Graded on a Curve:
Judas Priest,
Screaming for Vengeance

Celebrating Rob Halford in advance of his 72nd birthday tomorrow.Ed.

Six Six Six/My Judas Priest tix/I’m out in the parking lot/And I’m looking for kicks!

What am I supposed to say about Judas Priest, Birmingham England’s contribution to heavy metal, that hasn’t already been said by those three great music critics, Bart Simpson and Beavis and Butthead? Judas Priest has received the imprimatur of the greats, for being the guys who put out “Breaking the Law” and “Living After Midnight” on their groundbreaking 1980 LP English Steel, and what’s more introduced plenty of your basic heavy metal tropes (S&M gear, operatic vocals, the twin guitar attack) that we now take for granted. In short, I’m going to have to reach to find anything original to say about Judas Priest, and I’m not sure I have the cojones. Beavis and Butthead’s rendition of “Breaking the Law” captures the essence of the band better than any critic ever will.

But I’m nothing if not intrepid, and Judas Priest has released 17 studio albums starting with 1974’s Rocka Rolla, which leaves me with lots to natter on about. Like the infamous civil action following the suicide of one young man and the attempted suicide of another, which their parents alleged were the result of a backwards masked message on a Judas Priest album saying “Do it.” It’s possible the subliminal message was there, but it’s also possible the message was encouraging the pair to buy Big Macs, or learn Esperanto. Personally I think the whole backwards masking thing is bunk, but just in case it’s real and works, I’ve placed a subliminal message or two in this review encouraging you to click on the Like button.

What else can I say about the great Judas Priest? Well, singer Rob Halford used to appear on stage on a Harley-Davidson, which I would probably think was pretty rad if I hadn’t (no kidding) seen Karen Carpenter do the exact same thing in the mid-seventies. And she never wrecked said Harley while doing so, as Halford did, colliding with a drum riser obscured by the dry ice that metal fans so love.

But all that’s trivia, so let’s get down to the real nitty-gritty. The line-up that released 1982’s Screaming for Vengeance included Halford on vocals and Harley Davidson, K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton on guitars, Ian Hill on bass, and Dave Holland on drums. Screaming for Vengeance was the band’s breakthrough LP in North America, but why I don’t know: English Steel is, in my opinion, the better LP. But there’s nothing more unpredictable than a heavy metal fan, unless it be a cornered gorilla, and both groups have expressed a preference for Screaming for Vengeance.

Screaming for Vengeance is a metal lover’s dream. It’s got your heavy guitars, hundreds of cool riffs, and the elastic vocal chords of Halford, and its best songs come at you like a berserk wildebeest. But best of all it has bona fide catchy melodies, and said catchy melodies have old-school spunk, and they never get lost in the band’s heaviosity, a word I just made up. True, its lyrics (click the like button!) lack the blood and guts that distinguish many metal bands; the Priest prefers catch phrases and vague threats of metal mayhem to the overtly violent and evil predilections of many metal ensembles. As to whether that’s good or bad is up to you. That said I’m not enamored of a few of the LP’s more commercial touches, but I’ll talk about them later.

Opener “Hellion” is all of 41 seconds long and consists of the guitars playing big riffs, ending with what sounds like the banging of a gong. It segues into the excellent “Electric Eye,” which boasts a supercool melody and some great momentum, to say nothing of a long passage on guitars that never fails to make my day. Throw in some big power chords, lots of great vocals by Halford and the band and you’ve got a great song, although I’m not overly fond of the lyrics, which seem to be a protest against surveillance, which I’m all for because I’m an exhibitionist. “Riding on the Wind” opens with excellent drum pummel and gargantuan guitar power chords, and has just as much momentum as “Electric Eye.” Halford’s vocals are indeed operatic, but what I like best about the song is the guitar free-for-all in the middle, and the cool sonic effects towards the end.

I’m not as enamored of “Bloodstone” as I am of its predecessors because it’s both slower and doesn’t boast as fetching a melody. It’s as if Halford sat down with the band and said, “Let’s write one that’s a bit drab, shall we? You know, a song that just kind of lies there.” That said it has power chords galore, and I like the simple chorus just as I do the guitar solo, but this one doesn’t sock me in the gut the way the earlier tracks do.

That said it beats the hell out of follow-up “(Take These) Chains,” which melds some awful lyrics to a starkly commercial melody that seems more designed to please radio programmers than actual listeners. In short it’s a dully conventional hurt lover song, with the chains thrown in to match Halford’s S&M stage gear. Speaking of S&M I would love this song if I were a masochist, and come to think of it I am a masochist, but not when it comes to my music. When it comes to my music I’m a top, and it either makes me happy or I administer the lash.

Follow-up “Pain and Pleasure” makes the dominance and submission theme explicit, with Halford singing, “You bring me PAIN!/But bring me pleasure,” and “You’ve got me tied up/Dog upon a leash.” I’m not thrilled with this mid-tempo rocker, despite Halford’s great vocals, momentous power chords, and magnificent guitar jammage, because its melody, while it brings me no pain, brings me no pleasure either. Fortunately, the title cut is next, and it’s a killer, roaring along at a frenetic tempo while Halford delivers on the goods vocally and Downing and Tipton thrash away on their guitars, slowly going baroque on your ass. But they bring it back to basics as Halford, whose vocal chords cannot be human, screeches away like the bird of prey on the album cover.

“You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’” has sorta become the band’s theme song, thanks I think to its great chorus, but it’s not my favorite Judas Priest song by a long shot. The guitars chug along until the boys with the guitars go a soloing, but with the exception of the chorus the melody is a trifle lackluster, and Halford’s vocals are good but won’t blow you out of your seat. As for follow-up “Fever” I just plain don’t like it, because it doesn’t exactly burn rubber and features the kind of drumming I associate with MTV bands, and while I’m at it the melody doesn’t do anything for me either. The guitarists throw a great jam your way but it’s simply not enough to save this overly conventional and (can I say boring?) boring tune. In short, we’re talking one very low-grade fever, of the sort that doesn’t even justify your taking the day off work.

“Devil’s Child” takes the song out on a friendly Satanic note, and wins out thanks to Halford’s frenzied vocals and the big power chords that keep this baby moving along. “I believe you’re the devil,” sings Halford, and he’s followed by some excellent guitar shredding, which in turn leads to a bombastic passage. “Going under/Kill the thunder/The death-defying grace,” sings Halford, and I have no idea what he’s talking about but the words fit the song, and that’s all that counts. The song finally goes out with Halford repeating, “I believe you’re the devil” and by the time he’s finished you believe him even if you have no idea who he’s addressing. My vote goes to Dick Cheney or the String Cheese Incident, which are the same thing really.

Judas Priest is a seminal and influential band, and while they may not be my cup of witch’s blood they sure can rock out when they feel the yen. Their only downside is their predilection for tunes that sound like they were written expressly to get radio play, which is another way of saying they occasionally seem to aim for the lowest common denominator. A band that can write tunes like “Screaming for Vengeance” and “Breaking the Law,” and cover the likes of Joan Baez’s “Diamonds and Rust” while they’re at it, can and should do better than “(Take These) Chains” and “Fever.” And I hate to say it (click the like button!), but their song “Cold Blooded” is even worse than Foreigner’s “Hot Blooded,” which is a dubious achievement indeed.

Still, I recommend Screaming for Vengeance, because it has a great title and a great cover and some great songs on it, and I’m sure Beavis and Butthead like it, to say nothing of Bart Simpson, and what more do you want for Satan’s sake?


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