Welcome to Dissected, where we disassemble a band’s catalog, a director’s filmography, or some other critical pop-culture collection in the abstract. It’s exact science by way of a few beers. This time, we follow legendary metal band Judas Priest’s career, from their 1974 debut, Rocka Rolla, to their triumphant 2018 LP, Firepower.
In 1980, when Judas Priest released “Metal Gods,” the second song from their hit album British Steel, they appointed themselves the patron saints of music’s heaviest genre.
On the one hand, Priest were impetuous in doing so. Initially formed out of Birmingham, England, by guitarist K.K. Downing and bassist Ian Hill, later expanding to include second guitarist Glenn Tipton and powerhouse vocalist Rob Halford, not to mention a rotating cast of drummers, Judas Priest did not invent heavy metal. That honor goes almost unanimously to Black Sabbath, who formed a year earlier and released their debut record four years before Priest did.
On the other hand, short of inventing metal itself, maybe no band has done so much to advance the genre as Priest did. By the time the punk movement of the late ‘70s threatened to capsize hard rock’s bombastic legacy, most of Priest’s peers were running out of ideas. But Tipton and Downing sharpened their guitar sound into something more aggressive and more streamlined at once, laying the groundwork for metal’s second wave. At the same time, Rob Halford’s adoption S&M fashion codified metal’s visual language — black leather jackets and studded belts remain the international metalhead uniform.
Judas Priest’s legacy would be secure if that were all they’d done, but Halford and company refused to stop innovating Pop culture chameleons, they skillfully metamorphosed with the times through the ’80s.
Priest knew when to change — their adoption of extreme metal drumming resulted in their outstanding 1990 record Painkiller. They also know when to stick to their guns: 2018’s Firepower, their 18th and most recent album, returned to the band’s classic sound and was hailed as a triumph by longtime fans. The resulting world tour, now in its second year, has seen Priest perform to sold-out arenas fifty years into their career. Metal Gods indeed, and now is the perfect time to reassess their long legacy as the standard-bearers of heavy, as we rank the band’s albums from worst to best. — Joseph Schafer
18. Demolition (2001)
Breaking Down the Law (Analysis): Even if it’s unquestionably the weakest Judas Priest album, 2001’s Demolition deserves pity, not hatred. The turn of the millennium represented classic metal’s nadir in popularity and creativity. In efforts to adapt to the times, Priest contorted their sound into a bizarre amalgam of their Painkiller sound with added industrial elements and occasional power metal flourishes.
Glenn Tipton and Sean Lynch produced the record, this time without K.K. Downing behind the boards, and further focused on Tim “Ripper” Owens’ vocals as if to try and hammer home the point that Priest didn’t need Rob Halford to deliver a worthwhile record. Pushing his voice further up in the mix didn’t fix any lingering issues from Jugulator, and neither did recording 70 minutes of material. Trying to fill an entire compact disc with music resulted in too many bloated metal records around this time, and Demolition is especially bloated.
Ultimately, Demolition collapses under the weighty expectations that accompany the Priest name. Owens suffers the worst — replacing Rob Halford behind the microphone is a fool’s errand. His more rhythmic and less melodic delivery suits the music, but there’s no doubt that Halford could have serviced these songs better, even with the same disappointing lyrics. If an abbreviated version of this record had been released by a new or unknown band, it might be remembered as a hidden gem, but it’s the weakest link in Judas Priest’s bondage chain.
Delivering the Riffs (Best Song): Tipton and Downing know the value of putting a strong song at the beginning of a record, and Demolition is no exception. “Machine Man” uses the best of the band’s industrial experiments — noisy guitar solos and ominous samples — while still hewing close to the Painkiller formula. Owens doesn’t sound like he’s trying to ape Halford at all on the verses, which works in his favor. Maybe he’d be more fondly remembered if he’d spent more time trying to be himself.
Pain Filler (Worst Song): At least “Hell is Home” comes early in the album, though I’d prefer it (and “Jekyll and Hyde,” which arrives right after) were left off of Demolition altogether. The second half of the record is mostly unremarkable, but not terrible. The same can’t be said for Owens’ half-hearted attempt at rapping over a vaguely Fear Factory-ish groove. Judas Priest often benefited from experimenting with their sound, but this appeal to the nu-metal set was a mistake. — Joseph Schafer
17. Nostradamus (2008)
Breaking Down the Law: It feels wrong to fault a band for being ambitious. Isn’t that we want from all the artists we love? To have them shooting for the moon at every turn even if they miss the mark and go sailing off into the unknown? At the same time, it feels wrong to be listening to Nostradamus, Judas Priest’s gargantuan concept album that runs the length of two CDs and the running time of a modern action flick. Try as they might — and they certainly do give this their all — the band simply didn’t have the tunes to sustain the interest of their fans for the better part of 100 minutes.
