An essential Judas Priest reissue reminds us that when it comes to metal, they really don't play it like they used to.
If you’re in your teens or 20s and scoff at all the shameless nostalgia by Generation X and the Baby Boomers, just you wait -- it’ll get you soon enough. Nostalgia’s a powerful and irresistible thing. If you’re a music writer in your 40s continually sifting through new music whose quality can often be described as questionable at best, all it takes is an announcement of a deluxe reissue of an album from your adolescence to get that old excitement back. I’ll just come out and state that tired old line: "They don’t make music like they used to", and you can bet you’ll be spouting the same line once you hit middle age, too.
Historically speaking, though, the years 1983 and 1984 represent the most crucial time in heavy metal history, in which innovation, media exposure, and a new generation coming of age all converged, creating a critical mass of landmark music that would influence the genre to this very day. So many bands reached their creative zenith, and among them was Judas Priest, who followed up career turning point Screaming For Vengeance with the more focused, steely Defenders of the Faith. Much less of a singles-oriented album than their previous four albums, the sleek, dense, dark, chrome-and-leather feel of the entire album leaves a lasting impression. Rob Halford is at his most aggressive and theatrical, Glenn Tipton’s and KK Downing’s guitars attack more than ever, and the rhythm section is locked in to the point of feeling mechanical. While there is a ballad late in the album -- the highly underrated “Night Comes Down” -- Defenders is all about that impersonal vibe, which is maintained with great discipline in the wake of the much more scattershot Vengeance.
Originally intended for 2014 release but shelved so the band could promote the new album Redeemer of Souls, the new “Special 30th Anniversary Deluxe Edition” of Defenders of the Faith arrives, funnily enough, just after its 31st anniversary, but with a classic album like this, it’s better late than never. The album has been given a thorough remaster by Richard Kayvan and producer Tom Allom. The rhythm section which is so crucial on Defenders, is bursting, driving, and booming. From the rigid speed of “Freewheel Burning” to the seductive “Love Bites”, from the epic “The Sentinal” to the lurid “Eat Me Alive”, this record’s been given a good, tasteful overhaul.
The real draw of this reissue, however, is the complete live recording from the Long Beach Arena on 5 May 1984. Spread across two discs, it’s a far better indication of Judas Priest’s live power than 1988’s tepid Priest… Live!. The band tears through a set heavy on early-‘80s material, bolstered by such early classics as “Sinner”, “Victim of Changes”, and “The Green Manalishi”. For 30 years I always thought opening the set with “Love Bites” felt a bit odd and clunky, and it still does, but the rest of this bonus live album scorches, and is an absolute pleasure to hear.
Appended by a fine essay by Brian Reesman and featuring some fabulous photos from the band’s notorious Madison Square Garden concert that got them banned for life from the New York City arena, this is easily the best reissue Judas Priest has assembled yet. They were never better than they were in 1984. (For a more thorough write-up about the album itself, read my piece written for Stereogum last year here.)
Enslaved, In Times (Nuclear Blast)
Neil Peart has long maintained that Moving Pictures is Rush’s “true” debut album, with the previous seven albums seeming like an extended gestation period before the band truly came into its own. The most creatively restless band to emerge from the Norwegian black metal scene of the early-1990s, Enslaved has so gracefully transformed from young extreme innovators to progressive metal auteurs that the days of Frost and Eld feel like a distant, far-off memory. Like Rush, those six early Enslaved albums, from 1994’s Vikinglidr Veldi to 2001’s turning point Monumension, excellent as they are, form an extended portrait of a young band finding its voice. It was with 2003’s Below the Lights that Enslaved truly came into its own, and ever since bringing in keyboardist Herbrand Larsen as third vocalist -- handling all melodic singing -- the band has been on an unprecedented roll, putting out seven outstanding albums that, while continuing to show musical growth, still maintain the same keen musical vision of marrying progressive rock and extreme metal.
In Times continues that perpetual forward trajectory, but not before showing one and all that the edge has been not lost in the band’s songwriting at all. As is the habit recently, they kick things off in ferocious fashion with the rampaging “Thurisaz Dreaming”. If there ever is a formula to post-2001 Enslaved, it’s that juxtaposition of classic black metal with ‘70s prog and Viking themes, and this song executes it to a tee, alternating between searing passages led by Grutle Kjellson’s distinct snarl and mellower verses sung by Larsen. It’s excellent, but also a little familiar, and you’re left wondering if the band is starting to sound a little too comfortable, too set in its ways.
