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The first release from Judas Priest is quite different from the sound and image they would very soon become associated with, as the loud young Brummies ditched their hippie look, prog aspirations and disappointing drummer and producer to begin recording the definitive albums of early heavy metal. ‘Rocka Rolla’ is an infamously flawed record, but this is largely due to unexpected problems with the studio equipment and personnel more than the material, which is often of a surprisingly high standard. Even if the band members themselves look down on this release, they are the first to admit that there are some great early classics scattered throughout... it’s just that the whole thing doesn’t sound quite right.
Having established a large local fan-base with their loud, melodic, masculine rock, the burgeoning Judas Priest were quickly manhandled into a studio and assigned the famous local record producer Rodger Bain, whose results with the early albums of their contemporaries Black Sabbath are justifiably praised. Gull Records were confident that Bain would capture the heavy sound they were hoping to promote and gave him totalitarian control of the recording process, something the band looks back on as a big mistake as they were completely under his thumb. Nevertheless, it was a decision they were understandably content and confident to go along with at the time, if it meant paving the path to fame. Unfortunately, Bain’s eventual results were severely disappointing, failing to capture the energy of the studio and ending up with a very thin sound that affected all the instruments. He also unwisely, and for whatever reason, decided to eliminate the band’s most popular songs from the track-list, requiring them to come up with what often sounds like filler, rather than the timeless material that would eventually find its way onto ‘Sad Wings of Destiny,’ commonly seen as the first ‘real’ Priest album.
‘Rocka Rolla’ should not be easily written off, especially as part of the band’s problem with the album is their lack of ownership or royalties from its sales, something Gull Records have taken full advantage of over the years with far too many re-releases attempting in vain to remedy a thirty-year-old problem with new technology. The band’s dissatisfaction even extends to the original cover art, a bottlecap design with the album’s title written in copy-cat Coca Cola font, which for some reason they later decided to swap for Mel Grant’s ‘The Steel Tsar,’ an average-looking image that may have had the right apocalyptic message, but wasn’t quite as cool or distinctive as the original, especially as Grant’s painting had also been used for a book of the same name, and for a random early video game box. The band’s dislike of the album’s overall style may be due to its association more with traditional rock than metal, something that is partially appropriate in this mixed bag of radio-friendly pop rock and high-concept suites. It may lack the distinctive Priest sound, but it’s an interesting listen, and it’s clear the band is really onto something.
1. One for the Road
2. Rocka Rolla
4. Deep Freeze
5. Winter Retreat
7. Never Satisfied
8. Run of the Mill
9. Dying to Meet You
10. Caviar and Meths
The album begins on a disappointing note with the repetitive and bland ‘One for the Road,’ based on a tedious blues riff that lacks the usual Judas Priest energy in all areas apart from Rob Halford’s voice, which is up to its usual high standards regardless of production. After taking far too long to fade out, the album begins to reveal its real charms with the great title track, a typical Priest song about love and rock with plenty of great harmonies, solos and riffs from Glenn Tipton and K. K. Downing. It’s a little derivative, with contemporary influences all over the place – the verse sounds like Roxy Music, while the chorus sounds like David Bowie – but the guitars are distinctly Priest. Halford even offers a brief harmonica section similar to Black Sabbath’s ‘The Wizard,’ completing this eccentric and enjoyable, but sadly forgotten piece.
The most creative section of the album comes in the ‘Winter’ suite, spanning tracks three to five but almost always mislabelled or wrongly edited on CD releases. In its true form, the opener ‘Winter’ is a good slow song that unfortunately can’t really be described as heavy due to the production, though that was certainly the intention. The introduction is haunting in a primitive way, with whispered vocals before the drum kicks it into a ‘proper’ song, and once again Halford steals the show. ‘Deep Freeze’ is essentially nothing more than a spacey interlude between the two halves of the suite, similar to Sabbath’s ‘FX’ in that its target audience will be easily impressed stoned people who enjoy the effect of a guitar whine fading in and out of volume for a minute and a half (‘woah dude, he’s going closer to the microphone, and then moving far out. Do you have any bread?’) Overall, the effect is closer to depicting a UFO than anything winter-based. Unfortunately, the final piece of this trio doesn’t live up to the first, attempting the kind of proggy soft song that would be perfected later in the album but coming off as somehow unconvincing, Halford’s voice sounding less impressive in a more downbeat style. It was still an interesting experiment overall, but perhaps explains why the band hasn’t attempted anything similarly conceptual since (at least, not until next year’s highly anticipated Nostradamus album).
‘Cheater’ is the first song that really sounds like classic Judas Priest, with a fantastically simple and violent subject matter – a man finds his wife in bed with another man, and shoots them both in primal vengeance – and it’s hard to resist joining in with the chorus towards the end, and thereby clearly condoning the speaker’s actions. This is stupid and fun heavy metal the way it was supposed to be, leaving behind the conceptual nonsense, although it doesn’t offer a lot musically, the guitars sounding thin and similar to the first song. ‘Never Satisfied’ is similarly cool, the main riff and chorus sounding so stereotypical of early Priest that it could belong to any song on the first four albums. It lacks the power of the title song, but Halford holds the notes like he is famous for, including a final extended wail that sadly has to take second place to the more famous ‘Victim of Changes.’
The final phase of the album plays more along the lines of mellow progressive rock, and offers a great distinctive sound in the band’s discography that they carry off surprisingly well. ‘Run of the Mill’ is the better of the two, mostly acoustic but occasionally launching into a rockier riff, although the reliance on a very dull backing drum-beat is a little irritating. Halford has really cracked the croon after the disappointment of the fifth track, and sounds just as good as he would later in the earlier sections of ‘Victim of Changes.’ There’s even a rare spot in the limelight for Ian Hill’s bass, and Halford puts in his finest performance of the record with the final reprise of the chorus, which easily ranks alongside anything else he would accomplish up to the 1990s. ‘Dying to Meet You’ is much the same, only less impressive, beginning slow and changing later on to the extent that it’s essentially two different songs tagged together. It sounds good in isolation, and at least isn’t a wimpy ballad that would really spoil things, but grants Downing greater lenience in unleashing some quite cool and lengthy solos. The main problem comes with the lyrics Halford takes so much time to communicate, which are quite terrible even for a band not renowned for its poetry. The final song is a missed opportunity, the introduction to epic live favourite ‘Caviar and Meths’ that was apparently ‘too long’ to fit onto the record. The guitars work brilliantly to compliment each other despite playing different tunes, but this snippet primarily makes me sad and angry that we didn’t get more of it.
I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend ‘Rocka Rolla’ to anyone who enjoys the early Judas Priest albums up to the excellent ‘Stained Class,’ before a desire to be American took over and affected the quality of the band’s output for a decade of highs and lows. The production is a big problem, extending to the background hiss that still hasn’t been eliminated by re-masters, but many of the songs fit excellently into the band’s established style, and the ones that don’t offer something completely and excitingly different. Many of the songs are far too short, or far too repetitive (leading to the paradox of tracks such as ‘One for the Road’ that is too short to get anything out of, but that also takes far too long to finish), but the majority are real classics with that great and slightly amateurish first-album feel. It’s clear that this album should never really have existed in the form that it does, its successor ‘Sad Wings of Destiny’ being more true to the band’s live shows of the time, but all the same it’s an album with a lot to offer, even if some of its more elaborate aspirations (specifically the ‘Winter’ trilogy) don’t really go anywhere. It’s really quite good.