If Black Sabbath are the grandfathers of heavy metal, then Judas Priest is the father that outdid them in almost every way. If you ask me to show someone what heavy metal is, I won’t hand them a copy of Paranoid or Master of Reality. I’ll instead hand them a copy of Screaming For Vengeance, British Steel, or Painkiller. That’s what Judas Priest means to the heavy metal community. Without them we wouldn’t have a classic look for heavy metal with studs and leather.
Thin Lizzy and Wishbone Ash might have been the first to use the twin-guitar attack, but Judas Priest was the one that solidified it in the heavy metal sphere. K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton were and still are probably the best twin guitarists for any band. It was set to be the 50th anniversary celebration for Judas Priest this year. To make up for those shows being postponed, it’s high time for Judas Priest-A-Thon. The brother to the album by album reviews, Iron Maiden-A-Thon and the cousin to our series of Rush album reviews. You’re going to be getting a Judas Priest album review, every business day, until we’re all through.
Stained Class is Judas Priest’s fourth effort and their first with drummer Les Binks. The band learned their lessons from their first two albums and made a fantastic third effort with Sin After Sin. I consider this run of albums from the band to be among the best of any band in history. If it wasn’t for the dud of Point of Entry (that discussion comes next week), they would have gone on a run of albums that would rival anyone, even the great Iron Maiden.
Background on Stained Class
Stained Class is the first of a significant tonal shift for the band. Their first three albums were still grounded in the musical stylings of the 70’s. Lots of space rock influence and possibly some influences by Queen. This is the first time that Judas Priest actually fully became the juggernaut that we all know and love. There’s only one ballad on the album. The rest of the tracks are pure unadulterated British style heavy metal.
It was the first Priest album to have contributions from all of the members during the songwriting process. Ian Hill had his first songwriting credit on the track “Invader”. Les Binks made a massively simple, but effective contribution to “Beyond The Realms Of Death” and that son’g riff. The album would be certified gold later. It continued that streak of gold albums for the band.
In addition to the changes to their lineup, the band changed the font for their logo to better match their new more aggressive sound. This new font would stick around to this day. The album was recorded in October-November of 1977. The producer was Dennis Mackay and it was recorded at the Chipping Norton Recording Studios. Stained Class finally released on February 10th, 1978. It was the highest selling Judas Priest album at the time and the first to crack the Billboard 200 charts in the US. It was a first of many things for Judas Priest and it started their upwards ascent into the stratosphere of Heavy metal.
Imagine hearing this in 1978. You’re used to the disco grooves and spacey sound of the rest of this era. And you get your door kicked down by “Exciter”. This is proto-speed metal at it’s finest. If you want to point to a singular moment where thrash metal might have started, this is it. The drumming is frenetic and the pace of the song never slows. Les Binks accidentally came up with the drum beat during a sound-check on the Sin After Sin tour.
As for the meaning of the song, it sounds like a bit of a mix between the second coming of Christ and a very early version of the “Painkiller” character. Now Judas Priest of course has to add their heavy metal spin to it. You’re not going to get better heavy metal lyrics than “fall to your knees and repent if you please”. All I know is that Exciter comes for everyone, and no one can run from the fury and heat of him.
2. White Heat, Red Hot
A hybrid sounding song of the two eras of Judas Priest merging on this album. It still has that bluesy sound of the previous three albums. But Les Binks’s electric drumming add to the brand new heavy metal sound. In the chorus it strips away that early sound and goes for the classic metal.
A song that tells about nuclear war and sending the young off to die. It’s a dark song on an overall dark album. The world watches as the young go and fight the battles for older men who are in control of that “white heat”. You could make a very outside case for this being about lightsabers from Star Wars also, as this was recorded and released in the midst of A New Hope fever, but I doubt that. It’s a solid rocker that doesn’t overstay it’s welcome.
3. Better By You, Better Than Me
The song that was added at the last minute to lighten up the mood of the album. It turns out that this song adds to the darkest moment of this album in history. Originally a Spooky Tooth song, it’s a fantastic cover that displays the attitude and tone of the band at the time. They’re rocking in your face and loud. It just turns out that unfortunately seven years after the release of the album, two teenagers in England made a suicide pact after listening to the song.
James Vance and Ray Belknap apparently heard on a subliminal message in the song to “do it”. It was the cause of a nasty lawsuit that damaged the band’s overall look and morale. Vance and his family sued the band for damages. The case would go in Judas Priest’s favor after multiple rounds of evidence showing that people can hear many different things on recordings and recordings played backwards.
The good that came out of the recording besides the song was Judas Priest finding the producer for their next album, James Guthrie. They were so impressed with his work on it that they would ask him back to produce Killing Machine/Hell Bent For Leather.
