Black Sabbath came first. Iron Maiden and Metallica are bigger. But if there is one band, above all others, that defines the sound and aesthetic of heavy metal, it is Judas Priest. “Metal is a very special kind of music,” says the band’s singer Rob Halford. And what this band has represented, for more than 40 years, is metal in its purest form: the screaming lead vocals, the duelling guitarists, the bludgeoning riffs, the leather and studs, the songs about death and destruction and motorcycles and, yes, heavy metal itself. This singular vision and missionary zeal was proclaimed in the title of Priest’s 1984 album Defenders Of The Faith.
It was in 1969 that the original Judas Priest (named after the Bob Dylan song The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest), a blues-rock band led by singer Al Atkins, was formed in Birmingham. In 1970 a new line-up included guitarist Kenny ‘KK’ Downing and bassist Ian Hill. But it was after Atkins departed in 1973 that the real Judas Priest was born, with Halford their dynamic singer and second guitarist Glenn Tipton increasing their firepower.
Inspired by heavy rock pioneers such as Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Cream, the nascent Priest recorded their debut album, Rocka Rolla, in 1974. But it was two years later, with Sad Wings Of Destiny, that the band found their signature sound. In the 1980s Priest became one of the biggest metal bands in the world, with hit albums including British Steel and Screaming For Vengeance. In the 90s there were darker days: first, when a lawsuit was filed against the band following the deaths of two young fans from Nevada in a suicide pact allegedly inspired by Priest’s music; then when Halford quit to form a new band, Fight, and was replaced by Ohio-born singer Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens, poached from a Priest tribute act.
But in 2003 Halford returned to his rightful place as Priest’s master of ceremonies. And although Downing retired in 2011, the band have continued with Londoner Richie Faulkner as Tipton’s foil on the defiantly old-school 2014 album Redeemer Of Souls. In 2015 Halford told Classic Rock: “I’ve always been very happy that I’m a singer in a metal band. It’s wonderful.” And Priest are not just any heavy metal band, they’re the most ‘heavy metal’ heavy metal band of them all.
Essential – Priest's classic albums
British Steel - (Columbia, 1980)
1980 was the best year ever for heavy metal, with so many classic albums released, including Back In Black, Heaven And Hell, Iron Maiden’s self-titled debut and Priest’s masterpiece British Steel.
From the first words that Rob Halford sang on Rapid Fire – ‘Pounding the world like a battering ram’ – to the cacophonous finalé of Steeler, this is as definitive a heavy metal album as Sabbath’s Paranoid. Two brilliant singles hit the UK Top 20: party anthem Living After Midnight and the yobbish Breaking The Law. And in the dystopian vision of Metal Gods the band had their signature song.
Screaming For Vengeance - (Columbia, 1982)
At the gigantic US Festival in California in ’83, a watershed moment for heavy music in the 80s, Van Halen headlined, but Priest too had that 350,000-strong audience by the balls. The album that made them stars in America was Screaming For Vengeance.
The pivotal track was You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’, its hooky riff and badass attitude making it an irresistible force on US rock radio. But if that track had mainstream appeal, the album’s dominant tone was all-out heavy metal attack, from the The Hellion, Electric Eye and Riding On The Wind to the raging fury of title track.
Superior – Priest’s reputation-cementing albums
Unleashed In The East - (Columbia, 1979)
One of the greatest live albums ever made, it was overdubbed to the extent that it was jokingly rechristened Unleashed In The Studio, yet it’s powerful and atmospheric.
Recorded in Tokyo, Unleashed In The East includes definitive versions of landmark tracks Victim Of Changes, The Ripper, Sinner and Exciter, plus a masterful interpretations of the early Fleetwood Mac’s darkest song, The Green Manalishi (With The Two Pronged Crown).
Priest made five other live albums, but none of them could top this one.
Stained Class - (Columbia, 1978)
In 2004, Classic Rock’s sister title Metal Hammer hailed Stained Class as the most influential metal album of all time – the birth of ‘pure metal’ and the spark that lit the NWOBHM explosion. It is also the most controversial album in the genre’s history, after it was played by two fans before they put a gun to their heads.
