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Unleash the Priest! - 100%

Chernobog, March 14th, 2014

The late 70s were a prolific time for the metal gods known as Judas Priest, if not in terms of popularity and album sales, then certainly in productivity; between 1976 and 1978, they had at least one album recorded for each year and in the case of 1978, managed to record two albums in one year, a feat few bands are capable of doing in today's environment. That any of these albums would be top notch records in that kind of recording schedule is a miracle in itself, since bands usually require some a lot of time to evolve their sound. Yet in a manner of two years, Judas Priest had an evolved sound removed from the psychedelic blues rock of their debut and transformed into a unique metal machine. With "Stained Class", we see Judas Priest come into their own with a sound that, for the first time, pulls all of their influences together without appearing disjointed.

The album is more polished than their previous three, and not just in terms of production. The songs are focused without being one dimensional and varied without appearing desperate to be progressive. Despite a production that, for it's time, must have been considered clean for a heavy metal album, there is an underlying darkness in the songs, both musically and lyrically. The music takes most of it's cues from the speed of their previous "Sin After Sin" but brings back the catchy hooks we saw in the debut "Rocka Rolla", giving the heavy metal aggression a bit of swing that keeps your head banging throughout. The lyrics themselves have grown more colorful, evolving from the hellish themes in previous songs like "Dissident Aggressor" and creating entire heavy metal fables centered around sci-fi and war tales like "Saints in Hell", "Exciter", "Stained Class" and "Invaders". Matching the fury of Judas Priest's heavy metal storm is Rob Halford, who utilizes high notes even more on this album, rising to a crescendo that matches the violent excitement of the music. The opening track "Exciter" is pure proto-speed metal joy that opens with a brief but impressive drum fill by Les Binks, who throughout the rest of the song proves his mettle (no pun intended) as a drummer for the fiery heavy metal Judas Priest are going for on this album. Judas Priest include a cover song, "Better by You, Better Than Me", which despite it's catchy riff, is best known for being the focus of that absurd lawsuit involving suicide. Which is funny, because "Better By You, Better Than Me" makes me want to do anything but kill myself.

Despite all of the impressive songs on this album, one in particular has become a fan favorite that is still performed in concerts to this day, and that is "Beyond the Realms of Death". Aside from being an awesome song with an impressive musical dynamic, "Beyond the Realms of Death" feels like a fulfillment of Judas Priest's attempts at fusing their progressive influences into their heavy formula. We've seen them make ballads in previous albums, but those felt, for the most part like standard ballads. With "Beyond the Realms of Death", you have a melancholy acoustic intro that kicks into a heavy chorus with an impassioned performance by Rob Halford, a soulful guitar solo, and flawlessly dark lyrics that match the tone of the album. It's just too bad that other tracks on the album, like heavy hooked "White Heat, Red Hot" or the pre-NWOBHM ferocity of "Exciter" or "Savage", haven't become quite the concert staples they should be.

In my opinion, this is probably one of Judas Priest's best 1970's albums, if not one of their best albums over all. It sheds any connection with the hard rock of the time, in favor of being it's own steel monster that predicts the speed and thrash metal attack of the 80s. Judas Priest spent their first few albums searching for a place for the best of their influences in their music, while trying to maintain a distinct identity. With "Stained Class", Judas Priest not only developed their own approach to the heavy metal sound, but helped give heavy metal it's own unique identity.