(Sin After Sin, 1977)
Stuck way in the back of side two, “Dissident Aggressor” seems like an afterthought on Judas Priest’s third album, but it remains an absolute marvel to this day, three minutes of staggering heaviness that was years ahead of its time. Opening with a 35-second intro that cranks up the tension more and more before exploding with a flourish of high-pitched screams, the song is a relentless assault of churning riffs, audacious atonal guitar solos, creative drumming by session drummer Simon Phillips, and one of Halford’s greatest performances on record. American speed kings Slayer, which were profoundly influenced by Judas Priest and especially “Dissident Aggressor”, would famously cover the song a decade later.
(Stained Class, 1978)
Before Metallica’s “Fade to Black”, before the rage and self-loathing that permeated heavy metal in the 1990s, there was “Beyond the Realms of Death”, which set the template for the Miserable Teen Heavy Metal Song. Simply arranged—acoustic verses, colossal, explosive choruses—Halford’s lyrics take two different points of view, first in the third person, depicting a depressed young man (“No matter how they tried / They couldn’t understand”) then shifting to the first person, who vents his frustrations before taking his own life (“Keep the world with all its sin / It’s not fit for livin’ in”). Powerful and harrowing, the song’s use of dynamics is masterful.
(British Steel, 1980)
Written in a matter of minutes and only 156 seconds long, “Breaking the Law” opens with one of the most famous riffs in metal history, wasting no time getting into listeners’ heads. Halford’s lyrics were originally interpreted to be about teen alienation and rebellion, but today you can’t help but hear his own pain regarding his repressed homosexuality as he bellows, “You don’t know what it’s like!” With its simple, sing-along chorus, and featuring an introduction that’s become as much a part of the song as the actual music (“Breaking the what?”), it’s a permanent fixture in the Judas Priest setlist to this day. If you’re at a Judas Priest concert, watch the crowd erupt when this song kicks into gear.
(Sad Wings of Destiny, 1976)
Six years after “Black Sabbath” unofficially spawned an entire musical genre, Judas Priest ignited a second sea change with a curious composition that managed to rewrite the rules of the nascent heavy metal sound. A combination of two songs, “Whiskey Woman” by former singer Al Atkins and Halford’s own composition “Red Light Lady”, the titanic “Victim of Changes” features a searing dual guitar attack that takes the approach of Wishbone Ash and the Allman Brothers to an entirely new extreme, and most vitally, introduces a level of operatic vocal flamboyance courtesy Halford that the genre had never seen before. The second he screams the climactic, “Victim of changes!” the door’s blown wide open, the possibilities now even wider than ever. Heavy metal would never be the same again.
(Screaming For Vengeance, 1982)
For a band renowned for vague, sometimes cartoonish lyrics, Judas Priest knocked one clear out of the park in 1982 with the startlingly mature opening song on Screaming For Vengeance. Introduced by the grandiose overture “The Hellion”, “Electric Eye” opens like a house on fire thanks to nimble guitar work by Tipton and Downing, creating a powerful, majestic backdrop against which Halford performs his prescient lyrics about electronic surveillance, part HAL-2000, part 1984: “I take a pride in probing all your secret moves / My tearless retina takes pictures that can prove”. Foreboding, bracing, and imposing, and featuring some welcome raw production by Tom Allom, it’s a perfect encapsulation of heavy metal’s appeal, and is Judas Priest’s definitive moment.
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