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This album has always been hard to review, in my eyes at least. That's why I've been putting it off for so long; every time I started writing, it would get too overblown and complicated, because there is far too much to say. Then again, that would be a problem given that I am reviewing what most of the metal world considers to be the first non-doom based heavy metal album. How could that be easy?
Indeed, it's a damned long way from easy. The biggest issue is this: What truly separates hard rock from heavy metal? Just where does one draw the line?
The answer is obvious when one looks at the more extreme side of metal, including thrash. Yes, even Metallica or Anthrax's first albums have enough speed and distortion to be a long way from hard rock. But then you go back to 1976, when heavy metal as we know it barely existed(Or did it? This is another thing that always bugs me), and suddenly it becomes a lot harder to classify.
What makes this album a defining one in heavy metal? It doesn't have extreme distortion, the production doesn't accentuate the guitars nearly as much as it should, there's no downtuning, and the really fast chugging sections aren't always commonplace.
But that feature is what sets it apart the most. The faster parts are sometimes really damn fast. Again, some people have said the same about a song like "Highway Star" by another band we all know and love, but that band isn't even definitely metal. What is the difference between "Tyrant" and the aforementioned Purple song?
As superficial as it might at first seem, Tyrant is distinctively heavier and thrashier. Yes, that fast chugging riff is pure proto-thrash right there. The guitars have a hell of a lot more weight. And, although the main parts of the song are all quite bluesy, there are several sections with completely different melodies that take a huge step away from the blues into something much darker, and heavier.
Thus, at the end of the day, it is everything. All the elements of this album come together as one to create a masterpiece of 70's metal (not to be confused with 80's metal, in my opinion they are often two very different things) that is truly timeless. The darkness of the lyrics and the complete lack of any obvious pop hooks such as love songs. The progressive nature of many of the arrangements. Tons of speed, quite a few chugging riffs, plus greater distortion than almost any other band of the time with the possible exception of Sabbath. It all adds up.
I don't have the original version, so I'll begin the song by song section with "Victim of Changes". This doesn't need much description as it's an obvious classic and has been one ever since its inception (and is still played by Priest today). But it is special, from the fade in (which I don't think was all that common in most 70's rock music) to the simple, bluesy, but still heavy main riff, to Rob Halford's brilliant performance, to the heavier chugging riffs which surface from time to time, to the fantastic solos, and the cleverly structured breakdowns - this is 70's progressive metal at its finest. Not much else can be said, other than that Rob's growl and then screams at the end were truly unique at their time and are most definitely metal, not rock. That, of course, is how all of the cliches started, some silly, others brilliant. This belongs to the latter.
"The Ripper" is a tight little number with a good focus. It's both rocky and sinister at the same time, with another mesmerising performance by Rob and some good riffs throughout. This was almost definitely an inspiration to Iron Maiden, and you can see that their early stuff took a lot of influence from this kind of song. It's also short and to the point, which was also unusual in music at the time.
Then we have "Dreamer Deceiver" and its sequel "Deceiver" which couldn't really be more perfect. The atmosphere here is so thick you can almost touch it. It's almost psychedelic, not quite in a hippie way but certainly weird. The first part isn't very metal in that it's a ballad with a dream like feel, but it's beautiful nonetheless and again unusual. Rob again gives a fantastic performance, and the ending section with the guitar solo is amazing. It's one of the most emotional solos of its time and has some unforgettable melodies.
When Deceiver follows, it's in contrast to its slower first movement, but works perfectly. The main riffs here are almost thrashy, and although they have a very bluesy feel the chugging style keeps them from falling into a hard rock pattern. Not much to say here, but again it's a great little song.
Wow, four songs in and not a single bad one yet. That's another great thing about a lot of Priest albums - the best ones are usually completely, or almost completely consistent.
"Prelude" is next, and it's extremely atmospheric, very gothic and dark and extremely unusual for its time. It's a long way from cheerful blues rock, and despite the bluesy feel of a lot of the riffs on the album, its overall mood is like this short instrumental - dark, brooding, and almost completely uncommercial. You couldn't really have asked for much of a better introduction to the brutal "Tyrant".
Speaking of which, that song then begins. The intro riff is bluesy, as is the main riff, but the latter has a vicious chug to it that sounds almost like thrash metal, no kidding. This kind of thing is what made the album revolutionary to metal, as opposed to just hard rock. Rob gives a great performance once more as he takes on the roles of the evil Tyrant and the pitiful people crying out against his cruelty. Indeed, after the main riff and chorus sections have repeated round a couple of times, we get the "Mourn for us, oppressed in Fear, Chained and Shackled, We are Bound, Freedom choked in Dread we Live, Since Tyrant was Enthroned" section. That is truly special. With Rob's voice multitracked, sung over a dark minor-key riff, this is extremely dark and unusual for 1976. Then follows a great little solo, then the verse (with different lyrics) and the chorus again.
