[9 August 2004]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
1976: Side one, track one on Judas Priest’s newly released second LP, Sad Wings of Destiny, the monumental “Victim of Changes”, the song that changed the course of heavy metal. The tune gets off to an ordinary start, a decent Black Sabbath/Deep Purple homage that originated as a song called “Whiskey Woman”. It churns away comfortably, the relaxed, ambling riffs by guitarists K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton underscoring singer Rob Halford’s somewhat mundane tale of a guy with woman problems (“Takes another drink or two, things look better when she’s through”). Then, from out of the blue, the song comes to a screeching halt, as a much more menacing tone sets in, the band delivering sharply syncopated flourishes as Halford spits out the lines venomously, “Get up! Get out! You know you really blew it!” as Tipton and Downing go on to deliver a screaming dual guitar solo, which would go on to become one of the band’s trademarks. The song shifts again to a more mellow, regretful third movement, the protagonist lamenting over the transformation in the woman he once loved, before climaxing with something never heard in metal before, a searing, blood-curdling scream by Halford, as he howls, “Victim of changes!!!” The simple, blue-collar, monolithic metal of old, replaced in an instant by something much more progressive, flamboyant, and operatic.
Part of the “second wave” of heavy metal in the mid to late 1970s, Judas Priest, along with Rainbow, UFO, and the Scorpions, bridged the gap between pioneering groups Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and Led Zeppelin, and the crucial New Wave of British Heavy Metal, which was then in its infancy. Hailing from the same industrial city as Black Sabbath, Birmingham, England, Judas Priest was the single most influential metal band of the late ‘70s; the impact of their first four albums on the entire genre is immeasurable, as numerous styles, such as power metal, thrash metal, death metal, speed metal, and progressive metal all grew from what this band started.
1984: Ninth-grade headbangers at a junior high school argue over the merits of Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, the two best metal bands on the planet: Halford vs. Dickinson, Downing-Tipton vs. Murray-Smith, Doug Johnson’s “Metallion” vs. Derek Riggs’s “Eddie”, songs about a post-apocalyptic world vs. historical epics, but all agreeing that Priest’s “Eat Me Alive” totally rules. A kid listens to “Freewheel Burnin’” on his walkman over and over and over again, trying desperately to figure out what the hell it is that Halford’s singing so fast during the middle eight, angry that his cassette of Defenders of the Faith didn’t come with lyrics, and that Halford doesn’t enunciate better. Elsewhere, a band of fourteen year-olds debate whether or not to play “Love Bites” at a school variety show, prompting a skinny guitarist in a Screaming For Vengeance baseball t-shirt to concede, “Well, it’s the easiest Priest song to play.” In a neighborhood home, downstairs in the rec room, two friends watch a grainy, bootlegged videotape of a Priest concert from 1982, as one comments, “They sure don’t move around much, do they?”
Over the course of 30 years, the mighty Priest has had an eventful journey as metal gods, with more than their share of peaks and valleys: they went from being regarded as metal progenitors, to a worldwide commercial success, scorned for being shameless sellouts, accused by witless parents of convincing kids to kill themselves, and coming out from it all as triumphant heroes. For a time in the ‘90s they became “the band with the gay singer”, and then for a while they were “the band who replaced their gay singer with a kid who played in a Judas Priest tribute band.” Today, as Priest prepares to complete a long-awaited comeback by co-headlining the 2004 Ozzfest tour, their great classic lineup reunited for the first time in a dozen years, they’re returning as heroes once again.
February, 1998: A 28-year-old former Priest fan sits down to breakfast, picks up the newspaper, and reads that Rob Halford has officially come out of the closet. “Well, it was kind of obvious,” he smirks, pausing a second, then adding curiously, “But if it was so obvious, why didn’t us kids ever notice it?” A few minutes later, he nearly chokes on his coffee when he thinks about just what “Eat Me Alive” was really about, chuckling at the thought of how naïve he and his friends were 14 years earlier. Later that day, he erupts with laughter when he remembers the big-haired metal chick on Heavy Metal Parking Lot who said if she met Halford, she’d “jump his bones.”
