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Let me get one thing out of the way first: I LOVE Judas Priest. There are very few metal bands that I actually have a respect for bordering on reverence, whose members I might actually worship almost as gods. And Priest is one of them. Although I don't love all of their albums equally, the vast majority of their output from Rocka Rolla all the way to Painkiller is either very good, really good, excellent, brilliant, fantastic, or outright magnificent and superlative. Three of Priest's albums from 1980 to 1990 - Screaming, Defenders and Painkiller - are among my top heavy metal albums of all time.
But their 70's output is equally, if not even more brilliant in places, and unlike a lot of loved albums in 80's metal deserves almost all of the praise it gets. For a start, none of it is genuinely overrated because it's not popular enough. It's not underground as such, but considering how big Priest would later become and still are, the likes of Sad Wings and Stained Class are fearlessly experimental, genuinely progressive, at times crushingly heavy and far ahead of their time without being commercial at all.
So how does Sin After Sin fit into all of this? Unfortunately, i have to agree with the general consensus - this album is no Sad Wings, and it's no Stained Class. It's very, very far from bad, and has a load of good and even some great moments. But it isn't as good. It lacks the wondrous consistency, daring progressiveness (well, there is some of that, just not as much) and dark atmosphere of the former, and seems rather tame compared to the almost brutal heaviness and speed, constant crushing heavy metal and musical brilliance of the latter. In a word, it is inconsistent, something which is not usually a very good sign for a Priest album. If not for this inconsistency it would be equally as awesome. And yes, it is somewhat underrated. But it does have some genuine problems.
The main one being, above all else, the album's lack of a constant focus. Sad Wings Of Destiny had the heavy riffs as well as the prog elements, darkness and complexity. And Stained Class has the speed, heaviness, riffs, and a futuristic nature, and all in all added up to something that was amazingly influential on speed metal. This album, on the other hand, is actually too experimental for its own good in places. It goes from moderate heaviness with some hard rock influences(nothing wrong with that, just a point), to brutal heaviness that is easily full on heavy metal, to soft ballads (well, one soft ballad, one hard one) and this all contrasts in a way that isn't bad, but simply isn't so good as a unified album. On Sad Wings the ballads felt like a proper part of the whole and worked with the heavier songs to create a potent atmosphere. Here, they just feel like Priest trying to cover as many possible musical bases as they can. One could thus call this Priest's Queen album, but that wouldn't be an insult. Queen may not be a metal band but I like them a great deal too. And all things considered the material here is still pretty damn strong. Again, though, I just don't think all of it works properly. A lot of it sounds odd.
The best way to demonstrate this is by moving on...so without further ado let's discuss the songs. The album opens with "Sinner", which a lot of people consider to be one of Priest's best songs. I have to disagree. It's good, but it's no Victim Of Changes. That song was monumental - heavy, brilliant singing, a clean break that actually worked really well and that essential atmosphere. It was heavy metal. Sinner, on the other hand, sounds much more rocky, and while there's nothing wrong with that at all as Priest are as much a rock band as a metal one, I don't like it as much. Rob's vocals are very good though, as he adopts that tougher, meaner style he would use to great effect on later albums as a contrast to his high-pitched singing and falsetto shrieking. This song also has a break, but it isn't very atmospheric. Again, it's like the band tried to recapture the brilliance of Victim Of Changes but just couldn't pull it off as well this time. It's a good song, but has nothing on the aforementioned monster, or the crushing opener to Stained Class.
Next up is "Diamonds And Rust", which is a song that, despite being a cover of a folk song and not particularly metal at all is actually one of my favourite songs on the whole album. Here Priest really does pull something amazing off by turning a nice folk tune by Joan Baez into a reasonably nice hard rocking metal song. It's not as heavy as the version on Unleashed In The East, but this in a way adds to its charm - it's a lot softer than the opener and here, that contrast is very effective. Halford's performance here is mesmerising - from the fairly mellow (as it should be) singing he uses throughout the majority of the song to the almost screaming highs at the end, this shows his versatility to a strong degree. By extension could argue that this album showcases the light and shade style of Priest very well too. To a point i agree, but for the most part I'd say Screaming For Vengeance is far stronger in this regard. Either way this is a great little cover, probably Priest's best.
