rockford illinois entertainment guide
Date: 09/06/2005
Judas Priest Brings The Metal Back To Rockford
by Gary Hill

Judas Priest will be storming into the Rockford Metro Centre on September 28 th along with Anthrax. For the long time fans, no introduction is necessary, but for those with less knowledge of this metal powerhouse it seems a good time to cover their history - consider this a class called Judas Priest 101.

Priest formed in 1970 in Birmingham, England, the same city that had given birth to such groups as Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple and later would serve as the home to Def Leppard. Before their first album was released in 1974 they had gone through several lineup changes, eventually settling on a grouping consisting of Glenn Tipton (guitar), K.K. Downing (guitar), Rob Halford (vocals), Ian Hill (bass) and John Hinch (drummer). Other than a seemingly constant stream of drummer changes, this lineup would remain constant throughout much of the band's career. Indeed, the current line up consists of the same four core members with only the drummer being different.

That first album, Rocka Rolla had a sound that would prove to be different than any of the rest of the Judas Priest discs, but they have always been a band that has not been content to stay in one musical place, but rather refine and reinvent their sound. The music on Rocka Rolla, while featuring much of the trademarks that would be present in a lot of the music (Halford's incredible vocal agility, stellar guitar playing by both guitarists and a fire for heavy metal) tended to be more plodding and quite bluesy in orientation. To me, it has always seemed a lot of Black Sabbath's first album, which had a lot of the same tendencies. Rob Halford even puts in a harmonica part as Ozzy Osbourne had on that self titled Sabbath debut. Before the recording of the follow up the first change of drummers occurred, Hinch being replaced by Alan Moore.

That second disc was Sad Wings of Destiny. It featured a different sound for the band with a sort of off-kilter slightly weird, but very tasty, approach to their metal sound. That disc provided several cuts that would be destined to become live favorites and set staples for the group in the form of "The Ripper", "Genocide" and "Victim of Changes." It also included a two track combination of "Dreamer Deceiver"/Deceiver" that is an epic piece with strong progressive rock, but still very hard-edged leanings. The combination, while not either a defining sound for the band certainly showcased the song writing and instrumental capabilities of the band. The result is a killer album with a metal sound that has never been matched by anyone. Before the next release, though, Moore would also be gone, Simon Phillips serving as a session player on the third album.

Sin After Sin (1977) carried on the themes begun with Sad Wings of Destiny, but was in many ways a more mellow, yet more mainstream sounding release. It was also the major label debut for the band - the first two albums were released on the independent Gull label and Sin After Sin was on Columbia. Again several songs were destined to be long-lived elements of their live set - "Diamonds And Rust" (a cover of a song by Joan Baez of all people) and "Sinner". "Dissident Aggressor", while not one of their better known tracks is also one of the most aggressive and heavy cuts the band had done to this point. It was even later covered by Slayer. The disc, while not exceptionally consistent is remarkably powerful and still holds up quite well. By the time the band toured Les Binks had signed on as drummer. He was to stay around longer than any of his predecessors.

Stained Class was the next disc from the band, and the sound had jumped worlds away from where it had been. While some of the familiar elements were still present, the disc showcased a much heavier and aggressive sound, which was to be the formative elements of their future releases. It showed an enthusiasm and fire that were only hinted at on the earlier discs. However, they still found the time to slow it down for "Beyond The Realms Of Death" - a ballad like track that feels a bit like "Suite Madame Blue" by Styx. It would be the only track from the album to find itself permanently set into the group's live set. The disc also included another unusual cover, the group's metallic take on "Better By You Better Than Me" which was written by Gary Wright and recorded when he was with Spooky Tooth. The album overall is one of the highlights of the band's career and served as a great precursor to their first real breakthrough.

1979's Hell Bent For Leather (entitled Killing Machine and released in 78 in the UK) was to be that album, and while (in the view of this reviewer anyway) not as consistent a disc, it presented a more straight ahead and typical metal approach that would proof to be very instrumental in forming the sound of the oncoming period of the genre. Certainly the song "Hell Bent For Leather" (which was to become another live mainstay) along with "The Green Manalishi (with the two pronged crown)" (another cover, this time the band making their way into Peter Green's blues era of Fleetwood Mac - also another permanent fixture in their live set) and "Delivering the Goods" are killer tracks, but personally I feel that "Evil Fantasies" and a couple of other tracks on the disc leave a bit to be desired. Still, the disc overall was a pretty strong one, and definitely an essential album for the 1970's metal.

In a way of maintaining momentum the group released their first live album, Unleashed in the East that same year and it wound up giving the band another boost in their career - gaining more radio play and exposure. It was also their first album to go platinum in the US. It also was to be the last disc to feature Les Binks, but he had stayed around longer than any of the other drummers. His replacement was to be Dave Holland who would be on board by the time they reached the apex of their career with the next album.

