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Now, I'm doing the Priest albums in a very strange order, basically as the spirit moves me in fact. I've reviewed a few of their 80's/90's records previously, and I've made it clear that this period is far from my favourite era of the band. That would be the 70's, Sad Wings through Unleashed in the East. However, Priest released one album afterwards that I love nearly as much as those classic five records, and it ain't Painkiller. Simply put, Defenders of the Faith is virtually perfect from front to back, and it stands head and shoulders above the three preceding albums and the eight afterwards (counting live efforts).
Really, this is a Priest back where they belong, virtually stripped of the overt commercial aspects of British Steel, Screaming for Vengeance, Turbo, and God forbid, Point of Entry, brawny and filled with muscle, yet still writing in that rarified Judas Priest zone that nobody, not even Maiden, was allowed to operate in. It's almost baffling that Priest would follow the mechanized KISS-of-death hit "You Got Another Thing Coming" and the majority of Screaming (the more commercially palatable tracks) with an album darker, heavier, and possessing few songs that could even chart, let alone become massive hits on par with say, "Living After Midnight". It's even more baffling that they'd pick quite possibly the least commercial track (over more conservative choices like "Some Heads Are Gonna Roll" and "Love Bites") as the lead-off single, "Freewheel Burning" getting virtually zero airplay and probably shedding many of the casual fans Priest had acquired over the past sunny, perfectly yellow tour by submerging them in a blackened speed metal maelstrom.
This album is simply incredible. Priest continues to tool about on their speed metal machine, perhaps taking the manic sound of "Screaming for Vengeance" and locking it in through the tighter framework of an "Exciter" or an "Electric Eye", raw and scrappy guitar sent forth with a laser focus, locked and loaded. Halford, track one, screaming enough for a dozen dying NWOBHM's, both hyper-verbose and shrieking maniac within the chorus alone, sinister and steely leads along with pounding rhythm (albeit with some really poor fast drumming from talentless hack Dave Holland) making this race-car fantasy (with appropriate, if you think about it, race track engine-revving riff) into something forceful and somehow darker. It's not thrash really, perhaps less down that path than "Hell Bent for Leather" five or six years back, but comprising a lot of the feel and tonality of that genre. It's kind of appropriate that, with the genre almost totally established in the year this was released, Priest would let this aspect of their sound drift away for a number of years, before desperately trying (and honestly, usually failing) to get it back through parts of Ram it Down and most of Painkiller.
"Jawbreaker" is a bit more tame, a strange guitar sound that is tough to describe, somehow clacky and dry, Halford often left high and dry to carry the song with his thespian snarls (truly one of the better character singers of all time), with he succeeds in doing in spades. This song doesn't really have enough high vocals (Check out the live version from the Sin After Sin remaster), but other than that it carries the load as a catchy, riffy, slightly speedy track that grows on the listener as one becomes acclimated to the sometimes strange production tones found on this record.
The following track, "Rock Hard, Ride Free", illustrates a rather fundamental point that Priest lost after this record (alright, some of it still existed on Turbo), and that was a certain blue-blooded nobility they alone possessed. The beginning of this song is all class, the band proving that their own harmony-lead work was equal to the more prevalent Maiden flavour, and also that despite this classy style they were also more down and dirty participators, Maiden constantly aiming high, Priest relinquishing that torch (lets say around Stained Class) and just having some fun now and then. The song is amazing mid-tempo Priest, this sharp track getting the 'awesome people on bikes' motif in a way that "Desert Plains" failed to do, and with a catchy but woefully un-radio style that endeared them to their pundits without having 'sell-out!' screamed at them as the masses aimed for the Jugulator.
Now, "The Sentinel" just ambles up and borrows the aforementioned torch from Maiden, a thoroughly modern epic that nonetheless harkens back to a younger, smarter Priest with an oddly religious chorus that inspires one to scream along anyway, even if Rob is going at such a high register that it's hopeless for anyone to try to keep up. The middle of the song is lead duel magic in the vein of "Tyrant" or "Painkiller", truly hot licks being traded back and forth between masters of the form, leading into a synth-laden spoken section that rumbles and shakes and builds up to the inevitable, stupendous chorus.
It's true that the album fades a wee bit from here on out, as "Love Bites" widdles on a little too long and takes a long time to grow on one, but eventually I got into it, really digging Halford's inflections, appreciating the production tricks and nice echo effects, even nodding along with a smile at the strange and sparse melodic lead break/solo/thing. "Eat Me Alive" is passable musically, sorta less awesome speed metal, but stuck with some of the worst lyrics of the Priest catalogue, the kind that are so pathetically vicious (see: Jugulator) that Priest nearly loses ones respect.
Thankfully "Some Heads Are Gonna Roll" rocks simple and brilliant, like "Better By You, Better Than Me" and "The Green Manalishi", strange because I'm not sure if this is a cover because (like "(Take These) Chains") it's credied to someone I've never heard of and a song that I've never found under any other artist. In any case, the melodies are sublime, a sly smile and slight bow at the waist, a pumping headbang to truly Priestian perfection. I love the song, every sound seems crafted, none of the hollow production that somewhat marrs the rest of the album.
And hell, "Night Comes Down" is hardly a ballad to be honest. It rocks harder than any of the somewhat cheap power ballads that tend to be appended to most of these remasters, and also moves with a sorrowful doom like "Here Come the Tears" or even "The Rage". It's pretty comforting to think that, while other bands were selling their souls with overt power ballads, Priest didn't (their's were auctioned in other ways). They still wrote them, true, but they didn't release them. Instead, they didn't break the dark and heavy mood of this record and they give us another flash of the old sound that creeps out on occasion.
The end of the album comes off as a slight disappointment, a simple but crowd-pleasing riff where Rob gives us some more cheap lechery. It's a little odd when band's write songs that are directed towards their fans (the last chorus) that are also about, apparently, having sex with them (the rest). For Rob this isn't so much a problem, although I imagine he has better taste in partners than the average pimply-faced rocker who attends one of is concerts (although Holland might not), but Glenn, Ian, and K.K probably feel a little bit defensive, "Heavy Duty/Defenders of the Faith" is obviously written to be played live ("Take on the World", "United") and as such doesn't work nearly so well in the studio with no masses to sing along.
Although it has flaws, Defenders of the Faith is a darkhorse favourite of the catalogue, stomping all over more obvious, and more brightly coloured, champs like Screaming as the kingpin of latterday Priest. The cover sucks, the production is off, and Dave Holland sucks, but there is no denying these songs and the performances of the rest of the band. This is a cornerstone of the Priest catalogue, and a shining monument to the power of metal.
Stand-Outs: "The Sentinel", "Freewheel Burning", "Night Comes Down"