Sunday, 12 July 2020

British Steel - Judas Priest

Provenance: Having been inducted into the cult of Judas Priest by way of Painkiller, this way my second album. I guess I got this because it's considered a landmark album, containing as it does the relative commercial successes of 'Breaking The Law' and 'Living After Midnight'.

Review: I've spent much of the past week reading Rob Young's excellent chronicle of British folk music (and its mutations) Electric Eden, for which an attendant compilation was put together. Through this, and the magick of Spotify, I've been conducting something of a listen-along, and frankly I need a palate cleanser. I never need much prodding to revisit Fairport Convention's Liege and Lief album, but my patience has been worn thin by the likes of Oberon, the Round Table, John Renbourn and Dr Strangely Strange.

It's all fun and games for a while, and it has certainly enhanced my experience of the book; but there's a point where the tablas and sitars start to grate, and you're listening to yet another lysergically-tinted version of 'Nottamun Town'. Once they fey warbling and brushed acoustic guitars begin to fug your mind like a cloud of dragon's blood incense, you know it's time for a palate cleanser.

Thus, British Steel, an album that couldn't be more diametrically opposed to The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter (good album) if it tried. Instruments are wielded like power tools, and in place of lilting, amorphous minstrelsy is a clenched ripsnorter of an album, delivered by men with ice chips for eyes and molten iron for blood. Spawned from the dark heart of the industrial Midlands, this album spews smoke and diesel as guitars and drums pound away to the jackhammer of beat of heavy machinery. The imagery is right there in the heads-down charge of opener 'Rapid Fire', with talk of furnaces, anvils and corrosion; the iron giant of technology sung into being. Also, the first lines sung (spat?) on British Steel are the following - "Pounding the world / Like a battering ram", a statement of intent that I don't think has ever been bettered.

In fact, so much of this album has the timbre and texture of heavy metal and heavy industry, you wonder why it took so long for Judas Priest to put it all together - it's more or less the same bunch of guys responsible for the cookie-cutter psych-blooz of Rocka Rolla after all. Certainly, Priest would toughen up their sound almost immediately - within a few albums they'd be onto the razor-sharp brilliance of Stained Class and Killing Machine, but British Steel is a different proposition altogether. Here, the songs are shorn entirely of any filigree or flourish, stripped back to the essential constituent elements of heavy metal, bar the odd siren ('Breaking The Law') or clanking of cutlery (yep, that's what provides the robotic stomp late on in 'Metal Gods'). Perhaps it was the back-to-basics kick-up-the-arse courtesy of punk that inspired this approach. Whatever it was, it's one tuff sounding record - no romance, no wistfulness, no wizards or demons; just laser-cut stompers with names like 'Steeler', 'The Rage' and 'Grinder'.

There's one fly in the ointment - 'United'. A friend of mine was once serenaded with 'United' from a toilet cubicle by the Viking Skull drummer as an example of why Judas Priest suck. Well, you can't blame Priest for trying for a big anthemic hit, having managed a top twenty with 'Take On All The World', a recent track in a similar vein. But, my friends, it blows chunks. 'United' slows the pace, and its rather sunny message of togetherness is at odds with the four blasts of pure aggression that precede it. However, in 2004, seeing Judas Priest in the Netherlands (Rob Halford having just returned to the fold) I sang along to 'United' like every other heavy metal maniac in that crowd. Apparently 'United' had been a minor hit in some parts of mainland Europe, and that's mercifully the only time I've seen them perform it live.

One interesting choice is that the greatest metal frontman ever, Rob Halford, hardly deploys his trademark banshee scream. It's hinted at towards the end of 'Rapid Fire', and he bothers the dogs now and again during 'You Don't Have To Be Old To Be Wise', but that's it. I wonder whether this was a conscious choice to fit in with the mid-range punch of British Steel's overall dynamics? I'm sure I can find it out via a quick Google, but it's Sunday afternoon and I can't be arsed. Anyway, as a consequence most of the vocals are delivered in a kind of mad-eyed bark, which resonates perfectly with British Steel's testosterone-to-the-gills, pedal-to-the-metal, she-cannae-take-any-more-captain ambience.

British Steel is by no means my favourite Priest album. Over-familiarity with some tracks, the lack of sonic variety and fucking 'United' all add up to a collection that's a notch or two below perfection. But when it does land its haymakers, boy does it connect. A consequence of Priest's back-to-basics approach makes the whole album very easy to play on guitar, and that's precisely what I did before sitting down to crap up this review. There's an unfettered joy to be had hammering out the power chords (the dominant sound on British Steel) to the likes of 'Breaking The Law', 'YDHTBOTBW' and my personal favourite, 'Grinder' - three minutes of gritted teeth and straining sinew distilled into song form, each note of the riff feeling like the winding of a clockwork mechanism already vibrating with tension. What a track. What an experience. And the guy who played bass in my last band has the temerity to call it boring!

So - compared with the likes of Screaming For Vengeance, Killing Machine or even later efforts such as Firepower, British Steel may sound a little monochrome. On the other hand, it possesses a focus and purity that is hard to deny, plus a boatload of excellent songs. Sure, a couple have been on every dad rock drivin' compilation for two decades now; but can you truly resist when Halford is stood there, bedecked in chrome and leather, revving the crowd up, bellowing into the microphone - "it's time that we were breaking the - what?! BREAKING THE FUCKING WHAT?!" Magic!!

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