For a band that works best when they cut to the chase and drive their point home with speed and authority, letting them stretch out with extended synth/piano intros, instrumental wanderings and interludes best suited for Viking-themed Nordic symphonic metal acts was pure folly. And unlike most double albums that have come down the pipeline over the past five decades or so, Nostradamus couldn’t even be salvaged if winnowed down to a single disc. Their intention was clear that it’s meant to be heard in its full sweep, one trudging, blustery tune after the next. The results and the response to the album were so dire that it took the band a full six years before they could make a course correction and get back on track. We should all be very glad that they found their way again.
Delivering the Riffs: “Revelations” is the closest Priest got to their previous greatness on Nostradamus. They hit the right head-banging tempo and both Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing use this song to unfurl some of their most dazzling solos of recent vintage (a feeling made all the more powerful knowing that this wound up being Downing’s last album before his retirement). And they hit the true measure of success as the song, even with its Nostradamus-centered lyrics, works just fine when removed from the context of the concept album.
Pain Filler: Could any Priest fan have predicted that one day the band would write and record a New Age-like song called “Hope”, on which Halford sings, “Hope in my heart as a new day has dawned” as synth chords hover in the background? If the band continued down this path it would have spelled the end. Little did we know that they and their fans had another thing coming. — Robert Ham
16. Jugulator (1997)
Breaking Down the Law: I can’t be the only Priest fan who likes this album, can I? Jugulator, Priest’s 13th studio album in 1997 was their first in seven years since Painkiller, and the first of two studio albums the band recorded with new recruit, vocalist Tim “Ripper” Owens. Some longtime Priest fans flat out denied this record because Halford wasn’t on it, while the other half didn’t mind Owens as Halford’s replacement.
Personally, I thought Owens did a decent job on this album. However, comparisons to Halford are evident, and the fact that Owens was in a Priest tribute band prior to his hiring generates more ammunition against him as being just a wanna-be clone of Halford. On this album, Tipton and Downing drop-tuned their guitar tone to make the riffs sound heavier, which actually took away that classic Priest guitar tone they perfected over the years. Plus, the lyrical themes had a harsher, mechanized man-against-machine theme. Tipton and Downing pretty much took over all of the writing after Halford’s departure, as well as co-producing the album. There’s some real chugging heavy pieces such as “Blood Stained” and “Dead Meat”, accompanied by rippers including the title track and “Bullet Train.” But there’s also some throwaway tracks such as “Decapitate”, “Brain Dead”, and “Burn in Hell.” The bottom line is that Halford was gone, making Jugulator one of Priest’s most polarizing albums.
Delivering the Riffs: The epic album closer, “Cathedral Spires,” is musically diverse compared to the other more straight-forward numbers. Decorated with melodic, reverb picking and soaring clean vocals, it has slight similarities to ’80s U.S. power metal bands such as Armored Saint. Featuring razor sharp riffs, a rumbling rhythm section, slicing, menacing guitar leads and an infectious, trance-inducing chorus, the nine-plus minute track ends in a cinematic decrescendo.
Pain Filler: Right from the start, “Death Row” begins with a goofy spoken word intro, followed by homogenized, paint by numbers down-tuned riffs. It doesn’t get any better with its mindless lyrics and stupid chorus during its five-minute duration. Worst song actually could be a toss-up between this one and the silliness of “Decapitate”. — Kelley Simms
15. Ram It Down (1988)
Breaking Down the Law: Much of 1988’s Ram It Down and its predecessor, Turbo, were initially conceived as a double album, Twin Turbo. Neither record is perfect, but Turbo received the better songs, leaving only the title track, “Monsters of Rock,” “Hard as Iron” and “Love You to Death” for its maligned follow-up.
Where Turbo is a misunderstood experiment, Ram it Down is the sound of a band straining against the confines of their circumstances. On the title track and “Heavy Metal,” it’s easy to hear the band trying to find the ferocious, cold sound of Painkiller, but not quite succeeding — they’d part ways with longtime producer Tom Allom afterward and did not reunite with him until 2017. It was also the band’s last outing with now-disgraced drummer Dave Holland, who was convicted of attempted rape and indecent assault in 2004. Holland was no loss, as his skills could not keep up with the band’s increasingly martial sound. In his 2018 autobiography, K.K. Downing admits that the group used a drum machine for much of the record.
In spite of the conflict swirling around Ram It Down, it’s still a cohesive listen. The glam elements that sounded out of place on Turbo are still present but in a diminished capacity, and the overall sound is less synthetic. By Priest standards, it’s a half-decent record, but most of their peers at the time never delivered anything as vicious as “Hard as Iron” or the title track.
Delivering the Riffs: Even on an overall half-decent record, Priest delivered one stone-cold classic cut with “Blood Red Skies.” The spiritual successor to the unstoppable “Beyond the Realms of Death” from 1977’s Stained Class, “Blood Red Skies” is a moody, progressive epic cut from a totally different cloth than the songs surrounding it. Somehow, the drum machine only makes it more melodramatic. Admittedly, the 11-minute version of the song from its promotional single is superior to the album version.
