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A diamond hard, relentlessly dark cornerstone - 96%

Cosmic_Equilibrium, January 17th, 2018

Judas Priest after their third album were in a state of flux. After an average hard rock debut in the form of Rocka Rolla, their next two records – the seminal Sad Wings Of Destiny and the somewhat more varied Sin After Sin – had shifted the band’s sound towards heavier territory. However, Sad Wings, despite its heaviosity, still sounded like a seventies band developing a harder edge and a darker atmosphere to their music. Sin After Sin boasted some bold steps such as the proto-thrash ‘Dissident Aggressor’, but also some songs which seemed to still be rooted in the band’s past, for example ‘Last Rose Of Summer’. However, with their fourth album – the gloomily titled ‘Stained Class’ - Priest shifted up a gear.

It is still something of a mystery where the laser-like focus and relentlessness that dominates Stained Class came from. Some might point to the new drummer Les Binks, who was a significant upgrade on the previous incumbents, capable of solid double-bass work (as demonstrated on the proto-speed metal ‘Exciter’ and overall a much tighter player than any other Priest drummer until the arrival of Scott Travis on Painkiller twelve years later. Others might simply note that a band’s natural development over the course of time will enable them to hone their craft after several albums, and therefore the quantum leap Priest took here was to be expected. What the record does seem to show, however, is that Judas Priest had found a steely, remorseless determination by early 1978, and were fully engaged with their songwriting and the point of their message like never before.

The fat of their first few albums falls away here, ruthlessly trimmed. In its place are nine songs of tight intensity, diamond hard, yet coal-black in their seriousness. Priest take the opportunity on Stained Class to look into the darker corners of human history and the psyche with a commitment that still feels haunting and eerie to the listener, even four decades on. Although the previous two albums had ventured into similar territory, here the message of the album is just remorseless. The lyrics look for darkness and find it everywhere, dwelling almost exclusively on downbeat subjects such as war, invasion, colonization and the poignancy over the relentless savagery man is capable of. This gloom pervades the record. Only the aforementioned ‘Exciter’ seems to lift its head up and look to the heavens, telling of a mythical being from the skies who will leap among mankind with “combusting dance” until we only have the option to “fall to your knees and repent if you please!” Elsewhere on the title track, however, Halford mournfully opines that it may be too late, that society’s heart is irredeemably tainted, and is no longer clean as it was “long ago, when man was king”. The final track, ‘Heroes End’, seems to take these conclusions to the logical point that in this world, only the good die young. “Why do you have to die to be a hero?” Halford muses, seemingly metaphorically shaking his head. “It’s a shame a legend begins at its end….”

The darkness and inner turmoil laid down into the grooves is well and truly hammered home by the musical style Priest commit to here. No pianos or acoustic songs ease the ambience a little, as they did on the previous two records. This is metal to the core, all the way through, the band playing ferociously and with a sense of discipline and a take-no-prisoners attitude that is almost frightening. The album seems to be a definite pointer towards the thrash and speed metal scene of the 1980s in this regard, and can be truly described as game-changing. For the first time, another band had taken heavy metal beyond where Sabbath had pushed the idea. It is difficult to imagine the Big Four thrash bands, or much of the NWOBHM without this record, and listening back to it now one can see why. It feels like a step change from anything made prior. Something more intense, faster, focused, driven. When considered, Stained Class is easily the most influential record Priest have ever made, concentrating the disparate energies of the fledgling scene into a much harder-edged beast. It points the way for the future of metal, decisively cutting ties with the past. Priest well and truly mean business here in a way that they have rarely done before or since. Arguably they would not find such a driving energy again until the 1990s, with the musical resurrection of Painkiller.

The combination of tighter, more aggressive music and the gloom of the lyrics draw you in whether you like it or not. The intensity of the music grabs you from the start and never lets you go for a single second. Every solo Tipton and Downing play is like a welder’s torch, pinpoint and piercing, white hot and pulsing with the core energy that is at the heart of heavy metal and supplies its immediacy, its very life force. Every riff is precise and ruthless, drilling into your psyche in a way that is impossible to ignore. The result is an album it’s impossible to just ignore, or apathetically leave on in the background. It takes the listener by the scruff of the neck and shows them the darkness, the melancholy, the sadness. Yet, somehow, it does not leave one feeling drained or downbeat, perhaps because of two things. Firstly, the sheer energy of the riffs and the band’s playing is invigorating. The second factor is that no other band has really sounded like Priest did in their 1976-78 period, and arguably never will. The vibe of the Priest albums from this time is almost indescribably distinctive. The records are gloomy and dark, but in a way that feels observant rather than resigned. It is a darkness, a brooding, sombre melancholy permeating the music, but one which it is somehow cathartic or even cleansing to dwell in for a while, to allow oneself to wander in. We all get moments of sombreness, ponderance and melancholy in our lives, to varying degrees. Priest in this period seem to tap into it in a way few other bands have truly managed.

Arguably, this vibe and feeling finds its truest, rawest expression in the second to last track on the album, the epic ballad ‘Beyond The Realms Of Death’, a song infused with Halford’s sadness at the depths people can be dragged under by depression, from the sombre, melancholic opening chords (written by Binks) to Halford’s screams in the chorus, pleading to the cosmos at large to “keep this world, with all its sin, it’s not fit for living in….”, before finally lamenting in the closing verse that so many others like the main protagonist in the song “seem to have lost the will”, and featuring a truly unreal solo from Tipton that wails with raw emotion and power. Words cannot do this song justice, and it is recommended that anyone getting into Priest and curious about Stained Class should start with this track to get an idea of what the album is about. It stands to this day as Priest’s finest hour, a song of rare, deep feeling and sorrow, echoing the sadness felt by so many down the ages in a way that makes the listener empathise and reach their own catharsis.

Judas Priest would not make an album that approached the depths and darkness found on this record for nearly twenty years. Only after an enforced layoff in the 1990s did the relentless, incendiary drive, gloom and venom that had fuelled Stained Class truly return with the savage ‘Jugulator’ album. Musically, the band seemed to also retreat a little (until Painkiller) from the driving speed metal tempos laid down on Stained Class which would influence so many bands, perhaps due to the departure of Les Binks from the drum stool prior to 1980. The overall impression is that the band were possibly unable and unwilling to dwell in gloom and sombreness for much longer by 1978, and once the record was made consciously turned away towards lighter styles and melodies, although certain songs and albums still retained the dark, brooding melancholy vibes from their late 1970s period here and there. Priest’s change of direction made them household names, particularly in America, and deservedly so. Yet forty years on, Stained Class still stands at the heart of the Priest discography, a dark monolith of unrelenting power, infused with the sorrows of its protagonists who have looked into the depths of the world and humanity, and found them sorely wanting. It still sounds today like it has been freshly forged from the furnace, glowing and pulsating with the raw energy that sits at the core of not just heavy metal music, but the force of life and nature itself. It is recommended not just for anyone curious about getting into Judas Priest’s body of work but also for anyone who wants to know and understand more about the foundations and keystones of heavy metal.