Partially in celebration of Halford’s much-heralded return, and also to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the release of the band’s 1974 debut Rocka Rolla, Judas Priest has compiled the definitive, career-spanning Priest anthology, in the form of a very swanky, five disc set. Metalogy (that’s Metalogy, not “metallurgy”, curiously enough) might not be as thorough a collection as the separate sets of remastered albums that came out in the last five years, but as far as multi-disc “best of” compilations go, this the rarest of sets, one that not only serves as a thrilling introduction to a legendary band, but also one that is guaranteed to please longtime fans. Quite frankly, this is one of the best heavy metal anthologies that’s ever been assembled.
Metalogy leaves no stone unturned, offering a detailed look at every phase of the band’s catalog, and most rewarding are the tracks that feature Priest at their most innovative. Of course, there’s “Victim of Changes”, the song that started it all, but this set includes the version from 1979’s Unleashed in the East live album; just how “live” that album is has always been a question, but the performance of the song, studio enhancements and all, is superior to the original album version, and worthy of inclusion. We do get gloriously remastered versions of 1976’s “Tyrant” and “Deceiver”, two songs that confidently foreshadow the band’s career, as well as “Never Satisfied”, from the 1974 debut Rocka Rolla. 1977’s Sin After Sin predates classic European death metal, something you hear during the monstrous choruses and intricate, doom-ridden arrangements of “Sinner” and the stunning heaviness of the peerless “Dissident Aggressor”, which boasts the most thrilling intro in heavy metal history (the latter was later covered by Slayer in 1988). “The Rage”, from 1980’s much-loved British Steel has the band audaciously injecting reggae into their sound, while the propulsive “Electric Eye”, from Screaming From Vengeance (1982) features some of Halford’s greatest lyrics, as he touches on society’s growing paranoia during the increasingly techno-centric late 20th century. It’s “Beyond the Realms of Death”, from 1978’s Stained Class, though, that remains Priest’s high water mark to this day, a combination of “Ballad of Dwight Fry” style melodrama (“Withdrawn he’d sit there/Stare blank into space”) and responses of passionate defiance in the powerful choruses (“This is my life, this is my life/I’ll decide not you”), as two majestic solos by Tipton and Downing take the song soaring into the stratosphere.
Speed has always been a big part of the Priest sound, and their early attempts at faster, more frenetically-paced, double bass-driven rhythms and intricate guitar arrangements paved the way for bands like Motorhead, German metal masters Accept, as well as Venom, Diamond Head, Helloween, and later, the entire American thrash metal scene. Sin After Sin‘s “Call For the Priest” and Stained Class‘s “Exciter” are early examples of the band’s increased ferocity (and where you can sense Metallica’s trademark thrash sound originating), and as the years go by, the band simply perfects the art of speed metal. Longtime live staple “Hell Bent For Leather” introduces us to Halford’s increasing fascination with leather, spikes, and vague S&M references, while the ‘80s classics “Rapid Fire”, “Screaming For Vengeance”, and “Freewheel Burnin’” are downright bestial in their intensity. Nothing, absolutely nothing comes close to matching 1990’s “Painkiller”, the band’s astonishing comeback after an artistically subpar (some might say disastrous) five year period, serving as both a showcase for one of Halford’s greatest vocal performances ever, and the phenomenal drumming of Scott Travis, who had just joined the band.
May, 1986: Filmmakers Jeff Krulik and John Heyn venture to suburban Maryland on a warm spring afternoon to talk to metal fans gathered for a Judas Priest concert. They come across a group of teens, led by an outspoken, mulleted young man, dressed in garish zebra-print spandex from head to toe, who grabs the microphone: “Heavy metal rules! All that punk shit sucks! It doesn’t belong in this world, it belongs on fuckin’ Mars man, what the hell is punk shit? And Madonna can go to hell as far as I’m concerned, she’s a dick. Seriously, heavy metal definitely rules, Twisted Sister, Judas Priest, Dokken, Ozzy, Scorpions, they all rule! This punk shit… they can all go to hell… I don’t care, you know, I don’t really give a shit about that kind of punk fuck!”