Suddenly a brutal chugging riff begins, heavier than almost any before it, which soon segues into a beautifully dark solo which ends up as a dual-guitar solo. This is beyond fantastic, this is superlative, and another unforgettable moment in 70's metal. Not only that, but one of Priest's trademarks - always having the riffs continue underneath the solo to maximise heaviness - is maintained here. Then the "mourn for us, oppressed in fear" section comes again, followed by a final repeat of the verse and chorus. This whole song is, without a doubt, heavy fucking metal with a capital H and M. Play it with modern distortion and amplification, and you've got a crushing thrashy speed metal song (with some dark power metal influence thrown in). That's how metal this is. And yes, Priest's work on albums like this led to all three genres coming to real fruition in the 80's. A true masterwork of a song.
Unfortunately, the album pretty much had to at least slightly drop off at one point, and indeed, "Genocide" is not up to par with the rest of the album, and really falls flat when compared to Tyrant. It's regarded by many as a Priest classic, but I just find it really boring until the middle section when things change. It's too slow, bluesy, rocky, and meandering. However, the lyrics are gruesome and dark as fuck, and the song picks up later, so it ain't all bad. In fact, it's effectively a good song, I just find the riffs up until nearly 3 minutes into the song to be kind of...well, dull. The end, though, is brilliant.
"Epitaph" is the third and final non-metal part of this album, and is very much like a Queen ballad. (A lot of those parts of this album and Sin after Sin have Queen influence, not that there's anything wrong with that as I love Queen, it's just an interesting point) It's slow and gentle, fairly somber but not depressing. There isn't much to say, other than that it's amazing Priest managed to get through the album without writing a single love or sex song. (Not something they would do later, unfortunately) Very effective, especially as a contrast to the next song, and Rob gives a much more low-key performance here with a much lower register, and it works equally well, proving he truly is one of the greatest singers in both metal and rock.
And yes, "Island of Domination" is indeed that. Fairly bluesy, but heavy, crushing and doomy. Opens brilliantly, with another fantastic scream by Rob, then a standard blues-styled main riff, but some very dark lyrics. The weirdest part is "and all in all, it was a terrible sight!" Because it's sung almost laughingly. It ends up sounding humourous, which I'm not sure was intentional. It doesn't matter though, especially as the next riff is fucking evil. "Now we are taken..." Dun dun dun DUN! "Onto the Island..." Dun! "Of Domination!" Fucking hell, and this was 1976. Sure, Sabbath did it too, but they weren't as fast. Priest proves here that they could easily have played doom had they wanted to. That riff is so damn evil, it's almost chilling.
Another evil riff is heard following a solo around a minute later. Then comes a breakdown, which is ridiculously bluesy, sounding just like AC-DC, but it fits perfectly anyway, and is still heavy as fuck. Then the song speeds up again towards the end, the verses repeat, then that evil as fuck chorus is heard for the third time, and the song ends with Rob's fading out screams of "Dominatiiooooon!". Another masterpiece.
So, that's Sad Wings Of Destiny. A near perfect album of 70's heavy metal, with many moments that outright defined later parts of the overall genre, as well as branches reaching out into myriad new territories, most of which were to start less than 10 years later. Victim of Changes influenced progressive metal and introduced the growl and the scream, two defining vocals in the world of metal. The Ripper was an exercise in musical evil and "short and to the point", definitely influencing early Maiden songs such as "Prowler". Dreamer Deceiver was another progressive masterwork, and Deceiver a nice little semi-thrasher. Prelude was a gothic monster by the standards of its time. Tyrant was a true beast, a genuine thrasher that influenced the genre bands like Metallica and Slayer began for proper in the 80's and also speed and power metal, breaking new records of speed, heaviness and darkness in its time. Genocide seemed standard, but had some truly evil elements (including low vocals imitating something clearly satanic in the middle section) plus gore-filled lyrics about death and killing that set it completely apart from most rock songs of the period. Finally, Epitaph was a gentle Queen-like ballad that broke no new ground but worked for what it was, and Island of Domination mixed bluesy riffs with evil ones flawlessly.
Is this a true classic of heavy metal? You fucking bet. It also has the added bonus of no filler. And I don't think any album of the same time was as revolutionary, with the only true rivals to Priest's sound being Rainbow and Sabbath. Them aside, this record is easily one of (if not the most) influential of all 70's metal. It goes without saying that if you're a fan of heavy metal, rock, or just good music in general, this is one album you cannot do without.