Rock fans have a great deal to thank – or is that blame? - Birmingham for. The likes of Black Sabbath (opens in new tab), Traffic, ELO, Wizard, The Move and Magnum all call the area home, and even the roots of Led Zeppelin (opens in new tab) can be traced back to England’s second city. Make no mistake; in its heyday, the city centre on a Saturday night was the place to be, with music of all denominations bellowing from the windows of just about every pub and club. However, no Brummie band screams heavy metal, both literally and figuratively, as loudly as Judas Priest.
An embryonic version of the band formed in 1969 and the core of the classic line-up, comprising guitarists Ken ‘KK’ Downing and Glenn Tipton, ever-present bassist Ian Hill, and mercurial vocalist Rob Halford, plus drummer John Hinch, recorded their debut, the dreamy and bluesy Rocka Rolla, five years later. A fundamental reevaluation of their style saw them mix the weight of Sabbath with hooks so big they could snag a whale and, by the close of the seventies, a glittering new path for seriously heavy music had been forged.
Priest have flown the flag for British metal around the world ever since and, as an aside, amongst their many achievements is the award for the highest recorded number of drummers to have ever been in and out of a heavy band’s ranks, at least 10 at the last count. John Partridge, Fred Woolley , John Ellis, Alan Moore, Chris Campbell, the aforementioned Hinch, Simon Phillips, Les Binks, Dave Holland and Scott Travis have all thumped the tubs with them at one stage and it’s worth remembering that even Spïnal Tap can only name nine guardians of the toms.
“Yes, we went through a lot.” Tipton commented wryly, but with no little humour, when pressed by Metal Hammer (opens in new tab) on this very subject last year. “We lost some through spontaneous combustion, others through gardening accidents. Truthfully, I don’t know why we had such problems.”
Irrespective of who’s behind the kit Priest have produced some of metal’s greatest songs and here are just six that are not to be missed.
1. The Ripper – Sad Wings of Destiny (1976)
Revisiting Priest’s inoffensive debut today, one is struck by how unlikely it is that the follow up would come to be considered to be one of heavy metal’s pivotal releases, but the truth is that no other UK rock band was sounding quite like this in 1976. Zeppelin were heavy, sure, but not heavy metal heavy, while the likes of Uriah Heep, despite their music being chock full of guitar, were too proggy to be deemed ‘proper metal’. In short there’s little doubt that Sad Wings of Destiny paved the way for a whole new direction for numerous bands, and Priest threw on a veritable abattoir's worth of studded leather and relentlessly led the way.
Using production tricks such as panning delays and chop edits, and built around some genuinely disturbing lyrics courtesy of Tipton, The Ripper tells the tale of the titular Victorian serial killer from his own blood-soaked point of view. The unsettlingly atonal twin-guitar intro, strange intervals, a hellish choir and a nicely restrained neck pickup guitar solo add to the malevolence and the stage is soon reached where the listener can almost feel rank breath on the neck and a portentous knifepoint between the shoulder blades. Halford’s vocals, mixed front and centre and comprising whispers, screams and everything in between, also do little to soothe the listener’s trepidation.
“You can hear and sense the growth from Rocka Rolla.” the vocalist told Metal Hammer (opens in new tab) in 2008. “Most bands hit their stride on a second release. You learn so much from the first experience [and], as time passes, the heavy metal world does look back at Sad Wings Of Destiny as being a classic. Today, all of us in Judas Priest rate it as a piece of pure metal magic and are still very proud of what we did.”
The album also features Victim of Changes, a song many hold to be not only the best Priest track of them all but also one of the most important UK metal has ever produced. We’re not entirely convinced about that, but the fact that the album was the launchpad for the band’s hugely successful career is undeniable.
2. Beyond The Realms Of Death – Stained Class (1978)
Every metal band worth its salt has a ballad or two up its tasselled leather sleeve and Priest are no different. Never afraid of tackling important issues head on, the doleful lyrics that deal with depression and, ultimately, suicide are poignant in the extreme, and the acoustic accompaniments to the verses, sweetened by a modulation-laden electric, perfectly set the sombre mood.
The power is never far away and the choruses benefit from the clarity of guitars that are overdriven rather than super-distorted, which would run the risk of becoming compressed and mushy. Both guitarists take lengthy solos and each is full of feel and dynamics, with Downing using a wah to subtly alter his tone as the mood takes him.