Pain Filler: By this writer’s estimation, a solid half of the hatred for Ram It Down can be attributed to the godawful cover of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” that appears on Side B. Originally recorded for Bud Smith’s equally rancid teen sports comedy Johnny Be Good, the band may have included it on the record after not allowing “Reckless” to be included in the Top Gun soundtrack two years earlier — a blunder that K.K. Downing laments in his autobiography. — Joseph Schafer
14. Rocka Rolla (1974)
Breaking Down the Law: Some bands burst out of the gate with their vision and sound completely intact on their debut album. Others show all manner of promise but haven’t quite found themselves. The first album from Judas Priest falls squarely in the latter category. Their new vocalist Rob Halford had settled in nicely enough after replacing original singer Al Atkins but their new guitarist Glenn Tipton was still finding his feet. And at the time, Priest was still very much under the sway of their primary influence Black Sabbath, from the Iommi-esque blues-psych riffs they had cooked up for “Never Satisfied” and the title track to their choice of Rodger Bain as producer (he was behind the boards for the first three Sabbath albums).
That said, Rocka Rolla is almost adorable (if one can say that about a hard rock album) to listen to today, as their attempts at anthems feel pimply and awkward. And their vague try at a Yes-inspired prog epic only reveals how unformed their songwriting was in these early days. It didn’t take Priest long to figure things out, as the follow up Sad Wings of Destiny would prove, but they needed to go through these growing pains to get to their fighting weight.
Delivering the Riffs: One aspect of the album they did get right was making sure to kick open the doors with their best song. “One for the Road” is aimed right at the hearts and crotches of the fellow gangly young people that were making up the group’s audience at the time, with Halford wailing beautifully about the power of music (and…sharing their….load) and the rest of the band settling into a knotty time signature behind him.
Pain Filler: It took Priest a number of albums to shed themselves of the prog influences that brought these young bucks together in the first place. But as of 1974, they hadn’t let go of the silly spaciness that they hadn’t fully committed to. That’s the sensation that the long epic “Winter/Deep Freeze/Winter Retreat” leaves behind. It’s as wispy as the snow-covered landscape Halford sings about and melts away just as quickly once “Cheater” comes storming over the horizon. — Robert Ham
13. Redeemer of Souls (2014)
Breaking Down the Law: On their 17th studio album, Redeemer of Souls, Priest actually does redeem themselves with this “comeback,” six years after the forgettable Nostradamus. It’s the first album with new guitarist Richie Faulkner, who replaced K.K. Downing in 2011. This album might not have gotten made if the band didn’t have such a blast with Faulkner on their Epitaph World Tour, which was to be their final tour. Redeemer was a return to the band’s heyday and earned the No. 6 position on the Billboard 200 chart.
Included on its 13 tracks are some great anthems, an album that may get overlooked but retains that classic Priest sound with a modern cutting edge. With Faulkner’s input with the writing, the band tapped into that classic Priest style with its 13 Priest anthems. It’s a great return to the hard and heavy Priest sound as they fire up the riffs in full-blazing glory. However, a lot of tracks lack those killer instincts and Priest hooks and memorability. The intrigue factor wears off quickly and doesn’t embed in the brain like their earlier material with some songs consisting of a commercial or poppy tinge.
Delivering the Riffs: “Metalizer” is a scorcher of a track in the vein of “Angel of Retribution” and “Painkiller,” featuring thunderous double bass, swirling riffs and vicious screams. Halford’s mid-ranged vocals really peak leading into the soaring harmonies on the chorus. The track’s tempo is fiery but measured, with blazing guitar solos accompanied by an awesome vocal outro that comes to a crashing climax.
Pain Filler: Album closer “Beginning of the End” is a five-minute mellow ballad with virtually no tempo changes or significant variation. It makes me want to skip it and go back to the start of the album again. Although it’s a haunting piece with tons of atmosphere, it’s just not a very good closing number. — Kelley Simms
12. Turbo (1986)
Breaking Down the Law: Dismissed as a sell-out record upon release, Judas Priest’s 1986 album Turbo found the band pursuing a more commercial direction — and experimenting with Roland synthesizer guitars, not to mention a 100% digital recording — instead of staying in their metal lane. In the context of its time, Turbo sounds like a band trying to chase Van Halen’s keyboard-assisted mega-hit “Jump”. Pretty milquetoast when Metallica and Slayer were joining them in the pantheon of metal gods that same year. To make matters worse, a newly-sober Halford sounds a little restrained on many of these songs compared to his performance on Defenders of the Faith.
In retrospect, however, Turbo has aged pretty well thanks in no small part to its excellent 2016 remaster. The band’s super-steady rhythms (it’s often posited that they used a drum machine) and synthesized sound make it an unlikely industrial metal precursor. Yes, songs like “Private Property” and “Parental Guidance” are weak fluff, but elsewhere the record shines. “Reckless” originally intended to be the theme song to Top Gun, is a gem, as is “Locked in.” Both pale in comparison to the moody and spectacular “Out in the Cold” and the righteous “Turbo Lover,” which remains a staple in the band’s live set.
