Publication date: May 2014
“Exploding, Reloading, This Quest Never-Ending…”: ‘Sin After Sin’
Judas Priest are the quintessential heavy metal band, for the simple reason that they were the first group to positively embrace HM as a description. From the mid-70s onwards, Priest were instrumental in bringing together the base elements that would come to define modern metal – precision riffs, virtuoso solos, rapid-fire drumming, demagogic vocals – into a satisfying and supremely exciting whole. While bands such as Rainbow, UFO, Thin Lizzy and Scorpions were certainly operating in a similar area and timeframe, there’s a level of commitment to the genre that sets Priest apart from their peers.
As well as the music, Priest, and particularly singer Rob Halford, came to embody the look of HM, with biker leathers and metal studs worn as analogues for the hardness and muscularity of the music. The fact that, as a gay man, Halford’s – and by default, metal’s – image was inspired by the hyper-masculine S&M scene is an irony that just keeps giving for critics of HM’s perceived conservatism. Halford is also responsible for amplifying the fantastical as lyrical subject matter within metal, with many of Priest’s earlier songs in particular having a sci-fi or mythical edge to them.
While it’s fair to say that Priest stepped into the vacuum created by Black Sabbath, who began to falter and implode post-‘Sabotage’, Priest had actually been around in one form or another as long as Sabbath had. And similarly, they’d been strongly influenced by the industrial ambience of their shared home city of Birmingham, with Halford recalling how his school desk would shake because of the pounding steam hammers next door. But while Sabbath had taken their name from an Italian horror film, the equally heavy-sounding Judas Priest had derived their moniker from a Bob Dylan song, "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest", which is perhaps more reflective of where the nascent band’s heads were at.
Because unlike Sabbath, who seemed to miraculously (or perhaps diabolically) come up with their ur-metal sound pretty much from day one, Priest progressed through a variety of styles before arriving at their signature sound. This is one of the most fascinating aspects of the early days of HM, with many of the groups that would become associated with the genre still experimenting with the building blocks of metal, and often producing a hard rock mélange of diverse influences. Unlike the second wave of groups that would follow in Priest’s wake, such as Iron Maiden, Saxon, Def Leppard, and later still, Metallica and Anthrax, the pioneers of HM weren’t following a pre-ordained blueprint, and this is reflected in Priest’s early albums.
Their 1974 debut ‘Rocka Rolla’ is a mixed bag of blues rock and proto-doom, but also contains the magnificent Pink Floyd-esque ballad “Run of the Mill”, one of the unsung gems in their back catalogue. Follow-up album ‘Sad Wings of Destiny’ is for many people where Priest start to sound recognisably like themselves, with tracks such as ‘The Ripper’, ‘Tyrant’ and ‘Genocide’ featuring punchy, dual guitar riffing and Halford’s trademark screams (and some apposite song titles). But there’s also piano- and acoustic-led songs, and the air of a band still finessing its direction.
Which leads us onto ‘Sin After Sin’, their third album, and first on a major label (CBS). Co-produced by Roger Glover (Deep Purple, Rainbow) and recorded at The Who’s Ramport Studios, it’s tempting to position ‘Sin After Sin’ as the missing link between the dark, rootsy chug of early heavy rock and the more dynamic, metallic-sounding kerrang of post-70s HM, but I think that undersells it. It arguably provides the inspiration within its grooves for a whole host of sub-genres to come, including prog metal, melodic power metal, funk metal, and speed/thrash metal. But more than anything, it sounds completely of itself, a restless chimeric beast that refuses to be pinned down and classified, even as it writes much of the genetic code that would become integral to metal’s DNA.
“Sinner” immediately kicks the listener into orbit with the sound of ignition, then a riff like a rocket, the background howl of engines firing in the void adding to the sense of star-bound propulsion. It’s a brilliant, blood-pumping illustration of a classic Priest modus operandi, where one guitar (usually that of Glenn Tipton) builds the foundation of the track, while the other guitar (K.K. Downing’s) fills in the space with everything from a lick to pure noise. And then Halford comes in with a commanding snarl of a vocal, as though he’s performing from some flaming cosmic pulpit. As the track builds in intensity towards its pounding chorus, Halford effortlessly shifts up the gears to deliver the declamatory “Sinner!” near the top of his considerable four octave range.
Halford’s voice truly is a thing of wonder and power, and must have sounded particularly startling to listeners at the time. Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan had certainly hit some high notes before and Queen’s Freddie Mercury and Roger Taylor had achieved similar feats with the aid of multi-tracking – but Halford’s vocals are like a force of nature, swooping, diving and ascending at will, and often duelling with the other instruments in screaming, wordless counterpoint. Peter Hammill might have half-jokingly claimed that he wanted to be the ‘Jimi Hendrix of the voice’, but it was Halford who actually delivered on this seemingly outlandish idea.
