Halford, who when not exhibiting some of the most inimitable metal vocal acrobatics ever put on record ("With victory on high!") is spitting out lyrics like a machine gun: "Look before you leap has never been the way we keep our road is free!" Holland and Allom have been criticized for the song's grooveless, inhuman rhythm section, but those big, pillowy snare beats give the song even more bombast than it already has, which carries over into the rest of the album, which wastes no time getting on one hell of a roll.
The subject matter of "Jawbreaker" might be nonsensical -- typical of Halford's lyrics -- but the combination of words and music make for a very imposing track that builds to a stirring climax. "Rock Hard Ride Free," on the other hand, is the requisite fan-pleaser, but hardly of the party anthem variety like past efforts were, instead underscored by a rather melancholy guitar melody and a surprisingly expressive solo break. Songwriter-for-hire Bob Halligan Jr. makes another appearance on Defenders, but unlike Vengeance's "(Take These) Chains," the formidable "Some Heads Are Gonna Roll" is much more in keeping with the Judas Priest aesthetic, fitting seamlessly with the band's own compositions. Meanwhile, the explicit "Eat Me Alive" would get the band in hot water with the emerging Parents Music Resource Center, listed on the Washington Wives' infamous "Filthy Fifteen" list of "objectionable" songs alongside the likes of Mötley Crüe, W.A.S.P., Twisted Sister, Cyndi Lauper, Prince, and Sheena Easton. Had Halford's sexuality been made public by then, the real -- and in retrospect, obvious -- meaning of "Bound to deliver as you give and I collect / Squealing impassioned as the rod of steel injects" would've stirred up even more controversy, and likely turned the overtly masculine metal scene on its ear as well.
With its nocturnal atmosphere, hypnotic beat, garish snare drum sound, and minimalist guitar work, "Love Bites" is a strange little curiosity in the Judas Priest discography. It's a song so simple it was often one of the first songs young metal bands would learn to play, but the restraint the band shows on the track is remarkable, the rhythm section in the proverbial pocket, the guitars serving only as window dressing for Halford's most dramatic performance since "The Ripper." Blending themes of dominance and submission with vampirism, it's a tremendous use of innuendo, only enhancing the album's sexual undertones even more.
Ask fans what their favorite song off Defenders is, and the majority will reply with "The Sentinel." A brilliant five-minute fantasy mini-epic that paints a vivid portrait of a dystopian, Mad Max-meets-Escape From New York future, it shifts from a mournful, doomy intro to brisk, aggressive verses, bolstered by Halford's commanding chorus of, "Tempt not the blade, all fear the Sentinel!" Featuring one of Tipton's and Downing's finest dueling solos, the song also contains some of Halford's most vivid lyrics, the visceral power of which are undeniable: "The figure stands expressionless, impassive and alone / Unmoved by this victory and the seeds of death he's sown." All the best elements of the appeal of heavy metal are encapsulated in "The Sentinel" to perfection.
Capped off by a surprisingly strong, subdued, and highly underrated ballad in "Night Comes Down" and the very silly "Heavy Duty/Defenders Of The Faith," which recycles "United" and "Take On The World," Defenders Of The Faith limps a little to the finish line, but it's one record where the first 36 of its 39 minutes are outstanding. If there was one lingering issue that prevented the album from being a blockbuster like Screaming For Vengeance, it's that it had no real America-pandering single like their previous albums had. Conversely, "Freewheel Burning" became the band's biggest UK single since "United" four years earlier. Over in America, though, despite a very successful tour featuring a colossal stage setup modeled after the Doug Johnson artwork, sales of the album would stall, and it would not be certified platinum until 1986. However, time has been very good to the album, which is regarded by many now as one of Priest's finest efforts.
Sad Wings Of Destiny (1976)
Sometimes great things happen when you think outside the box. Judas Priest's 1974 debut Rocka Rolla had one of the most appropriate producers imaginable in Rodger Bain (Black Sabbath, Budgie) but the end result was so lackluster, so tepid that the record was a commercial failure, and even worse, one the band was not proud of.
Although the budget for the follow-up was exactly the same -- a paltry 2000 pounds -- Gull Records head David Howells commissioned a pair of young studio whizzes named Jeffrey Calvert and Geraint Hughes to produce the record. Operating under the moniker Typically Tropical, Calvert and Hughes (who went by the stage name Max West) had scored a number one single in 1975 with the novelty hit "I'm Going To Barbados," hardly something you'd look for in heavy metal producers, but they did have experience working with artists as diverse as Cat Stevens, Rod Stewart, and Yes, and Howells felt they were the guys to bring out Judas Priest's flamboyance even more. And was he ever right.