Thankfully that thought is immediately quashed, as the following five songs show the kind of urgency and ambition that has made Enslaved such a rewarding band to follow these past dozen years. “Building With Fire” is jarring in that it’s built around a simple backbeat and guitars that feel less overdriven than usual, allowing ample room for Larsen’s singing. “One Thousand Years of Rain” takes on a more foreboding mood, highlighted by a brilliant passage sung in what seems to be Icelandic, evoking the Viking folklore that has long enthralled the band. The band’s deep seated obsession with Voivod rises to the surface once again on “Nauthir Bleeding”, the atonal riffs echoing the late Denis “Piggy” d’Amour.
A much more compact album than 2012’s sprawling RIITIIR, In Times comes to a stirring a climax in its final 20 minutes. If it wasn’t for the distorted guitar, the opening two and a half minutes of the title track could pass for a Camel song, after which it veers back and forth unpredictably yet cohesively between extremity and Kansas-style prog, the closest they’ve ever come to matching the progressive rock majesty of Opeth. “Daylight”, meanwhile, live fully up to its title, launching into an extended coda featuring some of the most beautiful melodies the band has ever written. Enslaved has been a lot of things over the band’s history. But “wistful” is a new one. It’s an absolutely gorgeous way to cap off a splendid album, on that’s sure to grow on listeners even more as the year goes on. (Listen on Spotify.)
Cancer Bats, Searching For Zero (Metal Blade)
The inexplicably popular Canadian band always sounds stuck between being a hardcore punk act and a Pantera-ripping groove metal act, which seems to work for most people, but personally it always feels disjointed. Not much has changed on this fifth album, with punk-inspired fare like “Satellites” and “Devil’s Blood” placed alongside bruising headbangers like “Buds” and “True Zero”, but “Dusted” and “No More Bull Shit” show a little range, slowing things down to a bluesy crawl that dares to bridge the band’s past influence with the sludge sound of Eyehategod. Unfortunately, those are the last two songs on the album, making the previous eight tracks a waste of time by comparison. (Preview and purchase via iTunes.)
Eternal Solstice, Remnants Of Immortality (Dark Descent)
What’s so impressive about this Dutch band’s fourth album isn’t the extremity or the brutality of their brand of death metal: it’s the catchiness of it all, how refined the melodies are. Amidst all the death growls and throttling grooves reminiscent of Grave and Unleashed is a level of flamboyance reminiscent of Mercyful Fate. Just because it’s simple and to the point doesn’t mean a death metal album can’t display a mastery of dynamics. It’s a tremendous little death metal album that doesn’t deserve to be buried under bigger-name releases. (Listen on Spotify.)
Melechesh, Enki (Nuclear Blast)
Any band that tries hard to bring something new to the genre is all right by me. It’s not as if Melechesh’s Sumerian-themed black metal wasn’t original enough, but band leader Ashmedi took it upon himself to give his music a complete overhaul, at least on a tuning level. Upon learning that the slightly flatter 432 Hz tuning is apparently more compatible to the human body -- and nature overall -- than the conventional 440 Hz tuning that was made standard in the 20th century, the band went through great trouble to record its sixth album in the more ancient 432 tuning. Whether it makes a big difference is hard to say, but it was worth a shot, and besides, Enki is every bit as strong as breakthroughs Djinn (2001) and Emissaries (2006), and at times even better. The Middle Eastern melodies that make Ashmedi’s songs are just as prevalent as ever, but what sets this album apart form the rest is the fun balance between some of the band’s catchiest and most concise songs to date (“The Pendulum Speaks”) and more sprawling, epic compositions (“The Outsiders”). It’s great to see a band like this continue to strive for new ideas, and this album is a resounding success thanks in large part to that restlessness.
Mortals/Repellers, Split (Broken Limbs)
Here’s a split release that works, featuring two bands that complement each other well. Brooklyn trio -- and critics’ favorites -- Mortals have come through with the epic track “10 Years of Filth”, which continues to bridge black metal and sludge in a way that few can match. Philadelphia band Repellers, on the other hand, contribute three shorter tracks, which take their underground black metal in a more crust punk-influenced direction. (Stream and purchase the Mortals track via Bandcamp.)
