“Fast and Furious” are the first words that greet the listener on Judas Priest’s epic ninth album Defenders of the Faith from 1984. Truer words were rarely wailed and this promise proves to be a veritable mission statement for the entire album.
The opening song, “Freewheel Burning” is something between an icon of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (graced and cursed by Rob Halford’s other-worldly scream) and a 1970s road rocker gone wonderfully sci-fi (the speaker of the song rides not only roads, but “the universe”). While bands like Iron Maiden (something of an audio cousin to Judas Priest) braved new ground with literary lyrics and progressive experimentation, Judas Priest was burning up the road in leather and spikes and mixing good, old fashioned Rock and Roll with their own proto version of Speed Metal, all supporting (and supported by) that witchy scream of Halford, equal parts metallic aggression and operatic high notes that still boggle the mind.
While not exactly a departure from their previous album (1982’s Screaming for Vengeance), Defenders of the Faith is hardly a clone of the prior album. Further, while Judas Priest had already become incredibly famous due to singles such as “Breaking the Law”, “Living After Midnight”, “Heading out to the Highway” and “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin'”, Defenders of the Faith sported no stand-alone hit single. In spite of the relatively successful single releases “Love Bites”, “Some Heads Are Gonna Roll” and the aforementioned “Freewheel Burning”, Defenders of the Faith was an immediate success due to its merits as a full album. The 1984 release was certified Platinum and sold almost as well as Screaming for Vengeance (which was aided by the monster hit “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin'”).
The album’s successes have continued to the point that it has been rereleased in 2015 as a “Special 30th Anniversary Deluxe Edition”. The product lives up to its name. The iconic cover of “The Metallion… Master of All Metal” (painted by Doug Johnson) is covered by a darkened sleeve with a cutout that highlights only the metallic monster’s horned head (removing the sleeve displays the original cover in all its multi-colored glory). An included colorful booklet includes a foreword by the band, a historical essay by Bryan Reesman and a series of photos from the 1984 tour. Logically Rob Halford is in the most photos with guitarists K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton taking second place and bassist Ian Hill rounding out the photo essay. Curiously drummer Dave Holland is hardly seen at all (aside from two uplifted arms, the rest of him is entirely obscured by the drum set… when he appears at all).
The most enticing “extra” included in this 30th Anniversary collection consists of two full CDs of live music recorded at Long Beach Arena (the same venue at which Iron Maiden’s Live After Death would be recorded the following year). The live discs feature every song from Defenders of the Faith (except for the PMRC-objectionable “Eat Me Alive”) along with 12 other screaming Priest classics including “Hell Bent For Leather”, “Electric Eye”, “The Hellion” and, of course, “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin'” and “Breaking the Law”.
Needless to say, for fans of Defenders of the Faith and Judas Priest in general, this 30th Anniversary set has the extras to make it worthwhile. However, the original album itself is, and should be, the main attraction here. Defenders of the Faith has never sounded better (especially for those of us who grew up with the album on audio cassette only). “Love Bites” is instantly addictive Groove Metal, while “The Sentinel” evokes memories of the best of Priest’s progressive metal. “Jawbreaker” takes the listener on its own journey before Halford shoots the song skyward with his impossibly melodic scream in the chorus.
Halford’s voice is certainly the most unique element on this album (although he is the only vocalist ever to “guest” for Black Sabbath, there really is no other singer who sounds quite like him). That said, Judas Priest on the whole has always been a creative force to be reckoned with and features some incredible musicians. The twin guitars of Dowling and Tipton exchange growling pick slides and furious leads on the controversial “Eat Me Alive” while the rhythm section of Holland and Hill provide a rumbling chugga-chugga backdrop.
The only song on the album not penned by Priest’s Downing, Tipton and Halford is the single “Some Heads Are Gonna Roll”. Not a remake, the song was composed by Christian/Keltic rocker Bob Halligan, Jr. (who had previously contributed “(Take These) Chains” to Screaming for Vengeance and would later contribute “Twist” to Halford’s solo band.) While something of a departure from the rest of the album, the song is great rock and roll with a decidedly Judas Priest flair and works well, especially as it leads into the (relatively) lighter song “Night Comes Down”.
I must stress “relatively”, as there is very little that could be considered anything but “heavy” on Defenders of the Faith. “Rock Hard Ride Free” screams an additional proclamation that the band is “going against the grain” with a chorus designed for arena rock sing-alongs (which the live version additionally proves). If the title “Heavy Duty” doesn’t spell it out enough, the stomping drums and grinding guitars, this is another stadium rock designed slice of rough metal, featuring Halford at his most lowest and growling (amid his still powerful screams). Even the studio version of “Heavy Duty” features crowd screaming.
If anything, however, songs like “Rock Hard Ride Free” and “Heavy Duty”, while both fun to listen to, dampen the “timelessness” of the record on the whole. While Judas Priest has always seemed “progressive” (if by literally embracing Progressive Rock styles or by anticipating the next wave of metal time after time), such stadium-designed songs specifically about being “heavy” and performing feel just about as dated as 1980s rap songs about money and shoes. That said, the songs more than serve their purpose and prove to be infinitely catchy.
The simulated crowd roar continues with the final track, the title song “Defenders of the Faith”, which erupts straight out of “Heavy Duty” and serves as a coda to the entire album. Halford’s cry of “We are defenders of the faith” repeats over the invisible crowd while the band thunders in agreement. Of course with no other lyrics present the question of “what faith” is left ambiguous to the casual listener. However this might have baited the PMRC and other parents groups back in 1984, the album on the whole makes it clear that the band’s devotion is to Rock and Roll itself.
Thirty-one years is a long time and music has changed quite a bit over those three decades. The truth is, so has Judas Priest. This is not simply due to lineup changes, but further experimentation and anticipation of (and trailblazing for) metal’s newest sounds. Due to the prescience and puissance of Defenders of the Faith, the album has proven its worth. This is no throwback record or nostalgia treasure. This is a classic heavy metal album worthy of the deluxe treatment. In short, Judas Priest no longer has anything to defend. “Fast and Furious” to the very end.