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Judas Priest

Formed in Birmingham at a time when there was already a maniacal metal outfit from the area, the doom-laden BLACK SABBATH, JUDAS PRIEST never really got out of the starting stalls for some several years, when the roots of NWOBHM (New Wave Of British Heavy Metal) was taking shape. Spearheading the movement alongside the likes of IRON MAIDEN and DEF LEPPARD, the much re-shuffled JUDAS PRIEST – with their leather-clad shrieker Rob Halford at the helm, and a two-prong guitar assault from KK Downing and Glenn Tipton – presented a new force in the fading, but not forgotten, hard-rock genre.
Performing under the name of Freight, bassist Ian Hill, guitarist Kenny “KK” Downing and drummer John Ellis founded the group in October 1970, after tempting singer Al Atkins not only to join, but to render his former group’s moniker; it stemmed incidentally from a DYLAN track, “The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest”. Atkins’ original band, who also comprised Ernie Chataway (lead guitar), Bruno Stapenhill (bass) and drummer John Partridge, had performed at various venues from September 1969 onwards, but had split several months later.
A confusing time then for followers of the band, the all-new, bluesier JUDAS PRIEST played their first gig at St. John’s Hall in Essington in March 1971. Confusing still, was when financial problems in May ’73 led to the exit of both Atkins and drumming acquisition Alan Moore (who’d actually replaced Chris Campbell); the former belter would eventually re-activate his singing career with Lion, and, in turn, solo albums from 1990’s “Judgement Day” to 2007’s “Demon Deceiver”; having fronted Holy Rage for one set, he’s now grinding out metal songs with the Atkins/May Project (alongside guitarist Paul May).
A subsequent and more than adequate replacement was found in Rob Halford, and with fellow Hiroshima drummer, John Finch, JUDAS PRIEST soldiered on, only to add a fifth dimension to group, rhythm guitar Glenn Tipton, who left the Flying Hat Band to join in early ‘74. Finally, the band had found a settled line-up, and, with a contract on Gull Records (an offshoot of Decca), they were ready to unleash their debut album.
ROCKA ROLLA (1974) {*5} made little impact, but it did showcase the high-pitched, ear-piercing vox of Halford and the crunchy lead-guitar licks emanating from co-writer, Downing; a handful of Atkins leftover co-compositions filtered in by way of `Caviar And Meths’, `Never Satisfied’ and the 9-minute medley, `Winter – Deep Freeze – Winter Retreat – Cheater’. Mostly indebted to their Brummy neighbours, BLACK SABBATH, the record would’ve been destined for the bargain bins but for their future impact.
Much in the same vein, but with a certain element of WISHBONE ASH-like prog (example `Dreamer Deceiver’), SAD WINGS OF DESTINY (1976) {*9}, was a different proposition. The returning Moore had now stepped in for the departing Hinch, while Halford’s larynx was now almost operatic, and dare one say it, FREDDIE MERCURY-like. Gone were the shallow production techniques of their previous effort, and in came gruesome and gory subject matter in `Genocide’, `The Ripper’ and `Tyrant’. But for a “Changes”-styled soft-rock ballad in `Epitaph’ and a QUEEN-esque instrumental, `Prelude’, the album was as explosive as any future punk dirge. Bookended by the equally riff-tastic, `Victim Of Changes’ (another Atkins co-composition) and `Island Of Domination’, the LP was heralded as the second coming for heavy metal.
Following a resoundingly triumphant appearance at that year’s Reading Festival, the quintet duly signed to C.B.S. Records for a large 5-figure sum; teenage sticksman Simon Phillips was now preferred over the exiting Moore. Bolstered by their sophomore’s growing sales and featuring an unlikely but effective cover of JOAN BAEZ’s `Diamonds And Rust’, third album SIN AFTER SIN (1977) {*8} scaled the Top 30. Produced by ROGER GLOVER (of DEEP PURPLE), the group had another metal masterpiece on their hands. With the exception of prog-ish soft-rockers `Last Rose Of Summer’, `Here Come The Tears’ and intro piece `Let Us Prey’ (to `Call For The Priest’), Halford and Co were incendiary form throughout on `Sinner’, `Starbreaker’ and `Dissident Aggressor’.
STAINED CLASS (1978) {*7} – another testing Top 30 UK album – proffered such lyrical delights as `Saints In Hell’, `Savage’, `Beyond The Realms Of Death’ and a cover of SPOOKY TOOTH’s `Better By You, Better Than Me’, the latter record later having serious repercussions for the band in its subliminal “do it” message if played… er backwards; its therefore recommended only to disc-jockeys without access to guns, a bazooka, a tank or any tactical nuclear weapon.
