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Judas Priest – Stained Class (1978)

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Stained Class is the culmination of an era of Judas Priest. After this, they were never quite the same. To understand this, you have to look into the pyschedelic/progressive rock roots of metal. Not only was there a great deal of crossover, but a lot of early “heavy” moments that future metal musicians were inspired by came from prog bands pushing into more noise and feedback alongside their poppier bretheren. I don’t think anyone would classify Judas Priest as a progressive rock band, but in their longer winded moments, you can imagine the resemblance. Stained Class has some of this, but its big achievement is buffing up the band’s heaviness and aggression to then unprecedented levels.

To be fair, “Exciter” (the first track) might give you an inaccurate impression of just how fast and aggressive Priest is going to be on this album – there is nothing that quite compares to it later on. Still, it would take the band years to match it, so it’s got to be worth a mention. Important, though, is that in spite of upping the velocity and aggression, “Exciter” has a relatively complicated structure, and plenty of internal dynamics that make its own lineage apparent.  This first track also gives us a chance to preview the latest iteration of the Judas Priest sound. While the production is still arguably a work in progress, it’s a good refinement of the strengths of the previous album’s sound. We also get a major boost in the quality of drumming courtesy of Les Binks, whose more intricate style is sorely missed on the band’s most famous works from the 1980s.

Even if most of the album isn’t as balls-out as the lead-in, the rest of Stained Class has plenty going for it. It tends towards a mid-paced, spacious sense of songwriting, with a few nods towards the folk/blues-rock elements that flavored Sin After Sin coexisting with more stereotypically metal work. K.K Downing doesn’t have as many songwriting credits on this album, for better or worse, although I’m still not entirely sure how much he helped Priest push the envelope on these early works. Quibbles about authorship aside, this is generally solid, well planned material; perhaps less ambitious structured than before, but also more coherent and less prone to filler. The improvements to the production don’t hurt, either. “Beyond the Realms of Death” stands out as another one of Priest’s strong ballads; its soft-loud dichotomy makes a nice contrast to “Dreamer Deciever” and its long buildup. Overall, it’s definitely streamlined, but the songwriting on Stained Class isn’t so oversimplified that it really harms the listening experience.

I won’t go as far as to say that Judas Priest does no wrong on this album, but Stained Class gets more than enough right. A word to the the psychedelic/proggy bands of today – if you want to get gradually heavier, you could learn from Priest’s evolution…

Highlights: “Exciter”, “White Heat, Red Hot”, “Invader”, “Beyond the Realms of Death”

Judas Priest – Screaming for Vengeance (1982)

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The 1980s were an… interesting time for Judas Priest. As a major force in the ongoing commercialization of heavy metal music, you can imagine how some of their albums might’ve been written with an especially mass audience in mind. Screaming for Vengeance isn’t always like that. It definitely isn’t like the infamous Turbo (released in 1986 and allegedly reminiscent of “hair metal acts), but compared to the formative and slightly progressive rock inflected Priest of the past… well, this album has certainly been many things to many people, but for now let’s just pretend it’s another review on Invisible Blog. That’ll help us stay as objective as reasonably possible.

For 1982, Screaming For Vengeance wins many a point for sounding good and being well produced. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that at least out of what I’ve heard, it’s the best produced metal album of 1982, though it’s only a matter of time until someone insists that title should go to someone else. The high points of this mix are the guitars (which strike a good mix between clear tone and nutritious distortion), and the drums, which are a good example of the stereotypical gated reverb ’80s sound’s pros and not so much their cons.

To be honest, I wouldn’t put so much emphasis on the production if this album didn’t have its heavy commercial leanings. In my experience, this sounds more like a heavy metal album than its immediate predecessors, but I still miss the more ambitious songwriting of ’70s Priest. This also fails to be the most instrumentally accomplished Priest lineup, but most that burden is the fault of Dave Holland, who is an underwhelming drummer compared to Les Binks or Scott Travis. He isn’t completely incompetent, and this might be a case where I’ve been spoiled by the expertise of some of the other drumseats, but a stronger drummer could’ve helped add to the variety of the songs here at the very least. Many of them are eerily similar in structure; often differentiated by little more than tempo or key signature. On the other hand, this does keep Priest firmly anchored in their strengths. Not every track can be “Epitaph” (a straight up piano ballad from Sad Wings of Destiny), after all; ironically, Judas Priest is at their weakest when they try to approximate the most popular rock of their time. Screaming for Vengeance‘s more consistent songwriting helps take the edge off it where on other albums it really cuts into the ineffable metal factor.

Still, this is a pretty poppy and accessible metal album. Probably not a bad starting point for neophytes discovering Judas Priest, and it definitely has enough traditional metal instrumental and studio chops to hold up well. Considering the peaks they reached in the 1970s, though, it’s nonetheless hard to recommend this over those.