“Sinner” is also a great example of the clever and agile arrangements of Priest’s songs, with the second chorus followed by a middle eight that subtly raises the track’s temperature, before a fantastic classical interlude leads into a breakdown where things really get interesting… Ready to make an album, but finding themselves between drummers, the band employed the services of session player extraordinaire Simon Phillips. Barely out of his teens at the time, Phillips delivers an incredibly solid and inventive performance on ‘Sin After Sin’ which is a defining feature of the album’s abiding greatness. But it’s in this breakdown that he really shows his chops, using his background in jazz fusion to gradually build tension while Downing’s guitar wails like a pit of damned souls. After this remarkable passage, the song climbs back to the middle eight’s riff and then accelerates towards the final massive chorus, the two guitars weaving together in a sheer rush of power that’s a joy to hear.
After that breathless opener, “Diamonds And Rust” is a tight and sassy slice of melody and grit that finds the band as comfortable and able to pull off a pop/rock crossover as they are the more complex compositions on this album. More to the point, how many metal bands then or indeed now would be covering a Joan Baez track?? Driven along by a galloping rhythm from Phillips, Halford brilliantly and sensitively interprets Baez’s lyric about her break-up with former lover Bob Dylan, which given the origin of the band’s name is serendipitous to say the least. There’s a classy restraint from both guitarists throughout, and a fantastic moment where Halford sings the lines, “Speaking strictly for me, we both could have died then and there,” and takes that final word up and up into the bleak night sky of Baez’s imagination, to be met by a distant guitar sustained on the same note. Released as a single, it deserved to be a hit. Baez loved Priest’s version, and the band would go on to record other great covers, including Spooky Tooth’s “Better By You, Better Than Me” and Fleetwood Mac’s “The Green Manalishi”.
“Starbreaker” begins with another masterful flourish of high energy drumming from Phillips before a precision-tooled low-end riff looms into view like an infernal machine. You can literally hear the blues being pulverised out of the band’s sound, and it’s not a stretch to position Priest as continuing the project that King Crimson had begun in distilling a new type of heaviness. Handclaps in the chorus give the song an incongruous human swing, but with Halford continuing his lyrical theme of victimhood and domination, there’s a pitiless efficiency at work here that reflects the harsher climate HM would grow up in following its comparatively benign birth in the late 60s.
But then in complete contrast, side one ends with the laid-back West Coast sound of “Last Rose Of Summer”, which seems to cause enormous consternation to modern metal fans looking back at this album. But as we’ve already seen, it wasn’t such a crazy move within the context of the times, and once again, Priest convincingly deliver the unexpected, creating a magic hour ballad full of romantic yearning and some exquisitely lazy guitar from Tipton.
Side two begins with the brief instrumental “Let Us Prey”, a tremulous slow march which recalls Queen’s “Procession” from their second album, and segues directly into “Call For The Priest”. Hold onto your hats, because having established an atmosphere of baroque opulence, the track suddenly races off at top speed with a ferocity that anticipates the more extreme end of metal to come. It also presages HM as a vicarious thrill ride designed to elicit the same surge of adrenaline as a fairground rollercoaster, the musicians pushed to their limits in an explicitly physical display of power and control. Tipton and Downing’s duelling guitars reinforce this impression, each vying for position like a pair of super-charged dragsters as the finishing line approaches.
Halford is less omniscient in “Call For The Priest”, more a down and dirty rabble-rouser, and this persona continues on “Raw Deal”, where a spare, swaggering riff heralds another stylistic change on the album. Tightly wound and funky as hell, bassist Ian Hill, who’s mostly underpinned the big riffs so far, lays down a strutting groove while Halford twists the attitude dial up to ten. And what an astonishing lyric this is. Halford only came out as gay in 1998, but “Raw Deal” is an eye-opening depiction of a particularly heavy night out, its reference to “leather guys”, “denim dudes” and “Fire Island” (a centre of the gay club scene in New York state) making plain that we’re not in Kansas anymore. While Halford says the lyrics were just a reaction to the music, it’s hard not to see this as a pretty subversive gesture for the time, particularly on a major label rock record.
“Raw Deal” ends with the band hurtling to oblivion on the back of a faster, more urgent riff, before literally grinding to a halt under an anguished declaration from Halford. Then we get the flipside of the singer’s personality with the wrenchingly sad “Here Come The Tears”. The ‘metal ballad’ was to become a cliché of future HM albums, but this is something else. In fact, if it wasn’t such a degraded term, I’d say that this song is just about the greatest metal ballad ever, and it certainly features one of Halford’s best vocals, dripping with heartbreak and loss. The wistful opening verse doesn’t immediately give way to a big riff, but a strummed acoustic underpinned by some tasteful piano. Yet the moment the band suddenly lays down a massive slab of doom rock and Halford’s voice hits the stratosphere is utterly spine-tingling. Tipton plays a perfect Gilmour-esque solo that builds in intensity as Halford screams into the long dark night of his soul. It’s an incredibly powerful song that leaves the listener genuinely shaken.
