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Priest, at first glance, seems to be a band of even numbers (the same way Star Trek is I guess). Basically, here's a simplified look at how many Priest fans feel about the catalogue. Rocka Rolla isn't too popular. Sad Wings of Destiny is the near unanimous choice of the classic Priest-heads. Sin After Sin is considered just too odd, not nearly as good as the rest of their stuff. Stained Class is another masterwork. Hell Bent for Leather/Killing Machine is too funky, too much of a change. British Steel is a classic. Point of Entry was a disappointment. Screaming for Vengeance is the best Priest record. Defenders, while good, was a step down... and then the band sucked until Painkiller.
That's a good description of how many view Priest's catalogue. That doesn't mean it's right at all. In fact, in my opinion it's almost totally wrong. The first big wallop to the party line is the fact that Sin After Sin is not only better than anything Priest released after 1979, it's also one of the greatest albums anyone ever released, period. This is a Priest stupefyingly beyond the pale, crafting an album full of experimentation and bold intelligence that puts to shame the claim that metal cannot play in the same league as the mad geniuses of rock royalty.
True, Sin After Sin does not come down and redefine music in the way Sad Wings did, but really it could've had people decided to follow the path Priest was meandering down. The album is no less innovative than it's predecessor, but it's like the world was too busy trying to be like Sad Wings to even try to master the almost magical profundity barely contained on this little compact disc (or at the time, considerably larger black vinyl). Sadly, yet also fortuitously, Priest was literally starving, and couldn't afford to continue on in a direction that wasn't getting any attention. Therefore, the band would continue on in a mesmerizing (and virtuosic) series of massive stylistic shifts, the band moving on to futuristic uber-technical masterworks on Stained Class. This band literally went through ELEVEN big changes in a row, ending at Ram it Down.
The first big move was acquiring the inhumanly talented Simon Phillips on drums. This guy is seriously the most unique metal drummer since Bill Ward (in a totally different way), from the bouncy clapping drum rolls on "Starbreaker" to the amazingly textured cymbal-wash opening "Raw Deal". The guy manages to make cymbals of all things beautiful and eye-opening. It's true, the guy's odd style is a little distracting at times, but Sin After Sin wouldn't be Sin After Sin without it.
Judas Priest may have made a name for themselves with one-dimensional hits like "You Got Another Thing Coming" and "Breakin' the Law", but this record more than any other shows them literally doing 180 turns song in and song out. It may be disconcerting for some, but to me it's like finding a gold mine, and then discovering it's also an oil well, a diamond deposit, and home of the finest steak house in the greater Harrow area. If the album was simply bi-polar and full of schisms between the tracks, I would not be so kind, but they do every style better than any influence you might find, and more often than not are inventing a whole new sub-genre that none who followed could touch.
Opener "Sinner" sounds both newer and older (it's the guitar style I think) than the stuff on Sad Wings, an epic as unlike "Victim of Changes" as musically possible, maze-like and full of interesting production choices, most notably the OutKast-style repetition of the "god of the devils" line (check out "Hey Ya" if you can stomach it, the "shake it" bit). The solos are hot, Rob Halford electric (change those adjectives around and my review might come off as a little less innocent), Simon Phillips Simon Phillips-like.
I think "Diamonds and Rust" may be the best example of metallizing a non-metal song as of 1977, and perhaps the first commercially successful one (on a very small level) as it soon became the 'drug of choice' for metal acts looking for an in on the business (Anthrax = "I'm Eighteen", Heathen - "Set Me Free"). It's also solidly thrashy riff-wise and features a brilliantly sombre Halford performance, the melancholic lyrics perhaps actually revealing his under-utilized talent at singing lyrics that don't involve forced oral sex or winged saviours from out the sky.
"Starbreaker" belies the cold reputation of early Priest, the song finding grooves more easily than temporally-adjacent KISS and rocking out measured and headbang happy. Priest always had non-sense lyrics at times (later: all the time) and "Starbreaker" is no exception, the song apparently about some sort of interstellar ladies man come to spread his alien seed around the same cycle on which Haley's Comet swings by. Seriously, practically all of the references to 'paradise' and 'star voyage[s] to a new world' could easily be taken as euphemisms. In any case, the song as a sweet break ('Starbreaker lead us on, and on, oooon....') and an even sweeter solo, one of my favourites out of a catalogue wherein nearly every solo is pure gold.
Now, naysayers be damned, I like "Last Rose of Summer". It isn't like we're trying to challenge Altars of Madness of Necroticism here, it's a ballad in the trippy, dippy 70's style. Rob is alarmingly warm and gentle here, elegant phrasing and some delicate shading making it a good song to quiet those who write him off as a guy who just screams his head off. And for the Painkiller kids in the family, a song to hide in the closet and deny 'til the end of time. I'm not sure what the deal is with the background vocals are on about because they get creepy after a while, but otherwise Rob is a perfect ten and Simon's soft drumming chops (not to mention Tipton and Downing's melodic leads) get some nice exercise before the next onslaught.
