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Judas Priest, one of the forefathers of heavy metal, undoubtedly reached their peak on this album. Recorded in 1977 and released the next year, when only Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, and a select few other bands had even set foot in the realm of metal, it made a mark on popular music like only landmarks such as Sabbath's debut had before. Priest's previous efforts had just as much power and ability, but Stained Class took their skills to a new level. While their first three albums had shown great blues-rock influence, Stained Class stripped down the blues and took a step into more all-out metal territory. Rob Halford arguably gives his best performance until 1984's Defenders of the Faith. K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton, as always, create a twin guitar sound that nobody short of Dave Mustaine and Marty Friedman could surpass, and Les Binks' drumming is superb. The result is a near-perfect production, not too raw or too sterile, that perfectly complements the tone of the songs.
And the songs may be some of the best Judas Priest has ever written. Even the weakest song on the album shows potential. The lyrics are insightful and interesting; the delivery, powerful. A sample from the opener, "Exciter:"
"Racing 'cross the heavens, straight into the dawn
Looking like a comet, slicing through the morn
Scorching the horizon, blazing through the land
Now he's here amongst us, the age of fire's at hand!"
You'd have to be deaf not to love that. Halford does a great job of enhancing the epic lyrics with his outstanding vocal prowess. His style prompts comparisons to that of Ronnie James Dio or Bruce Dickinson, to an extent, but at the same time displays a power all his own. Halford can hit unbelievable highs and inhuman screams, but never loses an ounce of strength. Even without the instrumentation, Halford enthralls. He can be catchy when he wants to; at the end of "Savage," for example, he sings almost in a chant,
"Who's the savage?--modern man!"
After you hear that for the first time, you'll never forget it.
The guitars form another high point. Downing and Tipton are obviously very skilled. They play no shortage of amazing and memorable riffs, not to mention the solos. Oh, the solos... some of the best I've heard this side of Fade to Black. They go from strong and defiant ("Exciter") to mournful ("Beyond the Realms of Death"). They will keep you spellbound; they will grip you and not let go for years to come. Simply astounding.
Now for an in-depth description of the actual songs:
"Exciter" showcases Judas Priest's pure heavy metal side, abound with solos, great riffs, and cool lyrics. It's the first of a series of "alien savior" epics (see "Painkiller") and works perfectly as an opener. On the other side of the spectrum, "Beyond the Realms of Death" displays Priest's ability to write an epic masterpiece. It starts out slow and brooding, before exploding into a loud, defiant chorus. The song proves that slow solos can be just as awesome and memorable as fast ones.
"Savage" describes the American Indians' encounters with European explorers, much like Iron Maiden later would with "Run to the Hills," leading one to believe that Harris took some influence from Priest. It's fun and often sound like it was actually written by the Native Americans. It's great to sing along to, as well. "Invader," which is along the same lines lyrically, except the invaders are aliens, is also an amazing song. The music seems to go along better with the Indian theme, though.
"Better By You, Better Than Me" and "White Heat, Red Hot" are pretty funky, and well done at that. There's a little bit of groovy rhythm in "Saints in Hell" and "Stained Class," as well. Judas Priest does quite a good job of merging these styles of music while still fully retaining their heavy metal sound. "Better By You..." sparked a fairly well-known lawsuit involving a teen suicide. While of course the case was absolute bogus, it did give the song some much-deserved exposure. As usual, Priest have outdone themselves in adding a metallic edge to a cover song.
"Heroes' End" is the weakest song here, but despite that, it's still interesting to listen to. It's nothing special, though, making it the only reason I didn't give Stained Class a perfect score. It doesn't really matter, though - before it there's a 38-minute streak of sheer brilliance.
All in all, Stained Class is a near-perfect record, where Priest successfully fuse many genres while remaining heavy metal through and through. Priest would later experiment with glam and other popular (at the time) genres, but they ultimately would never surpass their work on this album. If you don't have it already, send your ears to paradise and check it out. I promise you will absolutely not be disappointed.