You don’t even have to be a heavy metal fan to know who Judas Priest is. Over the past several decades, they’ve cemented their status as metal legends time and time again. This year marks the kickoff of the band’s Epitaph World Tour, stated to be the last Judas Priest world tour ever. Who knows if that’s really true (KISS, anyone?), but now seems as good a time as any to examine the band’s lengthy discography and pick out a few hidden treasures.
1. “Burnin’ Up” (Killing Machine/Hell Bent for Leather, 1978) — By the late ’70s the Priest had largely moved on from more complex song structures and the occasional foray into metal balladry. Few songs from this period typify the band’s more streamlined approach than “Burnin’ Up,” a musically muscular and lyrically charged slice of metal. The slow burn of the bridge section builds to an unbearable tension until an oh-so-satisfying release of guitar solo orgasm. Giggity!
2. “(Take These)” Chains” (Screaming for Vengeance, 1982) — After the relatively tame (by Judas Priest standards) Point of Entry, Screaming for Vengeance was an atomic blast of vintage ’80s headbanging. It brought the group to even higher levels of popularity, thanks in no small part to “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin'”. But tucked away in the middle of the album is “(Take These) Chains,” as moody and melancholy as the Priest ever got. But fear not, it still kicks much ass.
3. “Between the Hammer & the Anvil” (Painkiller, 1990) — Painkiller is Exhibit A in how a metal band can revitalize their commercial fortunes and their artistic relevance in one fell swoop. Just how strong was the album? This song, an oblique reference to the absolutely insane civil court case brought against Judas Priest over a teenager’s suicide, was relegated to the B-side of the single for “A Touch of Evil.” The entire band sounds rejuvenated after a few less-than-stellar albums, particularly Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing on guitar and new drummer Scott Travis.
4. “Cheater” (Rocka Rolla, 1974) — I love hearing debut albums from bands that went on to bigger and better things. A lot of times those records show a group still wearing their influences on their sleeves. Such is the case with Rocka Rolla and “Cheater” in particular. Rob Halford busts out the harmonica and the band does their best Led Zeppelin/Nazareth/Aerosmith impression on this bluesy tune. Priest almost never released another song like this again, but that’s cool. There’s always that chugging guitar riff to remember.
5. “Judas Rising” (Angel of Retribution, 2005) — Rob Halford split from the Priest in the early ’90s. The band did what many in their position have unfortunately done, which is to hire a sound-alike (Tim “Ripper” Owens) and forge ahead hoping no one would notice the difference. Well no one noticed alright. After two albums with Owens went in the tank, Halford returned to the fold. The lead track from Angel of Retribution is clearly indebted to the band’s past, while still sounding modern. After an intro that evokes the JP classic “Victim of Changes,” we get a wall of shredding guitars, slamming drums, and Halford’s often imitated, never duplicated vocals. It sounds like it could’ve been released just a few years after Painkiller, which is a good thing.
6. “You Say Yes” (Point of Entry, 1981) — It’s not the best song from “Point of Entry,” but it’s as funky as the band ever got and it needs to be heard. It’s actually a close cousin to “Cheater,” so if you didn’t like that you won’t like “You Say Yes” either. The slow burn of the bridge and the move back to the groove is what takes this over the top for me.
7. “Epitaph” (Sad Wings of Destiny, 1976) — It’s hard to make the case that any song from Sad Wings of Destiny, perhaps the band’s most beloved release, is underrated. But I’m going to make it anyway. Glenn Tipton is credited as the sole composer on this number, which features only Rob Halford’s layered vocals and Tipton’s beautiful piano playing (he got his start in music with the instrument). I guess you could say the pair channels their inner Queen on “Epitaph,” a doleful number about facing one’s mortality. Back before Judas Priest locked into their successful metal formula they weren’t afraid to take chances on offbeat songs like this. Their catalog is the richer for it.
8. “Saints in Hell” (Stained Class, 1978) — I never fell in love with Stained Class like I did Sin After Sin or Killing Machine, but damn this song is hot. It’s textbook metal performed by the masters for the first few minutes, and then it gets downright evil. Listen to those echoed guitars, that punchy bass (go Ian Hill!), and that nuanced but driving drumming from Les Binks. That, my friends, is what sinister sounds like.
9. “Jawbreaker” (Defenders of the Faith, 1984) — It wasn’t apparent at the time, but the Priest were running out of steam by the time Defenders came out in ’84. Oh sure it’s a good album, and there are some excellent tracks on it, but dark days were just around the corner. Still, there’s no denying the power and ferocity of “Jawbreaker,” possibly the best song on the LP next to “Love Bites.”
10. “Raw Deal” (Sin After Sin, 1977) — Rob Halford publicly disclosed his homosexuality in the late ’90s, but any fan who had been paying attention should not have been surprised. Take this track for example. In addition to being a great example of a very un-commercial Judas Priest song (it’s really just a much more accomplished take on the music from Rocka Rolla), it’s lyrically a Gay Rights manifesto. Halford sings about Fire Island, spike bars, and so on. But don’t get hung up on the words if that gets in the way for you; revel in the pile-driving performance by the band, including short-term drummer Simon Phillips.
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