Looking back at heavy metal at the beginning of 1976, it was at an interesting crossroads. The three most important bands -- Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple -- were all on the decline, while the more hard rock-oriented side of the genre was gaining serious traction thanks to bands like Queen, Alice Cooper, KISS, Aerosmith, Blue Öyster Cult, Rush, Ted Nugent, UFO, and Budgie. That year, however, would see three key releases that would take heavy metal music into faster, heavier, more aggressive, and flamboyant territory. Rainbow, Ritchie Blackmore's post-Deep Purple project with singer Ronnie James Dio would break new ground with the spectacular second album Rising in May. German upstarts Scorpions would challenge convention -- and good taste -- with the roaring Virgin Killer that November. Before those, however, Judas Priest would come from seemingly out of nowhere to set a new gold standard for the genre with a piece of work that would be heavy metal's most important album since Deep Purple's Machine Head.
Recorded at Rockfield Studios in Wales during overnight hours to keep costs down -- at the same time as Black Sabbath was working on Technical Ecstasy, it so happened -- the fact was not lost on the band that it was working in the same environment where Queen's A Night At The Opera was recorded a year earlier. Consequently, Calvert, Hughes, and Halford took it upon themselves to place even more focus on Halford's unique singing style and multi-octave range, and what you hear on Sad Wings Of Destiny is as mind-blowing now as it had to have been for virgin ears nearly 40 years ago. Just listen to the vocal acrobatics on the stunning "The Ripper," brilliantly brought to the forefront with meticulousness by Calvert and Hughes. Nothing in heavy metal had ever sounded anything like that three-minute blend of Victorian theatricality, horror, and cutting-edge heavy music.
One very odd situation with Sad Wings Of Destiny is its tracklisting, which for decades with clouded in uncertainty, the cover listing the LP's second half as side A and the first half as side B thanks to a printing error by Gull. Although the subsequent cassette and CD versions stuck to the erroneous A/B track listing of the record, the final answer to the question was given when Judas Priest released the definitive remastered version in 2011, which adheres to the track listing on the album cover. Although it's a major adjustment to those who spent decades believing "Victim Of Changes" was the opening track, "Prelude" and "Tyrant" works even better, plus it saves the earth-shattering "side A" tracks for the last half of the album, making for much more dynamic and climactic sequencing.
No matter the order of songs, the material on Sad Wings Of Destiny feels so much more refined and confident compared to the stumbling, uncertain Rocka Rolla, this despite the fact that half the album consists of songs that were written prior to Rocka Rolla and inexplicably left off that record. The Judas Priest you hear on the thundering "Tyrant" is so much different: assertive, aggressive, commanding. The guitars by Tipton and Downing intertwine beautifully, while Halford's ingenious double-tracked singing -- one lower register, one upper-register -- is in the listener's face from the get-go. The streamlined sound of early '80s Judas Priest is foreshadowed in the snappy rhythm riff of the monstrous, ominous "Genocide," but the real stroke of genius is the coda, which morphs into a colossal, climactic blend of primal drumming, riffing, and studio wizardry as Halford spits out, "Slice to the left, slice to the right, none to retaliate, none will fight!"
Compared to the oddly ornate piano ballad "Epitaph" (which is equal parts Queen and Elton John) and the more progressive-themed "Island Of Domination," which are the only two moments that fall shy of spectacular, the run of "Victim Of Changes," "The Ripper," "Dreamer Deceiver," and "Deceiver" is epochal. Originally a song written by founding singer Al Atkins called "Whiskey Woman" and expanded to include a song by Halford called "Red Light Lady," "Victim Of Changes" is an eight-minute exercise that raises the bar for heavy metal, a triumph of dynamics, power, and nuance, featuring a legendary vocal performance by Halford, his climatic scream of "victim of changes" setting a new course for the genre. The bombastic, operatic style of heavy metal in the 1980s and beyond owes everything to this song. "Dreamer Deceiver" and "Deceiver" aren't so much two songs as an eight and a half-minute suite, transforming from a pastoral, folk-influenced ballad to a thundering galloper, as "Deceiver" brings the album to a thrilling climax.
Featuring a beautiful, iconic painting by Patrick Woodroffe, its fallen angel character sporting the soon-to-be-trademark "devil's tuning fork" symbol around his neck (much like Blue Öyster Cult's hook-and-cross logo) Sad Wings Of Destiny had the kind of impact the band had hoped would happen with Rocka Rolla 18 months earlier. Rolling Stone was -- shockingly -- positive in its review, saying, "Judas Priest have a fair chance of success through copying Deep Purple, especially since their antecedents are no longer contenders for the throne." It was accurate, too, as metal's progenitors were starting to sound stale, and the fresh approach Sad Wings brought was exactly what the still-developing genre needed. Along with 2112, Rising, Virgin Killer, Destroyer, Jailbreak, Rocks, Agents Of Fortune, No Heavy Petting -- what a year for heavy metal -- Sad Wings would also form a crucial link between the inception of the genre and its next turning point, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. It was the sea change the genre needed, and Priest's legacy was set.