Turbo was initially intended to be a double album, and some of its meanest tunes were left off to be included on Ram It Down two years later or released as bonus tracks on the 2001 reissue. An album composed only of the strongest songs from these three sources would have been a worthy successor to Defenders of the Faith.
Delivering the Riffs: “Out in the Cold” and “Locked In” are forgotten gems, but neither holds a candle to the brilliance of “Turbo Lover.” In the “Panama” tradition of sports-car-as-sexual-object euphemism, “Turbo Lover” is nearly six sweaty minutes of engorged and throbbing innuendo, and it wouldn’t work at all without the synthesizer guitar technology fans hated upon its release. Priest plays it regularly with good reason — they were never sexier than this. The seven-minute dance mix on the single is as good as the album cut, too.
Pain Filler: When Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center brought Dee Snider in to testify before the US Senate in 1985, they created a censorship boogeyman that irritates metalheads to this day. In the years after it became fashionable for hard rock bands to write songs decrying censorship, and Priest was no exception. Their anti-PMRC song, “Parental Guidance,” is incredibly lame from its Journey-ish intro to its limp chorus. It may be Priest’s worst original composition. — Joseph Schafer
11. Angel of Retribution (2005)
Breaking Down the Law: After two albums with replacement singer Tim “Ripper” Owens, Judas Priest were looking to make their big comeback in 2005. Anticipation was already at a feverish peak with the return of Rob Halford and with fans knowing what this lineup of the band could accomplish what with the soaring heights they reached on Painkiller. This couldn’t be anything less than a complete victory, right? The reality was a little more human than that. The batting average was solid on Angel of Retribution but they also hedged their bets a little throughout, making copious references to songs from their past and a concerted effort to try and serve too many masters at once.
When they trusted themselves and their core strengths, Angel was everything a Priest fan could ask for. “Hellrider” and opening track “Judas Rising” are brutal thrash, sending flaming streaks in the air as Scott Travis’s double kick pedal assault carpet bombs the senses. And tunes like “Revolution” apply the lessons of grunge and nu-metal without making the same sonic mistakes. But throughout, Priest threatens to topple the entire reunion with squeaky ballads and a patience-testing 13-minute closing ode to, of all things, the Loch Ness Monster. It was as if they couldn’t shake off the vestiges of Halford’s short-lived solo career and the messy influence of producer Roy Z. The band, as a unit, overcorrected to try to avoid swerving into a ditch. They survived but from the album that they returned with is a dented, smoking fixer upper.
Delivering the Riffs: For all of Roy Z’s heavy-handedness on Retribution, his most substantive and longest-lasting contribution to the project was his co-writing credit on “Deal With the Devil”. The track is something of a parabola, with Priest showing that they were paying attention to the bands that they had influenced and using what they heard to inform their own songwriting. What they molded from those pieces was a grinder that snakes along that ground where both lyrics (“When we don the leather/ And the whips and chains…we can’t be tamed”) and music threaten to turn parodic.
Pain Filler: There are surely some Priest fans out there who will defend the existence of “Lochness.” But for this listener, I have yet to fall in love with its plodding momentum and the most eye-rolling lyrics Halford has ever dreamed up (“Lochness confess to me”? Really?). The famed sea monster isn’t the only thing that prevails in eternity; from the start, this song feels like it’s never going to end. — Robert Ham
10. Point of Entry (1981)
Breaking Down the Law: Although their 1981 seventh studio album, Point of Entry, may not get enough love from the diehard Priest faithful, there are some standout tracks that stand the test of time. Following British Steel, which piqued more interest in the band from the States, Priest set out for a more commercial sounding album to cater to American radio. A divisive and polarized album to say the least. Fans were expecting something different, more in the line of the party type of attitude they displayed on British Steel.
There’s two sides of the fence from a fan’s perspective when it comes to Point of Entry. One side dismisses it as being average, while the other side accepts it for being a natural progression in Priest’s catalog. Top tracks “Heading Out to the Highway”, “Hot Rockin’”, and “Desert Plains” have been live staples of the band for years. However, Point of Entry is front-loaded, with some of the back half of the tunes — including “You Say Yes”, “All the Way”, “Troubleshooter” and “On the Run” — not quite cutting the mustard. Although some tracks are quite fun (mostly “Troubleshooter” and “On the Run”), they’re compositions that Priest probably wouldn’t attempt to write these days. Overall, Point of Entry is average at best by Judas Priest standards. In addition, while the European cover artwork was bland and dull, the North American cover was horrendous (that’s computer paper stretched out to represent a road!).
Delivering the Riffs: For me, nothing beats the mesmerizing flange guitar effect on the opening riff of “Solar Angels”. It’s one of the most defining metal moments of my ’80s. There’s nothing technical about the riff or what bassist Ian Hill and drummer Dave Holland are playing, but it possesses the right amount of killer riffs and melodic instrumental hooks. It deserves to be cranked up to 11!