Motor Sister, Ride (Metal Blade)
With a new Anthrax album in the works, Scott Ian put together a side project that, as timing would have it, turns out to be a great little stopgap release. Teaming up with singer Jim Wilson from defunct Los Angeles rock band Mother Superior, and bring in his wife Pearl Aday and buddies Joey Vera (Armored Saint) and John Tempesta (Rob Zombie), he’s put together a raucous and shockingly excellent collection of Mother Superior covers. After decades of hearing Ian play his usual muscular rhythm guitar with Anthrax, it’s nice to hear him show a little range ,but as on Mother Superior’s past work, it’s Wilson’s shamelessly soulful singing that cinches this record, which bursts with a laid-back, fun vibe. Everyone involved clearly had a blast making this, and that feeling is palpable. (Listen on Spotify.)
Uli Jon Roth, Scorpions Revisited (UDR)
Although this is yet another example of a veteran artist re-recording classic material -- the most tired gimmick in heavy metal and hard rock -- influential former Scorpions guitarist Uli Jon Roth has brought a fresh approach to the concept. Instead of lazily running through greatest hits like so many bands have done, he and his band offer faithful yet slyly creative reinterpretations of 19 classic Scorpions tracks. Timeless songs like “The Sails of Charon”, “In Trance”, “Dark Lady”, “We’ll Burn the Sky”, and “Fly to the Rainbow” have been beautifully fleshed out, allowing Roth more time to reel off his fluid, soulful solos, while his singer Nathan James does a splendid job replicating those challenging vocal melodies. In no way do these renditions replace such albums as In Trance, Virgin Killer, and Taken By Force, but there’s just enough energy and imagination in these performances to please any old Scorps fan, and perhaps introduce younger listeners to a crucial era of a very important band. (Listen on Spotify.)
Trying to keep up with both the underground and mainstream sides of heavy metal these days -- and let’s face it, it’s not so much a divide between the two as a gulf -- is such an undertaking that you’re bound to miss out on bands along the way. Sometimes I look at the charts, see the biggest debut by a metal band, and think, who?! This week it’s a young outfit called Sons of Texas, who for some reason have sold 2,275 units in the States this week. Totally aimed at the Black Label Society/Pantera/Hellyeah crowd, it’s actually passable groove metal with enough Texas shtick, country pandering, vocal yarling, and pinch squeals to generate interest off the beaten path, in working class B and C markets. There are some genuinely good tunes here, and if they can develop their own sound and not rely so lazily on Anselmo-isms and Zakk Wylde rip-offs, there might be a future here. (Listen on Spotify.)
Elsewhere, UFO has charted in the US for the first time since 1985 with the very good new album A Conspiracy of Stars. It's Incredible feat, considering they’ve put out ten albums during that time. Way to go, old fellas. (Thanks again to the good folks at Metal Insider.)
When Prong’s Beg to Differ came out 25 years ago this week, much was made of it because it sounded so different than everything else at the time, uniting various aspects of music. It was thrash-derived, but slower, more robotic, like Voivod at times. There were hints of industrial music, but less overt than Godflesh and Ministry. Its combination of noise and restraint easily appealed to college rock radio listeners, as well. And if that wasn’t enough, the Pushead artwork was right in keeping with the fashion in metal at the time. It remains an oddity a quarter century later, with its strange yet fitting gated snare sound, but like Voivod and Godflesh, it holds up exceptionally well today. For all the crunching riffs by Tommy Victor, I keep coming back to the drumming of former Swans drummer (and future Godflesh drummer) Ted Parsons, who anchors this album with beats so tight that they rival the 1980s work of Neil Peart, especially on standout tracks “Prime Cut”, “Lost and Found”, and “Beg to Differ”. In a year where metal started to show signs of splintering, Prong came along and provided one of 1990s best and most innovative records. (Listen on Spotify.)
Hearing Royal Thunder’s new album back in December, there came one of those moments where you heard a track that clicks so perfectly that I couldn’t wait to tell people about it, and better yet, share it legally with all. Opening track “Time Machine” was that moment, and it’s a jaw-dropper, especially if you’re already familiar with the Atlanta band’s sound. Crooked Doors (out April 7 on Relapse) is a deliberate step outside the heavy, riff-oriented sound of the band’s previous two albums into music with more texture, emotion, and melody. The forcefulness is still there, but singer/bassist Miny Parsonz is given a lot more room in which to sing, and she drives the entire track. Old habits die hard with this band, as they carry on for more than seven minutes, but with hooks as riveting here, this song could go on for half an hour and I wouldn’t complain. This is one of the tracks of the year.
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