Judas Priest Countdown: Worst to Best Albums 1-5

9 October 2015. Filed under category Music - General, Music - Heavy Metal.

So this is it: the final five. I doubt any of these would really be considered controversial choices for a top five list of Judas Priest albums, except perhaps in terms of the exact order.

If one were faced with spending the rest of your life on a desert island then these five albums would take you through to the end with a smile on your face. However, as I mentioned in an earlier post, even the “bad” Priest albums still have plenty to like about them. Maybe if I was only allowed one desert island disc and it had to be Nostradamus I would be content enough. It is certainly long and, therefore, “good value”.  I could learn to love it if I had to listen to it over and over as something to sing along with.

My ranking system has been based on “vibe” rather than any other equally subjective analysis. These final five are probably the ones I listen to most often, although it is not like I’m keeping count….

220px-Judaspainkiller

This was the first album to be released after I discovered Judas Priest. I just missed out on the actual release of Ram It Down by a few months thus Painkiller was the one where I walked home from school, rather than take the bus, stopped by the local record store and picked up the cassette. These are the kinds of things I will remember on my deathbed.

I recall it was a special listening experience: that first play through. From the intro drum solo through every metal cliché in the book and Halford’s shriek of “lazer bullets”, Painkiller embodies what heavy metal is all about.

The album sounds very different to its predecessor which is in part down to having a new drummer who was allowed to show off his skills. It is a stark reality that throughout the eighties Dave Holland’s drumming just was not very interesting, but whether that was his fault or he was given strict boundaries to stay within is a mystery to me. Perhaps in 1990, when Priest was taking a lead from American thrash bands, what they knew they needed was a more capable drummer. They found it in Scott Travis on this first album he did with Priest.

Probably my favourite track here is One Shot at Glory which is actually fairly cheesy but closes the album perfectly. In some ways that song is the template for the kind of atmosphere they have been chasing on the most recent albums, but never quite catching it. Maybe it is my nostalgia which cements it in place as epitomising the little known genre of “Manowar-esque-but-better” and they nailed it.

The only criticism of Painkiller you could make is that Priest was clearly influenced by what was going on in the metal world and consciously trying to be heavier. This is a bit harsh because they did pull it off after all! Yet, for me, it sits at number 5 because it is not as original as some of the earlier albums. Still great though.

220px-Jpstandclass

Judas Priest released two albums in 1978; both were great but Stained Class was just slightly rawer and a better all-rounder in my opinion. There are no weak tracks and it was a showcase for a band in top form.

The heavy metal genre is well and truly defined in this album whereas you could argue that the earlier efforts still experimented with progressive rock (not a bad thing, otherwise Stained Class would be my number one album). Likewise, even Black Sabbath, justifiably known as the originators of heavy metal, never put out an album that was back to front molten metal and fast. In fact, Stained Class and the track Exciter particularly is sometimes referred to as the originator of speed/thrash metal and that is hard to disagree with. Priest perfected a twin-guitar attack that I think is maybe what really set them apart. There may have been other bands with two lead guitarists doing solo trade offs in that period, but if there were they weren’t good enough for me to notice.

The lyrical subject matter runs the gamut of sublime to ridiculous (I am looking at you Saints in Hell) but delivered with deadly force such that you don’t notice. And, call me weird, but there is something special I hear in the production of Stained Class which Priest never got quite right again. Sometimes it would be over-polished/processed or sometimes a little dull; never biting and raw like this one. It is hard to put that into words but it has to do with the “vibe” thing I have been going on about all the way through this list.

As a final comment: Beyond the Realms of Death is the masterclass in how to write a clean-to-heavy self-contained epic. Many have tried to find that kind of balance of emotions; many have failed. And the power of Halford’s vocals. Don’t get me started. He wrote the book and no sequel or fan fiction has ever come close again.

220px-Jpsinsin

I am running out of gushing things to say about Judas Priest at this point and, in truth, I am not exactly sure why I place Sin After Sin above Stained Class in this list. Both are phenomenal but I think I like the earlier piece just a tiny bit more because it has some room for reflection within it that the latter doesn’t have.

