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Conqueror of All - 90%

Frankingsteins, December 17th, 2007

Released in 1976 when the popularity of heavy metal was beginning to wane, Judas Priest’s second album injected new life, speed and energy into the genre, and along with its successors paved the way for what would ultimately be defined as the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Still commonly regarded as one of the band’s finest releases, it was unarguably a vast improvement over the messy and long-forgotten debut ‘Rocka Rolla,’ abandoning its blues-tinged, hard rock sound – for the most part – in favour of a highly charged approach that was in equal shares melodic and aggressive, based on the shrieking vocal talents of Rob Halford and the dual guitar harmonies and discordance of Glenn Tipton and K. K. Downing.

Even at first glance, with the album’s hellish cover art, vicious song titles and new gothic logo, it’s clear that Judas Priest has begun to define itself as a heavy metal band rather than the slightly confused hippies who recorded an album in 1974, and the presence of old live favourites from the early seventies (refused inclusion on the previous album due to the incompetence of producer Rodger Bain) makes this in some ways the first ‘true’ Judas Priest album, although ownership disputes with Gull Records sadly mean that the band still won’t receive any of the proceeds for albums released before ‘Sin After Sin.’ More focused than its predecessor, ‘Sad Wings of Destiny’ still finds time to experiment with softer songs and longer compositions comprised of numerous changes, while the arguable song cycle that leads to its conclusion may demonstrate that the interest in lofty and progressive ideals has not been entirely eliminated by the desire to achieve commercial success.

A peculiar feature of this release is that its two original sides on the vinyl LP were switched around when the time came to re-issue the album on CD, causing the original opening ‘Prelude’ to be moved to the fifth track. This move was probably for the best, as the first few songs are among the band’s most popular, still being live staples today, and ‘Deceiver’ wouldn’t really work as a satisfying ending in the same way that ‘Island of Domination’ achieves, while making the opening fade-in of ‘Victim of Changes’ more relevant in its new context. Of course, any stubborn fans intent on recreating the original experience can simply stick the CD player on repeat, start from track five, and stop complaining.

1. Victim of Changes
2. The Ripper
3. Dreamer Deceiver
4. Deceiver
5. Prelude
6. Tyrant
7. Genocide
8. Epitaph
9. Island of Domination

Originally under the title of ‘Whiskey Woman,’ ‘Victim of Changes’ is undeniably one of the most well-loved and accomplished Judas Priest songs, so it’s regrettable that my initial response has to be: ‘this isn’t as good as the live version.’ The same could be said for many tracks later released on the definitive ‘Unleashed in the East’ live album, however inauthentic and plagued by studio tampering that may be, but this song in particular has a long tradition of excelling in the live format, explaining its presence on the ‘Metal Works’ compilation in place of this original. It’s a great song split into several parts, though the transitions are all smooth and natural, with some classic riffs and great solo spots for the guitars, the bass and in particular the ear-piercing screams of Rob Halford. The resurgence of the main riff towards the end in the lead-up to his final screams has to be one of the best executed moments in the band’s entire discography, but this song really does suffer from the lack of crowd interaction in the quieter and slower moments. An excellent heavy metal song, but one that could never be successfully captured onto disc.

‘The Ripper’ is Priest’s classic short piece about Jack the Knife, led primarily by Halford’s squeaking narrative and with one of the band’s most memorable choruses. The simplicity of this song is its real charm, ushering in an entirely New Wave of British Heavy Metal without even knowing it, and clearly directly inspiring much of what Iron Maiden did in the first few years, both musically and thematically. The central section features a cool creeping guitar riff that speeds up subtly as it goes, which may or may not be attempting to imitate the eponymous Ripper’s stalking antics, though I like to think that it is. Once again, Halford lets rip a piercing scream at the end for good measure. Wisely, the next song ‘Dreamer Deceiver’ takes a complete detour from the sounds already established, beginning with a murky acoustic guitar and soft singing that sets an effective tranquil atmosphere. Once again, this can be traced as the direct inspiration for many softer metal songs from the late seventies to the present day, even if it gets a little dull and repetitive along the way. Halford’s more energetic screams in the second half are a nice touch, and work strangely well despite the rest of the music staying the same, and there’s a really long and mellow guitar solo that I can’t help but love.

Confusingly and unwisely bearing a similar title to the previous song, ‘Deceiver’ was formerly the final song of the album (see earlier explanation), but works much better being shoved into the middle, where its mediocrity doesn’t really get in the way. It isn’t a bad song, it’s just disappointingly generic after the great pieces that have come so far, the riff failing to stay memorable for sounding just like every other medium speed guitar line the band would play throughout the seventies. Things become much more interesting with the ominous ‘Prelude,’ a little strange in the middle of the album but nonetheless perfect in bringing in the second half of offerings. The deep, booming piano is joined by a church organ and high guitar, leading into one of the finest songs of the album, the suitably monstrous ‘Tyrant.’ This song showcases everything that was great about Priest’s classic early period, with a great heavy riff, slow and pounding chorus and an irresistible break into a second, lesser-used chorus that’s as fun as hell. To make things even better, Tipton and Downing execute a full dual guitar solo, remaining ever so slightly out of tune with each other in a performance that really has to be heard. Unlike the first song, I can’t specifically remember whether the ‘Unleashed in the East’ version is superior, but in this instance the record really does it justice.

Although technically not associated, the similar subject matter of ‘Genocide’ has always linked this song with its predecessor in my mind, perhaps exacerbated by the lofty ‘Prelude’ deceiving me into delusions of a song cycle along the lines of the first album’s ‘Winter’ suite. This song essentially stands alone as another cool, early metal song, but it somehow lacks the energy of ‘Tyrant’ and the earlier pieces until the very end where everything speeds up and Halford has to yell along at an exhausting pace. Thankfully, perhaps sensing that the sound has started to become repetitive, the album offers up its greatest deviation yet with the entirely piano- and vocal-led ‘Epitaph.’ This is bound to be a very challenging song for Priest fans or metal fans in general, as the performance by Tipton (on piano) and Halford severs all connections to the sound being pioneered elsewhere on the recording, though overall the experiment is a success. Supplementing his deep croon with a very strange higher pitch in the chorus that sounds almost like a choirboy, Halford is impressive here, if not quite at his best. It’s an interesting song to break the album up, but not really the sort of thing anyone would get this CD out of their collection specifically to listen to. A nice touch is that it fades directly into the final song ‘Island of Domination’ (again, not helping my paranoia in searching for patterns and song suites that aren’t really there). The energy of ‘Tyrant’ is back, even if this song doesn’t live up to the monumental task of beating that earlier classic, but it’s still a great song based on all the usual ingredients: shrieking Halford and a pounding chorus. The band considered re-recording this for the follow-up album ‘Sin After Sin’ for some reason, but there isn’t any problem with the original.

‘Sad Wings of Destiny’ is a heavy metal classic, though one that may take some getting used to for younger fans or those more accustomed to modern music. It’s a melodic and very heavy album, though not in the way a Suffocation album is heavy, and despite the praise heaped onto the later ‘British Steel’ release, leaves behind most of the blues influence of early heavy metal (exempting songs such as ‘Victim of Changes’ which were old live favourites), paving the way for the fast and catchy metal of the early eighties that are more commonly accredited to the punk explosion. The few weak songs and unsuccessful experiments prevent it from being my personal favourite Priest album, and the inclusion of superior live versions of some songs on the excellent ‘Unleashed in the East’ a few years later makes these studio recordings a little redundant. Still, this is a great source for those songs and many others, containing definitive heavy metal classics and some great unknown treats too.