Of course, then there’s the more commercial side of Judas Priest, the stuff that provided the soundtracks to frat parties and tailgate parties everywhere. The band made their dramatic stylistic shift on 1979’s near-classic Hell Bent For Leather with such radio-friendly rockers as “Evening Star” and the terrific “Delivering the Goods”, but it was the following album, British Steel, that broke the band in suburban America. Drummer Dave Holland came aboard for that album, and while not the most versatile performer, he provided an especially strong, no-frills backbeat that suited the band’s new style well. Producer Tom Allom, with whom the band would work throughout the 80s, stripped down the band’s sound, simplifying the tunes into more compact, immediately pleasing fare, perfected on such tracks as “Living After Midnight”, “Metal Gods”, and a year later, “Desert Plains” and “Heading Out to the Highway”, the two best tracks from the much-maligned Point of Entry album. 1987’s Turbo was an ill-conceived attempt at synth-laden pop rock, but it did yield a very good single in “Turbo Lover”, not to mention the highly underrated ballad “Out in the Cold”. However, it’s “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’” that takes the cake as the band’s most ubiquitous tune, its brooding opening riff and Halford’s shamelessly cornball lyrics making the tune a rock radio staple for more than 20 years now, appealing to partiers and hardcore metal fans alike.
The real jewel in Metalogy is something that Priest fans have been craving for years, a bonus DVD of the long out of print Judas Priest Live concert video, recorded during the 1982 Screaming For Vengeance tour. It’s especially a revelation for younger viewers, who, seeing the full concert, get to witness the band at the absolute peak of their power, as they tear through an unforgettable 90-minute set. Older fans, though, will get just as much of a kick out of the performance, as Halford is in fine form, both vocally, as well as onstage, as he glares menacingly at the crowd during “Electric Eye”, straddles and whips his Harley during “Hell Bent For Leather”, and does a fabulously goofy robot stomp as he sings “Metal Gods”. Presented in both two channel stereo and 5.1 surround sound, and with crystalline picture quality, this DVD is essential viewing for every metal enthusiast.
Although it would have been nice to see a couple more tracks from Sad Wings of Destiny on the set (“The Ripper” and “Genocide” are somewhat eyebrow-raising omissions), the band has otherwise done an outstanding job culling what they consider to be their best music. Every album (save 1987’s flaccid Priest…Live! album) is represented fairly; even the horrendous 1988 album Ram it Down and the subpar late ‘90s albums are given token nods, and thankfully, the band’s more forgettable singles have been left off (bless you, boys, for not including “United”, “Don’t Go”, “Locked In”, and “Johnny B. Goode”). Some listeners might take issue with the band’s decision to replace such songs as “Diamonds and Rust”, “Starbreaker”, “Green Manalishi”, “Breaking the Law”, and “Electric Eye” with live versions, but each of those performances all top the originals. Only does the live version of “Love Bites” seem an awkward fit, as Tom Allom’s heavy, minimal treatment on the Defenders of the Faith album version suits the song better.
Presented in a very snazzy, sturdy, simulated black leather box, adorned with metal studs (one of the best design ideas we’ve seen in a long time), Metalogy looks great on the outside, and sounds even better, the remastered songs practically leaping from your speakers. For anyone looking to buy their first Judas Priest CD, or for those older, casual fans whose interest in the band was reborn when Halford returned this year, it’s worth every cent. Trepidatious diehard fans who already own all the remasters will justifiably balk at buying the set, and it’s more of a judgement call on their part, as they can burn their own Priest compilation, but the live DVD is so great, it makes up for any problems a fan might have with the track selection.
June, 2004: The ex-headbanger, now in his mid-30s, comes home one Saturday afternoon, clutching his newly-purchased copy of Metalogy. He pulls the box out of the record store bag, grinning childishly at the metal-studded box, his wife rolling her eyes. He spends the rest of the day listening to Judas Priest for the first time in years, his interest in the band renewed with a vengeance as he briefly muses, “Where’s ‘The Ripper?’” before cranking “Starbreaker” as loud as it can go. He watches the DVD, feeling the same rush he felt when he first saw the poor-quality tape of the same show 20 years earlier, wondering why today’s younger bands don’t have the same kind of flair these guys did, and why his wife just doesn’t understand how great this all is. He then gets an idea; dashing to the computer, he enters a google search for “judas priest freewheel lyrics”. Two mouse clicks later, he scrolls down, reads, and thinks, “Of course!” “Hold on to the lead with all your will and concede you’ll find there’s life with victory on high.” “Amen, brother. Now how am I going to tell the wife I just bought myself a $75 Ozzfest ticket?”