But Priest have one more gift to give to future generations of HM fans, and that’s “Dissident Aggressor”. The intro is pure theatre: a chugging guitar slowly fading up, drawing nearer, becoming solid, getting darker, and then AAAAAAAAAHHHHHH!!! Halford unleashes an almighty war cry as a grinding, malevolent riff kicks in that practically defines the faster, more aggressive style of metal that would emerge in the 80s. Halford is back on his demonic throne surveying the scene of destruction before him like a berserker king, while Downing’s solo is just evil noise, the spiralling swathes of distortion and reverb recalling Hendrix at his wildest. Halford ends with the immortal vow, “Exploding, reloading, this quest never-ending until I give out my last breath,” words which sum up both the ground-breaking sound of ‘Sin After Sin’ and the future path of Priest on their way to becoming metal gods.
‘Sin After Sin’ isn’t just a great proto-HM album: it’s a stone-cold classic that deserves a place in the great canon of rock. Just like metal itself, it resists all efforts to be pigeonholed, despite the apparent rigidity of its musical template. Judas Priest would go on to worldwide success, but it’s here that they make their most audacious statement and provide the Promethean spark for countless bands to come.
The Making Of A Landmark Album
45 years on, Judas Priest are still defending the HM faith and playing to legions of adoring fans around the world. Rob Halford and Ian Hill took time out from finishing their latest album to talk about the making of ‘Sin After Sin’.
R&F: Looking back, what are your general feelings about ‘Sin After Sin’ and where it fits with your development as a band?
IH: ‘Sin After Sin’ is a landmark album as it's the first one we did for CBS, a partnership that has lasted through various guises. Because CBS had faith in the band, they were prepared to give us a large (for those days) advance on royalties and no severe deadline, so it was also the first time we could afford to spend the time needed to record and produce each track without the worry of overtime costs. This shows in the more polished production of the finished album. It was also the first album we toured with in parts of the world other than Western Europe, and gave us a foothold in the USA, Japan and South America.
R&F: While ‘Sin After Sin’ is one of the key records in the early history of heavy metal, it’s musically quite diverse…
IH: I'm not sure if the term "Heavy Metal" had been coined at the time, we were generally classed as progressive heavy rock, or something like that back then. Having said that, heavy metal has always had diversity, and still does. It's only been comparatively recently that it’s fragmented into its component parts - Thrash, Grunge, Speed, Goth etc. Classic metal bands such as ourselves include all of those styles and much more, you'll also find little bits of blues, jazz, soul, classical, pop, funk, reggae and even humour!
R&F: Can you talk about Simon Phillips’ contribution to the album?
IH: Simon was a revelation when we first heard him at rehearsals. He was only twenty or so years old at the time and we didn't know what to expect, but when he started to play this immense drum kit that actually obscured him from view, we were blown away. Not only is he very good at double bass drum techniques as shown on “Call For The Priest” for example, he also has a very free, open and easy style of play as shown on “Dissident Aggressor”. Some of the songs on the album couldn't have been tackled without a drummer of his calibre.
R&F: You have a unique vocal style that’s given full vent on this album – how was this style viewed at the time?
RH: Since I started to sing, I’ve experimented with my voice, much the same as a guitar player or drummer does – you keep hammering away to come up with a sound that belongs to you. I'm lucky in the way it can be utilized because it gives Priest more scope to be adventurous. I hope the view at the time was, "Well, he sounds different!”
R&F: There’s a strong sci-fi/fantasy aspect to many of your lyrics – were you influenced by any particular writers/filmmakers?
RH: One thing lyricists can find useful is taking ideas from books and movies to tell a story for a song. I've always been an avid book reader and movie fan – some of my favourite sci-fi films include ‘Alien’, ‘Predator’, ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, ‘Star Wars’, and more recent ones like ‘Elysium’, ‘Avengers’, ‘Riddick’. As for books, I’m all over the place - Ken Follett, Stephen King, Mervyn Peake.
R&F: What’s the inspiration for the “I know what I am, I’m Berlin” chorus from “Dissident Aggressor”?
RH: On one tour Priest did in the 70s, we played Berlin. After the show, I couldn’t sleep, so I went for a walk and came across a viewing platform on the West side and climbed to the top of it. I could see over into East Berlin which was almost pitch black, but I could see a Russian soldier looking at me though his binoculars. I wondered what he was thinking… So that phrase reminds me of that night and the way the world still works.