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I just had to give this album a listen, because I just watched a great documentary about Judas Priest's highly publicized court case in 1990, in which they were blamed for the death of a young man who shot himself while listening to "Better By You, Better Than Me." (The documentary is called Dream Deceivers, and it's very good.) Well, I'm glad I gave it a listen, because it was well worth it.
I can see why this album has received such high praise from most of the people who have reviewed it here. Even though the production values date the album a bit, it gives the listener the chance to experience heavy metal in its young years. (The sound lacks some of the weight of eighties heavy metal production, but that's how things began in the seventies.) Stained Class has many of the hallmarks of early heavy metal. The soaring vocals of Rob Halford, with a bit more falsetto than later Halford vocals; the crashing cymbals and crisp drum work that would become heavier in ensuing years; the crunchy, energetic rhythm guitar work with solid riffing, that would also become heavier on later albums; and some very nice lead guitar that sets the foundation for later heavy metal extravagance. It really is like looking at photos of people when they were younger. You can see (or in this case, hear) many of the elements that change and solidify in later life.
"Beyond the Realms of Death" is a classic track that develops in a classic progression: acoustic guitar and laid back vocals at the beginning, gradually building emphasis on the solid, thundering riff; and the vocals that get higher, louder and more frenzied; leading to a classic guitar solo; and finally, the finale, where everything builds in intensity and speed, with a sudden dramatic pause at the end. Beautiful stuff, really.
"Saints in Hell" is another standout track, that reminds me a bit of Black Sabbath in its style of guitar work, but the vocals are classic Halford. None of that somewhat whiny Ozzy Osbourne stuff here! (I can almost hear the Ozzy fans shout in protest--I'm just saying Ozzy sounds a bit weak when compared to a vocal giant like Halford. I love Sab, really I do.) And some fun echo effects on the vocals half way through. Great.
I could go on, but I won't. Suffice it to say that this is a seminal work in the development of heavy metal. It absolutely deserves its status in the pantheon of great British heavy metal albums.