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My first review and I'm giving a record 100%. What a newblet!
Well, not really.
Every few years there comes an album which defines not only the genre of music to which it belongs, but which instead transcends all genera divisions and encapsulates in an hour or so the entire cultural zeitgeist of the period from which it stemmed. These albums are rare birds, but when captured they become prized not only for their musical virtues but for the memory contained in every note of the record.
Judas Priest's fifth album, Stained Class, is just such a release.
Gone entirely are the blues-oriented rockers from Rocka Rolla, Sad Wings of Destiny and Sin After Sin. Gone too are the bawdy bar-room rockers of the band's first release. What is contained in this disk (and, if you own it, it had best be the remastered; time works against the heavy metal fan) is nothing more than the most forward-thinking, cutting-edge metal this side of Seventh Son.
One must be blunt: heavy metal at the time of this release was a novelty genre, distinguishable only from classic rock by virtue of its heaviness and riff-orientation and from punk music only by its speed, virtuosity, and overall darker lyrical themes. Gaudy Satanism, however, had not yet appropriated the genre (and would not do so until the release of Venom's 1981 opus Welcome To Hell), and so the early metallers were free to cover greater lyrical territory, which in turn provided a greater range of musical expression not tied down to themes of 'evil' or 'brutalness'.
Nevertheless, when listening to this album it becomes readily apparent what would follow in the aftermath of Stained Class. Though the band would begin a plummet the very year this was released, with the exceptionally-well performed but lyrically simplified Killing Machine, Stained Class represents the apotheosis of the style of proto-speed metal debuted on Sad Wings of Destiny. Like that record, this album is bleak, but lacking even in the ethereal sorrows of tracks such as "Dreamer Deceiver": the nihility of this album is expressed almost exclusively (save for "Invaders" and "White Heat, Red Hot") in terms of very worldly sorrows. From the dystopic themes of the title track, which were almost surely picked up by Seattle prog-metallers Queensrÿche, to a haunting reminder of the horrors of European colonialism on "Savage", this record virtually resonates with a hostility and futility almost absent from all past releases. To be sure, Black Sabbath had already mastered themes of global war and drug abuse on their first six efforts, but never before had such concentrated nihilism ever been found on an album.
The record begins with "Exciter", which is a speed metal classic on par with anything from the band's 1990 comeback Painkiller. From the very opening moments to the bombastic main riff to Halford's shrieking, hymnal mockery of Christian salvation, one immediately senses that something is different this time. Tipton and Downing are on the top of their game here, delivering a furious, break-necked swirl of electric ecstasy unmatched by anything recorded until this period of time. The song builds to a swell in the chorus line, until it explodes in a rapturous orgy of power and feeling before receding back into the whirlwind depths from whence it came. This trounces even the miraculous "Dissident Aggressor" from the previous record in terms of sheer speed, ability, and, yes, even aggressiveness.
One excellent cut is followed by another, and "White Head, Red Hot" is just as excellent as any other offering served up on this altar of an album. While the lead guitars are slowed a bit, Halford has never sounded better, presenting an intriguing tale of stellar warfare delivered as only Halford can: in a whirling, swirling, twirling form of vocal warfare. All cylinders are firing on this one, and one can detect a sinister underlying grove that feels at times both almost sexy and awfully malevolent.
The infamous 'suicide song', "Better By You, Better Than Me" follows, and one can almost see the logic behind blowing one's head off to it: gothettes, take note; this is how one expresses an overflowing feeling of world-weariness. To be sure, this track is slower than the average pace of the record but is no less dark for it, with Halford delivering some of his most frustrated-sounding vocals to a track played to the hilt by masters of their trade. Whilst this is not a Priest original, I can say as a fan of Spooky Tooth that this takes their rather pedestrian tune and turns it into something monumental.
The title track is next, and this is undeniably the strongest point of the album and almost certainly one of the strongest of Priest's career. Opening with an air-raid riff that all true metalheads have memorized instinctively, this song descends into a hell of dystopian futility as only 1970's-era Priest can deliver. Halford is wild-eyed and tight-fisted as he bemoans the fate of society's creation as the band delivers the performance of a life(death)time. Of particular interest here is the galloping bassline, which surely served as a prototype for a slew of Steve Harris-penned rockers.
After having the flesh whipped and stripped from our bones with the title track, we fall under the attack of the "Invader". This is probably one of the lesser cuts on this record, but a lesser-quality Stained Class tracks are worth a dozen Orgy albums. Opening with a poorly-conceived electronic squeal over a primal drum-and-bass accompaniment by Hill and Binks, this song is undoubtedly the most relaxed song on the album: which is hardly anything to be ashamed of, as it sacrifices sheer hard-hitting heaviness for a bit of sing-along melody in the chorusline. Not exceptionally memorable, but hardly poor enough to be considered filler.
We come now to "Saints In Hell", and I'll be damned if this isn't more Hellish than anything put out by the likes of Venom or Bathory. Kicking off with what is for me the second most memorable riff on the album backed with a powerful stomp-beat delivered at the hands of woefully misplaced Les Binks, we are quickly plunged into a sorrowful tale of apostasy and damnation at the mouth of Hell. No cheesy Satanic themes here, however; this is an epic tale and not at all a recount of a personal philosopher. Included in this song is what is perhaps one of Priest's most memorable vocal lines in the chorus, where Rob Halford screams with enough force to wake the dead. Even the quasi-sound effects in this song are spot-..ing to provide the listener with an inner vista from which to watch the unfolding events of the song in (relative) safety before plunging into icy caverns during the mid-song breakdown. Everything here works, and it works goddamned well.
"Savage" is another of the 'weak' tracks on this album, but this is, again, only relative to the rest of the material here, for even 'weak' Stained Class is infinitely superior to the dredge of, say, Iowa. Having out-ran Iron Maiden in beating them to a retelling of the plight of Native Americans, this socially-conscious song is sure even to please even the most demanding of moralists.
Even if "Savage" were the worst song of all time, however, it still would not blemish the following anthem, "Beyond the Realms of Death". Opening with a melancholic acoustic piece as only Priest can write, this titan quickly slams into an anthemic denunciation of the strife of man's existence as it records the history of an individual who descended into madness before it. To be sure, none of the lyrical material here is exceptionally groundbreaking, but it's delivered in such a way as to make the most of Rob Halford's potency as a performer, and, when combined with music more emotional than emo and heavier than the blackest of metal, becomes enough to send a chill shiver down the spine of even the hardest of hearts.
I cannot praise "Beyond the Realms of Death" enough. This is the "Hallowed Be Thy Name" for the 1970's, and, to be honest, I slightly prefer this to that masterpiece. Everything here is executed so beautifully, with a class (pun intended) that no other band could ever be capable of. Of particular emotional notice is Halford's last shriek in the song, which is the crescendo to which this entire record has been building up.
Had Priest chosen to end on that last track, this would be a perfect album, the best of all time. One final song remains, however, "Heroes End", which, while strong, ought to have been the second-to-last piece on here. This misplacing costs Stained Class just a few precious points, and isn't enough to detract from the overall quality which fills every second of this tremendous album. With lyrics dealing with the death of three 1960's-era superstars, it's certainly thematically fitting, and would go on to be the prototype from which several other Priest epics were spawned.
This is, in short, the metal album. That's right, the. Blacker than Burzum; heavier than Death; more nihilistic than Nevermore. This is the summation of a generation's journey through an epoch of socio-political and spiritual turmoil and documents like none other the basic meaningless of existence. If Friedrich Nietzsche were listening to an album while writing Beyond Good & Evil, it would be this.