That album was British Steel and with it came such FM radio mainstays as "Living After Midnight" and "Breaking The Law". Those two cuts, along with other stellar tracks on the album presented an even more mainstream metal approach, but one that still maintained enough power and crunch to keep the band's old fans. The British Steel tour was also the first time Priest made it to Rockford, playing along with The Scorpions and Heart at the Rockford Speedway. As one who was in the audience at that show, it was a killer! The band truly made that stage their own.

They followed that disc up in quick succession with "Point of Entry" (1981) and with it coined the term "progressive metal". While the sound of the album was a little different - and even a bit odd - much of the disc worked quite well. It also saw Priest headlining Rockford for the first time at the Metro Centre - and for those of us in attendance it was another killer, and thankfully longer set with a full stage production. In fact their new found live presence would prove to be an inspiration for much of the arena metal that was starting to become prevalent.

In 1982 Priest unleashed Screaming For Vengeance on the world, a collection of powerful and intense metal that seemed to combine the best of their past with a nearly formulaic, but Priest formula, metal technique. These guys were losing their somewhat awkward charm in favor of a metal machine of their own creation. The lead off twofer of "Hellion/Electric Eye" would become the opening salvo at every Priest show afterward. The title track was appropriately a screamer and while in many ways this music was not as original as a lot of their earlier stuff, it was certainly satisfying metal. The Priest classic "You've Got Another Thing Coming" was another killer from this release. The disc also marked Priest's highest point of popularity. The tour was to include another stop in Rockford, their last for the 20th Century. Again they lit up the Metro Centre with metallic fury and power.

The next disc, Defenders of the Faith found the band in what was most likely their least creative period. Rather than forging new ground they seemed content to duplicate the sound of Screaming For Vengeance. While it is a listenable album it doesn't grab the listener as much as a lot of Priest's material. Taken by itself it's a solid release, but thrown against the backdrop of their considerable catalog, it doesn't quite cut it. By 1986, though the contentment seemed to have worn off. When Priest released Turbo they were experimenting with synthesizers and 80's pop metal textures. The result is an album that many (myself included) consider to be the weakest of their career. Truly none of the material would have worked at all with a different vocalist. Only the power and incredible vocal skills of Rob Halford save the album from being completely unlistenable.

The following year saw the release of their second live album, Priest&Live. That disc, while featuring more material (a 2 LP set in comparison to Unleashed In The East's single album status) didn't seem to have the punch of the first. It felt a bit too polished and radio friendly. The following year they released Ram It Down. The disc leads off, in my opinion almost in an attempt to wipe away the mediocrity of Turbo, a frantic speed metal of the title track. This disc overall found Priest in a very angry and powerful place. While not entirely consistent (many point to their cover of "Johnny B. Goode" as a low point for the band) it definitely showed a renewed fire and fury. That musical theme would be carried forward with Painkiller in 1990. That album would mark the first appearance of their current (and longest standing) drummer Scott Travis. It would also mark the last release until this year of Rob Halford.

Halford would leave the band in the early 90's and Priest basically closed up shop for a while. Their next album didn't come out until 1996 and featured the vocal talents of Tim "Ripper" Owens. Owens had been pulling the vocal duties in a Priest tribute band, so it isn't surprising that he could do a good job of reproducing Halford's sound. In fact, on the high-end screams he was incredibly capable of sounding uncannily like his predecessor. In the view of this listener, though, at other points his sound was a bit lacking. The first release to be done with this lineup was Jugulator, and it is actually a fairly strong album combining a newer even heavier sound with nu metal and classic Priest elements to create a new musical format that works quite well. Owens did a great job on the material that he helped to create.

The live album that followed, Metal Meltdown, really showcased both the strengths of Owens in the vocal position and his shortcomings. Much of the Halford material just didn't seem to cut it in this incarnation. Frankly, as one who saw a show with this lineup, it felt more like a Priest tribute band than the real deal to me. Still, Demolition, the only other studio release to feature Owens is in many ways a killer. It is incredibly heavy and dark and has some exceptionally strong material. Oddly enough 2003 saw the release of yet another live album with the Owens fronted lineup. Not that Live in London was a bad album, but with only two studio discs in this formation, it didn't seem appropriate to have two live albums.

2004 saw a rebirth of sorts with Priest. Rob Halford rejoined the band and brought with him a renewed vitality and fire. They took the second spot on the Ozzfest tour, running through a set of Priest's classics and by virtually all accounts smoking all the competition on the tour - including headliners Black Sabbath. That brings us to the current year, the killer Angel of Retribution album and the tour, which sees them coming back to Rockford once more. Judas has risen again, and it is one of the best tours and albums they have ever done. The band is purely on fire these days and not to be missed.

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