Pain Filler: The goofy “All The Way” is very cheesy for Priest standards. The sassy lyrics are corny in almost a childlike teasing manner. Even though it’s an upbeat rocker, it’s just far inferior to any of Priest’s classic anthems. — Kelley Simms
09. Firepower (2018)
Breaking Down the Law: At this point in the band’s career, Judas Priest would have been forgiven for sharting out a by-the-numbers album just to give them an excuse to set up a world tour. That has become the traditional formula for so many of their peers after all. Instead, they surprised everyone (perhaps, even themselves) with a solid collection of songs that amalgamated every era of the band into a molten soup that generated mostly third degree burns and occasionally just slightly singed arm hair.
What happened was the band had finally cohered as a unit. While Halford, Hill, Tipton, and Travis had over two decades of collective experience under their belts, guitarist Richie Faulkner was still the new guy. He had only stepped in as Downing’s replacement five years earlier. But with one studio album and a lot of live dates in the rearview, this new version of Priest played to their strengths with Faulkner and Tipton engaging in clawing and biting guitar battles and the flexible yet unbreakable drumming of Travis keeping everyone on task. The marvel of Firepower is Halford, who sounds like he hasn’t aged a day since the recording of Painkiller. Even on the weakest tracks (and there are a few to be had), his vocals still curl and blister like skin exposed to an open flame. On this album, Halford has become one of the immortals.
Delivering the Riffs: Every element of what makes the new millennium version of Priest so damn powerful is on display on “Children of the Sun.” Tipton and Faulkner grind against each other smoothly, dashing off small virtuosic filigrees and solos as they roll forward. Travis splashes and rumbles through the center like a playful whale. And Halford turns in a performance that requires him to croon, screech, wail, and sneer.
Pain Filler: Firepower is made of sullen entropy: it falls apart as it goes on. Meaning the last batch of tracks on the album are the weakest of the lot. Which puts “Sea of Red” at the bottom of the heap figuratively and literally. The evil and nasty side of Priest finds itself diluted here, with Halford singing fortune cookie wisdom (“In fields of wonder where those swallows soar/ Our hearts are weary as we pray”) and the band straining to appear noble as they slowly sink into the titular body of water. — Robert Ham
08. Sin After Sin (1977)
Breaking Down the Law: The 1977 album Sin After Sin introduced the band’s more heavier and aggressive sound by totally replacing their progressive elements and ’70s blues-rock influences with proto-thrash and speed metal segments, most notably on tracks “Let Us Prey/Call for the Priest” and “Dissident Aggressor.” There were also four significant milestones at play on Sin After Sin. 1) It was Priest’s major label debut with CBS Records, who were impressed with the band’s previous album, Sad Wings of Destiny. 2) It was produced by Deep Purple bass legend Roger Glover. 3) The album features a surprisingly edgy cover of Joan Baez’s “Diamonds & Rust” (allegedly encouraged by Glover). 4) Drummer Alan Moore was replaced by powerhouse British skinsman Simon Phillips for the recording, who introduced double kick drums that — along with Rainbow’s Cozy Powell — laid the foundation for metal drumming to come.
Love or loathe “Diamonds & Rust,” the band truly owned it with their rocking version, while the raucous “Starbreaker” possessed killer grooves accompanied by Tipton and Downing’s now famous trademark duo lead fretwork. In addition, the underrated “Last Rose of Summer” introduced an emotive ballad-esque sound to its arsenal. Sin After Sin significantly paved the way to Priest’s much heavier and more developed compositions on the next two 1978 albums, Stained Class and Killing Machine (aka Hell Bent for Leather).
Delivering the Riffs: Album closer “Dissident Aggressor” is one of Priest’s all-time heaviest tracks, even influencing Slayer to cover it on its 1988 South of Heaven album. This track alone introduced double kick drums to the world of heavy metal, setting the blueprint for speed/thrash metal to come. The buildup is like a calm before the storm, raging with a flurry of tom fills and a barrage of double-barreled kick drums and Halford’s piercing vocal harmonies, making this track the pièce de résistance of the whole album.
Pain Filler: The mellow ballad “Here Come The Tears” is just too slow and quiet, putting a lull into the proceedings. However, it’s not that the track is too out of the ordinary, considering “Last Rose of Summer” was introduced a few tracks earlier in the album, but it just doesn’t match the heaviness of the other tracks on the rest of the album. — Kelley Simms
07. Defenders of the Faith (1984)
Breaking Down the Law: Hot on the heels of Screaming for Vengeance going platinum, Priest returned to Ibiza Sound studios in Spain with producer Tom Allom to record a follow-up. By all accounts the recorded sessions were debauched, but in spite of pleasurable distractions, the band released an even harder, more ferocious follow-up. Defenders of the Faith doesn’t have a knockout single the way Screaming for Vengeance does (it also went platinum, but none of its singles performed the way “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’” did), but it’s a far more consistent record. Against all odds, it shipped less than two years after Screaming dropped.
