Defending the Faith- A Tribute to Judas Priest

Written by Greg DiPasquale*

Judas Priest has not always put out great records. Now, I realize
that’s maybe not the best way to start what will ultimately be a
praise piece on a band, but it might be the most appropriate. Legacies
in music are seldom unblemished, especially ones that span several
decades. Chances are, if you think you know of an exception, I know of
someone that’ll disagree with you. After all, can one recognize a peak
unless they’ve a valley to look down at? I don’t have all the answers,
but I do know that at almost five decades in the game, Priest has
uncorked a great new album and I want to talk about them.

I don’t remember when exactly I first heard Priest, but I’d imagine
either 103.3 The Fox or Beavis & Butthead had something to do with it,
so probably somewhere around 1992-1994. It wasn’t revelatory to me in
like a Van Halen, Metallica, or Death kind of way, but their hammering
riffs, pounding tempos & easy to latch onto lyrics were the perfect
rope to lasso in a susceptible & eager young mind. Like many others
I’ll bet, finding out about Priest coincided with finding out about
Iron Maiden. While stylistically different, & a generation apart, both
will naturally be lumped together forever due to country of origin &
coinciding apexes in popularity. However, as much as I enjoyed Priest,
Iron Maiden got its hooks into me (no pun intended) deeper due to
their more adventurous nature. They simply lacked most of the
commercial proclivities that some of the 1980’s Priest output
possessed. Obviously, Priest in the 1970’s (and Painkiller as well)
was/is a much different animal, but save for Stained Class, a comp
tape of select cuts from the first 2 LPs, and a few odd tracks on
Metal Works 73-93, my knowledge of that era as a teenager wasn’t as
deep as it was of the 80’s-early 90’s stuff. We’ll get back to this
later.

I was born in 1982, so I’m thankful that I had really ANY knowledge of
70’s Priest that young. The mid-late 90’s were EXTREMELY trying times
for metal in the USA. Luckily for me, I got into the game right before
radio & MTV started shifting formats. It was enough of a taste to keep
me searching for more once conventional media outlets turned their
backs on it. In a pre internet world however, it was tough to get a
fix without putting in some work. It’s even tougher if you’ve only got
paper route money and aren’t old enough to (legally) drive yet. I was
able to parlay some of that frustration into learning how to play
guitar, and thus I spent plenty of hours trying to play along with
some classic records. I’ll never forget learning the acoustic intro to
“Beyond The Realms Of Death” (off the Stained Class LP) at age
fifteen and feeling so accomplished & proud. Luckily no recordings
exist of anything original I tried to create in that period, but it
established a very DIY mentality that I’ve carried to this day. If you
aren’t hearing others play the metal that you want, create the metal
you want to hear. Fans weren’t the only ones that had it rough in the
90’s though. Bands likely had it rougher, especially bands that had to
make a crucial personnel change, namely at the lead vocal position.

Ah yes, the Tim “Ripper” Owens years. Short of calling it a day, there
was nothing Priest could’ve done to avoid it. Rob Halford bailed. So
in walks this American tribute band singer, and to be fair it was a
cool story (If you’re out of the loop somehow, watch “Rock Star”). I’d
imagine if it was 10 years earlier it would’ve been a much bigger
deal, but this decade was all sorts of fucked up musically. Anyway,
1997 brought the Jugulator album, and it wasn’t without some high
spots (“Cathedral Spires” is a top 10 Priest track in my book), but
man did it seem like they were over-compensating. It was easily the
heaviest record they had done at that point, which is a testament to
Glenn Tipton & K.K. Downing’s ability, but it was clearly missing the
Halford touch. Tim Owens had the range, but lacked the personality &
creativity to be a force in leading the band forward. Also, since
Halford was gone, Tipton took it upon himself to write the lyrics and
I can still smell them from 21 years away, unfortunately. Everything
just felt off. They were on an independent label (CMC International)
and were relegated to playing clubs & theaters on tour. It was tough
to watch.

2002 brought us the “Demolition” album, and though it’d be easy to
blame my emerging interest in death metal, black metal & grindcore for
missing out on it, I think it’s more likely because every song I’ve
ever heard off of it isn’t very good (“Metal Messiah”, yeeeeesh).
Further hurting the band’s perception to me was how strong Halford’s
solo career had been after the Two project. I was leaving a party at
roughly 2 AM in the summer of 2000 when I turned on the radio in my
car and heard “Made In Hell” by Halford for the first time. It was
vibrant, it was explosive, it was everything Priest wasn’t anymore and
nine hours later I owned the Resurrection album. It smoked
everything Ripper Priest had done, and I don’t think I’m alone in that
opinion.