Following on from this point is "Starbreaker", and while a lot of fans enjoy this one, I find it rather boring. It's got a typically heavy, hard-blues rock main riff that works well for what it is but doesn't take away from the silliness of the lyrics or the very cheesy hand-clapping chorus. It's neither a bad nor a good song, just an average one. There isn't much else to say really...by this point on Sad Wings Of Destiny we'd already heard three brilliant songs (on my version, the first song was Victim Of Changes, but it still counts) and so it's a bit disappointing that this album can't quite measure up to its predecessor, but expected I suppose.
This is all quite good in comparison to what is about to follow, however, as "Last Rose Of Summer" is probably the worst song Priest ever penned throughout their entire career. It's that bad, even worse than the glam shit on most of Turbo. For a start it's completely soft - there's no light and shade here, just constant light in an irritating, overly bluesy, and very 70's fashion. Most of Priest's stuff doesn't sound outdated at all, but this is something rooted firmly in the era of disco, goth rock and the like. Is that an inaccurate statement? Possibly, and I wouldn't know for sure anyway as I wasn't around back then. What I do know is that this song isn't remotely metal, it isn't much like Priest, and none of this would be a problem as a one off except it's also boring as hell. When this song ended, I breathed a sigh of relief. It's the polar opposite of a masterful ballad like Dreamer Deceiver from Sad Wings Of Destiny. While that was atmospheric, powerful, had a brilliant guitar solo and a fantastic performance by Rob, this is forgettable, bland, and wholly uninteresting. Again, if this is Priest's Queen album, it's the reason why it's so inconsistent. Priest can pull off multiple styles, but they're clearly best sticking to where their hearts belong. And that's down and dirty heavy metal. Not pseudo-goth romantic ballads without an inch of heaviness.
Thankfully, Priest totally redeem themselves with the next song, which is an absolute masterpiece in every way - the strongest song on the album so far. "Let Us Pray/Call For The Priest" is brilliant. Talking of Queen, its intro is very Queen-like, with beautiful harmonised guitars creating a very uplifting feeling. Then Rob screams: "Call for the Priest...I'M DYIIIIINNNNNG!" This is the polar opposite of forgettable. The guitars get really heavy a few seconds later, and a short while after that the song becomes something close to full on speed metal. Keep in mind that this was 1977. I wouldn't say there are any flaws to this song - it's extremely powerful, heavy, and in its own way quite proggy, and works in every one of those elements.
In fact, it seems to me that this album's second half is considerably stronger than its first. We have three ass-kickers - this song, the next one, and the last one, and a heavy and dark ballad that is infinitely better than Last Rose Of Summer.
"Raw Deal" is the sixth song here, and while it isn't pounding speed metal like the track before it, and is in fact quite bluesy (albeit still heavy) hard rock for the most part, it's good nevertheless. The lyrics are quite ahead of their time, as I'm pretty sure they are an actual endorsement of gay rights, as Rob sings about this "bar" he goes to (more like an S&M nightclub) and how people should judge him for who he is, not how he lives. The most interesting aspect of the song is a heavy breakdown in the middle section which is definitely ahead of its time. It's also fairly long, and shows yet more of the band's progressive side from this point of view. All in all, a very good song.
So far, remarkable inconsistency throughout, but the second half seems to be changing that. Does this all crash and burn down with "Here Come The Tears"? Absolutely not, as this is an extremely strong and emotional power ballad. It starts out very quietly and calmly, and stays this way for almost a minute. Then that acoustic guitar line begins, and the next part is quite a lot faster. Finally, around the two minute mark heavy riffs kick in and from then on the song is heavy until it ends. It remains extremely emotional with a great solo, and throughout the whole song Rob's performance as a vocalist is remarkable, filled with genuine emotion. This is a great, proper heavy rock ballad the way it should be done. Hell, the guitars are heavy enough that it's pretty much a metal ballad, even if a lot lighter than, say, Night Comes Down from Defenders Of The Faith. Everything gets really intense towards the end, with Rob going ever more maniacal, the guitars getting harder and more intense, the leads going crazy, and the tone becoming angry, before it ends with a crash. An excellent song. At this point you may as well say the album is consistent, as the entire second half kicks ass.
