Judas Priest: The Essential Judas Priest

Judas Priest
The Essential Judas Priest

If you’re even a casual music fan, chances are you’ve read about how punk “saved” music from corporate rock in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Allow me to relate the real history.

Punk did produce a lot of great music and spin-off genres like hardcore and postpunk, but it didn’t save us here in America from shit. As far as wars go, punk was about as effective in staving off disco, AOR, and new wave posers as a paper plane lobbed at a Sherman tank. The radio was lamer than lame, ramming Michael Jackson, Madonna, Huey Lewis and the News, Steve Winwood (remember his awful solo shit?), Phil Collins, Foreigner and similar bland, corporate dreck down your throat. And besides, unless you were in a major media market, you barely even had access to most punk records, let alone knew of their existence. (That would all change with grunge, but that happened in the early 1990s.)

Contrary to revisionist history, the only music that successfully flipped the bird at the mainstream in the 1980s was heavy metal (and we’re not talking about posers like Def Leppard, Quiet Riot, and Mötley Crüe, which were just AOR with more hairspray). But even better, thanks to popular sentiment in spite of very little airplay, metal infiltrated the mainstream. For its fans, it became a sort of crusade — the music that loudly and aggressively reflected one’s desire for not only excitement, but also a means to vent against what you were supposed to listen to. Unlike punk, its relative popularity gave you a legitimate shot at expressing your dissatisfaction. And people did notice, as religious fanatics protested metal shows throughout the country, the PMRC formed to censor music and aimed most of its daggers at metal, and FM radio stations and MTV increasingly pushed metal into a corner by ignoring it; witness Metallica’s Master of Puppets album crashing the Top 30 in early 1986 in spite of no airplay or MTV exposure.

Throughout the 1980s, Judas Priest was at the forefront of metal both commercially and artistically — and, by the end of the decade, even got a taste of the controversy element as it stood accused of causing two teens to kill themselves by planting backward messages on its record Stained Class. (Said teens also had a long history of drug and alcohol abuse and had smoked weed for hours prior to the act, but I digress.) Priest went from ignoring the barbs of snooty rock critics early in the decade, to ignoring fans disappointed with the more melodic direction their music took by mid-decade, to roaring back with their heaviest record yet (1990’s Painkiller) at the start of the next decade.

And through it all, two things remained constant: they played metal unapologetically, even when it seemed to be on the wane at the turn of the 1980s; and they always managed to come up with a few great songs. This collection contains almost all of ’em, from the time they were still one of many British hard rockers in the 1970s, to the commercial success of the 1980s, to the modernized Priest sound from the 1990s to the present. “The Ripper” is as great a song about the infamous serial killer as Link Wray’s malevolent instrumental, “Jack the Ripper”. The catchy guitar figure from “Breaking the Law” had more than just Beavis and Butthead doing air-guitar workouts. “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin'”, “Electric Eye”, “Living After Midnight” and “Turbo Lover” were among the few tolerable songs on FM radio in the 1980s. And what metal fan hasn’t raised a fist to their molten remake of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Green Manalishi (With the Two-Pronged Crown)”?

Priest’s sound really hasn’t changed much in 30-plus years; rather, as annotator Geoff Barton puts it, “they’ve looked at musical trends and studied the mood of society in general, and where appropriate they’ve cleverly incorporated relevant aspects into their style of music.” Sometimes, such as the switch to cleaner production in the early 1980s (overcome by solid songwriting) or the shift to uber-aggressive thrashy power metal in 1990, it worked like a charm. Other times, such as the decision to use the awful loud ’80s digital drum sound on Turbo and Ram It Down, or the infamous period with Tim “Ripper” Owens on vocals (none of which is included), the results were mixed at best.

As evidenced by 2005’s Angel of Retribution (represented by “Judas Rising” and “Revolution” on this set), however, the band has weathered the storm. Unlike many career-spanning retrospectives where the later cuts are almost a concession rather than a necessary inclusion, the newer cuts on here hold their own with classic Priest. As the first and last tracks on this double CD, “Judas Rising” and “Revolution” also bookend a well-sequenced, non-chronological retrospective that — in spite of the noticeable omission of “Some Heads Are Gonna Roll” and a few questionable inclusions — should serve as the fine introduction it’s intended to be.

RATING 8 / 10