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Stand by for the Priest! - 100%

Napalm_Satan, May 2nd, 2016
Written based on this version: 2010, 2 12" vinyls, Back on Black

Stained Class. One of the single greatest metal albums ever to be recorded. From start to finish it is loaded with fantastic musicianship across the board, a brilliant balance between straightforward and complex song structures, lyrics and an atmosphere that was as dark as they came at the time, and embodied that rockin' attitude and coolness that came to define the genre and this band in the following decade. The prototypes for the NWOBHM, speed and even power metal can be traced back to this album.

As far as what the sound of the album as like, it's quite interesting. Based on the music alone, I would say that this album is the exact moment where Priest started to become dumber and dumber, a slide that continued throughout the '80s. Don't get me wrong here - this is hardly Turbo, and is still a far more nuanced and intelligent album than what would follow, but compared to the two albums that came before this is a comparatively streamlined and simple effort. And just as well, the band ditch a lot of the progressive and atmospheric leanings that were found in earlier efforts, instead going for a highly riff-driven and aggressive sound that focuses on shorter songs and more verse-chorus structuring than before. This is for all intents and purposes straight and true heavy metal in the purest sense, the streamlined and polished kind that this band would peddle throughout the '80s, albeit with far dumber lyrics than what is presented here.

The instrumentation on this album is ace. The drumming, for instance, is some of the most inventive and varied of its day. Les Binks here knows exactly the right beat for the right moment. For more rock based songs like the Spooky Tooth cover, he elects to go for simple straight beats. He might throw in a few fills on more complex (but still distinctly rocking) tracks like 'White Heat, Red Hot' or 'Savage'. He might slow down beyond even that for Priest's last proper progressive song on 'Beyond the Realms of Death'. From out of nowhere though, we get some double bass in the vein of '80s speed metal with 'Exciter', which is easily the most cutting edge song on here. That type of drumming would be aped by bands throughout the next decade, even by this own band over a decade later. He may not be as intense as Scott Travis, but he is by far the more creative and varied drummer.

The guitars are, as you would expect, fantastic. Ian Hill's bass lines can't necessarily be heard as is the way, but in spite of the clinical and thin production that was a norm for the day they can most certainly be felt. He doesn't have any time to his own á la their debut, but he works in perfect unison with the rhythm guitars to give them a driving, hard edge. The riffs on this album are absolutely superb, being highly metallic while still being cut from a hard rock-infused cloth, and are just so damn cool that you will find yourself instinctively nodding your head and swaying to 'Saints in Hell' or the title track. They are memorable largely due to how well-crafted they are along with a tasteful amount of repetition. And the leads of the famed shredding team of Downing and Tipton? Needless to say, they kick ass! Whether it be that utterly fantastic power metal-esque second solo on 'Exciter', the haunting and mournful work on 'Beyond the Realms of Death', you would be hard pressed to name a more awesome pair of guitarists than these two.

The vocals are out of this world. Halford shows off just how dynamic and powerful a vocalist he truly is, with haunting and searing highs being found all over the place, placed perfectly in the songs to coincide with a climactic point. His mid-range is commanding and powerful, and the transition between high and mid is as smooth and natural as they come. He can be aggressive when necessary, like the hard drivin' 'White Heat, Red Hot', put a surprising amount of attitude while still being agonisingly heartfelt in the ode to the tribesmen that is 'Savage', or just go all guns blazing like on a certain bit of pioneering speed metal.

The songwriting is a nice mix between the straightforward and the progressive, and captures the perfect balance in the streamlining process the band was going under with every album. Barring the incredible 'Beyond the Realms of Death', which is a brooding near 7 minute epic that alternates between acoustic and melancholic verses, an agonised and heavier hook and a frantic ending, the songs here are streamlined while still carrying great variation. Even the commercial and simple Spooky Tooth cover throws in a nice throwback to the era that spawned it with a vaguely psychedelic part. The songs on the whole generally throw in two to four differing sections despite their short length and streamlined nature, and overall this is an album that is as varied and eclectic in the moods and textures produced as Sin After Sin while sonically being a more homogeneous record. The greatest example of this album's nuance would be 'Exciter', which aside from the twin soloing sticks to verse-chorus structures greatly, and uses the moods produced in the similar sounding sections to create variation, as opposed to chucking in a moody, synth-led section á la 'Victim of Changes'.

This album is the perfect balance. Streamlined without being plain and dumb (even if that isn't a bad thing either), technical without being an ego pump, stylistically consistent without being boring, and very clearly '70s in its nature while still being cutting edge for its time and utterly timeless to this day. It shows off the band at their finest, and while this may lack the double bass, shrieking and thrash riffs of the almighty Painkiller, that album is pretty much this one after several implants, steroid injections, intense workout and diet regimens and being painted silver. The root of the burning metallic glory that we would all come to love about Priest can be found here, as can the introspective intelligence of their preceding '70s albums. The only thing fans of their '80s period should look out for is the thin production, which is hardly an issue given that everything is still clear and reasonably heavy, but the album doesn't quite sound like it is made of metal akin to their mid '80s efforts.

And really, just *look* at that cover art. The sheer '70s coolness of that alone should be enough to get the vinyl, even if you hate this kind of metal, just to put it on a shelf.