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It's not every day that I review an album as old as I am. Sure, I've got a month on Rocka Rolla (the album, not the single), having emerged from the womb of my unknown mother (I like to think it's Satan) in August of '74, but I don't think that there's any question the Judas Priest debut has aged far better than I have. Not that I'm fighting back shocks of white plumage, mind you, but despite being one of my lesser loved albums in the British gods' pantheon, Rocka Rolla has such great production and vibrant songwriting that even today, some 38 years in the future, it still seems 'fresh' when I compare it to some of the most modern music coming out of the rock/hard rock field. That's not to say I'm giving this the most glaring of recommendations, as I find the track list somewhat inconsistent, but there have been far worse debuts to take for granted from longstanding, outstanding bands such as this one.
I'm sure that arguments have been made to disqualify Rocka Rolla as a pure 'metal' record, just as they have for many thus labeled, but of course this is all coming from a retrofit perspective which is not necessarily valid. In a world with Cannibal Corpse, it would be difficult to claim an album like this was even remotely heavy, but for 1974, there were not a whole lot of options. You had Sabbath, Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Thin Lizzy a few lesser known groups who only today seem to get a nod and a welcome, and then the emergence of three more of the most influential 'hard rock' bands in all of history: Canadian progressive Rush, theatrical New Yorker man-whores KISS, and a bunch of Birmingham boys who had been kicking around since '69, bred on the hard blues of Cream and Hendrix and soon to shape the 'metal' sound in such a way that they would go on to influence so many in their wake that you might go less insane trying to count the stars on a clear night.
Rocka Rolla is iconic. The coke bottle cover image and admittedly lame old logo would be difficult to forget for any child of the 70s (or 80s), and this was the sole album to feature drummer John Hinch, who at that time was already the fourth to hold that position. The sound on a number of the cuts was much groovier in nature than what we've come to expect. Sabbath was the clear comparison, especially on songs like "One for the Road" where Halford's piercing pitch rubbed up against the bluesier based rhythm guitar not unlike. Or the conceptual trilogy of "Winter", "Deep Freeze" and "Winter Retreat", where huge mournful grooves explode out of a psychedelic din only to return to devolve into wailing experimentation and a smooth, clean closure. Zeppelin also plays heavily into the swaggering dirty blues metal of "Cheater", and there's a progressive and psychedelic Pink Floyd current flowing through the numbing "Run of the Mill" or solemn "Dying to Meet You" (before it explodes).
But, of course, none of those bands featured Rob Halford, who is all over this thing, showcasing the vast range and personality of his voice. He can brood sullenly against the bluesier undertow, he can scream off like a siren, and in general maintain an incredibly consistent higher pitch for just about as long as he needs. This is more than evident on my favorite tracks here: "Rocka Rolla" itself in which he measures off a lot of groovy swagger with a higher pitched counterpoint that cuts right across the throat like jagged glass, or the heavily atmospheric "Never Satisfied" where he's incredibly expressive across both the mid and upper registers, giving even a bark and bite once he arrives at the chorus before that giant Page-like bridge groove with the lead. "One for the Road" is another of the stronger pieces, with some nice percussion from Finch that really highlights the bluesy spit of the guitars and the more top heavy, resilient howls of Halford.
While I don't think Tipton and Downing had quite come into their own here, still adapting the signature dual style they are so known for, both are pretty solid at emulating the grooves of their individual influences. A lot of Clapton in there, even more Hendrix, but it works very well against the impressive rhythm section. 40 year veteran Ian Hill has long been one of the less outspoken members of the band, and I've often heard or read the guy being criticized for his low key stage presence, but he really got a chance to shine here, his subtle strutting perfectly accommodating the bright and rich tone of the guitars. If there's any real problem with this record, it's only that in hindsight the songs are nowhere near as striking and effective as the heavier style they would evolve towards on later records. Not all of them are equally memorable, and if you took Rob out of the equation, Rocka Rolla might well have been any of several other bands in this period.
Still, the production and performance ensures that, while it's never to be hailed as some great masterpiece of psychedelic heavy blues or proto-metal, Rocka Rolla has a timeless nature about it that should sate most people who find themselves in a mood for some of the harder 70s sound. Blues, progressive rock, hard rock, all can be found frothing in the spirit of these musicians, and there's a sense that this is one of the most 'honest' of their works. It's not the hi octane, fire breathing, S&M strapped Judas Priest we'd all come to recognize and worship, but a group of guys carving a sincere, dynamic and refreshing piece of the pie from their own forebears. It's not very consistent. There are few if any 'hits'. Nor is it as musically wealthy or important as other debuts like Iron Maiden, KISS, or Black Sabbath, yet it weathers the decades like a diamond, in whose facets one might glean the firestorms to follow.