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Defenders of the faith
The Judas Priest box set Metalogy

When ordinary people talk about heavy metal in a general sense, they’re usually talking — whether they know it or not — about Judas Priest. Most of metal’s clichés, from operatic pretension to backwards masking, can be traced directly to one of the 15 albums the band released between 1974 and 1990, generous chunks of which are included on the recent four-CD box set Metalogy (Columbia). If the title of the set sounds awkward, consider that the name Metallica was already taken. Metallica’s debut album, in 1983, was an encyclopædia of the heavy-metal world that Priest had built, but three years later, that world belonged firmly to Metallica, and ever since, Judas Priest have been one of metal’s sturdiest museum pieces. In the 1970s, after the first few Black Sabbath albums, Priest were among the first groups to take seriously the notion of heavy metal as a viable lifestyle: the idea of metal for metal’s sake, celebrated in so many Priest songs ("Hell Bent for Leather," "Rock You All Around the World," "Heavy Metal," "Metal Meltdown"), became a powerful statement. Led Zeppelin hated being pegged as a heavy-metal band; when Ozzy Osbourne was growing up, he wanted to be in the Beatles. The rest of the world could worship whatever deities it pleased, but Rob Halford just wanted to be a metal god.

Several years ago, before he’d rejoined Judas Priest (the reunited band play Ozzfest this Tuesday), Rob Halford released a solo album called Resurrection (Metal-Is). He told me at the time that he considered it his most personal effort and also that the album made no attempt to address his homosexuality. "I’ve always separated those two issues," he said, meaning being gay and being metal. Judas Priest were not the type of band to dispel stereotypes: their success was a function of their ability to turn metal into a fetish object by refining and exploiting their audience’s insular appreciation of itself. The music they made was easily marginalized: metal became something that was safe to laugh at, and that in turn only reinforced Priest’s status as unbending defenders of the faith.

The seeds of hard rock’s most ridiculous moments were sown in Priest’s early decision to narrow their focus — they never adapted to punk, and their few concessions to new wave and pop were not well received. Although most of the thrash, glam metal, and black metal that came into being during the ’80s owed at least some debt to Judas Priest, metal was becoming a pyramid scheme: Priest have become legendary, but mostly among groups who are content to settle for ever-smaller pieces of the hard-rock pie.

Priest made the most of their self-imposed restrictions, but at a remove of several decades, most of the material on Metalogy sounds ephemeral: unless you happened to be there, discerning Priest’s influence is easier than actually enjoying the band. They peaked with 1982’s "You’ve Got Another Thing Coming," which pushed the million-selling Screaming for Vengeance into the Top 20; their hits were seldom representative, but their overheated proto-speed-metal rave-ups have aged almost as poorly as their commercial hard-rock anthems. Both were present as early as 1977’s Sin by Sin (Slayer covered its best song, "Dissident Aggressor," in 1988). But the band spent the better part of the ’70s ridding themselves of their most overt influences, including Sabbath, Zeppelin, and many lesser examples of British hard rock. By 1978’s Stained Class, they’d perfected a pageantry of spandex and motorcycles (Metalogy includes a representative 1982 live show on DVD) as well as a distinctive litany anchored by Halford’s piercing wail and the swashbuckling lead-guitar duels of K.K. Downing and Glen Tipton. They were already grizzled vets in 1980, when British Steel was touted as a harbinger of the speedy, more aggressive New Wave of British Heavy Metal (the disc also had two of their biggest and most conventional songs, "Living’ After Midnight" and "Breaking’ the Law," the latter included here in a previously unreleased live take).

But by 1984’s Defenders of the Faith, Priest were struggling to keep up with younger NOSH acts like Diamond Head, whose "Helpless" they appropriated on "Freewheel Burning." The band never caught up. By 1990, several years before Priest cover-band singer Ripper Owens replaced the departed Halford (the set includes five songs from this era), American thrash and speed metal had rendered them obsolete. Ram It Down moved half of what they’d sold in their prime; meanwhile, Metallica were about to become the biggest metal band of their time — largely by purging metal of the technical flash, ostentatious lead vocals, and grandiloquent lead-guitar filigree that Priest had made famous. Which leaves us with Metalogy — like Priest themselves, perhaps the biggest leather-and-stud-encased footnote in heavy-metal history.

Issue Date: July 9 - 15, 2004
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