And this is represented best by the closer, the monumental "Dissident Aggressor", a song that deserves every bit of praise it gets. It's quite short, but that's part of its charm. It's ridiculously heavy and outright brutal and is nothing more than that - there's no attempt at complexity or anything remotely progressive here. Just an insane bashing-over-the-head heavy metal song that probably broke quite a few sonic boundaries in its time. Opening quietly with weird sounds, it is deceptive, luring you to turn the volume up...only to be deafened at around 0:35 as Rob lets out his higher shriek yet, so high that it seems almost inhuman, while the crushing main riff begins. Then the scream fades out and the drums kick in, and this may as well be a full on thrash song, it's that aggressive and heavy. Another thing is the total lack of subtlety, which is definitely a hard-nosed heavy metal trait, one that in this case works really well. There are plenty of other cases where it works well too, but here especially - it's something unique to metal, that "we're gonna play so loud and heavy that your ears bleed, and if you don't like it, fuck off" attitude, which i often admire. Priest don't display it much throughout this record, but on this song, it's all over the place. Insane screaming from Halford with zero attempt to be anything but as in your face and mad as possible, chugging guitars that smash you over the head with simple but pounding riffs, a brief but cool solo, and yet more insanity. It's all here. If I was to pick three defining 70's heavy metal songs, then a Sabbath song, another Priest song, and this song would be them. And with that final blast of intensity the album ends. Just imagine how people must have reacted when this first blasted out of their stereos. Anyone who wasn't into heavy rock would have been horrified by the sheer heaviness of the guitars and the extremeness of Halford's vocals. This really is the first song to really display that metal attitude to the full, I think. Sure, Sabbath also had a very "if you like us, take us, if you don't, fuck you, we don't care" quality to them at times. But this song broke down all of the boundaries. Maybe someone had done something like this before, but I doubt it.
This is actually a very good album. It also doesn't seem very inconsistent when you consider that only one song here actually sucks balls and the others are all either average, good, very good, excellent or brilliant. Except that I don't really like Sinner as much as a lot of other people do, Starbreaker is boring and Diamonds And Rust is a cover song. And then everything from Let Us Pray/Call For The Priest onwards is great. So inconsistency is a problem here.
All in all, I would say that along with Rocka Rolla this is the least metal of Priest's 70's albums. The quality of the material throughout is so good that this doesn't really matter but it's still a point. Aside from Dissident Aggressor there is nothing here that really screams "Heavy Metal". On Sad Wings Of Destiny almost everything did, and that album also had a lovely gothic atmosphere that this one lacks. And don't even get me started on Stained Class, an album that screams insane, pounding heavy metal from start to finish. Everything here is much less dark than Sad Wings and far more restrained and, to use an overused term, normal in comparison to Stained Class. Variety is good, and this album has tons of it, indeed making it the Priest album most easily compared to Queen's output at around the same time. Heavy in places, light in others, and a lot of stuff in-between the two. It's still far heavier of course, and Last Rose Of Summer is the only song here that doesn't have heavy guitars at all. So it's still mighty, at times crushing hard rock throughout, but not ripping heavy metal all the way like its successor.
Despite all of this it's still a good album to say the least, with plenty of different songs to sink your teeth into and some absolute crushers here and there along with great soloing and excellent vocals by Rob. And if you love 70's heavy rock with a prog touch at times you'll absolutely love this album. In a nutshell, this is still essential for Priest fans, heavy rock fans and heavy metal fans. It just isn't quite on the level of what came directly before it and what would come directly after, or some of their heavier 80's albums or Painkiller. But if you like Priest and want something different, this is a good record to add to your collection.