Probably when I first started listening to Priest Sin After Sin would have been much further down the list than the dizzying heights of position three, but over the years it has really grown on me. I almost see it as a concept album because some of the tracks (especially Side B) really flow into each other and take you on a journey. If they could have channelled that feel for Nostradamus THEN they would have really been onto something. The quiet tinkly bit between Hear Come the Tears and Dissident Aggressor is the best atmospheric segue ever committed to tape [that I can think of right now].

220px-Defenders_of_the_Faith

This might come a little out of leftfield at number two because it seems obvious I have a preference for the seventies Priest material. Defenders of the Faith makes this position because I think it was the first Priest album I ever heard. I can’t be absolutely sure because it was a long time ago and I had been given copied tapes of a few albums at once. In any event, I do remember that the single song which won me over and made me a lifelong fan of Judas Priest was Heavy Duty and its epic repeating chorus “we are defenders of the faith”. I am literally getting chills down my spine just thinking about the delivery of those words with the crowd cheering in the background as it fades out.

I was in love with metal from that point on.

The rest of the album is musically top flight even while the dull eighties production and mediocre drumming is inescapable. Yet nostalgia gets Defenders of the Faith to near the top of the list; I won’t deny it, although when there is a song like The Sentinel on an album you are going to find it hard not to be impressed.

For a fan at the time, they must have been on cloud nine after the similarly paced and excellent Screaming for Vengeance that preceded Defenders of the Faith.

220px-Sad_wings_of_destiny_cover

My favourite Judas Priest album and, in fact, favourite album from anybody ever is Sad Wings of Destiny. I know this because I have the answer rehearsed for whenever someone asks “so, Jono, what’s your favourite album of all time?” I am not even in control of it anymore and am stuck with that answer even if I secretly change my mind. Which I haven’t.

To me the album has a great pace – when played in the correct running order.  There are versions (most versions I have come across) that switch the track listing such that side B is placed before side A which is so mind-bogglingly incomprehensible I become a swivel-eyed arm-waving loon trying to explain how stupid that is. Luckily the first cassette tape version I had was in the correct order so I was off on the right foot. I pity the fools who have picked up this album in the years since and wondered why a track called Prelude would be in the middle of the album. Hint: it shouldn’t; it is quite obviously supposed to be the first track!

The album begins proper with Tyrant, followed by Genocide; both heavy metal standards; Epitaph, a melancholy piano interlude; and Island of Domination; actually my least favourite track which is still amazing. Victim of Changes opens SIDE B and, well, this defines what Judas Priest is, was, and ever will be. Perhaps it is fitting that the track is partially credited to Al Atkins, the original vocalist, in addition to the triumvirate of core Priest song writers for nearly 30 years: Tipton, Downing, Halford. Next is The Ripper which has a bite and catchiness that shows how you write a good heavy metal song with beautifully crafted solos and screaming vocals.

Technically speaking Victim of Changes is a superior heavy metal song and I am fine with it being considered the best Judas Priest song on this or any other album, but to me I just get lost in the closing tracks of this magnificent album: Dreamer Deceiver/Deceiver. By lost I mean engulfed. While this is pompousness on the scale of Stairway to Heaven, the closers just resonated with me from the moment I first heard them. It was the guitar solo and screaming what done it. Here Halford is not screaming to be evil or to show off, it is your own soul soaring in musical form.

You won Rob. And Glenn and KK too. No amount of whinging about Redeemer of Souls can change the fact that Judas Priest changed my life.  For that I am ever grateful.

And Ian Hill. I haven’t mentioned Ian yet. He is the bass player that formed Judas Priest with Kenny Downing over 40 years ago. Good on ya Ian.  Salt of the Earth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Post Script:

This mammoth blog was inspired by making contact with an old buddy of mine not too long ago.  This buddy was the best buddy of another buddy, and that buddy was the one who first copied me some cassette tapes of Judas Priest some time in mid 1988.  Now, what I had asked for was some Iron Maiden but he came back with only one (Seventh Son of a Seventh Son) and the rest was Priest: Defenders of the Faith and Ram it Down (possibly also Turbo and one other in that first lot).  After initial disappointment when he gave me them, I was awestruck after listening.

That friend, Nicholas Williams, is no longer with us.  So here’s to you buddy.  I am forever grateful.

 

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