From the opening twin lead salvo of “Freewheel Burning” to the almost sacred mantra that closes the title track, every song on Defenders kills. Judas Priest were so thoroughly themselves that even “Some Heads Are Gonna Roll”, a song delivered by outside songwriter Bob Halligan, Jr., sounds like pure Priest. Even better, it’s a stylish and varied listen. Its predecessor’s ballads are nowhere to be found. In their stead, Judas Priest delivered moody riches — the vampiric “Love Bites” is a fan favorite. In fact, “fan favorite” is probably the best way to describe Defenders as a whole — at the time, heavy metal was still a pejorative term to most people despite the genre’s commercial ascent, and Priest’s contemporaries in the then-defunct Led Zeppelin and even Black Sabbath were trying to distance themselves from the term.
Not Priest, though. On Defenders, they embraced the metal genre tag as a religious doctrine to be safeguarded and appointed themselves its champions.
Delivering the Riffs: Though it has stiff competition, “The Sentinel” barely nudges ahead of the pack as the best tune on Defenders of the Faith. Halford’s skill as a storyteller stands out in this moody track. His vocal delivery elevates the story of a turf fight between street gangs to almost Wagnerian levels of drama. In the midst of it all, Downing and Tipton execute one of their absolute best solo duels.
Pain Filler: Similarly, picking the worst song on Defenders is a tall order — nothing sticks out like a sore thumb. “Night Comes Down,” however, barely sticks out at all. Slow, moody and emotional, it serves the album well as a breather before the triumphant one-two punch of “Heavy Duty” and the title track. Taken on its own, however, it’s a little milquetoast. “Out in the Cold” takes the same concept and does it better on Turbo. — Joseph Schafer
06. Screaming for Vengeance (1982)
Breaking Down the Law: In 1982, Screaming for Vengeance elevated Judas Priest to arena headliner status in America by sharpening their classic metal sound to a razor’s edge with a series of great singles, proving that “Breaking the Law” was no fluke. To many fans, it’s their pinnacle, its legacy bolstered by a tremendous amount of appearances on “must-listen classic metal album” lists.
Once again recording with Tom Allom at Ibiza Sound studios, the band took five inebriated months to construct Screaming for Vengeance, and though by their own admission the quintet were party animals at that time, their meticulous work is evident in the final project. The title track weaponizes Tipton and Downing’s twin lead attack and contains maybe Halford’s most sinister vocal performance up to that point. Elsewhere, the perennially underrated “Bloodstone” and closer “Devil’s Child” showcased an increased aptitude for melody and hooks.
Even among these gems, it’s “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming” that propelled Screaming for Vengeance to platinum sales inside of a year. In the tradition of Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” and Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water”, it’s a simplistic track that the band completed hastily near the end of their recording sessions — according to Halford it nearly didn’t make the cut. That simplicity — not to mention its arena-ready chorus — are crucial to its charm. At last, Priest had distilled their sound into its most palatable form, and in so doing capped off what remains their most commercially successful record.
Delivering the Riffs: As good as Screaming for Vengeance is, it peaks early. Judas Priest’s discography doesn’t get much better than the combined sonic force of “Hellion” and “Electric Eye.” The former is only a brief guitar introduction, but it essentially sets the dramatic stage for one of the band’s most compact and powerful songs, an unusually political song about government surveillance that doubles as a high-octane barnburner. These conjoined songs, always played together, rarely leave Priest’s live setlist with good reason — they never fail to satisfy.
Pain Filler: While the singles on Screaming for Vengeance boast massive killing capacity, a couple of the deeper album cuts can leave a little to be desired, specifically the mid-paced ballads that dominate the second half of the album. Of these, “Fever” is the low point. Its introductory passage lasts over a minute into the five-and-a-half-minute song, making it sound bloated compared to the other, more taught tracks. Things pick up once the chorus kicks in but placing it between “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming” and “Devil’s Child” just underscores how inessential it is in comparison. — Joseph Schafer
05. British Steel (1980)
Breaking Down the Law: The start of a new decade found Judas Priest hitting a creative stride. They were buoyed by the chart success of “Take on the World” and their 1979 live album, Unleashed In The East, and given a blank check by Columbia to do as they pleased. But rather than come back with a filler-filled double album or some experimental excursion, they stayed on course and borrowed a little inspiration from recent tour mates AC/DC, writing songs that were lean, taut, and as playful/painful as an open hand slap. Just where and how hard that smack landed depends on the song. “Living After Midnight” and “Grinder” were naughty spanks where the initial sting blossoms into something far more pleasurable. “Rapid Fire” and “Steeler” are the equivalent of Jerry Lawler knocking Andy Kaufman out of his chair (look it up, kids!). Fueled by anger and righteous indignation, they’ll leave your head ringing for days.
