By Andy O’Connor
There is none more metal than Judas Priest.
Black Sabbath may have given birth to the genre, but Judas Priest molded its identity by placing Rob Halford’s vocals front and center, upping the tempos, and introducing lethal twin-guitar attacks. They also gave the music one hell of a wardrobe, borrowing leather and studs from S&M culture and making it metal’s own. Priest were a rising talent in the ’70s, one of the behemoths of the ’80s, and even when they stumbled with ill-advised attempts at commercialization or replacing the unmistakable Halford in the mid-90s, they’ve always returned stronger.
Their eighteenth album Redeemer of Souls is out today (July 8), which means that Priest has 17 albums worth of tracks that are either pretty dusty or have been forgotten and looked-over entirely. There’s a whole universe beyond “Living After Midnight,” “Breaking the Law,” and “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming.”
In honor of Redeemer of Souls, below are 12 of Judas Priest’s best deep cuts. They may not have made the charts or became fan favorites live, but they’re no less deserving of spent beer cans and ear drums.
“Genocide” from Sad Wings of Destiny, 1976
We’re gonna start with “Genocide,” from when Priest were a radically different band than the beast they would become. They were already much more confident than they were on their debut, Rocka Rolla, but were still hamstrung by an uncooperative label, Gull. The production is a little thinner compared to other Priest records, but that doesn’t stop “Genocide” from providing a map for how Priest would innovate metal. Alternating between mid-paced crunch, twin-lead frenzy, themes of senseless violence and even a Leslie speaker effect towards the end of the song, there was nothing like it when it came out. There’s even a taste of the main riff of “The Green Manalishi (With the Two-Pronged Crown),” a Fleetwood Mac cover that would later serve as one of Priest’s live staples.
“Last Rose of Summer” from Sin After Sin, 1977
Priest’s slow bangers don’t get enough love, and “Last Rose of Summer” shows a tender side that gets obscured in all the leather and motorcycles. Granted, Sin and Sin came out before the band adopted its signature look, but the song is dominated by Halford in a crooning mood and guitars just coming off a psychedelic hangover. It’s also a bit more poetic: “Do not despair, mother nature simply rests/ In sleep she has well earned/ Till one day not so very far from now/ With the opening of the first rose buds, I shall return.” On the surface, this is just another song about summer moving into autumn and never forgetting about beauty. Look deeper, and you’ll see this about preserving yourself even when everything is withering around you. Priest have been around for ages — they know.
“Let Us Prey/Call For the Priest” from Sin After Sin
Like “Dissident Aggressor,” “Let Us Prey/Call of the Priest” foreshadowed Priest’s influence on thrash metal. Unlike “Aggressor,” “Prey” was not covered by Slayer, so it’s not talked about in the same way. The faint organ solo intro laid the template for Metallica’s ambitions on “Fight Fire With Fire” and “Battery.” From there, the band rip into an attack driven by K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton’s twin lead command. Double bass is commonplace in metal now, but Simon Philips’ use of it was groundbreaking. In fact, Priest fired their two drummers beforehand because they couldn’t keep up. Also, this line is interesting given Halford’s closeted status in the ’70s and ’80s and metal’s continuing struggles accepting gay fans and musicians: “It’s us we shall choose/ Let the bigoted loose/ For our triumph’s the means to their end.” He encouraged us to triumph, even if he couldn’t reveal his true self for so long.
“White Heat, Red Hot” from Stained Class, 1978
Pretty much any of the songs on Stained Class that aren’t “Exciter” or “Beyond the Realms of Death” would qualify for this list. Diehard Priest fans usually cite this album as the band’s prime, and for good reason, as what they built on Destiny and Sin comes into full bloom. “White Hot, Red Heat” is definitely one of the band’s finer cuts. Halford sounds slightly distant, as if he’s singing from an out-of-body experience. “Heat” shows a great balance between his virtuosity and his composure, flying high without becoming a heavy metal Icarus. Les Binks’ superb drumming carries on the success that Phillips established. And the riffing…well, it’s in the title.
“You Don’t Have to be Old to be Wise” from British Steal, 1980
Priest were kicking around for a decade before Steel broke them to a wider audience. The band wrote riffs that leaned more pop, but didn’t compromise their attitude. Even as incoming drummer Dave Holland and Tipton were in their 30s by the time Steel came out, they still had youthful pluckiness to spare. “You Don’t Have to Be Old to be Wise” is a defiant anthem to setting your own course and not letting the past burden you. As per the course with Steel, it’s got hooks for days and Halford’s presence, in voice and spirit, shines. It’s a song more metalheads, especially those crotchety ones that think nothing’s good come out since the 80s, should take to heart.
“Solar Angels” from Point of Entry, 1981
Following the breakout success of Steel, Judas Priest attempted to go even broader on Point of Entry. What they ended up with was a dud of middle-of-the-road rockers, but “Solar Angels” stands out amongst the dreck. “Angels” is a mid-paced joint like “Heading Out To The Highway” and “Don’t Go,” two of the singles from the record (“Angels” is the B-Side to “Go”), but it’s meaner than anything on the rest of Entry. The cascading opening riffs alone place it ahead, and the band builds triumph instead of boredom with its lurch. Also, it’s never a bad thing when Priest sing about actually being in the sky, whether it’s being red-hot sun demons, Big Brother, or gods of metal.
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