Highlights: “Electric Eye”, “Bloodstone”, “Screaming for Vengeance”

Judas Priest – Sin After Sin (1977)

Judas_Priest-sin_after_sin-reissue-frontMy opinions on Judas Priest are easily summarized by two axioms:

  1. ’70s Priest is the best Priest.
  2. Judas Priest usually has trouble with filler on their albums.

Sin After Sin is the band’s 3rd album, and it’s arguably their celebration of how they escaped the evil, nasty Gull Records. It’s indisputably an early arrival to the field of heavy metal, but Priest retains much of their folk/blues influences, albeit often filtered through more guitar distortion and power chords than their contemporaries. Rob Halford’s trademark screams also differentiate this from most of the rock music of the time, but if you ask me, Judas Priest didn’t really settle on heavy metal as their main genre until Stained Class (which came immediately after this album).

Despite genre-mixing and gradual evolution towards a ‘signature’ sound, Sin After Sin‘s variety may be more attributable to the varying role of its primary songwriters. On this album, at least, it appears that one of the guitarists – specifically K.K Downing was pushing the metallic aspects of Judas Priest’ sound – the songs on which he has credits (“Starbreaker”, “Call for the Priest”, “Dissident Aggressor”) are the most aggressive and ‘heavy’ of the group. When the band wrote without him, it resulted in (with the exception of the lead-in track) lighter fare. Given that this correlation isn’t as strong in the rest of the band’s early discography, I’m inclined to think this is a coincidence, perhaps a result of Downing show elevated interest in the growing British metal scene or something similar.

Regardless of how this sound was achieved, Sin After Sin is definitely a “transitional” album, and its songs tend to reflect common strengths and weaknesses within the genres Judas Priest are straddling. The aforementioned “Call for the Priest” is a bona fide early speed metal song for whatever reason – it generally benefits from the occasional bits of progressive rock in Priest’s legacy, but the band has some trouble gluing sections together where on more genre-consistent songs they did not. Luckily, the songs here aren’t repetitive, but some of them are overextended, in that youthful “need to make something epic but can’t quite get there” way. Arguably, that’s preferable to latter day Priest, which often played it safe, and risked repetition and tedium. However, the best songs on here, oddly enough, are the covers – “Diamonds and Rust” amps up the original rather nicely due to early Priest’s familiarity with the folk tropes, but “Race with the Devil” (included on reissues) basically prototypes Priest’s later sound while still sounding refreshing due to Gun’s different songwriting methods.

With all of this in mind, I could argue that Sin After Sin showcases a band that’s found its identity, even if their sound wasn’t quite formalized yet and their ‘leather rebel’ imagery was still perhaps in the future. The years of practice that lead up to this point gave us a band that could comfortably take sounds they enjoyed and recontextualize them into their own evolving style. However, it’d take them another album or two to figure out what that style was…

Highlights: “Diamonds and Rust”, “Starbreaker”, “Call for the Priest”, “Raw Deal”

Judas Priest – Jugulator (1997)

folderJugulator is the sound of consistency. One of my beefs with the album before this (Painkiller) was that it was ridden with filler that didn’t really live up to the promise that the title track gave us. On the other hand, this is a fairly dramatic stylistic change for Priest – it’s a ‘groove metal’ album that probably would be more at home in 1994, and it’s not that far off from what Rob Halford did with his first post-Priest band (Fight). Most people note Tim Owens taking over for vocals and place the weight of change on his shoulders, but I’m told the musical changes on this album were actually ushered in by the guitarists of all people.

Regardless, this is obviously slower and downtuned compared to the entirety of Priest’s discography before it. Tim Owens sounds very similar to Halford in his high register, but otherwise he relies more on modern hardcore influenced shouts. The riffs are also rather different from on Painkiller – not particularly melodic but not particularly percussive either; at times they remind me of a less mechanical and aggressive take on what Fear Factory did on Demanufacture. Given that this album also uses occasional synthesizers in the background for emphasis, it seems like a reasonable comparison. Meanwhile, the drummer introduced on Painkiller (Scott Travis) puts in another solid performance, even adding an occasional blastbeat; while his performance isn’t as technical here, it does add some needed dynamics and textural variation to the album.

What Jugulator ends up being is an entirely derivative product putting even recently-reviewed Darkane to shame. However, any lack of aesthetic creativity is negated by the fact that by 1997, Judas Priest had been around for over 20 years, and its main core had gained massive amounts of experience with their chosen genre. While this didn’t prevent them from the occasional misstep (like the snoozefest that is “Decapitate”), it did mean they’d developed respectable pop sensibilities and could handle basic songwriting formulas enough to get good results out of their new aesthetic. Perhaps there was more conservatism in the air than usual; combined with a less theatrical aesthetic, many of the potential lows here were avoided. Ironically, the album’s best moment may come in its oldest inspirations; while Priest had occasionally brought out an extended song after Stained Class (their last album to have any real prog rock influence), “Cathedral Spires” neatly ties together many of the ideas this incarnation of Priest worked with in a 9 minute package.

