Judas Priest
Sin After Sin
[CBS]


I had to review a Priest album, and since Vic quite capably covered 'Sad Wings of Destiny' and 'Stained Class', I decided to review the one that came between those two. Simply, these three albums represent the single greatest triumvirate in metal's history. I'd probably vote for 'Sad Wings' as the greatest and 'Stained Class' as the best one to start with, but all three are indispensable.

On its release in 1976, 'Sad Wings of Destiny' introduced a level of craftsmanship that had not existed in metal to that point (not much metal of any kind existed at that point, in fact). But with 'Sin After Sin' the following year, Priest's major label debut, they set a standard of quality that in my view hasn't been matched. There may be playing that's faster or more complicated, but not better.

Priest had a different drummer on each of their first four albums. Incredibly, they turned that into an advantage. Here, the respected jazz drummer Simon Phillips turns in a dead-on perfect performance, totally precise while maintaining great feeling and individuality (the opening beat of "Starbreaker" glues itself to the mind), all the while exhibiting top notch chops. Rapid fire double bass is even put to use in one song. K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton provide the classiest, smartest, most emotional guitar playing you'll find. Rob Halford is heavy metal's greatest singer. Even Ian Hill shines with some of the heaviest grooves on record.

Despite all the superlatives, it's the songwriting that makes this truly great. It's incredible that this was made in the mid-'70s. They've taken the brutal heaviness and obsession with the grim of Black Sabbath, added just a touch of the emotion of folk/rock (thanks to their version of "Diamonds and Rust", it's now possible to bang your head to Joan Baez), and incorporated the ambitious, versatile compositions of the progressive rock movement that had just had its heyday, then raised everything an order of magnitude in intelligence, dedication, and just pure quality. While Black Sabbath undoubtedly invented and perfected the initial style of metal, Priest opened it to expansion in all of the directions it's gone since.

The album is classic end to end, but for me the centerpiece has to be track 5; I'm still not sure if this is "Call for the Priest" or "Let Us Prey". Regardless, this is the ultimate heavy metal song. Melodic guitars are interspersed among chugging, heavy riff-driven verses, careening double bass-led transitions and chilling virtuoso singing. The part in the early/middle of the song where the theme riff is repeated, only to crash into an unexpected, momentum-gathering breakdown before taking off for the second verse is sheer perfection and an example of what makes this metal and not rock, classical, or anything else. This verse very soon breaks apart to reveal a glorious harmony guitar/vocals midsection before reassembling. Now Downing and Tipton exchange note-perfect leads before joining for a breathtaking harmony duel. This is the lead/harmony section Iron Maiden, as well as Priest themselves, have been trying to match ever since. I've heard this song a hundred times and still don't know how they tied it all together so perfectly.

This is music about life and death, and it just crackles with the spirit of invention and transcendent emotion. The lyrics, too, are highly relevant to - and in some cases wouldn't be out of place in - today's death metal. Both musically and lyrically the album tackles the crushing weight of uncertainty, death and alienation with a resolute sense of self. The cover art is perfect.

Judas Priest was the primary influence on arguably the four most important metal bands of the '80s: Maiden, Metallica, Mercyful Fate and SLAYER, as well as a secondary influence on bands like Venom, Bathory, Exodus and Possessed. They spearheaded the critical NWOBHM, invented the whole "power metal" movement that's so popular now (Iced Earth, Blind Guardian, etc.) and the "thrash"/speed metal movement, AND provided the genetic material for extreme metal (*nothing* is heavier or more intense than "Dissident Aggressor" on this album, not even Slayer's cover).

It wasn't until 1980's 'British Steel' that the band earned true (deserved) breakthrough commercial success. However, while much of their later stuff is great, the most important work of their career, and of the genre, took place in the seventies. Make sure you have these first, THEN worry about food and clothes.


2001 j.s.