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.