Stained Class is a seminal piece of art. In reaction to punk rock, there was a brutal intensity to tracks like Exciter and Savage, and in Beyond The Realms Of Death, Halford’s meditation on sanity and suicide, there was something truly profound.
Killing Machine - (Columbia, 1978)
Killing Machine, the follow-up to Stained Class, was Priest’s second great album of 1978, with a lean and mean sound that prefigured British Steel.
In the US it was renamed Hell Bent For Leather, after the biker song that became a live showpiece, with Halford riding a revving Harley-Davidson on stage. A similarly OTT sensibility ran through tracks such as Rock Forever, Running Wild and Delivering The Goods, the latter’s heaving riff a thing of awesome power. And amid the tumult was the serene ballad Before The Dawn, with the most emotive vocal that Halford ever recorded.
Sad Wings Of Destiny - (Gull, 1976)
The band’s second album represented a quantum leap from debut Rocka Rolla, from unfocused blues-based hard rock to full-blown heavy metal. Sad Wings Of Destiny was Priest’s coming of age.
The album’s crowning glory is Victim Of Changes, not only a Priest classic but also one of the greatest metal songs of all. And that heaviness, in sound and subject matter, ran deep into Tyrant and Genocide. With this album the tone was set for the following year’s Sin After Sin album, and punishing tracks such as Sinner and Dissident Aggressor.
Good – the Priest albums that are worth exploring
Point Of Entry - (Columbia, 1981)
No other Priest album is as underrated as Point Of Entry. It failed to match the success of predecessor British Steel, and its broader, more polished sound had some fans crying ‘sell-out’. Yet there are songs on Point Of Entry that rank among Priest’s very best.
At a time when the band were continually on the road, the romance of that nomadic lifestyle inspired Heading Out To The Highway, and also Desert Plains, the spiritual heir to Hell Bent For Leather. And there was more great stuff in Don’t Go, with its heavy rhythmic tension, and Solar Angels, a mystical epic with a beautiful and poetic lyric from Halford.
Defenders Of The Faith - (Columbia, 1984)
After the success of Screaming For Vengeance, the band’s next album was cut from the same cloth, in terms of both the music and its cover art – again by Doug Johnson.
Freewheel Burning is another biker anthem, performed at breakneck speed. The Sentinel is the album’s dramatic centrepiece, Halford’s histrionics matched by Tipton and Downing. And after the sexually explicit Eat Me Alive drew fire from the PMRC, Priest retaliated with the joke protest song Parental Guidance on their 1986 album Turbo, best remembered for its high-camp single Turbo Lover.
Painkiller - (Columbia, 1990)
On their last album of the 80s, Ram It Down, Priest sounded like yesterday’s men, outgunned by younger bands such as Metallica, and had self-parodying songs in Monsters Of Rock and Heavy Metal. With their first album of the 90s. Priest came out swinging again.
The title track was a brutal statement of intent. With a thunderous drum intro, and Halford sounding utterly deranged, it’s the heaviest of Priest’s many heavy songs. Elsewhere they’re at fever pitch on All Guns Blazing, and menacing on A Touch Of Evil. Glenn Tipton said: “For Priest, Painkiller was a flagship album.”
Avoid – seriously, just don't bother
Demolition - (SPV/Steamhammer, 2001)
The fairytale story of Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens signing for a Priest tribute band and then joining the real thing was the inspiration for the movie Rock Star. It was later echoed when singer Arnel Pineda jumped from a tribute act to Journey.
Owens did a decent job on his debut with Priest, Jugulator, where his youthful energy fuelled a more modern sound akin to Pantera. But on the next album, Demolition, it was all hollow bluster, with not one great song. Two years later, Halford returned and Owens joined Iced Earth. As Priest bassist Ian Hill said: “Ripper is a phenomenal vocalist, but he wasn’t Rob.”