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Defenders of the Faith

The older kids spoke with reverence for their recent hits: “Breaking the Law,” “Livin’ After Midnight,” “Hellion/Electric Eye,” “Heading Out to the Highway,” and especially “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’.” But some of us had a different point of entry into the music of Judas Priest. My introduction was the third and final single for the “Defenders of the Faith” album.

The “Love Bites” music video was electrifying, even on my tiny black and white TV. It was the song itself that held me rapt, more than the visuals: the ominous, booming tones of the intro, that exotic guitar melody, the low-key palm-muted riff and bass behind the verse, the heavy leads in the bridge, the earworm chorus. I was also transfixed by the sounds Rob Halford made with his voice – – how was that humanly possible? Also, why wasn’t his hair long, like everyone else’s? Judas Priest were established Traditional Metal Gods by now, but this song and video felt subversive to the genre, in all of the right ways.

The “Defenders of the Faith” cassette tape was soon mine, getting frequent turns in the boombox. My appreciation for it grew outward from “Love Bites;” I was enamored of the balladry in “Some Heads Are Gonna Roll” and “When the night Comes Down,” the grandeur of the title track and outro. The only song I had little use for was “Eat Me Alive.” It’s grown on me over the years, but at the time, it just felt a little silly and simplistic.* I had no inkling as to what the song was actually about, and had no idea it was to become the second-most notorious song in their catalogue,** when the PRMC named it as one of their “filthy 15,” claiming that it was detrimental to young listeners.***

Flipping the tape over, I soon became obsessed with the furious speed and power of “Freewheel Burning,” a song that felt even more revolutionary and boundless than “Love Bites.” This one blazes with scorching heat. The tracks that followed, “Jawbreaker” and “Rock Hard, Ride Free,” were consistently excellent, but I soon found my ultimate favorite at the end of album side 1. “The Sentinel” not only portrayed vivid lyrical scenes of Cyberpunk black magic violence, but the guitar parts sounded like I’d known them my entire life. Classic-era Priest guitarists, K.K, Downing and Glenn Tipton, excelled at this. Some of their most iconic guitar riffs seem like they were written in the firmament of the universe, like they’ve always existed and always will: “The Hellion,” “Breaking the Law,” “Painkiller,” “The Ripper.”

Many viewed “Defenders of the Faith” as the end of an era for Judas Priest, as their followup would be “Turbo,” a venture with prominent synthesizer sounds and catchier, more radio-friendly songs. Reactions were divided for Priest fans, to say the least. Personally, I don’t think the “Turbo” experiment worked, but that album has “Turbo Lover” and “Out in the Cold,” so it’s still a small victory.

I viewed “Defenders” as the perfect starting point for my lifelong Judas Priest fandom. Further exploration through their 1970s albums and their imperial run in the early 1980s unearthed a number of classics and incredible deep cuts: “Victim of Changes,” “Beyond the Realms of Death,” “The Ripper,” “The Rage,” featuring Ian Hill’s incredible bass line, “Steeler,” – – No, no, I have to stop there. I’ll be typing all night. Go and listen for yourself.

As for the stuff that followed. . .

After “Turbo” and the mixed bag album, “Ram It Down,” 1990’s “Painkiller” saw them embrace a modernized, heavier take on the classic Priest sound, backstopped by new drummer, Scott Travis, who is still with the band today. In the years after that, Priest were sometimes benefactors, sometimes victims of changes – – including Rob Halford’s departure, leading to his offshoot projects under Fight, 2wo, and his own name. There were some missteps, sure, but also plenty of great songs to be found on just about every Priest album, including the ones with Ripper Owens on the mic. And yes, even on fucking “Nostradamus.”****

With a legacy as long and strong as Judas Priest’s, you’ll find many different answers from different fans across the parking lot about their best album. Many will cite “British Steel,” others will Scream for Vengeance, some might say “Hell Bent for Leather,” still others will call out “Painkiller.” None of them are wrong, but if you ask me, Priest were at their best on “Defenders of the Faith.”***** No denying, this is a Hall of Fame album from a Hall of Fame band.

Judas Priest were inducted into the Metal Hall of Fame in 2018, at the Wacken Open Air Festival in Germany.

 

Jack Mangan is best known in the Metal world as lead author/project runner for the “Am I Evil?” graphic novel, as a journalist with MetalAsylum.net and the official Metal Hall of Fame. and also as co-host of the popular (sporadic these days) Metal Hall of Fame and MetalAsylum.net livestreams with Rich Catino. He’s made a few guest appearances as a panelist on The Metal Voice. In an adjacent life, he was a podcast pioneer, with numerous appearances on Technorama, Dragon Page, Escape Pod/Pseudopod, and many others, including his own productions: Jack Mangan’s Deadpan, and the Podcast novel, “Spherical Tomi.” Friend him on Facebook if you can find him, but be warned: he’s not great about checking Facebook Messenger.

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*”Eat Me Alive” IS silly and simplistic, but who cares?

**The MOST notorious JP song is their cover of Spookytooth’s “Better By You, Better Than Me” on the “Stained Class” album. If you never heard the awful story: Judas Priest were blamed for the suicide pact of two young men in Nevada. It was alleged that the words, “Do it,” could be heard if you played “Better By You, Better Than Me” backwards, and that this was an instruction for listeners to kill themselves. It went to a U.S. court and everything. Fortunately, the case was dismissed.

***Idiots.

****“Nostradamus” is widely derided in Priest fandom, but there are a few of us who defend the faith. Rob Halford believes the album will someday find the appreciation it deserves, and I, for one, hope that his prediction is right. It’s excellent.

*****In addition to being a near-perfect 40 minutes of Heavy Metal, “Defenders of the Faith” boasts the iconic Metallian tank-battlecat-thing, second only to the “Screaming for Vengeance” as Judas Priest’s greatest album cover. Artist Doug Johnson created both of these images, as well as the hand on the stick shift tornado for “Turbo.” (See https://wearethemutants.com/2017/10/17/judas-priest-album-covers-by-doug-johnson-1982-1986/)

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