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.