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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“Bloodstone” from Screaming for Vengeance, 1982
Despite housing “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming” and the eternal classic “Electric Eye,” Screaming for Vengeance has a lot more filler than most are willing to admit. “Bloodstone” is probably the best non-single from the album. Riding off one hell of a threepeat consisting of “The Hellion,” “Eye,” and “Riding on the Wind,” “Bloodstone” slows things down a bit without lurking into molasses. Dave Holland’s restrained drumming approach works here, giving a solid foundation for the rest of the band to breathe. When the fuzzy solos are unleashed, it’s even more satisfying. Even with a hippieish line with “How much longer will it take/ For the world to see/ We should learn to live/ And simply let it be,” Halford carries himself like a leather gangster.
“Eat Me Alive” from Defenders of the Faith, 1984
Considering that “Eat Me Alive” was one of the PMRC’s “Filthy Fifteen,” it’s a surprise that it’s not more well known. “Parental Guidance,” which was written following the censorship hubbub, gained more traction than the song that kicked off the whole mess in the first place. It was criticized for explicit sexual content, and as far as Priest song comes, they were approaching W.A.S.P. territory with this one: “Wrapped tight around me/ Like a second flesh hot skin/ Cling to my body/ As the ecstasy begins.” Halford adds another entry to the “cock as gun” gallery with “Gut-wrenching frenzy/ That deranges every joint/ I’m gonna force you at gunpoint/ To eat me alive/ Eat me alive.” The soloing is equally as raunchy, with Downing and Tipton feeding off of Halford’s lust. “Alive” goes both ways, but this may have been the closest Halford came to coming out in song. While Priest never played the song while supporting Faith, “Alive” did appear in setlists during the late ’00s. (On a related note, another less-known Priest song arose controversy — “Better By You, Better Than Me” was alleged to have inspired Ray Belknap and James Vance to shoot themselves in Sparks, Nev. The band went on trial and were subsequently acquitted in 1990.)
“Out in the Cold” from Turbo, 1986
Turbo was a controversial album for Priest, as they incorporated synthesizers and poppier structures in an overt move to capitalize on glam metal’s popularity. It’s not Priest’s strongest work, and as with Point of Entry, they can only commercialize themselves so much, but Turbo isn’t quite deserving of the scorn heaped upon it. If “Out in the Cold” was their attempt at power ballad glory, the market wasn’t quite ready for it. Priest took the title to heart — everything from the drawn out synth intro to Halford’s voice to the “oh no oh nos” in the background is drenched in frost and loneliness. You can really imagine Halford, donned in white leather, begging for forgiveness amidst a literal and figurative blizzard. Downing and Tipton’s solos sound like avalanches collapsing with their MIDI overdrive. Oddly, it’s one of their proggiest songs in the 80s, even moreso than some of their 70s material. The deliberate artificiality Priest was going for on Turbo works best on “Cold,” just because it’s so unabashedly weird.
“Hell Patrol” from Painkiller, 1990
Like Class, any track from Painkiller save for the singles could be on this list. As iconic as its title track is, Painkiller does not peak early. In fact, the song right after it, “Hell Patrol,” is among the finest of the album. Scott Travis joined the band for the record, and his performance recalls the skill of Binks with more velocity. To think, this band made Turbo? Or even Steel? Priest embrace metal as a whole — the volume, the speed, the obsession with demons and kicking ass, it’s all here. Nuance is thrown out the window and swallowed by Priest’s maelstrom of impulse and speed. The band sound revitalized as a whole — sometimes some fresh blood and a little time off makes all the difference.
“Cathedral Spires” from Jugulator, 1997
The Ripper Owens era of Judas Priest is seldom brought up in conversation. He’s a fine singer and hits all the notes, but he could never capture Halford’s effortless charisma. To be fair, Judas Priest’s failures during the era had more to do with the rest of the band than him. Jugulator and its follow-up, 2001’s Demolition, tried to incorporate industrial metal and Pantera grooves with varying degrees of success. “Cathedral Spires” is one of the few Ripper-era songs that’s remembered fondly, likely because it’s in the same vein as two of their most beloved longer pieces, “Beyond the Realms of Death” and “Victim of Changes.” Like those songs, “Spires” goes lyrically grim, this time dealing with the crushing weight of an incoming armageddon. “Realms” was concerned with the self; this involves everything becoming no more. Owens sounds tougher but still goes for those highs Halford made signature, and the chugging doesn’t impede on the more old-school songwriting. Even with a rebuilding project that didn’t yield much commercial or critical success, Priest saved themselves from implosion with “Spires.” If only the rest of the record showed that much fire.
“Hellrider” from Angel of Retribution, 2005
Angel of Retribution, Priest’s first album with Halford back in the fold, didn’t attempt to return to one particular era of the band, but wrote songs that reflected their various personas in the 80s and early 90s. “Hellrider” is one of the strongest tracks from that record, primarily because it sounds like something off of Painkiller. From the underwater shredding that leads in the song to Travis’ blazing double bass, it recalls when the band proved its doubters wrong, and showed once again their eventual death isn’t for a while. At the very least, it’s a lot better than that song about the Loch Ness Monster.