British Steel was also where the band perfected their recorded sound. With the assistance of producer Tom Allom, a studio vet who helped engineer the first three Black Sabbath records, this album had the sweaty directness of their live performances with homemade touches like the smashing of beer bottles against a wall and the rattling of a cutlery drawer as sound effects. If Killing Machine was the point when Priest decided to take on the guise of a heavy metal band, British Steel found them disappearing into the role. There was no turning back now.
Delivering the Riffs: “Living After Midnight” remains one of Judas Priest’s most brutally simple songs. And it is all the more masterful for that fact. It is constructed like a power pop tune with a chorus you can sing along to in seconds and lyrics that speak to the party animal/night owl in all of us. Even if your bedtime is well before the witching hour, you know this primal urge to rage into the twilight well. And if you don’t, just pump your fists and get some rest.
Pain Filler: One of Judas Priest’s most lamentable qualities was a tendency to wring a good idea dry. They hit the charts at last with “Take on the World”? Then, logically, that meant rewriting the formula just enough to get an even bigger selling single, right? “United” is a warned over rehash of that 1979 hit, complete with all for one and all for one lyrics and a variation on the “We Will Rock You” tempo. Maybe it was fun to chant this along with your pals in the arena at the time. Today, it’s a crashing bore. — Robert Ham
04. Sad Wings of Destiny (1976)
Breaking Down the Law: By the time sophomore release Sad Wings of Destiny was released in 1976, Priest were still finding their sound, which started to gleam slightly on its debut release two years prior with Rocka Rolla. Sad Wings of Destiny is where the band found its metal stride. It’s the album Halford lists it as his most influential Priest album. “Rocka Rolla was our stepping stone for us to the next place — Sad Wings of Destiny,” Halford told Consequence of Sound. “We learned a lot making that first record as a band working in a studio, working with producers. There was a growth spurt in a shot amount of time. I think we really tapped into our potential with Sad Wings of Destiny. It’s still the album for me for lots of reasons.”
Sad Wings of Destiny displays a wider range of styles including Halford exploring his incredible vocal range with a higher-pitched delivery. Its nine tracks are riff-heavy, ’70s-styled rockers. Iconic opener and classic live staple, “Victim of Changes,” introduced the trademark tandem Downing/Tipton harmonized guitar technique that eventually influenced the way metal guitar was meant to be played. In addition, the band explored darker themes on this album, most notably on tracks “The Ripper”, “Tyrant”, “Genocide”, and “Island of Domination”. They also introduced some keyboard-laden ditties such as “Prelude” and “Epitaph”, which the latter was decorated with Halford’s oddly-crooned vocals, accompanied by piano and layered vocal harmonies slightly reminiscent of Queen.
Delivering the Riffs: The rollicking “Island of Domination” introduced doom and blues elements similar to fellow Birmingham brummies Black Sabbath. It’s a heavy rocker with a complex riff and piercing vocals. The slower segment transitions into a wicked swagger — accompanied by a dark, bluesy riff — adding a new dynamic to the track’s song structure. In addition, the echo effect/call and response vocals are exceptionally innovative for this style of music during this particular time period. It’s a hidden gem of a track that doesn’t garner as much acclaim as the more popular “Victim of Changes” and “The Ripper” does, but it’s just as killer nonetheless.
Pain Filler: The mellow, mood-changing ballad “Dreamer Deceiver” is a good enough tune per se, displaying a different side to Halford’s vocals as well as introducing acoustic guitar segments. However, the slow-paced tempo and its 5:51 run time goes a bit too long and puts a lull in the momentum that the first two tracks had already generated. — Kelley Simms
03. Stained Class (1978)
Breaking Down the Law: Before 1978, Judas Priest were one of many competent first-wave heavy bands — a dying breed, considering Deep Purple were broken up, Led Zeppelin were about to break up and Black Sabbath were about to part ways with Ozzy. Their options were: change, or die. With the help of session drummer Les Binks and producer Dennis MacKay, Priest chose the former, and in so doing pioneered metal’s second wave. On Stained Class, Judas Priest fully gelled as a band, jettisoning the blues-rock of their past and setting the template for the rest of their career.
Stained Class shows its cards early — Les Binks kicks off opening track “Exciter” with a rapid-fire bass drum roll, and in so doing arguably invented what would become speed metal (Motorhead were around at the time but had yet to record their own double-kick classic, Overkill). It’s such an indelible song that Priest more-or-less rewrote it to make “Painkiller” twelve years later.
The album is best remembered for the band’s sexy-but-unassuming cover of Spooky Tooth’s “Better By You, Better Than Me”, which allegedly contained a back-masked subliminal message encouraging listeners to commit suicide. That myth has since been disproved, but its shadow crowds out many of the gems on Stained Class — the energetic title track, Halford’s astounding performance in “Saints in Hell”, the gothic lust of “Fire Burns Below”, and especially the powerful “Beyond the Realms of Death”.