"Let Us Prey" is a brilliantly church-y intro, organ-like lead guitars and Halford's out of this world wail introducing us to Priest's most Purple song, and also the song in which Priest proves that in general, they're way better than Purple ever was. This is an update on Purple speedsters like "Fireball", "Speed King", "Highway Star", and "Demon's Eye", that old guitar style very similar save for the fact Priest is playing at such unhealthy speeds that often you can't tell. Here the writers are obviously a little upset with the media who panned Priest's early records and ignored the hell out of the brand new ideas served up on the preceding platters. At least they don't chew out magazines by name the way Axl Rose did in musical form. Priest busts out a fiery lead duel that shames anything Purple ever did (well, maybe not "Pictures of Home"), Halford pronouncing from his high-upon-high metal god throne, Phillips in the boiler room playing some super-fast fills and jamming in as many sounds as possible into the standard fast-drum style. I just wish I had something to say about poor Ian Hill.
Yet another total switch-up. Virtually nobody remembers that Priest used to be pretty damn funky, tracks like this and later "Killing Machine" and "Burnin' Up" grooving (in the true, general music definition of that term) like no other metal band before or since. This is Purple's hackneyed white funk (and God forbid, Zeppelin's horrific white reggae) done right, Rob Halford giving us a tour of a gay bar... errr, western saloon (I'm sorry, but read the lyrics) while the band cruises by in a bouncing low-rider. Furthermore, the song contains what I consider to be one of the first mosh breaks, the basic blueprint for any number of neck-snapping Anthrax/Pantera breakdowns, as well as one of the most dramatic ride-outs in rock history. Have I mentioned that Rob Halford is the most amazing singer in all of metal?
Next, another ballad yet in no way similar to "Last Rose". This is the type of dripping sorrow that you can share with your snarling denim 'n' leather buddies. It's slow, gothic, almost like a psyched-out alternate universe version of The Gathering. Rob is so reserved on the first part of the song, Ian Hill droopy and mercurial (Yes!), Phillips acting texture and feel through sparse drums... and then the more brisk acoustic guitar moves in. Really, this is the most "Victims"-style song on the album, sorrow and resentment mixing as the song gradually builds. The crunching guitars supporting operatic wails in the heavy part of the song are perfect, this highly melodic doom feel permeating your innards, the loss implied expressed so perfectly that the only comparison at the time was the emotional connection of terror in "Black Sabbath". The final 'here come the tears' are so eerie because it sounds like Rob is singing 'land of the dead' which is so appropriate for the crashing epic finale of the song.
And now for something completely different.
Goofy little drum fills, sound effects, unidentifiable instrumentation, a build up to.... AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Is that even human?! On a pair of headphones that noise is so high-register that your eardrums feel like bursting. Hell, it's enough to blind you for a moment to the incredibly heavy riffs being pounded into your skull. Like nothing else, operating on a level nobody else was even thinking about, "Dissident Aggressor" is no less than the most advanced metal written by '77, in fact, heavier and more intense than anything up until around 1980. It's amazingly brief as if this kind of power can't be kept up for long, more metal than Satan lyrics, riffs and sheer mind-melting power that had me literally flattened against the mattress (do most of my listening in bed) with my mouth agape at the damned song. If I'd be walking down the street I may well have fallen over. Then, I ruined by throat snarling along in my best death metal growl. If this song doesn't make your head bang unsafely, you may very well be dead. And the solos, the solos! It literally sounds like Tipton and Downing picked up some forked tridents and started spearing demons and casting them writhing into the light, their death-screams recorded for use in this ultimate plateau of metal power. Really, metal has rarely been better since.
Anything after THAT would be an anti-climax, but the light and loose "Run with the Devil" eases you back into reality with it's catchy, light riffing and solid performances from all involved. After that, a nice live version of "Jawbreaker" (apparently the band didn't perform many of the tracks on this record that weren't already on Unleashed in the East) closes the affair in a fine fashion.
You know it's albums like this that make me embarrassed about the choices Priest made post-79. As good as British Steel, Screaming for Vengeance, and most of all Defenders of the Faith are, they'll never be as flat-out great as this stuff. The creativity was drying up, the brilliance nearly used up, the band destined to a future of ridicule from the lay-man, and to be slotted in behind upstarts like Iron Maiden in the great metal sweepstakes. Still, we should bow toward the undeniable genius that Priest once had and, if a miracle happens, may yet regain. Sin After Sin, the most experimental Priest record and ultimately one of the most satisfying.
Stand-Outs: "Dissident Aggressor", "Starbreaker", "Here Come the Tears"... okay, that's virtually random. Any track would do.