The lyrics have a deep and intensely personal meaning for Halford and it’s sobering to recall how bereft of understanding and compassion society’s opinions towards homosexuals and others who were deemed ‘different’ were back then. The singer, who finally – and bravely - came out in 1998, had been bearing the burden of a secret he had been keeping to himself for decades, feelings that were more than alluded to his lyrics to Beyond...
“In 1978, the idea of being able to talk to other gay men, openly, freely, and without stigma, seemed as likely as pole-vaulting to Mars.” He wrote in his autobiography Confess (opens in new tab). “I just knew: it will never bloody happen.”
Thankfully, he was wrong and we would suggest you revisit Halford’s closing desolate notes here with his struggles in mind. Very moving indeed.
3. The Rage - British Steel (1980)
Featuring such dyed-in-the-wool metal classics as Breaking the Law, United, Living After Midnight and the mighty Metal Gods, British Steel is easily Priest's best-loved album and if you’re still unclear about what the band stands for, this is where to begin.
Although The Rage is often overlooked in favour of the aforementioned quartet in the album’s gem-studded tracklisting, it’s absolutely worthy of mention here due to its highly unusual style that seems at odds with the band’s heavy and aggressive raison d’être. Even with the ultra-confident vibe that was surrounding the album’s recording sessions, the band initially weren’t sure the song would work and it’s unlikely that any other metal band of the time would have even entertained the use of a reggae-flavoured bass riff, let alone opening a song with one. However, the idea held no fears for Priest and the song remains an intriguing offering today.
Judas Priest's Glenn Tipton and KK Downing talk British Steel (opens in new tab)
Ian Hill’s line is accompanied by clean guitar chops, reverby finger snaps and the inventive use of contrasting rhythms before the overdriven guitars come crashing in to readdress the balance with a colossal riff. Downing’s main solo and outro possess an ear-catching out of phase tone and it’s all fascinating stuff from a band approaching the top of its game.
“We were always trying to broaden our horizons and expand what heavy metal could be.” Downing told us (opens in new tab) in 2010. “So you’ve got the reggae beginning and my solo is a bit bluesy and Paul Kossoff-like. We wanted to throw it to all the people who were putting us down; we were raging, hence the title."
The album went on to become arguably the defining release of 80s British heavy metal, more so even than Maiden’s The Number of the Beast opus released just under two years later. Priest actually took the Cockney upstarts out as support on the UK British Steel tour that kicked off on 7 March 1980, and the shows at the Birmingham Odeon three weeks later are remembered by those who were there as something very special indeed.
“At the time we knew it was good, just not how special it would turn out,” Tipton told Classic Rock (opens in new tab). “You don’t realise when you’re in the middle of the process what you have is a classic. Only later on, when everyone tells you… that’s when it really hits home.
The world, for a while at least, was the band’s oyster.
4. Freewheel Burning – Defenders of the Faith (1984)
With laser vocals and rampant guitars all romping along at a breakneck tempo, this is probably the one Priest song you’d play to someone who had no idea what heavy metal was. During the verse Downing and Tipton riff on one string rather than using full chords to allow space for the vocals and, although the heavy metal book of chords decrees that you change from A to G down at the second and third frets, here the guitars move up to the single G at the 11th fret of the A string. With the bass staying where it is, the music opens up and these fingerings are simple but effective moves that retain clarity in what is a frantic and sonically dense song.
The pair are often held to be the dictionary definition of how a double-guitar team operates, but instances of twin lead passages are not as common in Priest music as you may assume; the style is far more prevalent in songs by the likes of Thin Lizzy and Iron Maiden. Tipton made it very clear early on that he would be taking the majority of the solos, leaving KK to hold down the underlying rhythm parts, but here we get a taste of how the two work in tandem and, of course, it sounds great.
The song also features yet another jaw-dropping vocal performance from Halford. Impossibly high in places yet always in tune, the section just before the guitar solo features clipped phrases delivered at such a speed it’s barely possible to conceive that he did them in a single take.