While the leather-clad JUDAS PRIEST weren’t exactly original in their steadfast adherence to the leaden riffing and helium overdose of heavy metal, they helped shape the genre’s increasing preoccupation with all things grim and nasty. KILLING MACHINE (1978) {*7} – released as “Hell Bent For Leather” in the States – was the first set to introduce Halford’s fixation with S&M and the biker subculture; songs such as `Evil Fantasies’, `Delivering The Goods’ and `Burnin’ Up’, products of a band with an intent to shock. Boasting an anthemic breakthrough Top 20 hit, `Take On The World’ and the not so cosmic `Evening Star’, plus a ripping reading of FLEETWOOD MAC’s `The Green Manalishi (With The Two-Pronged Crown)’, the album was a forerunner to their live in Japan Top 10 effort, UNLEASHED IN THE EAST (1979) {*7}. A drummer with a distinguished pop and rock career, Dave Holland (formerly of TRAPEZE) was subsequently drafted in when Binks left for other NWOBHM pastures.
Coming at the height of the NWOBHM explosion, BRITISH STEEL (1980) {*9} was the band’s biggest critical and commercial success to date, the Top 20 success of the `Living After Midnight’ and `Breaking The Law’ singles (`United’ also greased the Top 30) showing the more accessible, high-octane, hook-driven face of the band. America was also beginning to take notice as the set raced into the Top 40; it had reached Top 5 in Britain and was a massive seller around the globe. Deliberately simple and free from complex prog-rock diversions, the set fired on all cylinders, as Halford powered his way through `The Rage’, `The Steeler’, `Rapid Fire’ and `Metal Gods’.
This was to be one of the most fertile periods of the `Priest’s career, and without much of a major hit, but with a trio of consistent Top 20 albums: POINT OF ENTRY (1981) {*6}, SCREAMING FOR VENGEANCE (1982) {*8} and DEFENDERS OF THE FAITH (1984) {*7}, were all testosterone-saturated howlers – the kind of British metal that just doesn’t exist anymore. The latter housed the PMRC-baiting `Eat Me Alive’, securing the band’s position as perceived deviant enemy of the world’s lank-haired youth alongside the equally wholesome WASP. Maintaining their S&M manifesto for the arena-rock market, “Screaming…” was most definitely their most accessible and relentless album, writers Halford, Downing and Tipton exhuming their demons in song through `Pain And Pleasure’, `Devil’s Child’ and the transatlantic minor hit, `You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’’; both this album and “Defenders…” respectively featured two songs (`(Take These) Chains’ and `Some Heads Are Gonna Roll’) penned by future Ceili Rain frontman, Bob Halligan, Jr.
Late in December 1985, two of their American fans (both from Sparks, Nevada) shot themselves after a drinking session and listening to Priest’s aforementioned version of `Better By You…’, prompting the boys’ distraught parents to sue both JUDAS PRIEST and their label, Columbia; one of the lads survived after also blasting his face, but died a few years later.
The parents’ legal team alleged the record contained subliminal satanic messages of “do it” hidden within the lyrics, thus forcing the boys to commit suicide. The much-publicised trial finally got to court in July 1990 and finished the following month, with the judge ruling against the dead boys’ parents, although he did fine the label a 5-figure sum for withholding the master tapes!!?
Meanwhile, JUDAS PRIEST kept on their relentless charge towards their goal. Despite the controversy, fans were less enamoured with TURBO (1986) {*5}. But for a rather tongue-in-cheek `Parental Guidance’ and the opening `Turbo Lover’, an attempt at guitar synthesized innovation cut no ice with the band’s metal diehards. Time then for a second live batch, the double PRIEST… LIVE! (1987) {*5} – recorded a year earlier from their “Fuel For Life” tour – mostly all pomp and circumstance, with the band on autopilot unloading recent dirges alongside an array of “greatest hits”.
RAM IT DOWN (1988) {*4} was a return to harder-edged, back-to-basics fare, and although it reunited them with the British Top 30 (No.31 in the States), its robotic production sounds failed to ignite the passions long-lost in many of their once-proud fanbase. Titles such as `Heavy Metal’, `Hard As Iron’ and `Monsters Of Rock’, were a tad cliched and contrived for most punters. The decision to release the CHUCK BERRY nugget, `Johnny B. Goode’ as a single, was ill-thought-out, as they came across as a bad Sabbath or a dis-infected POISON.
The Priest underwent a critical rebirth of sorts with the thrash-y transatlantic Top 30 set, PAINKILLER (1990) {*8}; their status acknowledged as granddaddies of heavy metal and a glaring influence on the likes of METALLICA and SLAYER. With the young-ish Scott Travis (from America’s RACER-X) on the drum stool, replacing Holland, whose musical differences and personal problems led to his departure, the speed-metallists JUDAS PRIEST were back on form; the title track, `All Guns Blazing’, `A Touch Of Evil’ and `Metal Meltdown’, equal to anything that their progenies could uplift.