In retrospect, the fact that this didn’t have anything as painfully bad as “A Touch Of Evil” was a major attractant, and the album is worth at least a few spins for its better tracks. I don’t think most would say it’s as good as Priest’s ‘classic’ albums; it does lack some of the pure creativity that makes ’70s Priest interesting by virtue of playing it safe. Then again, if you approach Judas Priest in a similar way to me and don’t like this album, you probably won’t get much out of Painkiller either.

Highlights: “Dead Meat”, “Death Row”, “Burn in Hell”, “Cathedral Spires”

Music Review: Judas Priest – Painkiller

 

 

So here we have “Painkiller” by Judas Priest. Don’t believe me? Look at the cover.

10 tracks. One of utter destruction, the rest ranging from pretty good to pretty damn stupid. Judas Priest has had problems with consistency for the longest time – Only “Sad Wings of Destiny” seems immune, although the other ’70s albums come very close at times (Just counting the studio albums here). It’s sad, but what are you going to do? I had yet to be born in 1990, so I wasn’t around for whatever reaction this one received – largely positive, I’m told.

Fast forward to April 2009, where I am literally flinging myself into a canyon of heavy metal after only having the then mysterious substance trickle in for a while. When I decide it’s time to check out Judas Priest, this is the first one to get my attention, mainly due to the title track. It’s not the fastest thing they’ve done (even on this album), not the heaviest thing (that’s probably Jugulator), not the most epic thing (Dreamer Deciever), or the most metal-minded thing they’ve done (Never mind, it probably is). But it combines these elements very well – 6 minutes of crushing intensity with guitar solos, huge screams, and so forth. The track alone is probably in the top 5 of all Priest tracks, so it’s a shame that nothing on the album even comes close to touching that level of glory.

It’s incredibly important to realize how violently and prematurely this album blows its load. Track 2, “Hell Patrol”, almost seems like a break after the abuse of Painkiller – it’s a good song for anyone else, but the problems with this album make themselves apparent. Firstly, it’s very monochromatic in its approach – there are differences between the songs on this album, but they seem to be primarily of intensity. Each track tries to be heavy and epic – some of the latter ones succeed in general but fail to come close in context, or land flat on their faces, unable to muster much real strength. As a whole, most of the tracks have some redeeming value, like the wild speed of “Metal Meltdown” or the melodic prowess of “Between the Hammer and the Anvil”.

Compositions are generally fairly simple verse-chorus affairs. Sometimes, there are long bridges with lots of soloing, and the best songs on here tend to have such. Admittedly, most the best tracks on here imitate the structure of Painkiller to some degree, like All Guns Blazing, but since even the tracks that don’t follow its general form almost do so, it’s not much of a statement. It sounds great when it’s fast, but it doesn’t get very fast – “Metal Meltdown” is about as fast as Priest gets. The weaker songs are generally the slower ones, but even that doesn’t set up much of a trend – the worst songs on here aren’t bad because of a lack of speed, of course…

Then, as “Between the Hammer and the Anvil” fades into wind, the bells come in – they are a warning..
STAY THE FUCK AWAY FROM “A TOUCH OF EVIL”!

On this track the album just falls apart entirely and doesn’t recover. Admittedly, it’s about over at that point, so maybe they were hoping people wouldn’t notice after the rest of the tracks wore them out, or maybe I’m an exception to those who dislike it. But there’s lots of problems – it plods along, occasionally interjecting idiotic synth flourishes (0:36) which were probably intended to sound “evil”. Unfortunately, it ends up sounding far cheesier than the rest of the album (some of the lyrics are completely ridiculous beforehand, but this one just takes the cake), and the riffing isn’t on par with the other tracks. Then, after an instrumental, “One Shot at Glory” partially redeems the album, but doesn’t do much to distinguish itself. A shame. What a way to end an album that could’ve been one of Priest’s best.

I mean, it’s still decent, and it definitely has shining moments. But it’s one hell of an inconsistent album – Priest tends to be that way, especially when they’re popular. Either way, this album leaves you wanting more. You’d either hope for an improvement, or more of the same, or whatever (which you can extrapolate from your own opinions). So when Priest broke up in 1991, I’m sure lots of people were distraught. Jugulator, for sure, ended up about the same as this one qualitywise, maybe slightly better with its cooler album art, better ending, and other similarities. I might get to that one later.

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