The band was far from finished, though. Priest had higher goals, and the guys knew Gull wasn't a wealthy enough label to catapult them to the next step. When an offer came from CBS Records that it couldn't refuse, the band intentionally broke its contract with Gull, thereby relinquishing control of Sad Wings, Rocka Rolla, and all demos to that label. It was a small price to pay, but it wouldn't be until 2011 when both albums would receive a proper, thorough remastering supervised by the band. At the time, though, that was the least of their worries. They had a whopping 60,000 pounds with which to record a third album, and although it wouldn't quite have the same influence, Sin After Sin would nevertheless be a crucial progression for an exceedingly promising band.
Stained Class (1978)
Even though the choice of Stained Class as Judas Priest's best album is an easy one, it's still a strange record. After all, it has no enduring singles on the level of "Breaking The Law," "You've Got Another Thing Comin'," and "Living After Midnight." Aside from one song, which is beloved by die-hard fans, no other tracks have gone on to become live staples. Its 25th and 30th anniversaries were never commemorated in this age of rampant nostalgia. But while British Steel gets the "classic album" treatment, while Sad Wings Of Destiny is universally regarded as innovative, while fans from the 1980s adore Screaming For Vengeance and Defenders Of The Faith, Stained Class has steadily, quietly built up a towering legacy of its own. With its enigmatic cover art and iconic logo, both by artist Rosław Szaybo, it's a dark, perplexing piece of work, dwelling on doom, violence, and domination, an album that draws devoted fans closer and closer to try to decipher, including one sad case with tragic consequences that would land the band in a heap of trouble a dozen years later.
Ask any longtime Priest fan, however, and they'll tell you that Stained Class was the moment where every aspect of the band's still-developing sound -- power, speed, bombast, menace, theatricality, fantasy -- coalesced perfectly, with not a single misstep taken. Recorded at Chipping Norton Recording Studios in the quaint environs of the Cotswolds in Southern England, producer Dennis Mackay, whose past work included albums by David Bowie, Curved Air, and Mahavishnu Orchestra, helped sharpen the band's songwriting and arrangements, focusing this fourth album on attack rather than variety. Style-wise, no real advancements were made; it boasted the operatic quality of Sad Wings and the visceral heaviness of Sin After Sin. Benefitting immensely from that much clearer vision, however, the true power of Judas Priest leaps out more than the previous three albums. Everything comes together, and the end result is breathtaking.
Speed was already a significant factor in Priest's music by 1978, but opening track "Exciter" raises the bar considerably, taking the pace of Sin After Sin's "Let Us Prey/Call For The Priests" to a much more intense level, Binks's double-time, double-kick barrage a huge influence on a new generation of metal musicians. Canadian speed metal innovators Exciter would not only name themselves after the song, but would model their entire speed metal approach after it as well, which in turn would be hugely influential. "White Heat, Red Hot" is one of the more underrated songs in the Priest discography, its simple, mid-tempo arrangement another signpost that points to the significant change in direction the band would make the following year. "Invader," "Saints In Hell," and "Savage" would further spiral the album into darkness, Halford exhibiting his formidable vocal range throughout, matched by the screaming twin harmonies, dueling leads, and biting rhythm riffs by Tipton and Downing.
One of the smartest things Judas Priest ever did was abandon the progressive rock ballads that marred Rocka Rolla, Sad Wings Of Destiny, and Sin After Sin, but that's not to say the band shied away from mellow tracks. By Stained Class, Priest knew how powerful a mellow composition could be when juxtaposed with moments of sheer force, and one of the finest examples is "Beyond The Realms Of Death." Eschewing fantasy for a much more realistic and introspective theme, Halford sings about a depressed, ostracized young man, the verses depicting how the world sees him, the choruses shifting to his own perspective, the power chords and cymbal crashes reflecting his rage. The suicide of the protagonist is blunt, but contrary to fanatics who've attacked the song, it actually shows compassion: "How many like him are there still…Is nothing worth this bitter cost?" The song is a perfect marriage of contemplation and catharsis, soft and heavy, setting the template for future 1980s classics like Metallica's "Fade To Black" and Metal Church's "Gods Of Wrath."
As strong as the album was, CBS felt the need for a mainstream-friendly single, and like on Sin After Sin, a cover song was deemed the best option. The band headed back into the studio, this time with up-and-coming producer James Guthrie, to record a beefed-up version of Spooky Tooth's 1969 song "Better By You, Better Than Me." Sped up slightly, it's a less sinister version than the original, but it was still plenty menacing enough to be the center of huge controversy in the wake of a suicide pact between two young Nevada men when it was ludicrously alleged that the track contained the subliminal backwards message, "Do it." The court case was dismissed, and for good reason. As Halford would state, if a band was going to put subliminal messages on its records, wouldn't it be more practical to say, "Buy more of our albums?"
Stained Class would do modestly well, reaching number 27 in the UK and barely cracking the US top 200, and it remains one of the lower-selling albums in the Priest back catalog, nowhere near a crossover success like British Steel or Screaming For Vengeance. The band would streamline its sound and hone its image on the following album Killing Machine, which would pave the way for international fame and success. Yet as each year goes by, the legacy of Stained Class grows. The more new fans the band attracts, the more catch on to just how special this album is, how perfect a crystallization of the Judas Priest aesthetic it remains to this day.