Rob Halford subsequently left the band in the first weeks of ’93, forming side-project, FIGHT; his new outfit (who included Scott Travis) turning into a full-time affair after releasing their debut album, “The War Of Words” (1993); “Mutations” (1994) and “A Small Deadly Space” (1995) had their moments, before Rob jumped ship to the Trent Reznor-produced, Two.
Meanwhile, GLENN TIPTON stole the limelight from the group by releasing his own solo record; BAPTIZM OF FIRE (1997) {*6}, a surprisingly decent power-metal assault that featured Whitfield Crane (of UGLY KID JOE) on some vocals, JOHN ENTWISTLE and Billy Sheehan on bass, Don Airey on organ, COZY POWELL and Shannon Larkin on drums, plus Robert Trujillo. Check out tracks `Hard Core’, the thrash-y `Fuel Me Up’ and his take of The ROLLING STONES’ classic rocker, `Paint It Black’; note too, that his collaborative set with the aforementioned (John) ENTWISTLE and (Cozy) POWELL, EDGE OF THE WORLD {*5}, found its way to the shops in 2006.
JUDAS PRIEST also returned in ‘97 with a new American-born frontman, the cornily-monikered Tim “Ripper” Owens (from JP tribute act, Winter’s Bane) lending his eardrum-rupturing shriek over the tuneless assault of the poorly-received comeback set, JUGULATOR {*3}; ’98 MELTDOWN (1998) {*4} was equally lacklustre, although some fans were only too happy to sing-a-long with the fresh frontman on nihilistic takes of old tunes such as `The Ripper’, `Grinder’ and `Touch Of Evil’.
While HALFORD was commanding sizeable audiences as a support act on IRON MAIDEN’s “Brave New World” tour, JUDAS PRIEST’s DEMOLITION (2001) {*5} floundered in its attempts to break free from the shackles of old. Owens’ tenure in the pulpit was short-lived, LIVE IN LONDON (2003) {*4} proving to be the frontman’s swansong.
The inimitable Rob Halford – who’d finally “come out of the closet” in ‘98 – was back at his screaming best on ANGEL OF RETRIBUTION (2005) {*6}, a US Top 20 entry (UK Top 40) mystifyingly touted as the completion of a concept begun at the same time as “Sad Wings…”. Quite where Nessie fitted into all this is anyone’s guess, but Rob and the lads (that included Scott Travis) were the first rockers to sing about the `Lochness’ monster (all 13 minutes of it!) since Scots icon ALEX HARVEY. Of the other, slightly-less-in-epic-stature songs, `Judas Rising’, `Revolution’ and `Hellrider’, were the most promising; both Downing and Tipton guaranteeing aggression and pomposity through their twin-guitar attacks.
The ambitious concept-double follow-up, NOSTRADAMUS (2008) {*5}, attempted to combine the symphonic force of an orchestra and choir with keyboards (a la fill-in newcomer Don Airey), as the Priest flitted between cinematic-like dirges and short interludes. Nostradamus’ apocalyptic visions unfold in a melodramatic mood in much the same way as IRON MAIDEN in their “Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son” heyday, and tracks such `Persecution’, `War’ and Death’ draw unlikely comparisons to Phantom Of The Opera and SPINAL TAP. A TOUCH OF EVIL: LIVE (2009) {*5} was an effective concert set – their fifth in total.
Without their long-serving founder member, KK Downing (Richie Faulkner was his replacement in 2011), one was awaiting the release of comeback set, REDEEMER OF SOULS (2014) {*6}. Yes, studio album number 17, and with Top 20 placings on both sides of the Atlantic, a remarkable turnaround for a band once caught in the coat-tails of BLACK SABBATH. Resurrecting their grind ’n’ gloom NWOBHM, the fear ’n’ fantasy element of the group’s psyche come fast and furious by way of `Dragonaut’ (in which a howling Halford delivered the line “Welcome to my world of steel”), `Metalizer’ and the title track. Pulling the curtain down with the bleak `Beginning Of The End’, ‘Priest fans might think wearily of its prophetic title.
Naming their follow-on live album after one its tracks, BATTLE CRY (2016) {*6} – the full song only appearing on the intro! – JUDAS PRIEST combined several fresher pieces with “greatest hits” (`Victim Of Changes’, `Beyond The Realms Of Death’, `Breaking The Law’, `Hell Bent For Leather’, et al).
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD-MCS / rev-up MCS Jan2013-Mar2016

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