“Freewheel Burning hits top speed early and stays there from then on.” Hill told us (opens in new tab). “We were recording that in Miami and ended up having this massive party with [producer] Tom Allom. My lasting memory is of Tom sat at a piano, pulling faces and screaming ‘Freewheel Gurning’! It was a great time. Some of the shows we did were absolutely enormous; we could play up to 20,000 people a night.”
5. Painkiller – Painkiller (1990)
At the turn of the nineties Priest found themselves at something of a crossroads. A couple of patchy releases had sullied the band’s platinum sheen and, having being made fully aware of the shift that was occurring in the global metal scene thanks in part to Slayer’s support slot on 1988’s Mercenaries of Metal tour, it was time for a rethink.
American drummer extraordinaire Scott Travis had been roped in to replace the errant Dave Holland, who’d quit out of the blue in 1989, and his almost magical technical skills behind the kit allowed the band to realise their desire to modernise. His machine-gun double bass fills would become a reliable musical cornerstone for the foreseeable future, as Painkiller’s incredible opening fusillade ably demonstrates.
Pinched harmonics and dive-bombs pierce the verses while Halford’s vocals occasionally hit registers that only bats can hear, and the frantic run-up to the guitar solo that stops dead as Tipton pulls off the first of many arpeggio based-runs is a work of real compositional dexterity.
The other new boy on the block was producer Chris Tsangarides, an established knob-twiddler who’d actually been part of the production team on Sad Wings of Destiny 14 years previously.
“He was an upcoming producer who’d been working with some of the newer bands of the time; his knowledge of metal was immense, so we gave him a go,” explained Tipton (opens in new tab). “He had good ideas about how to get various sounds and [it] worked out really well.”
Subsequent sonic refinements were met with far less enthusiasm both artistically and commercially but, for now, the Priest was well and truly back. Then, in 1992, Halford decided to jump ship. Now what?
6. Judas Rising – Angel of Retribution (2005)
After hooking up with singer Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens for two albums, 1997’s highly disappointing Jugulator and the better but still underwhelming Demolition from 2001, it was only a matter of time before the legendary frontman was lured back into the fold. Sure enough, after Sharon Osbourne invited the original line-up to join 2004’s Ozzfest extravaganza, an offer no doubt sweetened by stacks of dollar bills, the inevitable came to pass and Halford duly returned.
His first album back was certainly a return to the hard rockin’ form of yore, and this the opening track sets the stall out from the get-go. Aided and abetted by producer Roy Z the band made a conscious attempt to reclaim their classic sound, with Z encouraging the guitarists, Downing especially, to strip the gear back to pedals and amps and simply let rip.
The song’s tireless riffing ticks all the right boxes and it’s interesting to note that, due to the sheer girth of the Travis drum bed, both KK and Tipton could vary the amount of gain they used, again aiding the guitars’ clarity and punch. The two then trade solos, with Tipton’s stop-start arpeggios and proto-shred passages in sharp contrast to Downing’s more traditional hard rock approach of pentatonic-based phrases and vibrato dive-bombs, proving yet again what a complementary team they were.
As a whole, Angel... is an excellent Priest album with the some great moments and solid guitarwork, although we’re sorry to say that the infamously dank and turgid closer Lochness (sic) hasn’t improved with age.
“People were so excited when Rob rejoined and it was his rightful place really, to the point where being back in the studio felt natural, like putting on an old glove.” Confirmed Hill to Metal Hammer (opens in new tab). “Judas Rising is the first song on that album and what a way to come back! We played it again on the last tour and people were surprised at how powerful it still is.”
However, the album could have been named something else, as Downing revealed in his autobiography Heavy Duty (opens in new tab).
“I actually pushed for Judas Rising to be the album title. Who wouldn’t have?” He complained. “Rob was back in the band, we were making a new album… Judas Priest was rising again. Everything about it made sense to me, then it wasn’t the title. That’s another battle I lost.”
Downing left Priest under something of a cloud in 2011 and recently sold his publishing and royalty rights to the band’s back catalogue after a hefty investment in a golfing venture attached to his Shropshire country pile went south. The remaining members quickly recruited firebrand guitarist Richie Faulkner as his replacement and the band today sounds as good as ever. Tragically Tipton was forced to retire from most live duties in 2018 due to his struggles with Parkinson’s Disease, with Andy Sneap stepping in. We wish Glenn and the mighty Priest well.