Let’s not forget that during his absence from Priest, Halford also
came out as homosexual. Now, metal had been unintentionally gay in
several instances for quite sometime (see Manowar), and thus news like
this shouldn’t have been anywhere near as shocking as it was. However,
it was a different world then. This wasn’t John Q. Barband coming out
of the closet, this was THE METAL GOD. It was great that it happened
for a multitude of reasons. First and foremost for Halford’s sake,
also I’m sure it gave lots of people around the world in a similar
situation the will to say “fuck it” and follow suit. Hopefully it
opened a mind or two as well. Of course the moron brigade had issues
with it, but if you all of a sudden hated Priest/Halford’s music
simply because Halford is gay, then you’re a dolt, a poseur, and an
asshole. Halford and Priest, had now transcended music into something
greater. He/they had become retroactive messengers of diversity
through a sermon of screaming heavy metal. Unfortunately for Priest,
that only magnified how huge of a hole was left by Halford’s
departure. I can remember interviews where they were being asked about
their ex-singer’s sexual preference more than they were about their
new album. There was only one thing left to do.

They reunited and it sounded so good. 2004 saw the return of Rob Halford to
the band. The Angel of Retribution album followed soon after and was
an enjoyable addition to their discography. I could nitpick a few
things about it but there was much more good than “meh”.

Do I need Judas Priest to write 13 minute songs about the Loch Ness Monster? No,
not really.

Do I want Judas Priest to write 13 minute songs about the
Loch Ness Monster? Yeah, probably.

All pleasantries aside, the only real disappointment of the reunion era (besides the Nostradamus album), has been the dissolution of the iconic Tipton/Downing guitar
tandem. After almost 40 years, Downing left the band in 2011. Though his replacement, Richie Faulkner, has made a believer out of me, it will never be the same. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of two more evolved guitarists than Glenn Tipton & K.K Downing. Listen to their guitar styles on the 1974 debut album Rocka Rolla, then listen to the way they were playing guitar on 1990’s Painkiller. The difference is seismic. Most guitarists at that age have settled into a style and these guys turned theirs inside out and threw a new coat of paint on it. They were always trying to up their games to sling ax with whichever new shredders were coming down the pike, and never resting on their laurels or accolades. Unfortunately, time has caught up with Glenn Tipton, who as of this article, has retired from active touring with the band due to Parkinson’s Disease, but will continue to write and record.

Finally, getting back to my earlier tale of Maiden vs. Priest. Time is
not a 100 yard dash, it’s a marathon. When I wasn’t searching for
harder, faster & hardest, fastest, I found myself yearning for
something that would just break my ribs while I sing along to it, so I always went back to the classic bands that do it better than anyone else. These two bands always fit the bill, and they still put out good records. However, newer Iron Maiden records don’t make me want to smash things and headbang. Newer Judas Priest records do. If you don’t believe me, just take in the hour of anthems Priest just uncorked on their new album Firepower. It’s epic. It rules.

In addition to still getting into their new stuff, time and wisdom has also
allowed me a different, more positive take on songs I didn’t
necessarily enjoy when I was younger. Songs like “Take These Chains”,
“Some Heads Are Gonna Roll”, & “Love Bites” for example. Time has also
allowed me the opportunity to get more familiar with some of the 70’s
stuff I had never picked up, like a certain little smoker called “Sin
After Sin.” Heavy. Sure, Maiden had a run from 1980-1988 that no band,
including Priest can match, but in the long run, Priest may have been the
stronger, most pure and more consistent of the two. Not to mention they basically created conventional heavy metal aesthetic as well. It doesn’t matter that
they have 5 or 6 records I don’t think too highly of, because the records of theirs that I love are still so fucking badass that who gives a shit about the lesser ones? The band has chalked up so many great moments that still give me chills. Things like Halford’s scream at 4:03 of “Screaming For Vengeance”, Tipton’s solo in “Beyond The Realms Of Death”, Scott Travis announcing himself to the world to kick off Painkiller, and the fact that somehow “The Ripper” is less than 3 minutes in length, just to name a few.

Maiden has aged fairly well, and they sound like it. Priest has aged well too, but they don’t sound like it. They will always be the fist in the air, the scream in the
night, the eternal flame of youth. They are the Metal Gods and in my
opinion the ultimate, and first, true heavy metal band.

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