4. Stained Class
A song that could have easily been the opening track on the album. It’s filled with power and fury that only “Exciter” could match. This is what I can point to as the moment that Priest crossed into their own sound. They were borrowing from Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and other bands before, but this is heavy metal thunder’s genesis.
With lyrics that lament the corrupt ruling class in society belt out from Halford as Downing and Tipton chug along, it’s a definite high point on the album. A King went from a fair, popular leader to someone who ruled with an iron fist that ruined all the dreams and hopes of his earlier reign. It’s a a topical song for today’s world with rulers trying to gather power and consolidate the promises they made earlier in their tenures. A lost Priest classic with some great shredding from the twin-guitars.
A quick paced track about a commander or general defending his land against the titular “Invader”. It’s a pretty uplifting and upbeat song on an album dominated by dark and dreary subject matter. It’s a great one to listen to when you need to feel powerful or strong. “A shield is sealed upon this earth, a shield you won’t get by” is one of my favorite lines from the entire album. Other than that, it’s pretty straightforward though, and another lost classic that doesn’t get talked about enough by Priest fans.
6. Saints In Hell
I know yesterday that I declared “Dissident Aggressor” the heaviest song of all time when it was recorded. I think Stained Class might have a couple options to overtake that track. “Saints In Hell” is my pick for heaviest song on the album. It also has some of the heaviest lyrics up to this point in the Judas Priest catalog. This was a track I’d long passed over, including the rest of Stained Class. It took Judas Priest including it on their Firepower World Tour to fully appreciate the heaviness and glory of this track.
The song tells the story of Saints and sinners coexisting in a world without a God. The world plunges into chaos and a Hell on Earth is created. A grand battle breaks out and we’re left with the Saints, but we don’t know their motivations. It’s a fantastic early piece of storytelling in heavy metal that includes some insane screams from Halford.
If you were wondering when your ears would be decimated by a banshee wail, Rob Halford picked a great track to do it on. “Savage” is about the colonization of indigenous people’s lands by Europeans. They were called savages by the colonists and killed off in massive bouts of genocide.
“Savage” is a track that to my knowledge, Judas Priest hasn’t played live since 1978. It would probably be a difficult one for him to belt out live now, but I’d kill to hear a lot of the tracks from Stained Class live. It’s a cousin to Iron Maiden’s “Run To The Hills” in it’s subject matter.
8. Beyond The Realms Of Death
“Beyond the Realms of Death” could be considered one of Judas Priest’s finest songs in their entire career. Les Binks contributed one major thing to this song, the main riff. The main, headbanging, neckbreaking, riff. It’s about someone who withdraws from the mortal world and escapes inside their own mind. They purposefully go into a coma to escape. It’s the only ballad on the album and it very loosely fits my definition of a ballad.
It’s a song that has lived on in Judas Priest’s career and it’s the most played song off this album by a mile. If Judas Priest fans can agree on one thing it’s that this is the best song on this album. “Keep the world and all it’s sin, it’s not fit for living in”.
9. Heroes End
Stuck at the end of Stained Class and behind “Beyond the Realms of Death” would normally mean a death-knell for a song. “Heroes End” bucks that trend and picks up the pace one last time on the album. Following the slow, melodic, and heavy tone of that song, “Heroes End” is one about how heroes aren’t remembered or romanticized about until after their death. Some could say this song is about various musicians of the time that died before their time and became legends. It’s a pretty heavy subject matter that calls to question how our culture as a whole works. It asks a simple question: why do people have to die to be recognized as heroes for their efforts?
Score and Conclusion to Stained Class
Stained Class is like seeing Judas Priest grow up before your eyes. They’ve found what works for them and it translates to an almost perfect album. This album seems to get lost for a bunch of fans. It took many years of listening to Priest before I fully got into the intricacies of this album. After listening to it all the way through for this review, I can safely say that this is among the best that Judas Priest has to offer. It’s a full 10/10 effort from the band. It’s no coincidence that it was their highest charting album at the time.
Stained Class is an album with no weak songs. There isn’t a weak link in this chain. You can point to “Better By You, Better Than Me” for standing out among the songs, but it shares the view of Judas Priest being in your face and aggressive.
Stained Class helped catapult Judas Priest into a new level of success that would culminate in their next run of albums. Because of the lawsuit filed against them, the album is tinged in controversy. Judas Priest have come out against the act of suicide and “Beyond the Realms of Death” is a firmly anti-suicide song. The next album Killing Machine/Hell Bent For Leather would swap out the dark subject matter and intricate song structure for a more commercial sound. You’ll have to check in tomorrow for more on that album.
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