Anyone with the fine taste to like Judas Priest in the first place can tell you that British Steel and Screaming for Vengeance are classic albums (and that Point of Entry in between was, yeah, kind of sub-par). Priest in the early ‘80s was the balls, and the band’s exclusion from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is one of the great tragedies of our time. Perhaps points had to be deducted for JP’s lackluster output in the latter part of the ‘80s. The majority of Priest fans would generously label Turbo and Ram It Down as “disappointments”, but where does that leave 1984’s Defenders of the Faith? Is it the last album of Priest’s good era or the first album of its bad era? Not only would I argue for the former, but also I would maintain that Defenders of the Faith is one of the top five Judas Priest albums ever.
I bought Defenders of the Faith the day it came out. It was probably the first album in my life that I purchased on its release day. I think that as a 12-year-old Priest fan, I was initially a little let down by Defenders of the Faith because it lacked a true “classic” song a la “Breaking the Law” or “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’”. There was no “crossover” smash hit single on the album – which seemed odd given the emerging marketability of heavy metal music circa early 1984. But it was precisely that non-commercial quality that ultimately made Defenders a great album. As the title suggests, the record wasn’t made for the masses. It wasn’t catered to the 14-year-old girls who bought Def Leppard’s Pyromania. It was made for true fans of metal. And although Priest was only a couple of years off from selling out in the very worst way, on this album the band didn’t care jack shit about cashing in or getting on MTV. They just put the pedal to the metal and rocked. And even if there’s not one all-time classic track to be found, from start to finish Defenders is as consistently good as any album in the Priest catalog.
There’s no denying Judas Priest’s highly influential and very worthy 1970s output. Still, when I think of Judas Priest, I think of early ‘80s Priest. I think of leather and motorcycles and sold-out arenas and Rob Halford wailing away on vocals and K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton engaging in dual guitar wanking of the most epic variety. Defenders of the Faith typifies that prime era of Priest. It’s the third of the three classic albums the band released in its true heyday, and of the three it’s no doubt the hardest. The songs, while tuneful and loaded with hooks, kick ass and shake the walls. Not even the dreaded tinny ‘80s production can tame the Priest metal machine. The group hadn’t captured this level of power and aggression on record in years – and would not capture it again until 1990’s speed metal surprise Painkiller. And Halford – arguably the greatest metal singer of all-time – is in career-best form. The utter ferociousness that caused “Freewheel Burning” to tank as a single makes it a big favorite amongst hardcore fans. It flat-out rips, the band coming out of the gates with a vengeance (no pun intended). It’s merely the first half of a 1-2 punch, with “Jawbreaker” coming on strong right behind it. And although tunes like the minor hit “Some Heads Are Gonna Roll” slow the pace a little, it’s the power numbers that prevail. “Rock Hard Ride Free” and “Heavy Duty” (a throwback to classic J.P. arena sing-alongs like “United” and “Take on the World”) are veritable anthems that deserve a place on any good Priest best-of collection.
If there seems to be an inherent cheesiness to Defenders of the Faith (the cover art, some of the lyrics), it’s strictly an awesome, proto Spinal Tap kind of cheesiness. This was 1984, after all. Heavy metal music was supposed to be evil. And like Turbonegro, whom they clearly inspired, Priest wasn’t funny purely by accident. I doubt that one could read the lyrics to “Love Bites” or the homoerotic sex bondage anthem “Eat Me Alive” and not think the band was trying to be humorous (one person who did not get the joke: Tipper Gore). And even if “The Sentinel” is closer lyrically to a bad imitation of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” or countless Iron Maiden songs than it is to a proper parody, the band gets a pass because musically it freakin’ rocks! You could say the same about the album as a whole. Defenders is everything you wanted from a metal record in the early ‘80s. It’s accessible to the mainstream, but not overtly commercial. It’s loud, aggressive, and unapologetically cheesy. And of course it has the over-the-top operatic vocals and speed of light guitar shredding that every metalhead craves! Add in that the songs are tremendous, and you’ve got yourself a genre masterpiece. As metal music was rapidly growing in popularity, Priest would soon stumble in an effort to fit in. The use of synthesizers on Turbo was just plain pathetic, and Ram It Down was a totally phoned-in effort. But Priest’s decline is no way foreshadowed on Defenders of the Faith. A slump may have been looming, but they hit this one out of the park.