Delivering the Riffs: All classic British heavy metal is indebted to some extent to the lavish progressive rock of the ’70s, and Priest are no different, even though they were quick to discard those pieces of their sound. As far as prog-Priest goes, it doesn’t get better than the sprawling “Beyond the Realms of Death”, a song embellished from a guitar demo laid down by session member Les Binks. For almost seven minutes, it’s the sonic equivalent of a Hieronymus Bosch painting.
Pain Filler: There isn’t really a weak track on Stained Class, but “White Heat, Red Hot” feels a little limp directly after the intravenous dose of adrenaline that is “Exciter”. If Stained Class has any weakness, it’s that MacKay’s production is a little toothless. Tom Allom could have probably made “White Heat, Red Hot” sound as infernal as its title. — Joseph Schafer
02. Killing Machine (aka Hell Bent for Leather) (1978)
Breaking Down the Law: If K.K. Downing’s 2018 memoir Heavy Duty is to be believed, “everything was still up in the air” with Judas Priest prior to the recording of their fifth studio album. “I thought we could have gone down the pan if we hadn’t gotten it dead right.” Reading between the lines, what the guitarist meant was that the band was looking to simplify their songs so as to better compete with the rising tide of punk and new wave back home and to give American audiences something to shake their greasy locks and fists to.
Unlocking that achievement was clearly not difficult for the band as their second album of 1978 was a series of sharp stabs from a dagger. Gone were the high boots and flowing robes of previous albums, replaced by leather outfits and bondage gear. The music followed suit, with a swagger that would inspire a thousand exotic dance routines and Rob Halford’s lyrics that barely hid their sexual implications (“I’m rigid to your pose/you clench your teeth in anger/my loving swells and grows”). Killing Machine (released in early ‘79 as Hell Bent for Leather in the U.S. out of respect for the children killed at Columbia Elementary School in Cleveland) set the template for the next generation of heavy rockers — particularly the glam metal school from L.A. — with its bad attitude and dirty minds, power ballad and blistering guitar work from Downing and Glenn Tipton. And in their native U.K., it landed the band on Top of The Pops (with the Queen-aping “Take on the World”) and a host of new fans.
Delivering the Riffs: “Hell Bent for Leather” is a wide-open throttle acceleration and the clearest indication that Judas Priest weren’t going to mess around with extended running times and complex tunes. Done and dusted in under three minutes with a tempo that feels like a drag race, a particularly snarling vocal turn from Halford, and a guitar solo from Tipton that gives him a chance to show off his finger tapping skills.
Pain Filler: Ballads were never a good look for Priest. This was a band built for speed and precision and rough sex, not getting all weepy over the guy who got away. “Before the Dawn” is particularly ill-fitting; a squirmy sincere bit of treacle that may have forced a few dozen heshers to confront their feelings for their lost loves but in the running time of Killing Machine only slows down the momentum of “Running Wild” and is a poor lead in to the down ‘n’ dirty “Evil Fantasies.” — Robert Ham
01. Painkiller (1990)
Breaking Down the Law: Released in 1990, Judas Priest’s 12th full-length album, Painkiller, is the embodiment of pure heavy metal. The band boasted a new, lean and mean sound following the inferior Ram It Down from two years prior. And the heavier edge was a welcome treat to all Priest fans. Painkiller was also vocalist Rob Halford’s swan song before his hiatus from the band until his return in 2005 with Angel of Retribution.
The title track opens the album with one of the most memorable double kick drum patterns by new skinsman Scott Travis. Also featuring blazing trade-off guitar solos from Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing, and accompanied by Halford’s insane falsetto vocals, “Painkiller” is one of Priest’s most explosive and heaviest tracks ever written. With a stellar production from celebrated British producer Chris Tsangerides — his first Priest album since 1976’s Sad Wings of Destiny — the sound on Painkiller equally shares the spotlight with its high-quality songwriting. From the ominous “Night Crawler” to the anthemic “Metal Meltdown” to the spine-tingling “A Touch of Evil”, there aren’t many wasted moments during the album’s 46-minute run time.
With Painkiller, Halford has great recollections about the writing and recording of the album. “The creative juices were flowing,” Halford told Consequence of Sound. “(There was) just an abundance of material and everybody kicked in and zoned into the same place we needed to be as we moved along from song to song.” Painkiller was very influential and just what the metal genre needed during this decade, which was littered with alt-rock and grunge. Obviously, Priest fans are so dedicated that they’re almost willing to do battle over which Priest album is the best. However, we say it’s Painkiller.
Delivering the Riffs: Halford’s ear-shattering wail that opens “All Guns Blazing” is so electrifying that it’s almost worth the price of admission alone. Featuring one of the most fist-pumping choruses in Priest’s repertoire, the almost four minutes of battering double kick drum patterns, blazing guitar solos and a mid-paced rhythmic flurries end with a perfectly-sampled explosion.
Pain Filler: It’s almost impossible to pick the worst song from Painkiller. However, given “Battle Hymn” is just a one-minute instrumental used as a mood-enhancer for album closer “One Shot at Glory,” it’s easily sacrificed ahead of any of the proper tracks. — Kelley Simms